Literature and the City

You are here

Course Information
Terms offered: 
Fall, Spring
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

No previous Italian Literature background is necessary. More advanced students such as Italian majors receive assignments personally tailored to their level and interests.

Additional student cost: 



This course will expose students to a selection of Italian literary classics of the late-19th and 20th centuries, with specific focus on the relationship they have with Milan and urban space in general. We begin with Alessandro Manzoni’s masterpiece, The Betrothed, which is partially set in Milan; we will trace the protagonist’s wanderings through the city and visit the house where Manzoni lived and worked. We then watch the transformation of Milan into a modern European city through a reading of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and Elio Vittorini’s Men and Not Men lead us to explore the city during World War II, including Milanese sites that acquired dramatic roles, such as the track from where Jews were sent to German concentration camps. The course concludes with Italo Calvino’s The Invisible Cities and his visionary postmodern images of cities, while an anthology of poems by Milanese poets will introduce us to the city’s popular neighbourhoods.

Attendance policy: 

Regular class attendance is mandatory. Students are expected to attend classes each day, including course-related excursions.

IES Abroad Milano allows a maximum of TWO excused absences per semester. Each further absence will automatically result in a penalty of two points off (2/100) on the final grade. SEVEN absences per course (including 2 excused absences) will result in a failing grade for that course. Furthermore, an absence on the date of scheduled tests, presentations or quizzes does not entitle you to recover/reschedule such tests. Failure to attend your midterm and/or final exam will result in an F grade on that paper/exam.

Learning outcomes: 

The course is based on the awareness that literature is not an abstract pursuit, but something which happens in the real world. It also emphasizes making literature as well as studying it: the students will have the opportunity to extend their awareness of literature through their own writing. By reading and walking through Milan students will gain insights into methods of narration, and will learn to integrate various techniques into their own analyses of the texts. They will also develop an understanding of the major issues of Modern Italian Literature, such as the development of the language, Modernism, Neorealism, and Postmodernism.

Method of presentation: 

The course will alternate class discussions, field studies, students presentations.  Great emphasis will be given to the active participation of the student.  

Required work and form of assessment: 
  • Active participation through discussion, reading and writing - 15%
  • Oral presentations - 15%
  • Paper - 20%
  • Midterm - 25%
  • Final Exam - 25%

Each student will be asked to write a weekly journal to keep track of their response to the readings and the field studies that will be discussed in class. They will have to write and present to the class a creative project and write a research paper.  There will be a midterm, and a final exam. Attendance is mandatory, as well as the punctual reading of the material assigned weekly.  


The course will develop as a series of lessons on an author, complemented by one or more field studies in Milan. 

Week Content and Field Studies
  • Introduction to the course. Introduction to Manzoni’s The Betrothed, an overview of the novel
  • Renzo’s trips to Milan: The Betrothed ch. 10-13, and 34.
  • Field study. Tracing Renzo’s steps in Milan, from Corso Buenos Aires, to the Duomo, following a map of Milan in the 17th Century
  • Manzoni and the question of the language. Foreword to The Betrothed
  • Manzoni’s Biography. Natalia Ginzburg’s Manzoni Family, ch. 1-2
  • Field study to the house of Manzoni. 
  • Introduction to Modernism and Pirandello. Six Characters, act 1
  • Pirandello, The theater as a space for innovation. Six Characters, act 2
  • Field Study: The transformation of the city: from the Duomo to il Museo del Novecento
  • Levi’s If This Is a Man, ch. 1-10. Valerio Ferme, “Translating the Babel of Horror: Primo Levi’s Catharsis through Language”
  • Revision
  • Midterm
  • Levi, “The Canto of Ulysses”. If This Is a Man, ch. 11-17
  • Milan during the Resistance. Vittorini’s Men and Not Men. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Fascism, Writing, and Memory 
  • Field Study, Milan, the places of WW2: Stazione Centrale (Main Train Station), track 23 (the track from which anti-fascists and Jews were sent to concentration camps in Germany), the Memorial of the Shoah, Piazzale Loreto.
  • Porta, Tessa, Loi, and Alda Merini: 4 Milanese poets (from a selection of poems). 
  •  Porta, Tessa, Loi, inventing a poetic language.
  • Postmodernism. Calvino, Invisible Cities. Presenting the cities. Italo Calvino. “Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities”, in Columbia Review, no. 8 (1983), pp. 37-42.
  • Calvino, Invisible Cities. Discussing the frame of the book. Alessia Ricciardi. “Lightness and Gravity: Calvino, Pynchon and Postmodernity”, in MLN, Vol. 114, No. 5 (December 1999), pp. 1062-1077; Barbara Spackman. “Calvino’s Non-Knowledge”, in Romance Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (January 2008), pp. 7-19.
  • Field study to the Monumental Cemetery: “Cities & the Dead”, “Cities & Names”, walking through the cemetery in search of names and traces of the past and recent history of Milan. 
  • Oral Presentations
  • Conclusions
12 Final Exam


Required readings: 
  • Alessandro Manzoni. The Betrothed (1840). London, Penguin Classics
  • Luigi Pirandello. Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). London, Penguin Classics
  • Primo Levi. If This Is a Man (1947). London, Abacus
  • Elio Vittorini. Men and Not Men (1945). Marlboro, Marlboro Press
  • Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities (1972). London, Vintage Books
  • Herman W. Haller. “Introduction”, in The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 31-48
  • Herman W. Haller. “Lombardy”, in The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 114-180
  • Richard Lehan. “The City and the Text”, in The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998, pp. 3-12
  • A course-pack with a selection of poems.

The books should be purchased at Feltrinelli International, Piazza Cavour, Milano; or through Amazon or any other Internet Bookstore.  Students should consider that it takes about 10 days to receive their books, and should plan in accordance.