Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, Mary Laven
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780198816553; 400pp.; Price: £35.00
University of Warwick
Date accessed: 24 February, 2021
The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy presents itself as an important and innovative book in the panorama of the contemporary historical research of the Renaissance. The three authors, Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven unite their expertise in—respectively—Italian literature, history of art, and social and cultural History, to challenge the crystalsed view of a stiflingly religious Italy during the period 1450-1600. However, it does not stop at that, as the aim and scope of the research goes even further, in testifying that the Catholic religion in Italy is no less vital than Protestantism in Northern European Countries. The authors futher assert that pious devotion in private homes played a crucial role in developing that vitality.
As is well explained in the book's introduction, the historiographical tradition has tended to consider religious spirituality to have been in deep decline in Renaissance Italy. At the same time, the Counter-Reformation has been seen as a moment in which the official Catholic Religion tried to normalise and control all the aspects of the religion, both in the public and the private dimension. The household aspect of religion has not been taken into account by historiography, either because it was simply not seen as being important, or for the reason that it is difficult to give a reliable account of that phenomenon. This consolidated interpretation also sees the Reformation as the turning point between the medieval and early modern periods, and places the locus of religious vitality of the period in the Northern Protestant countries. Its key element is the role of the Home.
The historiography of the Reformation has seen the private home and the family as the crucial units of that society, where the pater familias could perform his patriarchal authority. At the same time, the Protestant home was the place of escape from the official religious authority coming from Rome. In a similar way, the study shows how devotions in the home played a crucial role in developing the religious vitality of Renaissance Italy.
The authors are highly effective in bringing many elements of evidence to support their argument. First of all, the sources considered are wide and always relevant to the topic of the book; secondly, the authors take into account three different geographical areas of Italy: the Veneto region in the North; the Marche region in the Centre; and the city of Naples in the South of the peninsula. In this way, they can give a complete account of private religious life throughout the country. All the elements of private devotion are taken into consideration: production and consumption of sacred objects, as well as books; the relation of home spaces to the practices of prayer and meditation; the production of devotional art for the private home; and the analysis of inscriptions written on the thresholds of houses.
The account gives us insight into a Catholic religion which recognises the household as a space in which to display an everyday religious vitality that did not find a place in the official ceremonies performed in public churches. The authors show that private devotion was linked to everyday life. Instead of focusing on the public display of religion, which has been mainly taken into consideration by previous historiography of the Counter-Reformation, the study breaches the doors of the home to look at how the daily routine and everyday events influenced the private display of religion. With the innovative use of primary sources such as inventories, the authors are able to demonstrate active daily devotion throughout the period taken into consideration.
Instead of looking just at house inventories, the authors put these into dialogue with merchant and Monti di Pietà inventories. In this way, it is possible to see how the Italian Renaissance wealth described in Goldthwaite’s Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 was directed not just towards works of art, but also towards devotional objects like rosaries, icons, and prayer and miracle books. The vitality of Renaissance religion can be seen in the presence of all of these objects in private houses, belonging to both upper and lower social classes.
The spiritual vitality of these objects is also discussed, as the book underlines the changing value of the objects over the course of their life-cycle. As is brilliantly explained by Giorgio Riello, home inventories ‘favour a notion of a stable society’ (p. 136). (1) The authors, well aware of this inconvenience, consider three different kind of inventories, which shed light on three different moments in the life-cycle of the objects. Each of the inventories represents a different perspective on the value and meaning of the objects. The first—the inventories of artisans and traders—provide an insight into how the material and spiritual value of objects played in relation to the customer. The second—the bridal trousseaux inventories—are important as they show the objects' significance linked ‘to their symbolic and protective functions related to sex, reproduction, and childbirth’ (p. 119). (2) Thirdly, the inventories of the charitable pawn banks known as Monti di Pietà show the amount of capital generated by pawned devotional objects. In this way, we as readers can grasp the variety of roles objects had in relation to private devotion.
The study further broadens our understanding of the vitality of religiosity in Renaissance Italy through its examination of religion as crucial to shaping the kind of art commissioned for private houses. For example, many religions scenes depicted in paintings had the household, or a specific room of the house, as background. One of the most common rooms where these scenes took place was the bedchamber, the most private area of the home. Examples in the book are Giovanni di Paolo's St. Catherine of Siena Beeseching Christ to Resuscitate Her Mother or Leonardo Bassano's Woman at her Devotions.
In this way the study underlines the existence of an everyday religion; in other words, a religion practiced in the house and nourished of everyday life.
