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ITAL 357 A: Race In Italy: Inventing Others In The Early Modern World

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
* *
Susan Gaylard

Syllabus Description:

Prof. Susan Gaylard

Office hours by appointment; SG also available right after Zoom class.

Course calendar (this may change! watch Canvas and your email):

Course calendar    

This course interrogates ideas of racial and other kinds of difference as they evolved in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe) from around 1300 to 1700. Taking as its starting-point a white supremacist imagined “white” medieval culture, the course analyzes changing ideas about human bodies, race, gender, and geography within their own historical contexts. Starting with categories like “Europe,” “Africa,” and “Italy”, as well as medieval ideas of race, we ask: How and why were certain bodies described as different? What do those descriptions tell us about the authors’ various agendas? And how and why did the category race increasingly refer to skin color rather than its earlier associations with religion, clan, or place of birth? 

No prior knowledge of Italian language or history necessary.


By the end of this course, students will be able to:

1. Summarize and respond to recent scholarship on othering. 

2. Identify a range of agendas in premodern sources (texts and images). 

3. Construct a coherent written analysis of primary and secondary sources. 

4. Evaluate the written arguments of a peer and offer constructive suggestions.

5. Revise written work, incorporating suggestions from peers and professor.

6. Relate pre-modern and early modern discourses around race and gender to discussions today.

7. Engage in an historically-grounded and fact-based discussion about race, gender, and othering, in a range of contexts.



Grading scale:

In-class discussion and participation (on Zoom)                    10%

Quizzes (on Canvas)                                                                15%

Asynchronous discussion (on Canvas)                                    35%

Research (presentation 5% + paper 8% + comment 2%)       15%

First draft of paper, 3-5 pages                                                5%                  

Review of a peer’s paper                                                        5%

Final draft of paper, 4-6 pages:                                              5%

Final exam                                                                               10%



Zoom class, held most Mondays and also some Wednesdays, allows us to get to know each other, ask any questions, and practice close analysis of texts and images together.


Quizzes, due by 12pm BEFORE Zoom class, are short online exercises to help you explore the materials, identify where you are stuck or confused, and figure out what you find interesting or worth exploring further. The quizzes also help me structure Zoom class to meet your needs.


Asychronous discussion, usually due Wednesdays by 11.59pm, takes the Zoom discussions and quizzes further and applies them to the next reading.


Research presentation / paper:

With a partner or alone, choose a topic/date (eg. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, Cathedral of Monreale...). Using UW Library resources, find out general information about your topic (eg. why is this important? when was it created? what should your classmates know about it before encountering it in Italy?).


Then, with the professor’s guidance, find some recent, scholarly work (ie. a peer-reviewed article from the last 10 years, or a chapter of an academic book) on your topic. Choose a piece that interests you and write a short paper critiquing it (2-3 pages): what is the main point of the article? how does the author try to make this point? what evidence is presented? is the article convincing/ unconvincing/ partly convincing? why/why not?


Using your new expertise, devise a presentation to teach your colleagues about your topic. Why does your topic matter? What are the most important things your colleagues should know about it? This is NOT a recited speech: this is a chance for you to teach in an interactive manner (10-15 minutes). Finally, each member of the team writes a brief confidential comment (2-3 sentences) on the experience: Was this a positive or negative experience for you? How did you divide up the work? Did everybody contribute equally to the final product? What, if anything, did you gain from this experience?


Note: you MUST confer with the professor before finalizing your choice of article. You should also consult with the Romance Languages Librarian, Deb Raftus,, for help finding both general and scholarly materials. Deb has a handy appointment scheduler and is happy to meet with you (phone or Zoom).


Paper: This is a close analysis of one of the primary texts we will discuss. We will exchange a draft with colleagues, offer each other helpful feedback, and then turn in a final version in weeks 6-7.


Final exam (due in exam week): This 48-hour exam is cumulative, and will require some careful thinking through of questions that we discuss across the term. Your chances of success on the exam are best if you do all the reading attentively, and pay careful attention to visual analysis both by the professor and during your colleagues’ presentations!


