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The Renaissance of Marriage in Fifteenth-Century Italy.

Anthony Francis D'Elia. The Renaissance of Marriage in Fifteenth-Century Italy.

Harvard Historical Studies 146. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. xii + 262 pp. index. append. $49.95. ISBN: 0-674-01552-5.

The institution of marriage, due to its central place in social relations and in governance, continues to attract historical study, and this book is a fine and scholarly addition to the burgeoning literature on marriage in Renaissance Italy. More and more types of objects and documents connected to weddings are constantly coming to light, and here another genre of writing associated with weddings is introduced and examined. Although its title gives very little away, the book in fact addresses the previously unexplored corpus of over 330 Latin wedding orations (mainly extant in manuscript) composed by humanists who were generated by fifteenth-century Italian court culture. Over 100 of these are anonymous, and the names of a substantial number of the couples getting married are also unknown, so the texts themselves, rather than their authors or their subjects, form the fixed point. The orations had a comparatively brief period of being in vogue, and were already being transformed at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The heart of the book, containing five chapters, is relatively short. The first and last chapters are more generally on marriage--and contain already-known material as well as making a further, rather interesting, case for humanists as the forerunners of the Protestant reformers, this time on account of their views on celibacy--whereas the three central ones focus predominantly on the classically formulated orations (or epithalamia) and discuss previously neglected or overlooked texts. The author concentrates upon discussions of their classical precedents, their function as rhetorically precise court propaganda, and their role as purveyors of statements about elite, courtly marriage, perceived here as a relationship offering a notional equality to women, and the possibility of sexual pleasure to both sexes. In these pages is much material of great interest to historians of women, the family, and sexuality as well as to Neo--Latin scholars; and assuredly parts of the book will become standard reading on courses on Italian Renaissance women.

D'Elia categorizes these orations as examples of "nuptial speech," stressing that they are, for the most part, unlike marriage sermons: wedding orations are laudatory, secular, and personal while marriage sermons are hortatory, biblical, and universal. But the fluidity of terminology and the influence of humanism meant that by the beginning of the fifteenth century the two genres sometimes seemed effectively to elide, and the speeches could be labeled "oratio sive sermo" or even "sermo sive oratio" (it is not clear whether these titles were fifteenth-century ones, or had been assigned at a later date). While D'Elia's skill as a Latinist is everywhere evident, historical questions are sometimes not pursued to a conclusion. For example, these epideictic orations appear to have flourished only in an Italian court setting, such as Naples or Ferrara. Virtually no examples of orations survive from the "republics" of Venice or Florence, and a lone example is known from Rome, yet why this should have been the case is not discussed (epideictic funeral orations were regularly delivered in Rome). On pages 69-71, D'Elia reveals that one of the most prolific writers of wedding orations, Ludovico Carbone, was capable of writing in praise of the Turks in one oration and against them in another, but the implications of this fascinating insight for the trustworthiness of the content of these humanist writings are not explored.

The book is written in a clear and very accessible fashion, with short and pithy sentences, but there is considerable repetition of information (presumably this recapping is for the benefit of the nonspecialist reader, to whom all this would be unfamiliar). It would have been very interesting if D'Elia had been able to include a few examples (and translations) of the orations, but he has been limited to including sentences and sections of the Latin in his footnotes. However, he has been able to include a finding-list of Italian Renaissance wedding orations, which is surely one of the most useful aspects of the book for those in the field, and interested parties will be able to benefit greatly from his thoroughness.


Queen Mary, University of London
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Author:Lowe, Kate
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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