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The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy.

The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy. By Douglas Biow. (Ithaca, N.Y." Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xxiv, 244. $35.00.)

In a well-conceived and engaging book, the author brings literary scholars low, down from the elevated perch of classical authors into the muck of Renaissance literature. Noting the importance of cleanliness to the cultural history of the European West and the dearth of literary studies of cleanliness, Douglas Biow offers "a new, unified interpretation of Italian Renaissance literature" (xi).

In making the claim, the author provides several caveats delineating the parameters of the book, which is not a comprehensive survey of everything dirty. For example, religious cleanliness, scatology, and the classical underpinnings of Renaissance perceptions of cleanliness are not explored in depth. Rather, Blow employs selective case studies in thematic chapters with a focus "on the symbolic uses of cleanliness as a topic--in rhetorical terms, a 'topos'--in a host of different writings of the period" (3). Although Blow mentions practical measures taken to clean Italian cities, the primary focus remains the ideas of dirty and clean in Italian prose and poetry. Informed by anthropological, sociological, and historical studies, Blow argues that his study of cultural cleanliness will inform us how Renaissance Italians tolerated disorder, defined bodily and territorial boundaries, and policed behavior and speech.

Biow's thought-provoking introduction explains the organizational principle of the three chapters that follow, which progress from the most pristine ideals to the filthiest realities of Renaissance Italy, roughly defined as the period between 1350-1600. The first chapter, "Households and Cities," begins with the most socially and linguistically elevated members of Renaissance Italy: family patriarchs, aristocratic ambassadors, and humanists. Biow analyzes dialogues on the household and descriptions of Florence to demonstrate the rhetorical relationship between cleanliness and social order. Chapter two examines liminal people, the washerwomen who soiled their hands cleaning the dirty linen of others and consequently lived in a tension between clean and dirty behavior. The third chapter, "Latrine and Latrine-Cleaners," focuses on low and dirty people and places. The journey from Dante's cosmic cesspool to secular carnival songs traces the evolving notion of cleanliness from a spiritual virtue to a social one.

Biow's theoretical construct, however, is not as neat and tidy as he outlines. The chronological progression from messy medieval theology to refined Renaissance manners downplays the concern for hygiene in medieval secular legislation and the disorder expressed in Renaissance religious literature. The relationship between epidemic disease, changing political realities, and the new rhetoric of cleanliness also requires further clarification if scholars are to appreciate the Renaissance creativity that "bequeathed to the modern world its varied reflections on cleanliness in so many different forms" (185).

Like many of the Renaissance authors he cites, Blow revels in the use of scatological language while constructing a highly articulate and elevated scholarly argument. In rescuing Renaissance dirt from the dustbin of history, Blow ably demonstrates that new approaches to well-trodden material can still enlighten. As the best scholars do, Biow has digested a massive amount of primary and secondary literature, articulated an insightful new paradigm, and produced theoretical debris for other scholars to clean up.

David D'Andrea

Oklahoma State University
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Author:D'Andrea, David
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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