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Parlour Games and the Public Life of Women in Renaissance Italy by George McClure (review)
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Did women have a Renaissance? This question, first posed by Kelly in 1977, remains meaningful and at least partly unanswered. In Parlour Games and the Public Life of Women in Renaissance Italy, McClure examines the public culture of play in Renaissance Italy as it relates to the lives of well-educated, upper-class women and their cultural surroundings. Though his answer to Kelly’s question is quiet rather than resounding, and certainly qualified, McClure gives us a solid “yes.”

McClure’s investigation of the ludic spaces of Renaissance Tuscan Italy, expressly those in Siena, looks specifically at the semi-public social clubs where parlor games took place. Proceeding slowly, adhering to a pattern, and devoid of the bombastic music and drunkenness of other contemporary late-night excursions, these games continued throughout the night, celebrating wit, word play, and cerebral deftness. Apart from their structure, the Sienese games stood apart from other contemporary events by inhabiting a space of their own, neither fully public like the casino games or tournaments frequented by noblemen and courtesans nor fully private like the gatherings favored by ladies of worth in their sitting rooms. Indeed, McClure casts these games as fully liminal. Not only did they exist in a half-public, half-private space; they also represented the intellectual middle road—“a new cultural zone somewhere between learned and popular culture”—that brought popular literature and language into intellectual discourse (ix). This carnivalesque backdrop allowed noble women to engage with men in a new manner. In this new social milieu, women were able to escape their usual domestic space to interact and compete with men in secular and slightly racy pursuits. But the idea that everyone was just playing games was a bit of a burla; these putatively frivolous pastimes offered women the opportunity to wield a serious mind. Genuine intellectual engagement marked these contests, and women often excelled at it.

McClure traverses a good deal of social theory in his first chapter, “A Renaissance Theory of Play.” He starts with the great Renaissance theorists, spending considerable quality time with Torquato Tasso. Tasso and his contemporaries are particularly germane to this analysis. McClure uses them to demonstrate the seriousness of play among men of the Renaissance and to provide a solid framework for a modern evaluation of the subject. McClure employs Tasso to make his argument in a manner that is both convincing and appropriate for the theme of gaming and sleight of hand. In this chapter, McClure also lays out the bare bones of his subject, describing the games, the people who played them, and the setting.

McClure maintains that an understanding of the games requires an understanding of their devoted participants. Chapter 2, “The Academy of the Intronati and Sienese Women,” brilliantly describes the odd groups of nobles who combined literary society, social club, and community organization with clever flirting. It introduces readers to a few individuals who are able to convey a sense of the institution’s membership as a whole. Chapter 3, “The Games of Girolamo and Scipione Bargagli (1563–1569)” does most of the work of McClure’s argument by analyzing two game books in detail. As McClure concludes, “For women as well as for men, then, the liminoid world of the game and play(s) was an opportunity to pursue one’s ‘natural inclinations’”(80). Gender roles and social prescriptions were unnaturally binding; only in the games were people free to explore their true selves. McClure closes the story of the Intronati in Chapter 4, “The Public Face of Private Women,” in which he explains how women continued to exert influence and take part in public festivals even after the forced closing of the Academy.

The penultimate chapter, “The Birth of the Assicurate: Italy’s First Female Academy (1654–1704),” shows the continuing importance of women in the games and their ability to perform intellectually in a public space. The final chapter, “Girolamo Gigli: The Legacy of the Sienese Games and Sienese Women,” reveals how Gigli, in a work that was part memoir and part instruction manual, memorialized women’s crucial part in the popular literature, playful competition, and intellectual discourse of Renaissance Italy.

Notwithstanding McClure’s relative silence...

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