Ph.D. Student Examines Animal Imagery in Literature

Author: Mary Hendriksen

Damiano Benvegnu

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,” he says. “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 Professor John Welle, Benvegnù 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,” he says. “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, Benvegnù’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 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, Benvegnù 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 Benvegnù, whose work embraces local and global studies.

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