Diversifying the Italian Renaissance

Course Material 2024/25

The ‘Italian Renaissance’ stands as one of the most lauded moments in the history of ‘western civilization.’ Across the world, museums reserve their principal galleries for Italian paintings and sculptures from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In Italy itself, visitors flock to admire the architecture of Brunelleschi and Palladio, the sculpted masterpieces of Michelangelo and Bernini, the magnificent frescoes of Raphael, the luminous altarpieces of Bellini or Titian – and to revere the work of so many other stars, celebrated not only for their brilliance but as ‘harbingers of modernity.’  

The canonical status afforded to the Italian Renaissance dates back to the period itself. Contemporaries were quick to observe that they were living in an age of exceptional creativity.  The Tuscan painter Giorgio Vasari catapulted many of his compatriots to celebrity in his three-volume Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published between 1550 and 1568. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century preoccupations with national identity and the quest for triumphal narratives of progress fed these assumptions about Italian exceptionalism. And yet we know that such claims of Italian greatness are as problematic as they are alluring.


In the first term of the Special Subject, we shall focus on people (outsider and minority groups, including Black Africans, Jews, Muslims, Eastern Christians and Protestants) and spaces (both meeting places, such as markets and docks, and sites of segregation, such as ghettos or fondachi, secure compounds designed to enclose foreign merchants). Having charted the contours of diversity in the Italian Renaissance, the second term will drill down to explore its cultural consequences.

This interdisciplinary course will make extensive use of material and visual sources, as well as written evidence. All texts will be in translation. Students will be expected to give presentations throughout the year and to study primary and secondary sources in preparation for each class. We will use the online annotation platform Perusall to encourage interaction and group learning beyond the classroom. In thinking about the place of the Italian Renaissance in the public imagination, we are lucky to have access to the incomparable collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Special Subject will appeal especially to those who are keen to cross disciplinary boundaries, challenge conventional narratives, and are interested in how we can shape historical understanding beyond the academy.

Background reading

Guido Ruggiero, The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (2015).
Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Kate Lowe, ‘Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice,’ Renaissance Quarterly 66.2 (2013): 412-52.

Page credits & information

Image: Annunciation with St Emidius (detail), Carlo Crivelli (1486), National Gallery
Image: Miracle of the True Cross, Carpaccio (1496), Accademia, Venice