Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Hermann W. Haller

Committee Members

Monica Calabritto

Clare Carroll

Nicoletta Maraschio

Subject Categories

Italian Language and Literature


paremias, proverbs, proverbial phrases, Vincenzo Brusantino, Pompeo Sarnelli, John Florio


This dissertation demonstrates how literary paremias, i.e. proverbs and proverbial phrases, constitute a rich archive of considerable historical, cultural, and linguistic significance. As discursive phenomena, paremias are usually studied in the context of oral traditions, but this study examines them in terms of what they reveal about the literary works in which they appear. Specifically, it analyzes the context in which they are employed and, through them, it extracts the author’s perspectives, references to and borrowings from previous works, responses to the social and cultural conditions of the time, and effects on the narrative. The exploration of paremias in literary texts and their references to biblical forms, to collections of Latin and Greek adages or sententiae, as well as to Italian and European Medieval and Early Modern texts offer new insight into an ongoing scholarly discussion of the value and role of paremias. As such, it challenges and enriches the concept of paremias, ultimately proposing new definitions and ways of interpretation that surpass limited cultural and linguistic boundaries.

The study combines a literary and linguistic analysis of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases in four early modern texts: Vincenzo Brusantini’s Le cento novelle (1554), Pompeo Sarnelli’s Posilecheata (1684), and John Florio’s Firste Fruites (1578) and Second Frutes (1591). It investigates paremias as both linguistic tools, featuring rhetorical and stylistic elements, and as literary tools, able to affect the structure of a literary work. It aims to show how the three authors “translated” their paremias in ways that are directly related to the literary context, structure and purpose of their works, thus manipulating paremias and influencing their linguistic and rhetorical substance. The original perspective of the project allows the study of paremiac material across centuries (from 1554 to 1684), across space (from Ferrara to Naples to England), across genres (from a chivalric poem, to a language manual, to a collection of fables), and across languages (all of the three authors decided to move out of their native languages or dialects). By way of contextual analyses, paremias emerge with their idionsyncrasies: as they adapt to the genre that “hosts” them, they convey moral messages, which, despite being universal, acquire a significance specific to the context. The three authors shape the form and the content of their paremias so that they could speak in the language of the public that they were addressing.

This research shows how paremias transcend genres, languages, and cultures and how they can expand the boundaries of Italian language and literature as they circulate among writers, texts, and contexts. Despite intra-cultural and inter-cultural similarities, the reciprocal relationship between paremias and contexts determines changes and modifications in the morphological, syntactical, and lexical structure of paremias, as well as in the meanings they convey. Rather than being immobile structures of the language, they are instead dynamic entities, adapting to the exigencies of the text, the author, and the society, and at the same time influencing the text, the public, and the society with their message.