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Women at risk: searching for foul play in 16th-century Italy.

Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence

Nicholas Terpstra

Johns Hopkins University Press

244 pages, hardcover

ISBN 9780801894992

THE LOST BOYS OF JAMES Barrie's Peter Pan or William Golding's Lord of the Flies relished play, adventure and--sometimes--violence in an escape from society and its trammels. In Renaissance Italy energy, lust and even occasional destructiveness were expected of male youth, even inside the city. Authorities, lay and clerical, thirsted for social discipline, but were still ill equipped institutionally and technologically to impose it. Customary practices like youth groups and ritualized combats, such as "wars of the fists" where Venetian bravoes tussled for possession of a bridge, helped channel the aggressions of young men. On occasion, their violence was even tacitly condoned in order to send messages of larger social import, as when gangs of boys desecrated the corpses of heinous criminals.

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For young women it was quite another story. The heady, empowered "girl culture" that now flourishes in the wake of third wave feminism stands in stark contrast to the predicament of Renaissance youngsters. No such fun or freedom cheered the girls in Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence, Nicholas Terpstra's colourful account of life on the underside of the city. In the mid 16th century, hundreds of orphaned or abandoned teenagers took shelter in the Casa della Pieta, a downtown asylum that curtailed play and adventure in order to protect its vulnerable residents from their society's own excesses. But even so, many died too soon. Comparing mortality rates for the Pieta with those for Florentines in general and for other conservatories, Terpstra discovers that a disproportionate number of the inmates succumbed in months or a few years and never reached adulthood.

These are the lost girls, and the mystery of their deaths prods Terpstra as historical detective to seek an explanation. Meandering through many terrains--industrial, medical, religious, charitable--and piling up en route heaps of curious Renaissance lore, the investigator invents and tests several theories. Linking all, more or less tightly, runs a Renaissance preoccupation with young female bodies and the exploitative sexual politics that underlay the glittering elegance of early modern Florence.

The book's opening draws on comedies and satiric poetry, written by educated males, to populate imaginary Florentine streets with randy men and manipulative women. The Playing Cards for Forty Whores, an anonymous sampler of carnival verses, sets the scene, as does, in later chapters, Machiavelli's Mandrake Root. These humorous inventions do find some confirmation in the cases heard before criminal magistracies. Even the anxious polemics of moralists and the thunder of religious reformers imply that there was in fact a lot of illicit sex in the city. Much of it, although by no means all, involved young, unmarried women of low status, scant money and less power. Where women bargained from this position of weakness, it is right to see not choice but coercion. Elite men guarded family honour by securing the chastity of their own womenfolk, while, hewing to a socially inflected double standard, they slaked their appetites on the more and less willing bodies of the lowly--male as well as female. Household servants routinely suffered sexual predation. Yet, for the indigent, sex could represent a resource as well as a risk. Poor parents, especially single mothers, sometimes pressed their daughters into prostitution. In a few families it became a multi-generational business. Viewing Florentine sexual politics from the perspective of charity workers, Terpstra emphasizes the lopsided power relations that bred exploitation.

Terpstra's energetic archival scholarship has focused on Renaissance confraternities. This important form of religious congregation served in Italian cities as social glue, consolidating established groups like guilds, but also building internal bridges between social types, between laity and clergy, men and women, adults and children. Confraternities also promoted moral reform in the community at large and sponsored much urban charity. In mid 16th-century Tuscany, Catholic responses to the Protestant Reformation converged with the state-building ambitions of the Medici to multiply charitable asylums. Among the targets were women in trouble--prostitutes, restless or battered wives, poor widows--and children whose parents could not or would not keep them. In Lost Girls, Terpstra zeroes in on one confraternity with an unusually grassroots approach to rescuing teenaged girls from the street.

In exploring one, atypical, example, Terpstra adopts the model of microhistory that in Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms or Natalie Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre has so successfully brought early modern history to wider audiences. These classics of microhistory illuminate the back corners of the past by probing a small, often transgressive episode with highly individual protagonists. While the idiosyncratic moment may not represent history's broader patterns, its rich particularity and very bizarreness compel our interest and sympathy. To go deep about the obscure, microhistory usually relies for its centre on a major source--for Ginzburg and Davis accounts of a trial, or for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's elegant A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, a terse but decades-long diary. Both trial records and ego-documents deliver narrative immediacy and the voices, even if transposed, of the players.

Terpstra similarly wants to solve a mystery about socially marginal people trapped in a specific life-threatening predicament. But he lacks not just the smoking gun, but also any participants' stories about what happened. The lost girls and even the surviving ones do not speak. Terpstra must then fall back on a mix of much less gratifying materials, notably a retrospective chronicle and institutional registers. These records, for one reason or another, do not indeed even acknowledge the problem of the missing girls. To the historical detective's credit, he first uncovers the mystery of the many deaths and then sets out to solve it by reaching out well beyond the Casa della Pieta's own documentary record. As a result, we see the girls' experiences from the outside, through the prism of the institution refracting several interests of women and men with a stake--economic, sexual, religious--in the teenagers' bodies.

