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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 299-300

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Book Review

Women and Men in Renaissance Venice:
Twelve Essays on Patrician Society

Women and Men in Renaissance Venice: Twelve Essays on Patrician Society. By Stanley Chojnacki (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) 370pp. $39.95 cloth $15.95 paper

As Chojnacki observes in the introduction, these essays, originally published between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, span an era of radical redefinition of Italian Renaissance studies. His earliest pieces, on Venetian patrician women, their dowries, and kinsmen, were written in a virtual historiographical vacuum. Then social historians adopted anthro-pological interests in family and kinship, and the "second wave feminists" created the field of gender studies. Understanding the evolution of the Renaissance state was the primary task that Burckhardt set for historians of this period, and whereas social and political history were once seen as separate areas of enquiry, leading scholars of the 1960s began to relate them. 1 Chojnacki, in his later essays, took the further step of recognizing considerations of kinship and gender as crucial to the definition and consolidation of the state; his work on "the shifting boundaries between family and society" constitutes perhaps his most vital and original contribution to this rapidly evolving field.

Inevitably, as he admits, the earlier essays are slightly dated. But his pioneering work on women is still germane to these now reframed issues, and readers are compensated by an opportunity to observe the growth of a scholar whose notable strengths are flexibility of mind and openness to new approaches and insights. Chojnacki is bolder than most historians in his willingness to revise his own interpretations as the collective knowledge of the field increases, rather than defending earlier positions to the death. He takes the risk of confronting and engaging issues even when the limitations of the evidence oblige him to be suggestive rather than conclusive, asking important questions although definitive answers may elude him. [End Page 299]

There is some repetition of material and ideas in this collection of self-contained pieces, because they reflect the author's tenacious pursuit of particular lines of enquiry over time. Like the chapters of a book, the essays are related by a sustained underlying theme, that familial relationships shaped the political and social evolution of the Venetian regime from the mid-fourteenth to the early sixteenth century and contributed to the legendary coherence of the ruling class, while the expanding Venetian state regulated domestic behavior in the interests of civic order and of securing an exclusive hereditary patriciate.

Chojnacki discerns a "four-sided dynamic ... behind its familiar facade of stasis. ... The interplay of structure and practice is the field on which families dealt with the state, and women and men dealt with each other and with the urgings of state and family regarding gendered behavior" (9, 56). This deceptively straightforward formula for ordering the issues involved, and the separate literatures founded upon them, enables the author, especially in the more recent essays, to cut the Gordian knots of many binary oppositions that bedevil this field--particularly on the issue of whether women enjoyed self-determination or suffered subjection. Given the limited and sporadic nature of the available evidence, it seems unlikely that this question will be resolved to the satisfaction of a majority of scholars. Listening to what his sources say, rather than raising his own voice to impose a preconceived order upon them, Chojnacki recasts his enquiry to take more realistic account of actual human behavior within the context of social expectations. The picture that emerges is more complex and more nuanced than that which most scholars have delineated.

Chojnacki's treatment of Venetian cases, based on an imaginative range of sources, is informed by an impressive command of the extensive literature on women, marriage, and the family, as well as on the structures of elites and their relation to the state, in other Italian and European societies. These rich and many-faceted essays should prove rewarding reading for a wide range of scholars, particularly...


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