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Lost Girls

Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence

Nicholas Terpstra

Publication Year: 2010

In 1554, a group of idealistic laywomen founded a home for homeless and orphaned adolescent girls in one of the worst neighborhoods in Florence. Of the 526 girls who lived in the home during its fourteen-year tenure, only 202 left there alive. Struck by the unusually high mortality rate, Nicholas Terpstra sets out to determine what killed the lost girls of the House of Compassion shelter (Casa della Pietà). Reaching deep into the archives' letters, ledgers, and records from both inside and outside the home, he slowly pieces together the tragic story. The Casa welcomed girls in bad health and with little future, hoping to save them from an almost certain life of poverty and drudgery. Yet this "safe" house was cruelly dangerous. Victims of Renaissance Florence’s sexual politics, these young women were at the disposal of the city’s elite men, who treated them as property meant for their personal pleasure. With scholarly precision and journalistic style, Terpstra uncovers and chronicles a series of disturbing leads that point to possible reasons so many girls died: hints of routine abortions, basic medical care for sexually transmitted diseases, and appalling conditions in the textile factories where the girls worked. Church authorities eventually took the Casa della Pietà away from the women who had founded it and moved it to a better part of Florence. Its sordid past was hidden, until now, in an official history that bore little resemblance to the orphanage’s true origins. Terpstra’s meticulous investigation not only uncovers the sad fate of the lost girls of the Casa della Pietà but also explores broader themes, including gender relations, public health, church politics, and the challenges girls and adolescent women faced in Renaissance Florence.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii

List of Figures

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

The seed for this book was planted many years ago, and it’s grown only through the tender care of many people, institutions, and granting agencies. The thesis has matured over time, due both to ongoing research and also to the conversations, challenges, and contributions of a very large number of people. Some conversations have gone on for years and others ...

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Note on Dates, Currency, and Measures

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p. xv

Florentines counted the new year from the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the day when bookkeepers and scribes changed the year on their entries. All dates in this book have been modernized, so that what a Florentine would write as 15 March 1566 is given as 15 March 1567. Florentine merchants and bankers used a gold currency for international ...

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1 Mystery and Silence

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pp. 1-11

Our story begins with desperation, a mystery, and many secrets. An intense famine in Renaissance Florence sweeps food from working people’s tables. Just as it begins to subside, an epidemic fever arrives to sweep many of the survivors into the grave. A group of charitable women open a home for hundreds of the teenage girls who have been orphaned ...

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2 The Setting: Sex and the City

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pp. 12-50

Araucous carnival parade featuring Florence’s Top 40 whores lurches down the streets to the jeers and catcalls of apprentices and journeymen lined up deep on either side. Each whore has her own cart—or his own cart because, in the Renaissance as now, men in drag act the most outrageous parts at carnival. A bald middle-aged wool worker in ...

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3 Renaissance Teenagers: Working Girls

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pp. 51-84

I must speak of the Mulberry, for it leads into the great discourse of the Silkworm, another of the greatest commodities of Tuscany. In the two months of May and June this worm labours. The rest of the year they are only seeds kept in some warm & close places, safe from cold and thunder. Either of these destroys them. Once the worm has spun herself into a cocoon, they put it into warm water to find the end. If they ...

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4 Teenage Girls and Birth Control

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pp. 85-112

Is it possible? What would it mean? It’s certainly possible, though as we explore further, it likely meant far less than we think. Modern debates around abortion have isolated it as an act or practice that few in the Renaissance would recognize: always deliberate, always conscious, and always intended to remove a human fetus before it matures to term ...

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5 Renaissance Fundamentalists and Girls in Trouble

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pp. 113-147

And so the pious and once-wealthy widow Mona Antonia, pimping her daughter Sandra, accompanies servant Giannino in a plot to allow his aged master Gerozzo to bed the beautiful young wife of his neighbor. Only it’s even more complicated than that—in Antonfrancesco Grazzini’s La pinzochera nothing is as it seems, and not just because the ...

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6 Virgin Girls and Venereal Disease

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pp. 148-168

Fingering syphilis as the killer assumes a lot. It assumes that syphilis in the sixteenth century followed roughly the same course from its emergence as a plague in the late fifteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, when penicillin finally brought it under control. It assumes that the plague which emerged in the Renaissance actually was syphilis ...

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7 Conclusion: Friction in the Archives

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pp. 169-182

Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua was barely twenty years old when the storm broke. A carefully constructed marriage alliance between this eldest son and heir of the Duke of Mantua with Margherita Farnese started unraveling days after the wedding. His side whispered that she was physically unable to have sex, and hers countered with a flurry of ...

Appendix: Sexual Politics: Giulia and the Crown Prince Gonzaga

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pp. 183-190


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pp. 191-219


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pp. 221-234


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pp. 235-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400242
E-ISBN-10: 1421400243
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894992
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894999

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794925306
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Lost Girls

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Girls -- Italy -- Florence -- Sexual behavior -- History -- 16th century.
  • Renaissance -- Italy -- Florence.
  • Power (Social sciences) -- Florence -- History -- 16th century.
  • Florence (Italy) -- Social conditions -- 16th century.
  • Girls -- Health and hygiene -- Italy -- Florence -- History -- 16th century.
  • Girls -- Italy -- Florence -- Social conditions -- 16th century.
  • Orphans -- Italy -- Florence -- Social conditions -- 16th century.
  • Poor -- Italy -- Florence -- History -- 16th century.
  • Casa della Pietà (Florence, Italy) -- History.
  • Girls -- Violence against -- Italy -- Florence -- History -- 16th century.
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