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Daily Life in Renaissance Italy. .

Daily Life in Renaissance Italy. By Elizabeth S. Cohen and Thomas V. Cohen (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001. xiv plus 316pp.).

Clearly written as a textbook for undergraduates in renaissance survey classes, this volume fits that niche well and also offers a suggestive overview of the current state of scholarship on everyday life in renaissance Italy. Although the authors define the renaissance as a period stretching from the mid-14th to the mid to late 16th century, they focus on the period 1400 to 1600 with a decided lean towards the 16th century. And although they rightly point out that the urban orientation of renaissance society and culture masks the fact that most people still lived and worked in a rural setting, and make regular excursions into the countryside to describe daily life there, the nature and extent of the available scholarship means that by far the greater part of their discussion is concerned with life in the major urban centers of Rome, Florence and Venice. In fact, one of the pluses of the book is the attention given to the often less considered city of Rome, a reflection of the authors' impressive archival rese arch and publication on that city.

One of the most notable things about this volume is that the authors have conceived of daily life in a broader way than usual. Daily life here is not simply the material culture of the period, but rather a rich landscape of complexity and difference that interrelates in suggestive ways the material and the spiritual, the individual and the group, the high and the low. Agency, danger, fear, negotiation, friendship, love, self-fashioning and role playing, spiritual aspirations and conflicting moral codes all interrelate with pots, pans, houses, food, clothing, disease, life cycles, time and space, as well as the classic issues of class, gender and power, both governmental and informal--a complex tapestry, and a fascinating one, that the Cohens do a fine job of making clear and multifaceted at the same time.

There are several aspects of this book that seem particularly well done. First, the authors nicely convey the complexity and richness of everyday life in the renaissance. Students who tend to think with a hubris (that perhaps reflects a more general view) that our society is the most complex and rich in history and that earlier people lived simpler, more primitive, almost childlike lives will find those stereotypes well challenged. The everyday world the Cohens portray and explain with its intricate negotiations and strategies; its unfamiliar dangers and its many techniques for survival, building solidarities and security; not to mention its competitions for power and status; or its ways of playing and finding pleasure, offers students an opportunity to rethink their (and our) hubris about living richer, more complex lives at the end of history.

In addition the authors tackle perhaps one of the most pervasive myths of our historiographical tradition: the faith that government is the ultimate source of power and thus the first and most important thing one should study when trying to understand the past. For the Cohens government was merely one competitor among many for power in daily life and it was neither a very well organized nor a very effective one. Instead they place informal social controls before government--honor, status evaluation, customary and Christian moral codes and gossip--and focus on more local institutions like family, neighborhood and confraternities as the key solidarities upon which most significant power was based in daily life. And in the complex negotiations between these more local and informal organizations of power, they find telling space for the play of agency in everyday life--suggestively escaping the determinism of much cultural and social history.

And nicely they do this all with a theoretical sophistication that is well hidden and a prose that is lively, even witty at times, and jargon free. In fact, the authors are able to speak to students in a clear, familiar way without seeming to patronize. Occasionally perhaps a technical term from renaissance history slips in unexplained, but rarely. Impressively, however, issues like agency, self fashioning, networking and building of solidarities, the power of words and gestures, the differing perceptions of time and space, that often offer the opportunity to spin off into jargon-filled reveries, here are presented in a clear, engaging fashion and yet with considerable depth. At times the authors are even able to convey a kind of enthusiasm about how fascinating and different their topic really is and the feeling that this textbook is on the cutting edge of exciting new knowledge. It will be interesting to see if students respond to this definitely "uncool" passion about the past.

Of course, with such a broad ranging book, that frequently must skate on the thin ice of new and limited scholarship to draw generalizations, most readers will find things to disagree with. For example, while the emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of daily life is a decided plus, it seems curious that the authors appear to give the formal organization of the Church such a significant role, especially when they downplay the role of government. Recent studies of everyday spiritual life both in the countryside and in cities suggests that Christianity was much less something imposed and policed from above by the Church, than something negotiated and built from below by local communities, an argument that would fit well with the Cohens' more general view of how things worked in the renaissance. The Council of Trent tried to change this, but discipline and control from above were long in coming. Also it may well be that daily life in the renaissance was still more alien and unfamiliar than the authors portray it , but this reflects more the current state of scholarship on everyday culture--which has only recently begun to move from the familiar to areas of life that from a modern perspective seem less important or more alien--than a form of myopia on the author's part. Actually, they have made the most of the scholarship that exists: the everyday world that they present is at once alien and familiar, strange, and exciting. Students should find this book an intriguingly different perspective on the Italian renaissance.
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Author:Ruggiero, Guido
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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