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Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy.

Cultures of Charity: 'Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy. By Nicholas Terpstra. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 379. $49.95.)

Offering a history of class development, social engineering, religious reform, and public-private partnership, this book is far more than a history of charity. Gender, religion, charity, and politics intersect to create a web of understanding and interconnection between the institutions and issues under examination. At the center of Nicholas Terpstra's focus stands the city of Bologna as an innovator, but also as an emblem of the changes that other European cities experienced from 1400 to 1700.

As the second city of the Papal States, Bologna was imbued with a sense of corporate republicanism and was comparatively free from papal interference, which allowed it the resources and freedom to approach poor relief with energy and ingenuity. The city's chief concern was the female poor who proliferated in times of plague and famine and experienced endemic life-cycle poverty. This study examines a series of new institutions that targeted aspects of the female experience in order to provide assisted self-help. Amid continuing arguments over the relative benefits of practical and patronal charity, as well as applicants' worthiness and the best way to elicit sufficient financial support, Bologna cultivated the first welfare-shelter service in Italy, established dowry savings accounts, and offered early maternity and unemployment benefits. The burgeoning silk industry was an ideal partner for unoccupied women enclosed in conservatories who could use their earnings to fund simultaneously their institution and a dowry. Nevertheless, as Terpstra shows, at heart even imaginative initiatives reflected the deeply patriarchal and paternalistic environment out of which they grew.

Chapter 1 explores the differences between practical and patronal charity, specifically the economic, experiential, class, and gender differences, using the example of Bologna's welfare and shelter system, the Opera Pia dei Poveri Mendicanti. Chapter 2 follows a sequence of charitable institutions that grew out of small confraternal hospitals responding to political or demographic crises. Chapter 3 reveals how a new group of governing elites, fearful of an exiled signorial family's ability to stir the poor to revolt, spurred a concern for the needs of the poor and the disorder that they could prompt. As the governing elite grew more fixed and closed, they turned progressively towards confinement of the poor and purged charitable institutions of broad administrative involvement and accountability. Chapter 4 explores the innovative schemes adopted by institutions to pay the bills, as well as the paradoxical effect that fundraising successes and times of plenty could bring. Chapter 5 explores initiatives of the late sixteenth century that identified marriage and the accumulation of dowries as the key to the working poor's financial stability, often amid fears of prostitution. Finally, Chapter 6 offers a projection of the changes that these houses experienced in the seventeenth century as they became more uniform and their patrons romanticized poverty while distancing themselves from actual poor people.

Readers will likely find themselves reflecting on the similarities between early modern and modern experiences of poverty and the changing social construction of female poverty.

Jennifer Mara DeSilva

Ball State University
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Author:DeSilva, Jennifer Mara
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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