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Reviewed by:
  • Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence
  • Gabriella Zarri
Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. By Sharon T. Strocchia. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2009. Pp. xviii, 261. $50.00. ISBN 978-0-801-89292-9.)

This book can be considered the mature fruit of an intense literary production on nuns and Italian and European nunneries in the medieval and early-modern periods. For more than twenty years, under the aegis of social history and women's studies, research on female monasteries has emerged from the exclusive circle of studies of ecclesiastical and religious history to become the relevant object of the history of the Ancien Regime. The fortunate encounters between the prevailing socio-anthropological directions of English-speaking historians and Italian, political-institutional historians whose work is concentrated on the history of the city has brought into focus the importance of the monastic institution under the various headings of the history of the family, society, and culture. The book of Sharon T. Strocchia fills a lacuna, focusing on a problem that up to now has been scarcely investigated, such as the work of the nuns and the social relevance exercised by the nunneries in the urban economy.

The research, which utilized numerous unedited sources, investigated the Florentine monastic institutions of the fifteenth century. The chronological limits fixed by the author (1348, the year of the Black Death, and 1529-30, the siege of Florence) indicate clearly the intent to examine the proper object of study in the ambit of social and political urban history, considering the importance and role carried out by the nuns in the context of the repopulation and of the economic recovery in the Renaissance period preceding the return of the Medici to the city and the setting up of the Grand Duchy.

The volume is divided into five chapters that analyze the following topics in depth: (1) the demographic aspect and the institutional development of female monasteries in the chronological time span indicated; (2) the occupation and redefinition of the urban space through the neighborhood, the extent of the property, and the competition among rival convents; (3) the economy and financial structure of the convents, the rapport between the private and communal property of the nuns, the relation between public finance and monastic property; (4) the role of the labor of the nuns in the ambit of conventual finance and the urban economy, the destination of the production for the market, and the level of professionalization attained by the nuns in silk production, culture, and education; and (5) the discipline of the convents, the open monasteries, and reactions to the obligation of cloister.

The picture traced by this articulate volume shows an unedited aspect of the development of female ecclesiastical institutions of the Quattrocento that should necessarily be considered by those who study the religious movements of the Observance and seek to interpret the proliferation of the small groups of tertiaries who lived in community supporting themselves by their own labor. The volume also provides elements useful for a discussion of the [End Page 784] concept of monastic poverty. A greater attention to the adherence of the individual monasteries to various religious orders and their institutional adjustment (true and proper monasteries or convents of tertiaries) could have enriched the description of the interweaving among religious impulses, economic reasons, and social origin. That not withstanding, the design of a relevant female presence in the economic, social, and cultural reality of fifteenth-century Florence is finely drawn and should be fully considered by scholars of the Renaissance period.

The historiographical perspective of political, economic, and social history of the city does not exhaust the spectrum of visual interpretations. In addition, some of the questions posed in the last decades from the historiography of women are present: the problem of female identity in relation to the possession and transmission of money, the role of women in social mediation and patronage, and the problem of cloister and sexuality in the convents. Regarding the last theme, the author shows in the fifth chapter the interest of civic institutions in the maintenance of monastic discipline and illustrates the role exercised by the magistracy of the "officials of the night" in...


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