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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 303-307

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Book Review

How to Do It:
Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians

How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians. By Rudolph M. Bell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xiii + 375. $25.00 (cloth).

The title of Rudolph Bell's latest book offers a clue to its double, and not completely successful, nature. The slightly leering It in How to Do It has popular and consistently sexual connotations; on the dust cover, Bronzino's full-length, frontal nude Venus, her breasts fondled by cupids, leaves little doubt that the leer is intended. In his introduction, Bell chooses to ground his study of sixteenth-century guides in the reader's implied twentieth-century experience of how-to books rather than in the author's knowledge of the broader genre and its specific roots in the Renaissance. This makes it clear that the book is intended for, and deserves, a popular readership. The author means to amuse (pp. 197, 206), albeit sometimes voyeuristically. The second part of the title, however, indicates that this is a scholarly survey that can offer important materials to various researchers. It accomplishes this in extensive footnotes, though it lacks the fundamental scholarly tool of a bibliography. These notes give historians investigating many subjects access to a wealth of material for the history of physiology and medicine as well as for various topics in sexuality and gender. But, while Bell's research is prodigious, scholars may, in fact, be alienated by his choice of voice and tone.

Bell's stated purpose is to explore those sixteenth-century Italian advice manuals that were printed in the vernacular--manuals that were presumably available to a wide readership, specifically to an assumed middle class. He makes no claims to move the scholarly field forward or to offer new interpretations of his materials. He seeks instead to inform and amuse his audience. He presents himself as the leader of a tour through the texts (pp. 5, 280), where "we now take a peek" (p. 232) at selected [End Page 303] sources and where he hopes the reader will sometimes find things "good for a chuckle" (p. 281).

This light, idiosyncratic tone is intended and sustained throughout Bell's comprehensive compendium. His guise of a tour leader (assumed several times) who finds humor in the antics of the "natives" cannot help but evoke the charge of chronological colonialism--the "natives" being the men and women of sixteenth-century Italy. Bell sometimes explains how his subjects would feel, along lines of attribution explored extensively in Marshall Sahlins's How "Natives" Think (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). They are consistently treated sympathetically, but sometimes made to perform for the tourists. Were the book more deeply and securely anchored in the period or in the genre of how-to manuals, the trip could have produced more than an occasional postcard or veduto.

Bell's tour covers five developmental phases of the human life cycle, from "Conception" in chapter 2 through "Marital Relations" in chapter 6, which ends with widows and widowers. The book thus imitates the organization of the manuals, some of which he mined numerous times for successive subjects and ages. The linear journey through the life cycle means that the same authors appear in different chapters (e.g., on conception, on adolescence, and on marriage). Ironically, this repetition, which is somewhat tedious, may ultimately alienate the lay reader for whom the book was apparently intended.

Originality and provenance are not determining factors for inclusion of a manual in Bell's work; but wide circulation, as evidenced by the number of printings, indicates a tract's popularity and makes it attractive. Thus, the work of the Montpellier doctor Lorenzo Gioberti is used because, in translations, it was widely available to sixteenth-century Italians. For the same reason, works by Leonardo Fioravanti, Michele Savonarola (the grandfather of the famous Girolomo, who himself provides material for chapter 6), and Cherubino da Siena...


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