What caused the outburst of mental energy known as the Renaissance? This is the question that is being freshly considered in many of the current books on the period. The historian George Holmes’s new book, Renaissance, argues that the most important catalyst was the city, specifically the great European commercial centers that were expanded and governed by a rising merchant class in the aftermath of the plague of 1348. Rather than concluding that life was cheap, the survivors seem instead to have been drawn to formulate ideas about an inherent human dignity, with vast repercussions for every aspect of their culture, from the striking precision of Renaissance art to the neoclassical philosophies expounded in Renaissance literary texts. Carefully constructed spaces and imposingly physical figures create a world in which a version of individualism is played out in every interior, on every street corner and piazza we see, whether in the Florence of Leonardo, the Venice of Bellini, or the Rome of Raphael. Holmes’s Renaissance interprets its title broadly; it is both a picture book and historical study, a work that seeks to reconcile the Northern Renaissance of the Burgundian dukes, Bosch, and Dürer with the Southern Renaissance in Italy. “My aim,” he states at the outset, “is to place the Renaissance in the context of the expanding and prosperous life of the European cities. I see the commercial city as the heart of modern European life.”

For the literary scholar Lisa Jardine, the key to the Renaissance lies more narrowly in its hunger for material possessions; she would like “to suggest that those impulses which today we disparage as ‘consumerism’ might occupy a respectable place in the characterization of the new Renaissance mind.” She observes “how reluctant we are to include acquisitiveness among the defining characteristics of the age which formed our aesthetic heritage.” This resolute concentration on what she calls “a fifteenth-century life-world crowded with desirable consumer objects,” and particularly with luxurious objects, allows her to sidestep some of the most interesting and typically paradoxical characteristics of the early modern period.

You would not know from Jardine’s book that the obsessive traffickers in goods were also obsessed with the Greco-Roman past; that Cosimo de’ Medici could speak eloquently on the subject of human dignity while siring children with his Circassian slave-girl; that empirical investigation and witch-hunting grew up side by side as parallel methods for inquiring into the natural world. Holmes, to his credit, takes up these and other intractable problems, showing in the process how thoroughly, if gradually, our view of the Renaissance has changed within a lifetime.

The chief agent of that change has been the sheer mass of new information revealed by a growing number of scholars in the field; like the sciences, Renaissance studies have become scholarly industries, with their own information explosion, increasing specialization, and failures to communicate between subdisciplines.

Jardine’s popular study is a case in point; the author of a book on Erasmus, she seems to have little acquaintance with the social or economic historians whose work might have modified her claims that a “New History of the Renaissance” can be discovered simply by taking consumer culture into account. When, in her preface, she introduces her readers to a series of Renaissance paintings in London’s National Gallery, calling attention to their meticulous representation of luxury objects, she reveals, by omission, the usefulness of art history: it has trained people to say something more about a series of Annunciations than “paintings like these celebrate the culture’s new access to a superfluity of material possessions.” When a painting shows a winged man flying down out of the sky to talk to a woman with a gold ring around her head, most people will be hard pressed to fix their attention, as Jardine does, on the provenance of the carpet in the background. (Still, a small army of specialists have long been able to trace most of these exotic painted artifacts, whether silks, carpets, or metalwork, to their sources in China or the Levant; here, too, Jardine seems to write as an enthusiastic amateur.)

Similarly, Jardine does not seem to realize that one of the most telling criticisms of Europe’s obsession with worldly goods was made long before the Renaissance got going at all. In 1206, in the main square of the small Italian town of Assisi, Francis, the son of a prosperous local merchant, had just recovered from a serious illness, and something in him seemed to snap. All of a sudden, he hated the greed that impelled his father and his peers to mount their risky commercial ventures, the ostentation with which they wore the trappings of their success (but how else could they advertise their competence?), the singlemindedness of their devotion to profit. He wanted no more of their way of life, and as he argued with his father in the center of town he lost his temper. A crowd had begun to gather at the first sound of raised voices, and in a fit of rage Francis stripped bare in the middle of the piazza and threw his clothes at his father. “Now I owe you nothing!” he shouted.


