Elizabeth S. Cohen, Thomas V. Cohen. Daily Life in Renaissance Italy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. xiii + 316 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-313-30426-2.
Reviewed by Luci M. Fortunato De Lisle (Department of History, Bridgewater State College)
Published on H-Italy (January, 2002)
In their collaboration on Daily Life in Renaissance Italy, Professors Elizabeth and Thomas Cohen have deftly crafted a text that bridges the chasm between often-outdated popular notions of the social and cultural history of Renaissance Italy and the rich scholarship that has deepened and refined professional historians' approaches, insights, and debates in Renaissance studies over the last few decades. Without recourse to academic debates or overly-specialized terminology of the discipline, the straightforward yet at times imaginative prose provides for readers--presumably an audience of generalists interested in the Renaissance, beginning undergraduate students, or academics who are not specialists on Renaissance Italy--a long awaited and much desired synthesis.
A chronology of the political and cultural history of Italy from the Black Death to the execution of Giordano Bruno and a map of Renaissance Italy open the book. The narrative text, which follows in seventeen chapters, is interspersed with engaging anecdotes and quotations culled from archival sources and recent scholarly publications. It offers biographical profiles of figures carefully balancing gender and status representation. The chapters contain reproductions of Renaissance woodcuts that illustrate central points and themes. The endnotes for each chapter, selected bibliography, and references to Web sites should serve as a useful guide for the student or general reader interested in reading further on the subject.
The first chapter serves as a primer on Renaissance Italy, touching briefly on the nature of daily life and the perennial "problem" of the historical label "Renaissance" before surveying the geographical conception of "Italy" and Renaissance culture, politics, and economics. Ultimately, the major themes of everyday life to be developed are introduced. Here the Cohen's display their concern not to oversimplify life in Renaissance Italy and their caution not to reinforce exhausted cliches. They succeed further in introducing scholarly preoccupations with themes such as honor and agency. Even the history of the senses is attended to in a paragraph that artfully invites the reader to step imaginatively out of the twenty-first century to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of an early modern town (p. 15). Indeed, throughout the book contrasts are drawn to emphasize a view of the Renaissance not, as is often overemphasized, as the precursor of western modernity but rather very much as an alien world and mentality.
Rank, age, and gender thread through the presentation of society--clergy, country folk, city dwellers, soldiers, Jews, and prostitutes--in chapter 2. A range of selected biographical profiles humanizes the story. Chapter 3, "Dangers," attempts successfully to convey the perceived supernatural and actual natural and human threats to security in Renaissance Italy. Preoccupations with salvation and the just, though punishing, role of divine providence--or more simply put, fear of damnation and divine wrath--are keys to understanding the presumed supernatural threats and social responses to events such as visitations of the plague that were ascribed to God or the devil. Overlapping at times were the natural disaster potentialities of flood, earthquake, omens, hunger, and disease. Human-generated dangers are categorized first in terms of personal violence played out in vendettas, banditry, and piracy, and second as state violence manifested in warfare and in judicial force of sometimes capricious or corrupt governments in a range of activities from customs extortion to the complexities of arrest, trial, and torture procedures.
"Family and other Sodalities" (chapter 4) are presented as the most practical modes of protection as well as the essential sociological organizers of Italian Renaissance society. Family is considered not only in its role as protector but also as a collective concerned with matters of honor, identity, and control of public space, and as a gendered and generational hierarchy concerned largely with practical matters such as property and dowry. The complex of relationships is extended to the patron-client system and other formal and informal groupings including town and neighborhood affiliations, guild and religious confraternities, and transitory or marginal alliances involving the likes of strolling players or even thieves.
The hierarchical nature of society--conceived as the proper natural social order--is developed in chapter 5. After examining the received classical, religious, and biological traditions informed by patriarchal and age assumptions, the authors proceed to describe social rank and titles within family and society. A brief discussion (pp. 77-78) of the language of status and address in Renaissance vernacular usage and literature offers subtle insights into the social inequalities that operated. As a counterbalance to status determined by birth or office, the authors note how prestige might be acquired through "cultural and intellectual capital" (p. 80)--that is, in accord with many of the prescriptive tracts of the day, via ingegno, sprezzatura, or virt= variously displayed through prestigious consumption and personal presentation of refined dress, gestures, and manners.
Chapter 6 returns to the central thematic concerns of honor and agency in treating Renaissance values and moralities. Honor is presented in the context of a broad Mediterranean value system. Family and gendered concepts of honor are central to this discussion which is enlivened by the attention the authors give once again to the language, symbols, and actions linked to honor and shame. This secular notion of honor with its particularism was often in tension with the universalistic brotherhood preached by the Christian religion that dominated the peninsula, though there were some areas of agreement that the authors espy.
The Renaissance preoccupation with maintaining social order emphasized in chapters 4-6 is expanded to the institutional level of the state more centrally in chapter 7. The realities of urban politics and bargaining of all sorts toward the end of social control and order are considered with a central focus on the role of communal government, police, the courts, and finally the execution of justice.
