Introducing Manuele Gragnolati, Charles Speroni Endowed Chair

Published: April 25, 2024

This Spring quarter, we are thrilled to introduce Professor Manuele Gragnolati as the Charles Speroni Endowed Chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature & Culture. This endowed visiting chairship is an honor bestowed on outstanding faculty in medieval and Renaissance Italian studies. The position was created for Charles Speroni (1911-1984), who was the founder and first chairman of the Department of Italian at UCLA (1949-1956), Dean of the College of Fine Arts at UCLA (1968-1979), and served as editor of the journal The Italian Quarterly.

Gragnolati is a Professor of Italian Literature at Sorbonne Université, Associate Director of the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, and Senior Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford. Much of his research focuses on Dante and medieval culture, especially the significance of corporeality in thirteenth and fourteenth-century eschatology. He is also interested in lyric poetry and Petrarch, concepts of linguistic subjectivity from Dante to the present, modern appropriations of medieval texts, and feminist and queer theory.

We had the opportunity to interview Professor Gragnolati and discuss his recent appointment at UCLA and his plans for his work at CMRS-CEGS and on campus. 

What can you share about your UCLA Charles Endowed Speroni chair appointment?

  • First, I am thrilled to be here! Indeed, when Professor Thomas Harrison asked me whether I wanted to be considered for the Speroni Chair, I was intrigued by the idea of reconnecting with North American academia, with which I have had a long-standing relationship: I got my PhD from Columbia University in 1999, and before returning to Europe in 2003 (first at Oxford University and currently at Sorbonne Université) my first appointment as Assistant Professor was at Dartmouth College. While I had never fully lost touch with colleagues based in the US, I was curious to spend some time in the country again and get to know the California system and UCLA, with whom I had only limited contact.

Can you tell us briefly how you ended up in the field of Italian Literature?

  • Since high school in Italy, literature has always been my passion, but choosing Italian has been somewhat accidental. Originally I was particularly fascinated by Ancient Greek and Latin, and my first degree (BA and MA from the University of Pavia) was in Classics. Only when I moved outside of Italy, first to Paris for an MA in comparative literature and then to Columbia University did I choose Italian as my main focus, originally the twentieth century and then the Middle Ages. The reason for that switch was that at Columbia I met two amazing scholars – Teodolinda Barolini in Dante Studies and Caroline Walker Bynum in Medieval History – and I wanted to study with them. 

What courses are you teaching at UCLA, and what do you hope your students will gain from your teachings?

  • I am teaching an undergraduate course on Dante’s Divine Comedy and a graduate course on Petrarch’s lyric sequence. I enjoy studying and teaching literature for its critical potential to challenge habitual and normative thinking. I am particularly interested in texts that propose different figurations of reality, whether in the past or the present – and this is why Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of “my” authors. Dante’s and Petrarch’s texts are very different in many respects but they both challenge common sense and articulate a complex sense of reality that differs from our contemporary understanding. Maybe one could say that my aim is twofold: to have students appreciate that form and aesthetics have an affective and critical power that must be handled with care and accuracy, and to show, through literature, that one should never be too confident in one’s assumptions and beliefs. I want to teach precision, curiosity, and openness.

Besides teaching, what else are you working on throughout the quarter?

  • I am working with Francesca Southerden, a colleague from Oxford, on a book project that reads medieval texts by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio with a comparative approach and from a post-human and ecocritical perspective. While at UCLA, I am working on two chapters: one that engages Petrarch’s sestine with Timothy Morton’s concept of “dark ecology” and one that reads Boccaccio’s novella of Elisabetta da Messina in dialogue with its appropriations by John Keats and Pier Paolo Pasolini in order better to understand the relationship between the notions of posthuman and posthumous.

What are you looking forward to at the CMRS Center for Early Global Studies?

  • During my academic journey, I moved between several countries, including Italy, the US, the UK, Germany, and France. For quite a few years, in particular, since the beginning of my involvement with the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry in 2006, I have been interested in approaches to literature and culture that engage with critical theory, in interdisciplinary and transnational projects, and collaborations with colleagues with different intellectual histories and backgrounds. The CMRS Center for Early Global Studies represents a model for such activities and a great opportunity to expand my interests. I have already followed a couple of the most inspiring events.

How have you been engaging with the broader academic community during your time here at UCLA?

  • So far, I have attended a few events and begun to meet some colleagues. I hope that there will be more opportunities to do so in the remaining weeks.

What advice would you give to students interested in research in Italian Literature?

  • The same I would give to students of any literature: to treat it as something delicate and precious, to appreciate how it is written, and to be open to the new experiences and pleasures it provides!  

Are there any fun facts that you’d like to share?

  • Since my youth in a provincial town in Northern Italy, I have been the greatest fan of Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar, who has shown me the beauty and normality of difference: not only have I sworn eternal loyalty to any of his movies, but I also take them as a guide for life! 

Thank you, Professor Gragnolati. We are excited to have you here at CMRS-CEGS and UCLA!