The gentle attitude of Francis’s later years, his whimsical courtship of Lady Poverty, has obscured the sheer hostility in that first act of rebellion, the pointed cruelty of his move to humiliate his proud parent as publicly as possible. But the Florentine painter Giotto (himself, it must be said, a shrewd capitalist) has left a fresco of the scene that still carries its full charge of anger.1 Agitated townspeople pull back Francis’s father, tugging at him by his brocaded robes and his clenched fists. At the same time, the bishop of Assisi rushes forward to wrap the naked youth in his own cloak and spirit him off into the discreet recesses of the cathedral. Off to the side, a small child screams from the tension of it all. Clearly, worldly goods did not make the Renaissance by themselves. Capitalism and its peculiar discontents were ubiquitous in Europe long before.

Indeed, recent general studies like that of Holmes, or Patricia Fortini Brown’s Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, continue to remind readers that contemporaries identified the turning point into the Renaissance with an intellectual movement, which they called “the rebirth of letters” or “the study of humanity.” The movement drew its inspiration from the close scrutiny and emulation of ancient Latin, and eventually Greek, literature, as well as the tangible remnants of antiquity that still shaped the Italian landscape and continually emerged from its soil. Like capitalism, interest in antiquity had been palpable in Italy for ages; in the fourteenth century, Giotto infused his figures with the weighty dignity he perceived in ancient Roman statues, and many fourteenth-century readers already felt an affinity with Cicero. But then, for the fourteenth-century malcontent Francesco Petrarca, that sense of affinity became a consuming passion. Defying the onrush of history, he wrote letters to his favorite ancient authors, attempting to model his Latin style on theirs. He also spent much of his time shaping Italian vernacular into a language of comparable elegance.

As the example of Petrarch shows, the real problem with Jardine’s reduction of Renaissance culture to an appetite for luxury goods is twofold. First, there is its lack of specificity: birds and beasts feather their nests as eagerly as humans, but Jardine has hardly anything to say about the particular choices that Renaissance buyers made. Secondly, she tends to reduce the spiritual dimension of that thoughtful, religious time to its crass material base: her analysis of the religious paintings in London’s National Gallery virtually ignores their sacred content and devotes not a word to their actual liturgical use. By contrast, Fortini Brown’s short, accessible study of Venice, the city whose “people neither plow nor sow, but…buy,” still reserves an entire chapter to the spirituality of these pious merchants. Similarly, Jardine speaks of manuscripts as “luxury” objects without addressing the significance of the Greek and Latin texts that made the books so precious to their owners. In fact, of course, these Renaissance artifacts were given lavish physical presentation as a sign of honor, for manu-scripts and works of sacred art afforded their users some of the most exalted experiences of their lives. The altarpieces that are now to be found on museum walls once surveyed the ritual of Communion or private prayer—they bore witness, in other words, to faithful Christians’ direct contact with divinity. Manuscripts contained a wisdom that was more precious to readers than any feat of binding or illumination.

So, too, when Francesco Petrarca said that gazing upon his crucifix was “his chief delight,” he was not talking about the quality of its execution, as Jardine would have it, but about its intangible promise that his soul would be immortal. The cravings that drove him to his headlong rebellion against time, his practice of looking back to look forward, all these were rare enough to define a cultural transformation, but they were changes first in an interior world, which only gradually came to affect the world around him.

Recent work on the Renaissance has expanded its range not only geographically and temporally but socially, taking in all the social classes rather than just the lettered elite, Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. Much has been written about the differences between men and women and about the lives of rogues, deviants, and criminals, who often took their own place in the motley tapestry of Renaissance society.

In post-World War II Italy, however, two talented women writers, the novelist Maria Bellonci and the biographer Iris Origo already showed remarkable knowledge of the material texture of the Renaissance and its wide social spectrum, so much so that their work still holds lasting interest for scholars today. What continues to distinguish Bellonci’s Secrets of the Gonzaga (1947) from most historical novels is her ability to infuse a carefully described physical world with psychological force, to fathom the private fantasies of characters for whom ribbons, seed pearls, and slashed velvets marked social position, rites of passage, but also states of mind, or of spirit.2 She begins her novel as follows, though no English rendering can catch the lyrical quality of her Italian:


Rather than a baldachin of satin, Vincenzo Gonzaga was born beneath the black-and-gold standard of the Counter-Reformation, swelling on the great evening breeze of the Council of Trent. For his father, hunchbacked and sick, Vincenzo’s birth was a sign of God’s benevolence. Thus it was with good reason that his parents lofted their prayers over the fine blond baby, swaddled tight from neck to foot in gold brocades, elevated to the precious, uncomfortable majesty of infant idols.

