Italian Studies 215: The early modern ‘public sphere’: controlling and selling knowledge in the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’

Instructor: Professor Diego Pirillo

Since its first appearance in 1962, Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has had a wide influence on several fields and disciplines from the humanities to the social sciences. Translated into English in 1992, it has been further discussed and reappraised, opening new directions of research also with regard to the early modern period. Examining Habermas’s book and the criticism that it provoked in the last few decades (including that by Judith Butler, Charles Taylor, Cornel West), the seminar will focus on early modern Europe (with special emphasis on Italy and England), where the ‘printing revolution’ allowed information to be transformed into a commodity and provided for the emergence of a transnational ‘public sphere’, through which political affairs began to be discussed outside of the traditional centers of power. Particular attention will be given to the tension between ‘secrecy’ and ‘publicity’, between the ideology of arcana imperii and the contemporary rise of an European market for information, in which classified documents were leaked, sold and disseminated in spite of the restrictions imposed by secular and religious powers. While churches and states developed sophisticated system of censorship, they soon realized that a complete control on communication was impossible and that, at times, spreading information was a more effective weapon than suppressing it. While tracing the history of the concept of ‘public opinion’ by discussing a wide range of early modern authors (Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Sarpi, Ben Jonson, James VI/I, Hobbes and others), the seminar will also take advantage of the resources of the Bancroft Library, intertwining book history with the history of information and politics, in order to examine a selection of early modern pamphlets, newspapers and ambassadorial records and to consider the different material means of communication (print as well as manuscript) through which classified knowledge was leaked in the Ancien Régime.

  • Elective Requirement: This course fulfills the elective requirement for the DE in REMS.