When people study renaissance and medieval literature, many feel quite removed from the text because they cannot relate to that time period. Students slowly learn the interesting part—philosophers of the renaissance had similar notions of love that have, influenced our representation of love in the present day.
ITA219, a new course offered by the Italian department at the University of Toronto Mississauga, explores the philosophy of love and sex, and is taught by professor Adriana Grimaldi. Grimaldi has done her specialist in Italian at the University of Toronto and has completed her graduate work and teaching at UTM. This course was designed by herself and colleagues from the Italian department, professor Teresa Lobalsamo, and professor Michael Lettieri.
“The main goal of the course is to infuse learning about the renaissance with celebrated Italian works, including Dante’s Commedia, and how their interpretations of love can be found in present day,” says Grimaldi. The course also explores the history behind current views on love, sex, gender roles, and family life.
Other famous Italian authors that the course focuses on are Boccacio, and Petrarca, who, along with Dante, are considered the founding fathers of Italian literature. This course discusses the concept that their work has transcended time and can be easily connected to popular culture. “These works and notions of love are pervasive,” says Grimaldi. “This idea of love entering through the eyes, changing the heart and having a transformative experience. A person who falls in love is not who they were before. I think this can be seen in a lot of young adult novels and literature. The idea of having this power to transform a person and change their circumstances by themselves.” Grimaldi describes how many popular romantic movies carry this trope, including Jerry Maguire, The Princess Bride, and other classics. She explains how these characters are all remakes of one another that can be traced back to ancient times.
Other common tropes, like love at first sight, carry medieval and renaissance nuances. For example, one of the lectures in the course focuses on how the concept of love is an instinct experienced through the visual and other senses. It comes from Plato’s Symposium in Diotima’s speech that breaks down the different levels of love. “We don’t have to reach too far back to link us and love, and philosophy is a great bridge to study the past,” says Grimaldi.
This course starts in the present and then moves into the recognition of big ideas, where students then work to find the origins of those ideas. “ Some key ideas of the course are to understand concepts of love and philosophy, and to dispel myths about how people of the renaissance viewed these ideas.”
Grimaldi describes how students from other disciplines can benefit from this course by learning about different fields they have not been exposed to: “Like history and politics that provide insight on the realities of past societies and how we have learned from them. It is a literary course but all opportunities to interact with other factors that make up a society.”
While many classical literature pieces may not be on bestseller’s lists anymore, Grimaldi explains, the works focused on in class were popular in their time and have become part of the fabric of Italian culture: “We talk about why were these works popular and with whom. They can reveal key societal norms and conventions. Because of their popularity, they establish or reinforce them. A book or piece of art can do this. It sets the standard for anything that comes after that.”
Grimaldi explains how a present “gold standard” equivalent work that reveals today’s societal norms is the show Friends. “The show revolves around 20-something-year-olds trying to establish their careers, find love, and make it on their own, but these tropes can still be applied 20 years later,” says Grimaldi. Simlarly, works like Nuovo Vita, Decarmaeron, and Divina Commedia all invite the reader to not only experience the past, but to find relatable messages throughout the texts.
ITA219 also reveals how our society functions today as compared to the past, and how popular culture has been influenced by classical philosophical work. As Grimaldi explains: “We talk about this time period […] by making observations on our current culture and […] much does culture reflect who we are.”