Bellonci, who established postwar Rome’s chief literary salon (and with her husband, Goffredo, founded the Strega literary prize), drew her factual information from the Gonzaga archives in Mantua. She used contracts, inventories, birth records, and wills to reconstruct convincingly the fortunes of the Gonzagas.

Iris Origo, Maria Bellonci’s near-contemporary, could also make imaginative use of dry documents. The Merchant of Prato (1957) reconstituted the life of a rich Tuscan businessman, Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410), from a cache of five hundred account books, three hundred miscellaneous papers, and 150,000 letters, all found by chance in 1870, stuffed in bags underneath the staircase of Datini’s house. After four centuries of oblivion, Datini’s ledgers, headed “in the name of God and of profit,” show us an international network built on the exchange of money, cloth, metalwork, paintings, and anything else that came to hand.

When Origo examined the Datini letters more closely, she found a man of prickly temperament confronting, in the company of his long-suffering wife, Margherita, the strains of a childless marriage and the market’s continual uncertainty; his life was consumed by the incessant search for an inside tip, for a small advantage in the outcomes of deals he made. With Margherita and with his friend Ser Lapo Mazzei, however, the gruff Datini enjoyed the inexplicable bonds of affection that unite patient people with those who try their patience to its limit. There must have been something amiable about Francesco di Marco, however little it shows from his papers. With careful objectivity Iris Origo helps her readers to feel the oddly magnetic pull of the merchant’s personality.

Despite the bold originality of their work neither Bellonci nor Origo claimed to be reinterpreting the Renaissance by concentrating on material commodities, in part, perhaps, because they were so unfailingly aware that beliefs and ideas came associated with tangible things. Seeing themselves as writers first, they simply wrote, with elegant clarity. Jardine, too, writes fluently, but she could have learned about writing in depth from these models, neither of whom appears in her bibliography.

Their absence is a pity since Origo especially was a superb historian. In The World of San Bernardino (1962), she described the life of a famous Franciscan preacher (Saint Bernardino of Siena, 1380-1444) in chapters whose headings outline the shape that academic histories would take in subsequent years: “The World of Women,” long before the advent of women’s studies; “The World of Trade,” written just as economic history began to gather momentum among professional scholars; “The World of the Poor,” emphasizing the new concerns of social history on which Origo herself would lecture at Harvard in 1958. She combined these themes in recording Bernardino’s own accurate portraits of a society that bred acquisitive go-getters alongside Franciscan rebels, just as Assisi had done two centuries before.

As with the prickly Merchant of Prato, she was lucky in her copious source material. On August 15, 1427, Bernardino began delivering a cycle of sermons in the main piazza of Siena, the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. Among those who heard him there was a Sienese weaver, who began recording the preacher’s words verbatim, complete with interjections, digressions, and roars of approval from the audience. Bernardino spotted him at work early on, as the weaver duly records (“You there! What are you doing?”), and quickly played to this most attentive of listeners (“Now take this down carefully”). The notes were subsequently circulated in copies throughout Italy, for reasons that become clear immediately when one reads them. Bernardino was the best show in Siena. Though he chose the simple life himself, the preacher, a down-to-earth Tuscan, addressed his fellow citizens with genuine sympathy:

“I have known many of you who pile up riches while suffering hunger, thirst, excessive heat and cold. Sometimes you travel by land and sometimes by sea, in the rain, the snow, the wind, never resting in your own house; you must visit your lands, your vineyards, you must be everywhere, and always with great anxiety….And I ask you all, is there one of you who feels certain of being able to keep all the property he has acquired, that it won’t be taken from him?” No one replies. “You see that I speak the truth!”3

Again and again, the future saint would drive straight to the uncertainty at the heart of the urge to acquire, dredging up the Seven Deadly Sins, one by one:

