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The Politics of Ritual Kinship, Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy.

Nicholas Terpstra, ed., The Politics of Ritual Kinship, Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy

(Cambridge Studies in Italian History and Culture.) Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1999. xi + 317 pp. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-62185-2.

Barbara Wisch and Diane Cole Ahl, eds., Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy: Ritual, Spectacle, Image

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 314 pp. $85. ISBN: 0-521-66288-5.

These two excellent collections of essays on Italian confraternities demonstrate the continued vitality of research on Renaissance lay devotion and charity. A total of twenty-six essays and informed introductions by the editors of the two volumes assure that numerous aspects of confraternal life are examined, and not just for Florence, Venice, and Rome, but also for confraternities of Bologna, Umbria, Cortona, Ferrara, Genoa, rural Piedmont, Milan, and Lombardy. In a short review essay it is impossible to comment on all of the articles, despite the high quality of research and writing of the contributions. Historiographic importance and more recent research concerns will determine the articles that are cited here.

The two volumes show that there exists an agreement on several historiographic questions, most previously contested. It had been hypothesized that confraternities were hotbeds of opposition to established church and state authority; an hypothesis given credibility by occasional suspension of confraternal activity by papal, episcopal, and secular officials. An excellent account of the Florentine periodic practice of temporally prohibiting of confraternal gatherings is found in Konrad Eisenbichler's contribution in the Terpstra volume. Here and in several other essays, the authors show that spiritual and secular authorities feared the confraternities as sources of social unrest, but there is no evidence that in fact the confraternities were centers of organized political opposition. Rather, as Jennifer Fisk Rondeau states in the Terpstra volume, the confraternities' practice of writing statutes and electing officials permitted them to speak and act corporately in the public sphere; this made them potentially su bversive to constituted authorities. On the other hand, especially by the sixteenth century, church and state officials recognized that confraternities were apt instruments for implementing their new social and religious policies. Ecclesiastical and state bureaucrats utilized images and the new print technology and adapted a dialogic approach with the confraternities and their members. The confraternities frequently served as the agencies for Jesuit and episcopal projects of education and spiritual instruction.

The confraternities spent lavishly on a vast number of oratories, sepulchers, altars, stage sets, paintings, flags, cloth, and other objects. In doing so, they permitted corporate participation in patronage that several social groups could not have afforded as individuals or families, though, in the Wisch-Cole Ahl volume, Konrad Eisenbichler reminds us that many of the objects of the youth confraternity of Arcangelo Raffaello in Florence were donated by individuals. Agreement also has emerged on researching the conception and construction of aesthetic objects as an often lengthy process of determining the self-identity of a confraternity, raising resources, fixing devotions and their relationship to the proposed object, and negotiating terms within the confraternities and then with artists and artisans, as Barbara Wisch demonstrates for the Roman confraternity of the Gonfalone in her and Cole Ahl's volume.

It is also now accepted that many late Renaissance confraternities were more aristocratic and hierarchical than those of the early Renaissance. By the sixteenth century some confraternities witnessed the diminution of the body of members, leaving only officials drawn from the political elite. In two essays of Nicholas Terpstra the confraternities of Bologna are shown to divide between those members of the elite who administered charity and those commoners who maintained religious devotions, especially flagellation. He shows that the elite constructed large and magnificent hospitals with funds from donations to religious causes, assuring that the elite members would not make significant contributions from their own resources.

Linked to this aristocratization was a lessening of an emphasis on private devotions that were subjective in nature and a turn toward more public activities. Sixteenth-century confraternities performed dramas, made frequent public corporate appearances, and sought representation of their identity in spectacles, processions, banners, and architectural structures. Also linked to aristocratization in the sixteenth century was the process of transforming confraternal charity into public welfare programs, especially by placing hospitals and orphanages under state authority if only through an overlapping of the confraternal and state officials, or through more vigorous clerical supervision.

