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Response to Review of Everyday Renaissances: The Quest for Cultural Legitimacy in Venice

Too seldom do scholars enjoy the satisfaction of encountering a review of a book they have written that engages their work with as much rigor and as thoroughly on its own terms as Thomas Goodwin’s review of Everyday Renaissances does. It is a pleasure to respond here to Mr. Goodwin’s perceptive analysis. Naturally, I found it deeply gratifying to read that Goodwin, himself a scholar of early-modern Italian book culture, found this study’s evidence valuable, its central protagonists compelling, and its interpretive framework useful as a model. One could hardly hope for greater scholarly encouragement, in fact, than to hear that one’s book should be ‘essential reading’ for historians working on similar topics. Yet, in a way, it was equally rewarding to read Goodwin’s criticisms, which isolated in some cases what I freely concede were missed opportunities in the exposition. And even when I cannot (or at least I pigheadedly will not!) yield quite so readily, Goodwin nonetheless pinpointed fundamental issues for our consideration as we continue to seek fuller and richer histories of the intellectual and cultural lives of increasingly diverse groups of early modern people.

First, a concession: Concerning in the aggregate my 147 Renaissance Venetians seeking ‘cultural legitimacy’, Goodwin observes that ‘it is unclear whether Ross believes that there are any significant changes in their attitude to literature and education over the course of the sixteenth century, despite the fact that she examines the literary lives of individuals drawn from across the period’. The problem of change over time indeed could have used more extensive comment, even if the evidence suggested to me considerably less change than continuity. I did raise the point (as Goodwin notes) in challenging the idea that physicians had earned respectability by the early 16th century. But I did not stress sufficiently that the literary preoccupations of book-collectors, the rhetorics used by testators fussing over the education of their children, and so many other forms of cultural engagement I explored showed remarkable consistency from the beginning of the 16th century through the first decades of the 17th. Readers will likely perceive the similarities in the sources quoted and discussed, but I ought to have made clear the point about these continuities in attitudes, and thus sharpened the sense of my protagonists’ ongoing commitment to a habitus that we might have assumed to be (and perhaps among other sets of people was) more in flux.

And that leads me to another, if this time more partial, mea culpa. Regarding the issue of reading practices and the circulation of texts, Goodwin notes that I did not interrogate fully the predilection that some of my protagonists evince for manuscript rather than printed material, and this is a brilliant observation. I do make the point that some of book collectors, including the physician Alberto Quattrocchi, evidently preferred to have some of their ‘great books’ in manuscript editions (pp. 97–8). But I blush to admit that I did not explore this desire more forensically. But Goodwin also charges me, more hesitantly, with insufficient attention to the historicity of reading practices, and in particular to the issue of book-borrowing. On the one hand, I agree, particularly with regard to unfolding in greater detail what scholars have found book inventories can and cannot tell us; but on the other it would have been tricky to say a great deal more than I did, given how much we still have to learn about everyday readers.

I would like to pursue this problem a little further, with a view to highlighting what I think is an exciting area for further research. To walk back a bit, here is what Everyday Renaissances offered on the topic: readers will find numerous instances of book borrowing, as the dozen entries in the index under the heading ‘book borrowing and lending’ indicate. Among the most important examples include the physicians Alberto Rini and Nicolò Massa, as well as the manuscript-borrowing second-hand goods dealer named messer Francesco (whom Goodwin describes at the outset of his review), whose example threads throughout Everyday Renaissances. And I emphasized in the case of this particular mercantile bibliophile, in a passage that appears just before the quotation Goodwin uses, that this choice to borrow reminds us that many individuals and families may have been ‘keen readers of diverse material but satisfied their interests through borrowing more than purchase’ and thus do not always end up in records indicating book ownership (p. 38). But I could not interact here, as I would have liked to have done in order to gain more traction on the problem, with studies of non-elite book-borrowing in early modern Italy; I simply had not found any. There are no doubt things I missed, and I would be delighted to be made aware of them. But I also wonder if it is not telling that Goodwin references on the topic an excellent synthetic article of 1999 by Roger Chartier which posits (as so many surveys of early modern reading practices do) the circulation of texts to the ‘popular’ classes on the basis largely of descriptions in contemporary literature, as well as publication formats. But we find here no particular examples of individual non-elite borrowers that would give texture to our sense of the commonality of the practice. Indeed, the quotation that Goodwin offers from Chartier concerning book-borrowing comes from a sentence without a citation. We are told that everyday men and women borrowed books, in other words, but we are not shown that, or even directed to secondary work elucidating the process in action. Let me hasten to add that we have (and I interacted elsewhere in the book with) outstanding work on scholarly reading practices and circulation of texts by Anthony Grafton, Ann Blair and others. But we still await (again, to the best of my knowledge), empirical research on non-elite borrowers in early modern Europe. All of which is to say that I hope my study’s admittedly scattered references to everyday Venetians engaging in what surely were common practices of borrowing and lending books may help to inspire work in this line, both empirical and theoretical.

