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  • Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence
  • Jutta Sperling
Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. By Sharon Strocchia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. xvi plus 261 pp.).

Sharon Strocchia's book is a most impressive investigation of the intricate connections that developed between convents and the Florentine state in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Analyzing an impressive range of archival sources, Strocchia shows in great detail how Florence's female monastic institutions responded to, and even helped effect, some of the major social, cultural, political, [End Page 1146] and economic transformations we have come to associate with Florentine Renaissance history: the expansion of the patronage system and its manipulation by the Medici after 1434, the replacement of neighborhood ties with city-wide networks, the growth of the silk industry, the surveillance and criminalization of sexual deviance, the growing popularity of the mendicant orders, and, finally, the aristocraticization of church, state, and society in the sixteenth century. The author proposes new explanations for the exponential rise in convent population in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and the accompanying battles for strict enclosure. In her view, the development was prompted only in part by marriage strategies and dowry inflation; equally important—if not more important— were intrinsic factors such as the rise of mendicant religiosity and the rising political significance of convents, but also negative events such as the upheavals caused by revolution and the Italian wars. Likewise, the imposition of strict enclosure is not discussed as an expression of the authorities' attempts to police upper class women's reproductive behavior. In Strocchia's view, "at the heart of Renaissance enclosure wars lay a battle for control over local religious resources" (xv).

In her first chapter, Strocchia lays out the demographic development of Florentine convents, paying close attention to individual convents' fiscal policies, the pro-natalist policies culminating in the creation of the dowry fund, the observant movements of the middle of the fifteenth centuries, and the rise in bridal dowries. The most impressive rise in convent population occurred between 1478 and 1515, when the number of nuns rose from 1200 to 2500, although a steady increase was noticeable already in 1434 and continued well into the middle of the sixteenth century.

In her second chapter, the author shows how fifteenth-century Florentine convents morphed from neighborhood organizations into city-wide civic institutions. Strocchia's measures are recruitment patterns and the convents' real estate holdings. If in the early fifteenth century most families managed to cluster siblings into the same convent due to under-enrollment, this option would no longer be available a century later. One effect of this prohibition was a more differentiated patronage of different convents by the same families. Papal reform efforts also had the effect of loosening neighborhood bonds, when, for example, observant communities profited from the abolition of non-observant convents and acquired control of the dissolved institutions' properties.

In her third chapter, Strocchia analyzes the change in convents' investment patterns, nuns' personal annuities, and tax favors obtained through civic governance and patronage. While most of the wealthy convents continued to rely on income from real estate, and the poorest convents had no sizeable endowment at all, the middling convents shifted their investment bases from real estate to income from state funds. Individual nuns' personal revenues would often come from the same source. A direct government intervention in convent economies consisted of granting tax breaks, which both the republican and the Medicean regimes relied on to justify their increasing efforts to regulate convents as civic institutions.

The fourth—and my favorite—chapter deals with the kinds of work the nuns of all convents engaged in, even the very wealthy ones. Strocchia argues that the development of the Florentine silk industry and related luxury textile production was in part due to the nuns' labor and collaboration. Her discussion of the evidence is breathtakingly detailed, vivid, and engaging. She explains, for example, what it took to make gold thread—a common convent product: "nuns cut the tissue-paper-thin sheets of gold leaf into very narrow strips with long, [End Page 1147] flexible scissors, then delicately wound the trips around a core of silk...


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