O Siena, you’ve begun to upset your own prosperity! Look into your storerooms: you’ve already put the weevil of suspicion into your provisions. See for yourself whether I tell the truth. I say that because of the wealth God has given you and the peace He has granted you, you gorge like gluttons, and from your gluttony you go from bad to worse; from gluttony you fall into vanity, luxury, and ostentation. You want to look like more than you are and amass property only to spend it on luxury and ostentation and you enter into another vice, the sin of avarice, and once you’ve harvested your bounty by good or bad practice, extorted or robbed as it may be, waxing rich and living splendidly you suddenly arrive at the sin of pride.4

And yet, like Petrarch, Bernardino, a Renaissance man for all his Franciscan austerity, knew that in his own time the traffic in ideas was just as intense, as hungrily acquisitive, as the traffic in goods. When the friar described the Virgin Mary to the burghers of Siena, he saw fit to put her intellect before everything else:

And her intellect was deep and broad, so that it could be filled to the fullest. Mary knew so much about the heavens and what was in them that there was never anyone who knew as much as she…. She knew all the orbits of the planets and every constellation and every property they had. Now I want to ask you. Do you think that Mary knew everything I told you? [His hearers replied in a roar] Oh, yes, yes, yes, certainly! Do you think she knew astrology! [Again they cry] Ye-e-es! She knew more astrology all by herself than all the astrologers who have ever been, are, or will be; she knew more asleep than they do awake.5

When Bernardino says that the Virgin “sees and knows and understands things that no mortal can,” this connoisseur of human desire effectively singles out the primal lusts of the Renaissance. The hunger to see, know, and understand propelled Renaissance commercial expansion, to be sure, but also the era’s intense scrutiny of the past and its no less intense scrutiny of nature and mathematics.


Seeing, knowing, and understanding: these are kinds of possession, too. Patricia Fortini Brown’s lavish scholarly study, Venice and Antiquity, reconstructs the minds and motives of Venetian merchants who sailed for centuries across the eastern Mediterranean. In 1206, they followed in the wake of the Fourth Crusade (1204) to loot Constantinople and colonize Crete; yet Brown writes how two centuries later, merchant explorers like Cyriac of Ancona traveled these same routes for another purpose. He hoped to commune more directly with the ancient Greeks and Romans, to strengthen the connection with antiquity that characterized the Renaissance. With clumsy enthusiasm, Cyriac drew the Parthenon (as yet unexploded by Venetian ammunition), copied Greek and Latin inscriptions, and renewed his acquaintance with the pagan gods by visiting their sanctuary on the rugged isle of Samothrace.

Cyriac and like-minded citizens of this reborn world had no more plans for a real return to the old days than the fairgoers at modern Renaissance fairs: they clung to their Christian religion, their magnetic compasses, and their Hindu-Arabic numerals—they clung, in short, to all the comforts of modern existence. In cities like Rome, Naples, Florence, and Verona, the physical legacy of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans mostly served as an elegant backdrop for the pressing business of contemporary life. “Rebirth” simply described the bracing freshness of a state of mind.

For its part Venice, founded in the early Middle Ages, felt the lack of a tangible ancient heritage to measure against the massive ruins of Rome or the Etruscan patriotism of Florence. Instead, the island city felt free to fabricate an ancient past with unbridled ingenuity, drawing on the experiences of the Venetian merchants who had been sent out onto the high seas. As Constantinople’s chief gateway to the West, Venice looked not to Rome but to ancient Greece for classical inspiration, while also sending young aristocrats off to govern the colony on Crete, offering asylum to Greek refugees from the sack of Constantinople in 1453, mapping and exploring the physical form of the Greek world. At the same time, not only scholars and churchmen but merchants tried hard to master Greek manuscripts and ancient Greek texts. Importantly, moreover, and this is where Patricia Brown’s study proves particularly revealing, the Venetians spent much of the fifteenth century pushing inland onto Italian terra ferma, exerting their dominion over smaller cities like Padua, Verona, and Vicenza. With the acquisition of these Italian holdings, the Venetian myth of antiquity shifted to become more distinctively Roman. The Greeks, whatever their other virtues, had been notoriously bad at cobbling together empires.

