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Everyday Renaissances: The Quest for Cultural Legitimacy in Venice.

Sarah Gwyneth Ross, Everyday Renaissances: The Quest for Cultural Legitimacy in Venice. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2016; 235 pp.; ISBN 9780674659834, USD $49.95 (HBK).

More and more literary scholarship addresses topics, documents and individuals that a few decades ago were rarely considered. In doing so the horizon of historical, literary, and archival studies is entering in an opportune moment of discussion. Everyday Renaissances elegantly merges literary and historical studies, while also respecting the great tradition in both fields. To this end, Ross's monograph brings to light new categories and testimonies for Renaissance scholars.

Ross's book focuses on the literary possessions of the middle class in Sixteenth-Century Venice, ordinary people outside the circles of power, men and women who valued learning and education as a means for social mobility. Everyday Renaissances is substantiated by archival work and documental discoveries, particularly testaments, inventories, trading journals, and other everyday records, which unveil a fascinating truth: that education and literary possessions were considered valuable assets to pass through generations, as well as to improve one's status.

The methodological "Introduction" (pp. 1-24), while explaining the larger aim of Everyday Renaissances, exposes the wide research behind this work: '3,005 Venetian testaments and 1,227 household inventories' (p. 9) examined within the Venetian archives. It also details the background of the people considered for the study: 147 men and women of the Venetian urban middle class, who sought to attain cultural legitimacy. Ross explains her concept of cultural legitimacy against--and as a further development of--traditional scholarship in literature and social history. Specifically, Ross expands the theories of Pierre Bourdieu's 'cultural capital' and 'aristocracy of culture,' though she is more interested in the 'potential' of the socioeconomic conversion embraced by cultural legitimacy. Ross also considers the studies of Lorna Weatherill on the interaction between cultural objects and their owners, and Renata Ago's concept of 'elite of taste'--those people, who wanted to be considered 'learned' and 'refined' and invested in acquiring culture. Ago's concept is used by Ross as a means to redefine the norms that inform the interaction between individuals and culture, such as (a) the veneration of antiquity and its modern revival, and (b) the confidence in education as a process that provided professionals and their families with access to honors. Since the majority of individuals studied by Ross belong to the medical profession, Ross considers Nancy Siraisi's work on 'cross-pollination of historical and medical writings' (p. 10), as well. Furthermore, the scholar details the wide range of studies upon which she builds her methodology, particularly the tradition of 'social history of ideas' by Peter Gay, and that concept's development through Roger Chartier's and Peter Burke's studies, as well as Robert Darnton's emphasis on everyday people and the importance of cultural objects. The new scholarly conversation 'at the crossroads of social and intellectual history' (p. 18) thus proposes a new type of humanistic rhetoric, one that is interested in the value of literary culture, through the idea of commitment to education as a means for social mobility and family honor. The "Introduction" concludes with a summary of the structure and contents of the book.

Part I is comprised of two chapters that examine Venetian literary consumption and its influence on social and cultural mobility. Chapter 1, "Venice's reading public" (pp. 28-51), focuses on Venetian book ownership. Analyses of the variety of literary material listed in the middle class inventories reveal the vibrant literary trading and cultural life of the city. They also show that while the majority of collectors of literary goods were people belonging to the medical profession, there were also various cases of bibliophilia in connection to different urban occupations. Everyday family documents reveal themselves to be the most important source for understanding the process and consideration of cultural legitimacy. Chapter 2, "Testamentary Humanism" (pp. 52-75), an expression coined by Ross, refers to everyday Venetians' wills. These documents provide a clear consideration of the pedagogical and ethical importance of education and literary ownership, which witnesses the commitment to literary culture as a 'good,' and as an advantage towards social mobility.

Part II provides a detailed investigation of three case studies, in order to exemplify the main concept of "cultural legitimacy." Chapter 3, "NicolAaAaAeA Massa, a Self-Made Man of Letters" (pp. 79-110), analyz the life and career of this Venetian physician. Massa's medical writings, the Liber introductorius anatomiae (1536) and his Epistolarum medicinalium (1558), argue for the legitimacy of his profession through the inclusion of medicine among the liberal arts, a quest shared within the larger network of medical professionals he belonged to, especially Venice's College of Physicians. Massa's will and published works convey his use of education and book ownership as cultural and social capital. A less public perspective is shown in Chapter 4, "Francesco Longo's Philosophical Testaments" (pp. 111-138). Longo, another physician, addresses cultural legitimacy from a more idealistic point of view. In two testaments, he references the Persian king Artaxerxes as an example of life to Longo's son, among other moral and philosophical lessons; furthermore, he divides his books (a rich collection of Latin, Greek and vernacular volumes) among his children. Longo's most important contribution is his representation of himself as a moral philosopher, more so than a physician. Chapter 5, "Cultural Life in the Journals of Alberto Rini" (pp. 139-166), is an analytical reading of two manuscripts authored by Rini, which recorded his daily life (chronicles, expenditures, and even culinary recipes) and philosophical considerations. In his works, Rini strongly maintains that Renaissance humanistic culture is fundamental for those who did not belong to official literary circles. He considers his work as 'paper memory,' a monument for posterity to his persona as a man of letters.

In the "Conclusion" (pp. 167-175), Ross provides further examples of this quest for cultural legitimacy, emphasizing, therefore, the necessity to expand the study of literary Renaissance and bringing attention to the wide range of materials and persons still underrepresented in this scholarship. The list of "Abbreviations" (p. 177), a rich set of "Notes" (pp. 179-226), the "Acknowledgements" (pp. 227-228), and the "Index" (pp. 229-235) conclude the book, guiding the reader through the web of references that inform this study.

Overall, Ross's book is a tribute to a large part of society often unnamed, yet fundamental for its contribution to the Renaissance literary culture. Such a group merits study, as it recognizes the importance of self-education for actualizing social mobility and personal enrichment. Nevertheless, as Ross brings general evidences that women were also an important part of this movement, it would be most interesting to detail even more how women, who usually practiced jobs other than medicine and had access to different social and public roles than their male counterpart, fit in the general discourse of the book. Hopefully, this will be part of a future publication, as remarkable as Everyday Renaissances is.

Reviewed by: Lucia Gemmarli, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.
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Author:Gemmarli, Lucia
Publication:Forum Italicum
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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