Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy.
This collection of essays explores the significance of four interesting aspects of marriage: the ceremonies and festivities surrounding weddings; law and the intervention in marriage by church and state; intermarriage among social groups; and the consequences of marriage for women. The essays center largely on institutional history and identify the economic, social, religious, and political aspects of marriage rather than its emotional dimension or the personal viewpoints of spouses. In drawing together these contributions, the editors identify assumptions about marriage and their consequences. They maintain that marriage was a different act for women than for men - unsurprisingly - and that the variations in marriage were determined by social status as well as local and regional conditions.
The first section centers on representations of marriage. Patricia Allerston offers an interesting study of the public display of wedding finery in sixteenth-century Venice. Elite weddings were occasions for the production of functional and artistic objects, requiring substantial financial resources that were not readily available to all. Allerston finds that the second-hand market in luxury goods offered a solution to this problem. In the second essay, K.J.P. Lowe compares the wedding rituals of nuns to those of secular brides, and emphasizes that ceremonies provided occasions for men to display the function of women in marriage without regard for their interests. The next article shifts to visual imagery. Jacqueline Musacchio examines the meaning of a common image on Tuscan marriage chests and wainscoting in the fifteenth century, the rape of the Sabine women. She argues it signified a tacit approval of violence before and during marriage as long as it led to procreation in a demographically depressed society concerned with preserving family lines.
The regulation of the marriage process by church and state, often as competing powers, underlines the importance of this institution in medieval and early modern Italian society. Three essays weigh the interference of ecclesiastical authorities in the marriage process, using the Council of Trent as a chronological benchmark. Trevor Dean examines the progressive intrusion of secular powers throughout Italy in matrimonial crimes prior to the Council of Trent, positing that the new level of church control over marriage in the post-Tridentine era was a response to secular legislation. David D'Avray tests whether Trent recreated the ecclesiastical requisite for a parish priest at marriage or simply codified an ongoing practice. Pier Van Boxel finds that one of the ways the post-Tridentine church attempted to force the conversion of Jewish women to Catholic orthodoxy was to offer them dowries. Stanley Chojnacki's study of Venetian dowry laws between 1420 and 1535 concludes the second section of the book. He argues, importantly, that state regulation of marriage legislation was linked to "change and contestation in the relationships between regime and ruling class, government and family, and men and women" (132). Venetian marriage legislation drew together the interests of rich, middling, and poor patricians struggling for a common definition of nobility. Women played a growing role as symbol and medium of an articulated patrician culture.
Section 3 investigates patterns of intermarriage. Samuel Cohen finds that mountainous areas in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Tuscany were rather outward-looking in their marriage patterns, perhaps because of differences in work and land tenure. Of significance, documentary culture was important to common folk as well as elites. Cohen discovers that irrespective of levels of family wealth, the public notary was an essential participant in marriage celebration long before the reforms of Trent. The other articles in this section stress the function of marriage as strategy. Irene Fosi and Maria Antonietta Visceglia draw important links between the marriage alliances of curial and papal families and the securing of curial appointments in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Rome. They find that women were critical in uniting factions to form electoral fronts. Gerard Delille sheds light on a different function of marriage alliances, that of quelling vendetta in Altamura in Apulia.
The themes of the final section are the consequences of marriage and failed unions. Stephen Kolsky offers a critical analysis of arguments about marriage in the courts of northern Italy, where, in contrast to the republics of Florence and Venice, he finds life afforded more opportunities to married women, Linda Guzzetti analyzes separations in fourteenth-century Venice, finding close kin rather removed from the marital life of troubled young couples. Her conclusions differ from findings in the early modern period, which point to some parental involvement. Giulia Calvi investigates second marriages in Tuscany between 1580 and 1750, assessing the progress remarried mothers made over controlling and caring for the offspring of first marriages.
The strength of the collection lies with the individual, regional contributions that offer us findings that will help produce a synthetic picture of marriage in a complex area of western Europe with much variation. It may be too soon to conclude as Dean and Lowe have that only married women from the elite classes or the lowest social groups had any possibilities for self-determination. The editors recognize that the sources examined in this collection shed little light on women's view points, but believe "collections of records presenting wives' points of view do not exist" (20). In fact some do, as historians examining judicial records have shown us, and these collections still need to be integrated with sources of visual representation, politics, and property. The editors would have been well advised to take into account the body of work on marriage disputes that is currently under way, for example.
In contrast to the institutional approach of Dean and Lowe, Deanna Shemek explores the self-determination of women of the Renaissance from a different and highly interesting perspective. She departs from male-dominated institutions that obscure women's sentiments and focuses instead on sources that shed light on ambivalence or outright resistance to ideal constructions by men of the feminine. The social and cultural expectations of women were continually reiterated in Renaissance treatises on education, good government, household management, and morals. Shemek suggests this proliferation of writings was a response to change in conventional behavior and therefore constituted an effort to contain women's actions and to govern and limit meanings of gender. To sustain her thesis she analyzes visual imagery. The subject is a footrace by prostitutes that was part of the festive Palio di San Giorgio in Ferrara. Francesco del Cossa's fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia has the spectators, Ferrara's married and marriageable women, looking down on the violators of Christian feminine mores, their height symbolizing the superiority of chastity over unbound female sexuality. Shemek identifies other cases of ambivalence about the construction of woman, where "errant" females wander away from expected gender norms. Ferrara's prostitutes, Rome's Isabella de Luna, a successful prostitute-turned-courtesan, and Ariosto's female knights are all women out of place and thus the very danger to society that the prescriptive literature aims to contain.
Ariosto's Orlando Furioso is at the heart of Shemek's book. The most popular Italian literary work of the sixteenth century, recited in public settings as well as farm fields, it is filled with women warriors such as Bradamante, who disguises her sex and appropriates both male and female roles for herself. The poem sparked intense debate about hierarchy and order as well as prevailing notions of femininity. Shemek situates Orlando Furioso in multiple contexts and assigns the text plural significations by combining methods of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and cultural history with literary and feminist theories. One of her chapters, "That Elusive Object of Desire: Angelica in the Orlando Furioso," is embedded in Lacanian analysis. The psychoanalyst's theoretical models are employed as heuristic devices to interpret desire and frustration in Ariosto's text. The exotic princess Angelica may symbolize femininity to the knights who pursue her, but that is their fantasy, their means of defining themselves as her opposite and ideal complement. Angelica, in Shemek's Lacan-inflected reading of the text, symbolizes the Other who may restore the imagined completeness of being once enjoyed in the infant-mother relationship. However, Angelica too has desires, and she acts on them. She recedes from the knights' gazes by fleeing their advances or magically becoming invisible. Orlando goes mad when he realizes Angelica has a will of her own. It is, Shemek says, the figurative disintegration of the order of chivalry. Male fantasies regarding the feminine are a precarious foundation for masculine identity.
This is a creative book. It is well written and a prime example of the new interdisciplinary work that is currently emerging, work that shifts debates onto new ground. Shemek's errant ladies cast further light on the important topic of gender construction in Renaissance Italy, demonstrating that ideal definitions existed side by side with examples of ambivalence and rebellion. Women had desires of their own that extended beyond the boundaries of religious, political, and social institutions which sought to confine them.
San Diego State University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
|Previous Article:||Marriage in Italy, 1300-1650.|
|Next Article:||Beyond the Written Word: Preaching and Theology in the Florence of Archbishop Antoninus 1427-1459.|