Social historians have also begun to discover Venice in earnest, mining the Venetian archives after decades in which Florence provided the chief source of documentary lore. Forty years ago, Iris Origo numbered among the pioneer chroniclers of Renaissance society’s more obscure strata. Her article on slavery in the Renaissance has clearly shaped books like Dennis Romano’s Housecraft and Statecraft: Domestic Service in Renaissance Venice, 1400-1600. As its title informs us, Romano’s is a study of the “little people,” the popolo minuto, who made Patricia Brown’s antiquarian Venice run: the gondoliers, footmen, housekeepers, maids, slaves, prostitutes, and day laborers who lived hand-to-mouth on the bounty of the nobles and the middle class. In the fifteenth century, most domestic servants in Venice were poor girls between the ages of twelve and twenty-five working to accumulate a dowry, or impoverished widows. By the end of the sixteenth century, Venetian aristocrats wanted entourages of liveried footmen rather than serving-women. Romano powerfully suggests what dashed hopes and blighted lives such a change in tastes produced.

James Grubb’s Provincial Families of the Renaissance, based on archival research in Verona and Vicenza, the chief cities of the Venetian terra ferma, gives an elegant account of another neglected group: people of “the middling sort, those who lived their lives in relative quiet and passed quickly into obscurity, neither powerful nor powerless, well fed but not outstandingly rich, neither victimizers…nor victimized, literate but not cultured.” Theirs was a world of hardworking men and women—artisans, clerks, small traders—whose marriages often seem to have been filled with tender affection, who “dearly loved some of the children in their midst.” Touching on the myriad practical aspects of their lives as well as their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, Grubb shows that ordinary people lived by a host of small expedients, raising capital through an intricate network of informal loans, pulling together as members of families that kept up their connections within their communities—an account that brings to mind life in many small and middle-sized Italian cities today.

Social history as a discipline has grown enormously since the days when Iris Origo practiced it in the company of a few academics. Italy, especially, has provided social historians with vast collections of documents thanks to the “red tape” of its age-old capitalist culture and a bureaucratic tradition held over from the crumbling Roman Empire. Contracts, diplomatic papers, diaries, property records, censuses, trial transcripts all survive in abundance, with oddly revealing bits tucked in among them: paintings of tulips, the roster of entrants in a seventeenth-century Sienese lottery, the membership list of a men’s club called the “Academy of Ugly Men” (Accademia dei Brutti), a notary’s doodle in the margins of his minute book, with an arrow slicing into his heart beneath the words “Madonna Agnese.” Most of the scholars who sift through these mountains of anecdotal evidence take evident pleasure in such voluminous sources of gossip and evidence of human foibles. They have also tried for the most part to draw larger conclusions; what emerges from many “microhistories,” however, is often no more than a single quirky tale.

While social historians tend to chronicle parts of society that may seem only tenuously connected with the great names of the Renaissance, that separation is never complete. Thanks to Florentine archival records, Roger Masters’s Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power finds that the two men of genius collaborated on a Florentine project to divert the course of the river Arno and leave rival Pisa without water. What did they talk about? Masters postulates, with good reason, that two such aggressively innovative thinkers must have exchanged more than their views on water channels, and suggests provocatively that Machiavelli’s notoriously objective analysis of power shows traces of Leonardo’s science. In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli likens Fortune to a river in flood:

one of those violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop it in another….

Human ingenuity, Machiavelli continues, can control this flood with “dikes and dams,” just as he and Leonardo once set out to tame the Arno (the plans were never carried out). Suggesting a less literal connection, Masters compares the multiple viewpoints of The Prince with the multiple perspectives that make up the landscape behind the Mona Lisa. Masters has no direct evidence that the two men actually explored such analogies and none is likely to be found. Most of the truly important conversations of that loquacious age were never recorded, and surviving records, however copious, are treacherously misleading at times.


Treacherous or not, there is scarcely an early source of information about the Renaissance that does not hint at the difficulties of being a woman. Female rights to property and inheritance were strictly limited by law. Marriage depended on amassing a suitable dowry, except in the rare instance of a passionate love match. As brides of Christ, nuns, too, paid the price of matrimony, though nuns’ dowries were comparatively small. In hopes of gathering the wherewithal to marry, women without dowries would turn to menial work or to prostitution, but to save the sort of money needed normally took a decade or even more. (Grubb and Romano both provide an abundance of information about the various ways in which dowries could be collected and delivered.) Yet if girls represented financial burdens for their families, they more than made up the net expense of their upkeep by their daily labor within the household. Bernardino of Siena listed a woman’s schedule of duties as follows:

She takes care of the granary and keeps it clean, she takes care of the oil-jars…. She sees to the salted meat…she sees to the spinning and the weaving. She sells the bran, and with the proceeds gets the sheets out of pawn. She looks after the wine barrels, and notes whether they have broken hoops or if one of them is leaking. She sees to the whole house.6

Recent studies have devoted much attention to Renaissance women, discovering trombone-playing nuns, female soldiers, and the pious but clever Roman lady who let her husband languish in debtor’s prison while she turned her jewels over to the Jesuits. These women provide a lively contrast with their better-known contemporaries, at least with courtly ladies like stingy, imperious Isabella d’Este (drawn by Leonardo) or haughty Elisabetta Gonzaga (the heroine of Castiglione’s Courtier). Each was famous for her cultivation, and both were memorably portrayed by Maria Bellonci, who makes them sound intolerably arrogant; certainly their husbands found them so. Two other famous women, the beleaguered, passive Lucrezia Borgia and the upstanding Vittoria Colonna (the friend of Michelangelo’s later years), remain curiously flat characters despite all we know about their lives. Lucrezia was surrounded by roistering sexual adventurers such as her father, brothers, and third husband, and became a perpetual pawn in their schemes. She had good reason to keep her thoughts to herself, and she did: even her love letters to the effusive playboy Pietro Bembo are little more than circumspect little notes. If Lucrezia spoke frankly, she must only have done so in her frequent prayers. Similarly, Vittoria Colonna, who wrote poetry and sponsored artists, did so under the tight constraints of aristocratic widowhood. Whatever was interesting about her remained hidden under deep layers of convention.

Not every noblewoman gave in to etiquette so completely. Caterina Sforza (1462-1509), whose most recent biography is subtitled A Renaissance Virago,7 schemed against her enemies and took lovers as it pleased her, bearing six children along the way. She openly defied Cesare Borgia when he laid siege to her castle at Forlí in 1499 and threatened to kill her children. Machiavelli claims that while standing on the battlements she lifted her skirts as if to say, “I’ll make more.” In fact, though, she did something much more dangerous: with withering hauteur, she declared that Borgia’s word could not be trusted. For that insult, he brought down her fortress, raped her repeatedly, and flung her into prison in Castel Sant’ Angelo. Still, she outlived him. The Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli called her “without doubt …the outstanding lady of Italy.”8

A new series of texts in translation called “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe” (edited by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr.) aims to present English-speaking readers with Renaissance writing by and about women, including, so far, the stilted fifteenth-century artifice of Florentine Antonia Pulci’s verse dramas on religious themes, the trial records of a self-styled “aspiring saint” named Cecilia Ferrazzi, and philosopher Henricus Cornelius Agrippa’s virtuoso Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex (delivered 1509, published 1529).

Ferrazzi (1609-1684) worked among the same Venetian popolo minuto chronicled for a slightly earlier period by Dennis Romano, gathering in dowerless young girls to her do-it-yourself convent, and gradually turning into something of an eccentric martinet. Her deteriorating health may have had much to do with her awful temper; her torments included a chronic skin condition exacerbated by her refusal ever to remove her clothes. Brought before the Inquisition, she was condemned in 1665 as “lightly suspect of heresy, that is, of holding and believing that it is licit for a Catholic Christian to make herself considered a saint.” Sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, she served two, spent another two under house arrest, and was released in 1669, more pitiful than dangerous, to die fifteen years later in the obscurity from which she had been elevated for a moment.

The poet Antonia Pulci’s religiosity also dominated her life (1452-1501)—she died as an Augustinian nun—but she and her husband, Bernardo, first seem to have composed their popular verse dramas as a clever way of making a living. In the 1480s, with considerable entrepreneurial insight, they committed their “sacred representations” to the new medium of print as well as supervising performances by the lay confraternities that formed a focal point of Florentine social life. Immensely popular in its own day, Antonia Pulci’s work bears witness to the increasingly florid quality of Italian vernacular literature as the Renaissance preoccupation with literary style trickled down from the humanists to the population at large. James Wyatt Cook’s translation aims to reflect the elaborately metrical cadences of the original text, as here, when St. Francis repudiates his father in the piazza of Assisi:

I’m happy to relinquish everything
Both good paternity and all my rights,
My whole inheritance I would refuse,
Since this is my intention and I wish
In your good presence to unclothe myself
And Father, you will here bear witness that
I strip myself of each paternal good
To gain the highest and eternal realm.