Contributors to the two volumes essentially agree on the role of women in the confraternities. Most analytical and representative is the formulation of Giovanna Casagrande in the Terpstra volume; she distinguishes devotional participation, in which women attended meetings, prayed, and gave aid to the infirm, the dying, and the deceased in private, from administrative and more public activities, in which women were marginalized if not fully excluded. But within this formula, Casagrande states, women possessed more freedom in religion than in other areas of social life. In the pastoral visitation in Perugia of 1592-1595, she notes the existence of at least nine exclusively female societies and asserts that the "co-existence of separate male and female confraternities in a single church, each entrusted with a distinct function, must have been relatively common" (63).

The editors of the two volumes have written valuable historiographic essays on confraternities in the Renaissance to which in the Terpstra volume Christopher Black has added an excellent essay that would serve well as a guide to past and present research interests. Moreover, several contributors provide crisp authoritative introductions to larger historical problems linked to the confraternities. In the Wisch-Cole Ahl volume, Nerida Newbigin provides a substantive account of drama in the Italian Renaissance in discussing the plays of the Roman Gonfalone confraternity; Louise Marshall recounts the evolution of Renaissance representations of the Madonna and her varied means of intervening for her clients; in two essays in the volumes Lance Lazar provides a veritable history of the early Jesuit movement in discussions of Ignatius of Loyola's confraternal foundations. In the Terpstra volume Angelo Torre examines the centrality of jurisdictional culture and social fragmentation in early-modern religion that was co untered by the confraternities' "construction of community" (248) and defense of traditional rights and jurisdictions; and Richard Mackenny reviews the commonplace that the Venetian state supervised and ordered social institutions and finds instead that the scuole piccole were essentially autonomous, reorganizing and adapting to social rather than political imperatives.

The editors have succeeded in establishing specific criteria for their respective volumes. The essays in Terpstra's volume address a variety of problems and local conditions, but "a common factor in these studies is the central significance of the ritual kinship of confraternitas in a society which structured its politics, religious institutions, economic agencies and social life around family models" (7). The family model for confraternities has to be triangulated with the effective seizure of that social and metaphoric organization by the monks, and especially by the mendicants in the early Renaissance. An understanding of the "ritual kinship" of the volume's title has to be read as a model of the fictive family of the mendicants as well as of that of the biological family.

The guidance of Wisch and Cole Ahl has produced a volume of articles that will be a model for future scholars seeking to unite social-cultural and art history. The focus of the contributors is not solely or fundamentally on the art object but on the social groups and cultural practices contributory to the making and celebrating of the object. Confraternal patronage is the necessary link to the artist, but these articles dig far deeper than more conventional patronage studies into analyses of meaning, demonstrating, for example, how confraternal purposes led to "new aesthetic criteria and iconography" (12). These contributions record the importance of confraternal devotions, conceptions of the Divine, roles of humans in constructing a better life in this world and the next, and political and church programs in the conception and execution of works of art.

The volumes introduce new and intriguing areas for further research: the robust female participation of women in Roman confraternities of the sixteenth century recounted by Eunice Howe, Lance Lazar, and Louise Smith Bross; the study of emotions in confraternal art and devotions probed by Randi Klebanoff in a study of Niccolo dell' Arca's "Lamentation over the Dead Christ" (all in the Wisch-Cole Ahl volume). Also suggestive of further inquiry in the Terpstra volume are confraternities of Jews that Elliott Horowitz discusses for Ferrara, and the methods, geographic areas, and relative success of the Tridentine reformers in "shaping consciences" of the laity, as Danilo Zardin claims for Milan and Lombardy. Unexplored is the effect on parental control and guidance of their children with Jesuit and episcopal expansion of educational, parish, and Marian confraternities. To what degree did families surrender to confraternal officials and their clerical leaders influence over their children with the sixteenth-centur y explosion of schools sponsored by confraternities? How did Borromeo in Milan and the Jesuits in Rome and Naples succeed in recruiting thousands of the young into their new confraternities? What was the role of population growth and economic decline in the extraordinary numbers of members in the new confraternities of the sixteenth century? Despite the wide range of topics in these two volumes, there remain importance questions to pursue on the Italian confraternities.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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