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  • Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna
  • Philip Gavitt
Nicholas Terpstra . Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna. The Johns Hopkins University Studies in History and Political Science 4. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xiv + 350 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. bibl. $90. ISBN: 0-8018-8184-6.

Readers hoping to find the roots of enlightened social policy in early modern charity will be quite disillusioned after reading this elegantly written and lively tale of two cities' orphanages (for boys) and conservatories (for girls). Comparing Florence and Bologna is rather like trying to assess educational quality by comparing public and private schools: private schools deliver better results, but manage to do so partially because they choose whom to admit and whom to exclude. So in these cases Bologna's orphanages and conservatories were more selective, provided better care, and produced better outcomes altogether. Although Florentine orphanages and conservatories had many of the same statutes and provisions as their counterparts in Bologna, they were observed more in the breach.

The differences, Terpstra argues, can be explained by the charitable and political cultures of each city. Although both cities were similar in size, and both cities had longstanding involvement of their local confraternities in charitable practice, Bologna's subservient position to the Papal States assumed a somewhat suspicious and resentful distance that pushed charitable institutions toward greater lay and noble patronage, more along the lines of what Sandra Cavallo has shown was the case in early modern Turin. Florentine charitable practice, by contrast, reflected the close ties between the papacy and Florence, not only in the period of Medici popes, but well into the sixteenth century. In particular, the way in which the papacy of Clement VII shaped Florence's transition from republic to grand duchy also influenced the new regime's response to the Savonarolan movement, a movement that until the accession of Duke Alessandro in 1532 held several major charitable institutions in its firm grip. The relationship between charity and politics could be lethal both for politically suspect reformers and for the children themselves. The differences between charitable cultures affected girls more profoundly than boys: the graduates of conservatories in Bologna had a much better chance of eventually leaving their institutions via dowry and marriage. Only death, and often premature death at that, provided the escape for most Florentine girls [End Page 849] from institutional care. As Florentine institutions came increasingly under clerical control, conservatories morphed into convents. Bolognese conservatories seem to have functioned as deliberately temporary solutions for a much higher class of abandoning parent.

Certainly one of Terpstra's most striking findings is the high rate of mortality for girls in Florence, especially at the hospital of the Pietà. Although Terpstra speculates that such mortality rates were likely due to congenital syphilis, the girls of the Pietà themselves, as Lucia Sandri has pointed out, had quite a different explanation: the extremely heavy workloads involved in making silk brocades and other products for the grand duke, and resulting catarrh and other symptoms, including blindness. Certainly the latter explanation fits both Terpstra's hypothesis and his characterization of the political culture of the grand duchy, where charity always came at the price of involuntarily supporting the grand dukes' ambitious plans for dynastic and economic consolidation.

Although this book provides ample opportunity for students of social welfare policy to reflect on the impermeability of social problems to virtually any solution, the book's greatest strength is the author's historical imagination in recapturing the details of how children themselves experienced homelessness and institutionalization. The early and late chapters form a sort of contextual parenthesis around the middle chapters that variously describe the career paths of boys and girls, with vivid illustrations of particular cases cast in the present, or as appropriate, the conditional tense.

The boundaries of this study are tight and clear, yet leave the reader wondering to what extent these experiences were representative for the larger groups of children that were actually abandoned. At most, the conservatories and orphanages cared for 500 children of each city at any one time, whereas in Florence, at least...


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