With its rigid conventions and elaborate, flowery vocabulary, Renaissance verse, both Latin and vernacular, is now perhaps the least accessible of the arts. By putting such exacting verbal exercises to music, opera, whose invention lay just ahead, would infuse such literature with a needed burst of creative force.


If women received scant attention among Renaissance historians until recently (Maria Bellonci providing a conspicuous exception to the rule), another group has suffered outright opprobrium: the sodomites, by which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century law meant people who engaged in a variety of sexual practices “against nature.” In effect, however, the word meant men who sought out other men for their sexual pleasure. Saint Bernardino thundered against them, promising a quick trip to la casa calda, the “hot house” of Hell. “Doh!” he exclaimed,

If I were Sienese, as I am, and had sons, as I do not, I’ll tell you what I’d do with them—when they reached the age of three, I’d send them out of Italy and they wouldn’t return until they were at least forty. Out of Italy? Why? Because this Italy is so corrupt, they can hardly survive the bad habits…. To the devil’s house, to the devil’s house you’re going, sodomite! O Italy, how much more contaminated you are than any other province. Go to Germany and hear what a pretty prize they give the Italians. They say there’s no race on earth that is more sodomite than the Italians.9

Bernardino certainly had his facts right. Among other Europeans, fifteenth-century Italy enjoyed exactly the reputation he imputed to it, especially among the Germans. Michael Rocke explores the reasons for this belief in Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Tuscans in particular and Florentines above all others were thought to be unusually dedicated to the “cursed vice.” And indeed, the Florentine archives suggest that homosexual liaisons between young men were so widespread as to be almost universal. Most of these young men married and began families a few years after their male liaisons, shifting their chief allegiances to their new wives and children rather than the circle of male companions among whom they had spent their youth and whose company they would continue to frequent during their adult lives. In effect, as in many other societies, homosexual acts among males seem to have served as a rite of initiation into manhood.

In 1432, incited by preachers like Bernardino and conscience-stricken by the prohibitions of homosexual activity in the biblical book of Leviticus, the Florentine authorities established a special police force, the “Office of the Night,” with a specific mandate to prosecute cases of sodomy. Before it was abolished in 1502, the Office of the Night had made some seventeen thousand investigations in a city that numbered some forty thousand residents. In seventy years of activity, the officers meted out some three thousand convictions. Young men were seldom brought to trial for “crimes against nature,” however, and if convicted they were usually released after paying a hefty but not ruinous fine. Older bachelors, on the other hand, suffered severe penalties, including heavy fines, exile, the pillory, flogging, and, on at least eleven occasions, death.

Rocke shows that Florentine men lived within tightly knit male groups, from a circle of boyhood friends to religious confraternities, guilds, and government organizations. Furthermore, the average gap in age between a bride and groom in Florence was unusually large—typically, thirty-year-old grooms were matched with brides of fifteen. Spouses in other Italian cities tended to be much closer to each other in age (both between twenty and twenty-five), thus shortening or eliminating the Florentine period of prolonged male adolescence. Still, this pronounced Florentine social pattern and its origins remain something of a mystery, and despite concerns about sodomy in other Renaissance cities, only Florence devoted so much nervous energy to rooting it out.

Saint Bernardino linked sodomy to conspicuous consumption, and indeed, the resplendent costumes of male dandies could be seen up and down the Italian peninsula. One of the punishments the Florentine government occasionally meted out to young convicted sodomites was the ritual shredding of their brilliantly colored stockings. In Venice, as Patricia Brown notes, hose also served as a signal of male bonding: Compagnie delle Calze, “Hose Societies” distinguished by a particular color or design, served some of the same social functions, and generated some of the same close friendships, as the “forbidden friendships” of Florence. Once again, the importance of these worldly goods depends less on their brilliance as objects than on their significance, the chain of meanings that ties them to civic life, and beyond that, their deep connections with different ways of seeing and understanding the world. Renaissance painters famously turned away from the medieval taste for backgrounds of pure gold leaf, substituting the richness of their own artistry for the preciousness of the metal. Renaissance life at its most distinctive was the intangible, unworldly life of the mind.

This Issue

November 6, 1997