- Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence
This unusual and ingenious academic book, written in the manner of a detective story, has a great many advantages, but the snag is that most of them are double-edged. It is set in Florence, the city at the heart of the Renaissance, with the greatest potential to attract a wide readership; had it been set, for example, in Perugia, no one would have cared. The topic of the Casa della Pietà, a home for abandoned or unprotected young girls in the second half of the sixteenth and first two decades of the seventeenth centuries, is felicitous, mirroring as it does the interest in contemporary and recent church-run institutions supposedly concerned with child protection. The book's subtitle contains the words sex and death, two areas of constant human interest across the centuries as well as the two words most guaranteed to attract sales and media attention. It is written with gusto and panache, in a nonacademic, accessible style, but with a good scholarly apparatus. The crime victims are obvious enough—the vulnerable young girls themselves—although the causes of death, and consequently the human perpetrators, are more elusive. The author has set himself the task of analyzing why the death rate of girls entering the Pietà in the early years was so high; of 526 who entered between 1554 and 1558, only 202 survived (two other comparable shelters had death rates of 11 percent and under 20 percent). His constant refrain is "What was killing the girls of the Pietà?", and his possible explanations include dangerous working conditions, pregnancies and abortifacients, and syphilis. What is indisputable is that in sixteenth-century Florence there was a culture of prioritizing male interests, whether sexual or political, over female interests, and shelters for young girls would never have been able to exist outside this cultural context. The tensions inherent in addressing historical material academically, while writing it up methodologically as a true-crime mystery set in the past, are navigated with considerable skill, but the tensions do not evaporate. There are several excellent pieces of documentation from or about the Pietà such as a pledge book, account books, a run of recipes, and a chronicle, seemingly offering the possibility of clarification and understanding. Yet on close inspection, these prove illusory:The benefactors give minuscule amounts; the account books focus on food and basic materials; the recipes are from the recipe book of the guild of doctors and apothecaries and their purpose remains unknown; and the multi-author chronicle peddles its own version of events, some of which are untrue. The book is pleasingly broad-based in its approach, able to make effective use of much recent secondary literature in areas such as the histories of female confraternities and silk weaving. [End Page 800] However, this breadth also exposes drawbacks, because in the absence of 'hard' facts, there is a surfeit of suggestively scandalous hypotheses. The tortuous lurches, inspired guesses, and numerous dead ends of archival research are well incorporated into the narrative of detection, making it a good read, but archival historians in particular may feel either that these are best when filtered, or that they are best experienced in person. Even the dust jacket is perplexing, as the rather lovely, melancholic, solitary, scantily clad young girl holding a skull on her lap was painted not by a Florentine in the mid- to late-sixteenth century, but by a Frenchman in the mid-seventeenth century. Nevertheless, those interested in the history of early-modern Catholic Europe and Catholic institutions on the Italian peninsula will find much to think about while reading this book.