The book's use of miracle books as a source also makes evident this everyday familiarity with religion. As is shown in the study, the majority of miracles described in those sources referred to everyday matters and situations, such as fertility, protection of children, and the home. This kind of private devotion, practiced in the home, and nurtured by the home, seems so vital as to go far beyond the official prescription of the Roman Church. The authors, acknowledging that, are brilliant in always placing the private space of the Home and the public space of the Church (as a place representing the official Catholic religion) in dialogue throughout the book.
The struggle between those two spaces—representing the non-official and official practice of religion—is one of the most interesting trends that can be followed through the entire book. If between the 15th and 16th centuries the space inside the home became increasingly important for the Catholic faith, it is shown that the institutional Church tried to normalise and regulate it throughout this period, with the Counter-Reformation as a climax. A prominent example in the study is the case of private chapels. In fact, many families belonging to the wealthier classes were in the habit of hosting private masses in their houses (pp. 60-61). (3) In other cases, there were families that even built private chapels, like the one commissioned by the Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Barbaro to Andrea Palladio. As a result, after the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church restricted the cases in which mass could took place in private houses, officially declaring the Church as the only place in which the orthodox faith could be truly practiced. This is well explained in the book; in a time of heresy and unorthodoxy the religious hierarchy was anxious to bring people out from the houses and into the public space of the Church.
Regarding heresy and unorthodoxy, it is important to note that the authors never give the reader the impression of Renaissance Italy as a monolithic religious bloc, as we might expect. In fact, concerning the Veneto region, for example, we read about small, hidden communities of Lutherans and Anabaptists. In this case, the home was their refuge, as a space of religious freedom in opposition to the Church. However, apart from heresy, the books shows the home as a space in which non-standard religious practices took place. Therefore, as a reaction, official books of prayers were printed and Schools of Christian Doctrine were created, in order to educate families and children in the correct practice of the Catholic religion.
Another crucial aspect of the book is the new space that it opens for further work in the historiography of the Renaissance. It would be important to explore how the conflictual dialogue between Home and Church continued during the 17th century, when the Counter-Reformation strengthened even further its hold on Italian society. Another aspect that deserves to be further studied relates to home privacy and religion. Throughout the book is clearly emphasised the significant link between the private space of the home and the freedom of expressing religiosity in a safe and secluded space.
This is especially true for wealthy classes inhabiting big houses made up of numerous rooms. In that cases, spaces like the bedchamber and studiolo acquire particular significance in the household devotion, due to the privacy and intimacy they grant to people. However, if at the top of the social scale houses were big enough to give people a safe place from visitors or the rest of the family, in the poor neighbourhood of Naples, the so called Quartieri Spagnoli, there was no privacy, due to the overcrowded conditions of the place. An illuminating excerpt of the book describes the rapid growth of population in Naples during the 16th century. As the città bassa was becoming densely populated, and trading posts at the ground floor of buildings started to be used to host families, people living there could find ‘little privacy or comfort’ (p. 33). (4) From the book emerges a theme of the relationship between privacy—or non-privacy—and the religion practiced in the household. We see this in the example of wealthier families having had more opportunity to develop religious freedom than less wealthy ones, through the possibility of isolating themselves in private rooms and spaces, away from indiscrete eyes. Such opportunity was not allowed to poor people, due to the material circumstances in which they were obliged to live. This crucial relationship, underlined in the book, opens a new research field that needs to be investigated. What was the influence of the absence of privacy on household religion as practiced by those of poor backgrounds, in whose houses every kind of unorthodoxy could be seen and therefore reported to the official religious authorities?
As a last point in this review, it is important to note that the study links itself to a more recent historiographical tradition, which looks at the family, and not at the single individual, as the crucial unit of Renaissance society. Since the 19th century, with Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Period of the Renaissance in Italy, the individual has been seen as the engine of early modern history. During the 1980s, with Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare, the historiography continued to look at Renaissance society as a public network of individuals shaping their public images in relation to public power. The individual person was still the main actor on the scene.
However, it can be argued that the great majority of the Renaissance society, from the highest to the lowest classes, lived in strict relation to their family. Showing this is a crucial merit of this book.
Therefore, this book stands out in the panorama of contemporary scholarship of the Renaissance, not just as a brilliantly-written piece of academic research, but because it refocusses the historiographical debate on the social unit of the family, and on household relations as instruments of power. This is an important element, for too long overlooked by historiography.
- Giorgio Riello, ‘Things Seen and Unseen: The Material Culture of Early Modern Inventories and Their Representation of Domestic Interiors’, in Paula Findlen, ed, Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500-1800 (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 136.Back to (1)
- Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, Mary Laven, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 119.Back to (2)
- Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, Mary Laven, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 60-61.Back to (3)
- Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, Mary Laven, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 33.Back to (4)