Academic Standards

Students are expected to maintain a high standard of academic ethics, honesty and integrity.  Academic misconduct includes but is not limited to: plagiarism, cheating, harassment, and disruptive or offensive behavior, and will not be tolerated.  Please refer to the University’s Student Conduct Code. Any student or situation found to be in violation of proper academic conduct will be addressed and reported according to University policy.

 Any use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class or submission of such material will not be tolerated.


“Netiquette” Standards

Please remember you are interacting with people, not a computer. As such, it is important to adhere to the same standards of behavior that you would follow in a real classroom environment.

  • Log in to your class meeting a few minutes early and make sure your video and microphone are working properly;
  • Sit at a desk or table in a quiet, undisturbed place. Work on a computer (ideally) and avoid moving your device;
  • Turn on your computer camera, check the lighting, and make sure the background you are projecting to your instructor and classmates is work-appropriate;
  • Be dressed as if you were attending class in person;
  • Do not engage in distracting or disruptive behavior (listening to music, eating, answering the phone, carrying on a side conversation, coming and going, etc.)
  • Do not interrupt other speakers and raise your hand or use the “raise hand” function when you wish to speak;
  • Look and maintain eye contact with the camera when speaking;
  • Mute your microphone when not speaking;
  • Refrain from using slang and emoticons when using public chat functions.


MOST IMPORTANTLY: remember that discussing race, religion, and gender can be difficult. We may examine material and discuss topics that upset you. Some of us may discuss things in ways that others find upsetting. This is because each of us has our own unique personal history, which affects how we understand the world.

 HOWEVER, as a member of this class community, it is your responsibility to approach the materials and your classmates with respect. Assume that, in a serious discussion of course material, each of us has good intentions. None of us is an expert on pre-modern “race”, so we can all learn from each other.


Access and Accommodations

Your experience in this class is important to us, and it is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law. Disability Resources for Students (DRS) offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students experiencing a wide range of temporary and permanent disabilities and/or health conditions that may impact their ability to perform well in the classroom. These include but are not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts. If you are experiencing any such difficulties, please contact DRS as soon as possible. Once you have established accommodations (or if you are planning to do so), please let me know immediately, so we can discuss your needs and success in this course.


Religious Accommodations

It is the policy of the University of Washington to reasonably accommodate student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities in accordance with Washington state law. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Faculty Syllabus Guidelines and Resources. Accommodations must be within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form.


Guidance to Students taking Courses outside the US:

Faculty members at U.S. universities – including the University of Washington – have the right to academic freedom which includes presenting and exploring topics and content that other governments may consider to be illegal and, therefore, choose to censor. Examples may include topics and content involving religion, gender and sexuality, human rights, democracy and representative government, and historic events.


If, as a UW student, you are living outside of the United States while taking courses remotely, you are subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction. Local authorities may limit your access to course material and take punitive action towards you. Unfortunately, the University of Washington has no authority over the laws in your jurisdictions or how local authorities enforce those laws.


If you are taking UW courses outside of the United States, you have reason to exercise caution when enrolling in courses that cover topics and issues censored in your jurisdiction. If you have concerns regarding a course or courses that you have registered for, please contact your academic advisor who will assist you in exploring options.



Schedule (subject to change):

Wk 1: What is race?


3/29: Zoom class



4/4: online quiz due before Zoom class

*Paul B. Sturtevant, “Is Race ‘Real’?”

*“Critical Race Theory Critique of Colorblindness,” Critical Race Theory Matters: Education and Ideology by Margaret Zamudio, Christopher Russell, Francisco Rios, and Jacquelyn L. Bridgeman (Routledge, 2011): chapter 2. Online via UW Libraries



Wk 2: What was race and what was Europe before the modern era?


4/5: Zoom class

Paul B. Sturtevant, “Were Medieval People Racist?” March 2, 2017

*Pliny, Natural History 7.6, 7.9-32 in Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World (Hackett, 2013), 96-101

*Francesco Guicciardini, selections from The History of Italy (ed and trans Sidney Alexander, Princeton UP, 1984), pp. 43-52, 382-386

*Machiavelli, “On the Nature of the French” (1520s), “The Persecution of Africa”


4/7: asynchronous discussion

*Ivan Kalmar, Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the notion of sublime power (Routledge, 2012), 30-43

*Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Europe (c. 1400-1485), trans. Robert Brown (Catholic University of America P, 2013), 1-18; 72-78


Wk 3: How did Europeans describe people of unfamiliar cultures, and why?