While its impetus partook of reforming zeal that permeated much of Florentine society, the Casa della Pieta, especially in its first decade, was distinctive in several ways. Set into a deeply patriarchal culture, the Casa was, unusually, a project by and for women. Although relying, like all confraternities, on male clerics for spiritual direction, the founders and overseers of the Pieta were laywomen, drawn from assorted ranks of a stratified urban society and most of them contributing fairly small sums. Large numbers of donors made up for the modesty of means. Their project lacked both state sponsorship and the pious endowments that supported many other charitable institutions. This autonomy allowed the founding sisters flexibility and the chance to do things their own way. It also exposed them and their charges to financial distress and to outsiders' suspicions of moral laxity. In the 1550s Florence already counted refuges for infant foundlings, most of whom were female, and for abandoned boys. Nor were the Pieta sisters the only charity set up in that decade to assist vulnerable pubescent and adolescent girls. But their house was different. Located in the working class district of Borgo Ognissanti and near a well-trodden hookers' stroll, the Casa della Pieta offered faster, more immediate help, where it was needed, to many more girls at risk. Its plan was to provide safety during the dangerous teenaged years. While a few residents of the Casa stayed on into adulthood, assuming roles in the management of the house, it was not designed as a convent for lifelong vocation. Most inmates were expected to leave for marriage or employment. The registers, nevertheless, belie many such hoped-for outcomes.

As residents flocked to the new house, it soon grew cramped and broke. Girls were put to work to support themselves. Some were sent out into domestic service, although the marital dowries promised at the end of multi-year contracts were rarely claimed. Supplying welcome cheap labour to the city's busy textile trades, many other girls toiled inside the Casa preparing wool and silk for weaving, their spinning wheels and reels wedged between the beds in which they slept three and four together. But Terpstra finds routine overcrowding and overwork not enough to account for the surplus of premature deaths.

So, not content with this soundly plausible hypothesis, the historian detective turns back to the sources to chase down several more surprising lines of inquiry. Agreeably, in Lost Girls, in parallel with the story of the Casa della Pieta, we are treated to an upfront tale of the historian at work. Terpstra invites readers to join him as he locates materials, extracts data, tailors questions, blunders down blind alleys, changes direction, consults with colleagues and fits pieces together. Primary sources appear with all their textured physicality: a chronicle revised in 18th-century hand, sheaves of dishevelled papers, and carefully bound and labelled registers bearing quirky traces of use and reuse over many years. A good example are the 15 medical recipes transcribed, out of logical place, in the middle of the account book on cloth manufacture. This oddity sets Terpstra off in pursuit of Renaissance pharmacology and triggers his suspicion that, maybe, the overseers of the Casa were supplying abortifacients to girls pregnant through sexual assault. He acknowledges, of course, that such victims of rape--or seduction?--are conjectural, merely a possibility given the exploitative sexual culture. That the Casa staff knew of, or even suspected, any pregnancy is unproven. Further research then shows that the medical recipes were in no way secret. And although several contained ingredients that were sometimes prescribed for gynecological troubles, these compounds were not restricted to those uses. Although at the end of this fascinating foray we know little more about what was killing the lost girls, Terpstra draws several hypothetical threads with him as he heads off to investigate syphilis as another contributing cause. Inventive speculations on scantly documented beliefs in the curative powers of sex with virgins suggest further reasons for girls' mortality. This is history as what might have been.

In a chapter titled "Renaissance Fundamentalists," Terpstra tracks the transformation, beginning in the mid 1560s, of the innovative Casa della Pieta into a more conventional conservatory and then, with time, a proper enclosed convent. One of several anachronistic wording choices, the term "fundamentalists" to describe the Savonarolan movement carries a 21st-century ring that risks distracting from the Renaissance context more than it reveals. On the one hand, the religious reformers who founded the Casa and those who, not long after, restructured it, belonged to the same fundamentalist camp. And, on the other, versions of this institutional trajectory happened often in these years in many Italian settings without the Savonarolans. At the Casa della Pieth, although the seasoned women overseers who had built the house continued in office into the 1580s, the roster of confraternity sisters had drastically diminished by 1568. Assertive male clerics introduced an array of new rules that restricted the girls' movements and cut their contacts with the world from which they came. A relocation to more commodious quarters in the suburbs ratified the disconnection. To gain admittance, girls now had to be sponsored, and prominent Florentines came to monopolize the Casa as a lifelong repository for their bastard daughters. But with all of this, the mortality rates went down.

After taking us on colourful tours of some back alleys of Renaissance culture, Terpstra as detective still ends up with more hypotheses than solutions. But our history reading is the richer for it. Despite the claims of some who would put it to political use, history offers neither formal proofs nor absolute truths. It is about inquiry and possibilities, and it changes with the times and the concerns of the writers. Unlike the mystery writer who names the culprit at the end, Terpstra concludes in Lost Girls, as historians often do, that no single cause carried the day. Instead, he widens the focus to locate a blended explanation for the many deaths less in the Casa itself and more in the world it served. He conjures a constituency of stressed working class girls, struggling to survive in the face of hunger, fragmented families, pervasive illness, sexual predation and general neglect. When the Casa della Pieta sheltered this population, no wonder many inmates died. Perhaps Renaissance commentators failed to note the high mortality merely because it did not surprise them. When the Casa changed its catchment, these same gifts continued to die, just not in the asylum where their collective passing could later catch the eye of an alert historian. Maybe there was no Pieta mystery after all, just a momentary artifact of institutional evolution.

Even so, the blindness of contemporaries would be consistent with Terpstra's view of the lost girls as fundamentally hostages to a patriarchal and socially stratified culture that saw them as useful objects and as property. But this language of property suggests chattel slavery, and they were not slaves. Like many others among the socially dispossessed of varying age and gender, they were often victims at the mercy of the powerful. Yet even to the elites who abused them, they were more than property. They had humanity and souls. Through confraternities many donated and worked to secure their salvation and as best possible their bodies. Historians, especially those open to imagination, should also assign the lost girls and their fellow sufferers agency. The Casa records do not let us see this side of the residents. So we must seek out sources and creative paths of inquiry that will let us glimpse not only the bodies, but also the minds and wills of all history's players, even the disempowered.

Elizabeth S. Cohen is a professor at York University who writes about gender in early modern Italy.
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Title Annotation:Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence
Author:Cohen, Elizabeth S.
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:2288
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