Trecento Variations in the Epic Tradition: Dante's Commedia, Boccaccio's Teseida, and Petrarch's Africa

Andrea Gazzoni, University of Pennsylvania


This study investigates the transformations of the epic code of Western tradition in Dante’s Commedia, Boccaccio’s Teseida, and Petrarch’s Africa. Although none of the foundational works of early Italian literature between XIII and XIV century can be defined as an epic in the canonical sense of the term, in that age of cultural transition in which vernacular culture emerged and new subjectivities took shape, an “epic intention” was at work in a culture that was in search of new articulations for its sense of beginning, continuity, and totality. In particular, a new relation to the past, especially to antiquity, had to be negotiated. For all their differences as to form, outcome, language, intention, context, and composition history, the Commedia, Teseida, and Africa were based on the awareness of the historicity of the epic genre as it had been transmitted to late medieval Italy, hence they were conscious of variation as the motor of the evolution of a genre that from antiquity had to be translated into modern culture. The generative presence of the epic in the Italian Trecento has been scarcely acknowledged by scholars in Italian Studies; at the same time, in the domains of comparative literature or literary theory very little attention has been paid to the ways in which the Commedia, Teseida, and Africa both explore and transform the epic tradition. While in theoretico-historical accounts of the epic they have been mostly considered as deviations from the epic models of the classical age, I contend that they provide us with an extraordinary vantage point to understand the dynamics of the epic as such, because of their unique focus on variation. With an introductory chapter on variation in the theory and practice of the epic, I lay the groundwork for the subsequent chapters, where with an alternation of close readings and theoretical vistas I examine the ways in which Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch articulate variation and historicity through an epic code that is polyvalent, polyphonic, and polygenetic. The epic of the Italian Trecento shows us the dynamics of a genre always in the flux of temporality.

Subject Area

Italian literature|Romance literature|Comparative literature

Recommended Citation

Gazzoni, Andrea, "Trecento Variations in the Epic Tradition: Dante's Commedia, Boccaccio's Teseida, and Petrarch's Africa" (2019). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI27545061.