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Gur Zak (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Gur Zak

Gur Zak
Image Credit: יאיר שגיא

Fellow in Research Area 1: “Competing Communities”

August – October 2020

Sharing in Common: Compassion and Community in Italian Humanism from Petrarch to Laura Cereta

The emotion of compassion has been at the centre of scholarly attention of several disciplines in recent years: history, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and literary studies have all taken an interest in this emotion and its ethical, poetic, and political implications. While for some critics compassion is the “basic social emotion,” the glue that holds human society together, others challenge its social and political merits, claiming that it leads people to act in an irrational and partial manner.

Despite the growing attention paid to compassion, no study has been dedicated thus far to the examination of the elaborate and sophisticated engagement with this emotion in the literature and thought of the Italian Renaissance. This research project at EXC 2020 aims to fill this lacuna by exploring the different attitudes to compassion that proliferated in the period from Petrarch to Laura Cereta, as well as by examining the poetic, ethical, and political implications of the various engagements with this emotion in the period. Looking at letters, poems, novellas, and educational and political treatises, Gur Zak wishes to show how early humanists secularized compassion and established a moderate form of this emotion as the cornerstone of interpersonal interactions as well as human community at large. While Renaissance humanism is often seen as a precursor to modern “masculinist” and rational universalism, this study aims to show how it is in effect the recognition of human vulnerability and need for compassion that inheres at the centre of early humanism’s vision of both self and society.

Gur Zak is senior lecturer and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has been teaching since 2009. His primary research interest lies in the interrelations between literature and ethics in the later Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, with a particular emphasis on the works of the “Three Crowns”: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. His first book, Petrarch’s Humanism and the Care of the Self, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. He is currently working on two book-length projects, the first tentatively entitled Boccaccio and the Consolation of Literature, and the second deals with literary, philosophical, and theological approaches to compassion in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He has published articles on medieval and Renaissance literature in journals such as SpeculumMLN, and I Tatti Studies, and has contributed chapters to The Cambridge Companion to PetrarchThe Cambridge Companion to Boccaccio, and The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Besides his work on Italian Renaissance Literature, he is interested in the theory and practice of autobiography from antiquity to the present and contemporary theories of affects.