Student Spotlight: Damiano Benvegnù, Ph.D. in Literature

Author: Mary Hendriksen

Damiano Benvegnù

Damiano Benvegnù, a student in Notre Dame’s Ph.D. in Literature Program, can point to the moment when he changed his academic focus from astronomy to literature. “Reading William Blake’s Tyger in a literature class in my liceo scientifico (high school) was an epiphany. The poem was an amazing feat for Blake in the late 18th century—and then a revelation for me, as a reader, more than 200 years later.”

Now beginning work on his dissertation under the direction of Prof. John Welle, Damiano remains fascinated by animal imagery. His topic is the representation of animals in modern Italian literature—in poetry and prose—from both a philosophical and historical perspective. “In some works, when humans are transformed into animals, the imagery is one of degradation. But beginning with modern literature—as might well be exemplified by Kafka’s _Metamorphosis_—a door opens to a different idea of subjectivity. In some instances, animals may be the mirrors that allow humans to achieve a better relationship with the ‘other’ that belongs both to themselves and to what surrounds them.”

Prior to work on his dissertation, Damiano’s focus was the study of modern Italian poetry—specifically, modern “dialect” poetry and its relation to mainstream, “standardized” Italian poetry. He completed his Italian Ph.D. dissertation on this topic and received word last month that an article exploring it further was accepted for publication in the upcoming Italian issue of Modern Language Notes, published by Johns Hopkins University and one of the most prestigious journals in the field of literary studies.

“This would be a prize placement for a faculty member,” says Prof. Joseph Buttigieg, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Director of the Ph.D. in Literature Program, “but it is a remarkable one for a doctoral student. I am delighted for Damiano and also for the Ph.D. in Literature program, because it will further enhance our visibility and stature.”

Currently, Damiano is back in Italy, where he will continue research for his dissertation at the national library in Rome. In June, he will reunite with fellow Italian Studies Ph.D. in Literature students at the program’s inaugural Rome seminar, a three-week seminar for junior faculty and graduate students. Held at La Sapienza, this year’s seminar participants will explore both the history and the contemporary reality of Italy as a culture grappling with the need to construct a unified national imaginary while at the same time preserving regional and local distinctiveness and identity. It is a topic perfectly suited to Damiano, whose work embraces local and global studies.

Learn more about Damiano’s summer research focused on Italy’s new brand of dialect poetry.

Update on Damiano (October 2011):
Since the time of the publication of Damiano’s Spotlight feature, he has had several noteworthy accomplishments. They include:

  • Publishing an interview with the Italian poet Gian Mario Villalta (conducted in 2009 with the support of a research grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies in “Quaderni Veneti”, 49-50, 2011.
  • Studying at Cambridge University for the Michaelmas Term (Oct-Dec 2011) as the first Notre Dame student in a “Cambridge-Notre Dame Graduate Exchange” organized by Italian Studies at Notre Dame. During the term, he will join the Italian Department at Cambridge and work with Prof. Robert Gordon.
  • His paper, “The Suffering Animal: Humans, Animals and Ethics in Primo Levi," was accepted for the Modern Language Association’s 2012 conference, the most important conference of the year for the humanities.

In addition, Damiano is organizing a symposium at Notre Dame next Spring (March 23, 2012), titled “Italian Identities: Dialects, Minorities, Literatures.”

He says: “This giornata di studi will investigate the connections between the modern anthropological and sociological contexts of Italy and the use of dialects, with a particular focus on how literature has responded to both the ever-present issue of uneven economic development and the crisis of the so-called Italian identity in the last 30 years. In order to achieve its goals, our one-day symposium will be divided into three main panels, each one dedicated to exploring the topic from one of three perspectives: linguistic, socio-anthropological, and more purely literary. Our keynote speakers will be the Italian literary critic Professor Franco Brevini (who wrote the most important anthology of dialect poetry and several fundamental book on the same issue) and the poet Gian Mario Villalta (2011 winner of the prestigious Campiello Prize for poetry)."

Damiano received a Nanovic Institute conference grant for this project.