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  • The Culture of Profession in Late Renaissance Italy
  • William McCuaig
George W. McClure . The Culture of Profession in Late Renaissance Italy. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2004. xviii + 374 pp. index. illus. bibl. $65.00. ISBN: 0–8020–8970–4.

The "culture of profession" to which the title of this study alludes is a rather amorphous entity. The author has examined a number of vernacular literary works [End Page 590] and genres from the fifteenth to the later sixteenth century and assembled a corpus of references to and discussions of the professional and occupational categories. The bulk of the book consists of paraphrase, summary, and characterization of these. Chapter 1 reviews the ideas of Petrarch, Francesco Patrizi, Archbishop Antoninus of Florence, and others. The latter, a distinguished scholastic theologian, was especially interested in the non-elite occupations that were so numerous and important in the great commercial and industrial center of Florence. In chapter 2 the source materials are the joke collections that influential humanists like Poggio Bracciolini launched early in the fifteenth century and that led on to similar extensive collections by the likes of the Piovano Arlotto. Many of Arlotto's jokes deal with the relative degree of filth and stench attaching to certain jobs and with the opportunities for price-gouging and other forms of cheating that each offers its practitioners, while a sixteenth-century collection by Ludovico Domenichi includes jokes about the learned professions and their rivalries. Carnival songs and books of parlor games are another source of references to various occupational categories.

Chapters 3 and 4, the heart of the book, draw upon the recent Einaudi edition of Tomaso Garzoni's Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del mondo, by Paolo Cherchi and Beatrice Collina. First published in 1585, this was an encyclopedic survey of trades and professions, and a summa of sorts, drawing upon earlier Renaissance writers, including Antoninus. "Assembling (and often plagiarizing) material from professional manuals, encyclopedias, memory books, theological critiques, political and legal treatises, and literary satires, Garzoni's treatise is a synthesis and guide to the many genres defining, defending, and critiquing the arts in the sixteenth century" (71). Garzoni's work both incorporates and at some level condemns the satirical and licentious currents of Renaissance literature. "The comic and slanderous side of cinquecento culture will undoubtedly be a filter through which he will view many of the professions of the world. His discomfort with overly privileged buffoons' parody of high profession, his unease with the unnatural metamorphoses of high and low types at Carnevale, his dismay at the perverse power of the satirical slanderer over those in power, will all result in an ironic, comic, and iconoclastic tone that will pervade his own book" (101). McClure sees Garzoni as "a cultural leveler bringing the lore of both high and low culture to one audience at one time" (136).

The array of professions and their attendant costumes on display in late-sixteenth-century Venice is the theme of chapter 5. A key text here is Cesare Vecellio's De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diversi parti del mondo (1590), credited by McClure with "bringing to this new arena of the systematic study of material culture an appreciation of heretofore invisible professions" (154). In chapter 6 the emphasis shifts to the link between the professions and styles of dying, and the key text is Fabio Glissenti's Discorsi morali contra il dispiacer del morire, detto Athanatophilia (1596). This work further exemplifies the trend noted by McClure in his sources throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the increasing sympathetic interest of writers in the lives, labor, and argot of members of the [End Page 591] non-elite professions, down to and including porters, gondoliers, and prostitutes. Overall, his book exhaustively documents this aspect of the transformation of Italian society and its own self-representation in the age of print communication and anti-classicism in literature.

William McCuaig
Independent Scholar


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pp. 590-592
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Archived 2009
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