The direction of the book shifts with Chapter 8, "Media, Literacy, and Schooling." Media is understood in a broad sense to encompass the transient stimuli conveyed by the senses of a human touch or a smell and the more conventional images conveyed in art or in print. The Renaissance revolutions in print and art, as crucial innovations, and their social and historical implications, form a subsection of the chapter but other methods of cultural communication both oral and written are not ignored. Indeed, to assess the impact of the print revolution requires an understanding of the nature and extent of literacy in the era which the authors attend next to schooling, the survival and construction of documents, and the growth of journalism. They are careful to stress the survival of the oral tradition in the activities of cantastorie and preachers throughout the Renaissance. They comment, additionally, on the popularity of diaries and ricordanze among the popular literate classes to conserve their activities and lives in memory.
"Spaces" and "Time" occupy chapters 9 and 10. The Renaissance geometrical conception of space is taken up first with reference to art, cartography, and defensive urban planning. The uses of rural topography, the construction of villages and houses, and the place names ascribed to them are then contrasted with the uses of urban space. The section of the chapter on the towns conveys a sense of the physical realities inside urban walls, of neighborhood divisions that fostered solidarities and rivalries, and which harbored sacred spaces. It grapples with the phenomenon of the evolution of urban architecture in response to demographic changes or threat of war. The authors recognize that some space was "off limits" to honest women of the community who spent most of their time in domestic environs that they describe. Chapter 10 sorts out modern and Renaissance perceptions and experiences of time. In discussing the differences of the calendar year, considerable attention is given to religious feasts and celebrations closely keyed to the agricultural cycles. While noting the underlying linear millenarian eschatology widely known through Christian teaching, the authors assert that for most Renaissance Italians this explanation did not satisfactorily explain the rest of human history. Surprisingly, given the marked classical revival in Renaissance Italy and the emphatic historical consciousness that recurs in the writing of elites (Petrarch, Guicciardini, Macchiavelli, Biondi, etc.), the scant attention given to a sense of historical awareness among the broader population seems a notable oversight.
From a macrocosmic consideration of time the authors turn (chapters 11 and 12) to consider the temporally circumscribed human life cycle. They draw upon scholarship on the history of childhood and on more recent literature about adolescence. Adolescence, which was brief for upper-class females, often brought an early passage to adult status as wife or nun and sometimes even the special threats of assault and rape, while for males a long adolescence could be marked by ritual, self-imaging, and, often, violent activities. Matchmaking and marriage receive extended attention before the authors conclude the life cycle and the funeral rituals that followed.
Human comfort and survival link the next three chapters. Chapter 13, "Houses, Food, and Clothing," ranges across the ways in which individuals sustained their bodies to maintain health and propriety. Drawing on Renaissance sources, the authors offer further description of domestic space and the objects that filled it and of the amenities (or lack thereof!), of the food available and methods of preparation, and of the clothing, hair dyes, and cosmetics available to women. Chapter 14 documents the individual and collective response when health could not be maintained, beginning with a survey of the medical theories highlighting the miasmatic theory of plague and the social responses based upon it. Infectious diseases from plague to syphilis that predominated from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries are discussed alongside diabolical possession. Early modern Italians' attempts to cure are typical of the mix of remedies attempted across Europe before the Scientific Revolution. "Work" and "Play" (chapters 15 and 16) conclude the individual thematic chapters of the text. As the authors state plainly, the chapter on work "surveys the large social division of labor ... [and] looks at the cultural meanings of work, their bearing on status and self-worth ... [and] the conditions of production" (p. 253). Most interesting in this chapter are quotations and a vignette drawn from the Archivio di Stato di Roma that recount, sometimes inadvertently, the "long, hard, and dangerous" (p. 269) agricultural work day in Renaissance Italy. Despite the hardships of daily survival, the distinctively theatrical nature of Italian Renaissance play is accentuated in chapter 16. The authors stress the promise of relief from self-control through leisure activities, the pursuit of physical and mental well-being, the sociability of leisure activities, the association of "play time" with periods of liturgical ritual, and the formal spaces that hosted the activities in both country and urban settings. Music and dance, religious and political spectacles, and ritualized, often violent or politically inspired sports competitions, comprised many of the all-human activities. Animals were involved, as well, in hunts, baiting sports, and races. Similarities between the Renaissance pallone and modern soccer are striking; card games and gambling flourished.
Despite the temptation to find similarities, the authors recall their caveat to readers in their conclusion (chapter 17): "Renaissance Italy differed from our twenty-first century world in physical environment and in institutional and cultural responses to it" (p. 297). Their emphasis on challenging the modernist thesis of the Renaissance is the major achievement of this volume. In its place the authors have offered a way to understand the Renaissance on its own terms and by including, wherever the archival sources and the abundance of specialized scholarship to date make it possible, the entire range of society within its scope. The authors' insistence on understanding all Renaissance Italians historically through the notion of agency--no matter what their social status--leads the reader to a multi-valenced and more complete assessment of human experience. By identifying the dangers that comprised the common concerns faced in the Renaissance and the social and religious responses to them for individual and collective protection, they illustrate again human action in a specific historical and cultural context. Theatricality finally, whether it be in the economic competition for the display of what Lisa Jardine has labeled "worldly goods" or in spectacle or display, leaves us with an understanding of Renaissance Italians as actors in daily life.
Luci M. Fortunato De Lisle. Review of Cohen, Elizabeth S.; Cohen, Thomas V., Daily Life in Renaissance Italy.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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