4/12: Zoom class

*Marco Polo, Milione (selections)


4/14 asynchronous discussion

*Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2018), selections from Ch 6 (pp. 287-298, 323-349)


Wk 4: How did Europeans think about race and religion, and why?


4/19 online quiz + Zoom class

*John Mandeville, Travels (selections on Mongols)

Presentation: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers


4/21: asynchronous discussion

*Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2018), 349-357, 379-382



Wk 5: race and religion, contd.


4/26: online quiz due before Zoom class


*Boccaccio, Decameron 1.3, 10.9 (on Saladin)  

*Dante, Inferno 4 (on Saladin)

*Joshua C. Birk, Norman Kings of Sicily and the Rise of the Anti-Islamic Critique (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 1-17

Presentation: Cappella Palatina, Palermo - Jill and Robert



4/28: asynchronous discussion

*Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2018), 27-31

*Denise Kimber Buell, “Early Christian universalism and modern forms of racism,” The Origins of Racism in the West, ed. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge UP, 2009), p. 109, 126-131

*Dante, Inferno 28.1-51 (Dante meets Mohammed)

*Boccaccio, Decameron 1.2



Wk 6: What do clothes and makeup have to do with race?


5/3: Zoom office hours


5/5: asynchronous film viewing / paper due



Wk 7: clothes and makeup, contd.


5/10: Zoom class; feedback on partner’s paper due

*Kate Lowe, “The stereotyping of black Africans in Renaissance Europe,” Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge UP, 2005), 17-47

Presentation: Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi (Florence) - Bryce and Liza


5/12: Zoom class

*Giraldi Cinzio, Gli Hecatommiti III.7, plus introduction and commentary (from Arden edition of Othello)

Presentation: Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (Rome) - Izze and Valexia


5/14 revised paper due


Wk 8: clothes and makeup, contd.


5/17  online quiz + Zoom class

*Jill Burke, “Nakedness and Other Peoples: Rethinking the Renaissance Nude,” Art History 36.4 (2013): 713-749

Presentation: Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi… (costume book from the 1590s) - Elise


5/19 asynchronous discussion

*Charlotte Jirousek, “More Than Oriental Splendor: European and Ottoman Headgear, 1380-1580.” Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of America (1995): 22, no. 1.22-33.

*Susanna Burghartz, “Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe,” trans. Jane Caplan, History Workshop Journal (2015): 80.1–32.


Wks 9 and 10: How did Italians and Europeans imagine slaves?


5/24: online quiz + Zoom class

*Steven A. Epstein, Speaking of Slavery (Cornell UP, 2001), 11-14

*Kate Lowe, “Visual Representations of an Elite: African Ambassadors and Rulers in Renaissance Europe,” in Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, ed. Joaneath Spicer (Walters Art Museum, 2012), 99-115.

*Kate Lowe, “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 66.2 (2013): 412-452

Presentation: Bronzino, Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici - Yudai and ?


5/26: asynchronous discussion

*Hannah Barker, “Christianities in Conflict: The Black Sea as a Genoese Slaving Zone in the Later Middle Ages,” in Slaving Zones: Cultural Identities, Ideologies, and Institutions in the Evolution of Global Slavery, ed. Jeff Fynn-Paul and Damian Alan Pargas (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 50-69

**John Brackett, “Race and rulership: Alessandro de’ Medici, first Medici duke of Florence, 1529-1537,” Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge UP, 2005), 303-325

**Mary Gallucci, “Mistaken Identities? Alessandro de’ Medici and the Question of ‘Race,’” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 15.3 (2015), 40-81


5/31 – Memorial Day


6/2:  online quiz + Zoom class

*Kimberly Poitevin, “Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 11.1 (2011): 59-89


 Exam week:

final exam



Catalog Description: 
Shifting Italian and European definitions of race and otherness in literary and visual representations from 1300-1700, ranging from medieval stories about Jews to 17th-century paintings. Topics include religion as race; language and nationalism; travel literature, costume history, and ethnography; and the presence of "black" Africans across Renaissance Europe. Taught in English.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
April 26, 2021 - 4:56pm