The last major point of discussion I would like to address involves my critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital,’ a concept I apply at times but which in the end I find insufficient for understanding early modern men and women. Goodwin found my wrestling with Bourdieu productive, but he fears that I may have somewhat misrepresented Bourdieu as too focused on ‘practical gain’. Goodwin underscores that Bourdieu posited ‘cultural capital’ as a force in tension with financial capital. No argument there. But I would still emphasize that ‘cultural capital’ remains, as I understand it, animated by a vision of class conflict in which values are measured, if assuredly not always crudely in coin, nonetheless according to their instrumental utility vis-à-vis that conflict – that is, in constituting membership in what Bourdieu terms the ‘dominant class,’ or in the bourgeoisie, or in one or another of the subsectors of petit-bourgeoisie or lower classes. Bourdieu has much to say about social mobility, too, which typically involves the (attempted) conversion of cultural into social and economic capital. But even when he discusses (and he certainly does) what Goodwin refers to as the ‘immaterial effects of some forms of cultural capital’, such as education, he does not conceive of those effects in terms of intrinsic value – aesthetic pleasure, broadening the mind, philosophical equilibrium, self-respect in themselves – but rather in terms of their evincing a habitus, articulating a status, and thus as related to a subject’s social positioning. In the unsettling final pages of Bourdieu’s Distinction, for instance, he even speaks of his pleasure in reading Ruskin’s Stones of Venice as ‘corrupted’ by his awareness of his own erudition, a quality moored not only in intellect but also in systems of education and thus in the (as Bourdieu perceives it) base matter of a social and economic ‘ego’.(1a) Even if it is not in itself fiscal, then, ‘cultural capital’ seems to me to be unavoidably instrumental – and instrumental in a system of power relations framed in socioeconomic terms. And so I have trouble seeing the operations that Bourdieu describes as something other than practical and concerned with gain, when all is said and done.

I offer ‘cultural legitimacy,’ then, as an alternative formulation to posit, first, a type of relationality – an idea of belonging – that does not rely upon the notion of a class that, as many historians would agree, maps at best awkwardly onto the social world of early modern Italy. Secondly, ‘cultural legitimacy’ opens up an interpretive space for analyzing historical actors’ conceptions of intrinsic merit. Regarding the second aim, Goodwin asks how the historian might ever safely parse the intrinsic versus the instrumental in our subjects’ calculations. Rightly so. One should always be suspicious of historians claiming to have found the innermost motivations of men and women dead for hundreds of years! But I would venture that we can in many cases go pretty far, using the same techniques of source triangulation, and reading both with and against the grain of our documents, that we use to support any of our arguments. In Everyday Renaissances, I discuss men and women who unabashedly spoke of converting their cultural attainments into social and economic rewards. In other cases, I draw out the socioeconomic hopes behind locutions ostensibly celebrating the ‘pure’ life of the mind, particularly in cases where protagonists’ actions spoke directly to their social, professional, and economic concerns – brokering advantageous marriages, fawning at patrons, fretting about the social fates of illegitimate sons, and so on. But at other times more abstract considerations deserved comment, too. To read the philosophical convictions of a man such as Francesco Longo as social posture would be to miss a great deal – even if, as Goodwin points out, and as I discuss extensively, Longo enjoyed strong patronage networks in his youth, and took pride in his education. In a case like Longo’s, it might not merely be insufficient but indeed misleading to reduce the steadying admiration for Plutarch's ethics Longo voices late in life to a status claim or desire for social advancement, since he did not marry up, nor did he browbeat his sons into social or professional attainments as others did. Given that so many of his peers felt no compunction about announcing the practical hopes they nurtured regarding their or their children's education, the fact that Longo did not urges us to take seriously his appreciation of the intrinsic and personal value of books and reading, even if this was manifestly not all there was to the story.

Many of us now have lost faith in the notion of the beautiful and the good of ethical (or any) literature for its own sake, but Longo and (some of) his contemporaries apparently had not. Such a notion mattered vitally to them, it seems particularly at moments of crisis in their lives – while dying, for example, or while grieving the loss of a cherished relative. While anxieties about power, gain, position surely inflected and may have conditioned the lives of all, I mean to encourage us to keep one eye trained on the evidence our sources furnish that pragmatic concerns did not wholly determine the thought worlds of all.

Striving to understand early modern conceptions of culture, in short, I cannot help but feel that we come closest when we think in terms resembling the ones our protagonists used – such as ‘legitimacy,’ ‘merit,’ and ‘worth,’ as thorny as they are – than we do when we think (or think too exclusively) in terms such as ‘capital,’ however subtly theorized. Goodwin clearly takes my point in that sense, but he ultimately doubts that ‘cultural legitimacy’ will displace ‘cultural capital’. Well, frankly, so do I! All the same, I wish historians would give ‘cultural capital’, as useful as it remains, a systematic rethinking. As part of that process, it would please me if some scholars tested ‘cultural legitimacy’ while they devise still better categories of analysis. Speaking of which, readers should be alert to two recent and imminently useful categories of analysis that also engage Bourdieu: Brian Maxson’s ‘social humanism,’ and Dana Sajdi’s ‘nouveau literacy’.(2a) While Maxson’s concept applies most directly to 15th-century Florence and Sajdi’s to 18th-century Damascus, both are highly sophisticated interpretive paradigms and I think applicable in many different cultural and historical contexts.

Let me conclude by thanking Mr. Goodwin again for his insightful reading. I hope in responding at such length to his questions and concerns, even if I have not resolved them, I will at least have shown how worthy of reflection I find them and have given additional food for thought to scholars pursuing similar topics and problems.


  1. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London, 1984), pp. 499–500.Back to (1a)
  2. Brian Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, 2014) and Dana Sajdi, The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant (Stanford, CA, 2013).Back to (2a)