- Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence
In late 1554 a group of female philanthropists opened a shelter for abandoned girls, the Casa della Pietà, in a rundown building in an unsavory neighborhood in Florence. The need was great; the Pietà filled quickly and stayed that way for fourteen years until the charitable home closed its doors and relocated. Curiously, though, this shelter for abandoned girls provided little shelter. Of the 526 girls to enter only 202 left alive. When Nicholas Terpstra stumbled upon this information in the archive it appropriately piqued his curiosity. When a simple and quick explanation was not readily available he launched a full-scale investigation. He found some answers, some suggestions of answers, and some likely scenarios. Using his own understanding of the Florentine landscape based on his years as a scholar, a myriad of highly suggestive literary works, and some of the quality scholarship produced by other fine Renaissance scholars, Terpstra solved his mystery (to my satisfaction, anyway) and painted a wonderfully detailed and eye-catching portrait of the sexual landscape in Renaissance Florence that illuminates just how perilous life could have been for young women. He also penned a great read.
Like many other historians I love a good mystery. I like to dive into another world and play amateur detective along with my fictional sleuth companion. We uncover clues down darkened passageways, get tripped up on misreadings, and occasionally waste some time chasing down a red herring. Solving a literary murder is not all that unlike researching the archives in some respects so it seemed rather natural to consider Terpstra's research question as the crime and the march through the argument much like chasing down a killer. I cannot recall the last time I was so fully drawn into a non-fiction book. I've known Terpstra to be a good writer with accessible but precise prose and a pleasant voice. But with this book he attains another level; here he engrosses and entertains while he edifies. In keeping with the mystery theme: reading this book feels a bit like sitting tensely in a wood-paneled drawing room, shivering despite the fire, listening to Hercule Poirot lead us through the crime, waiting with growing trepidation for the big reveal.
In Lost Girls, though, there is no big reveal. Here the chase is the thing. "The Setting: Sex and the City" provides an overview of the city's sexual climate, stressing that eros was thought to be unavoidable danger. Men would have sex, so it was society's job to make sure that carnal commerce did as little damage as possible. Prostitution provided an appropriate sexual outlet for boys that would ideally keep them away from the city's good women. The Pietà was founded to address the other side of the equation by presenting a safe haven where Florentine girls could grow up unmolested. We learn more about the nuts and bolts of the Pietà in the third chapter, "Renaissance Teenagers: Working Girls." Terpstra explores employment options and the labor that women were likely to do, including the textile production at the Pietà itself. Here our author does a particularly good job of demonstrating female itinerancy as the girls float from domestic position to domestic position, prowl the streets for donations, and do their best to avoid getting in trouble. Of course, sending nubile young things to work as a domestic was risky. In the early modern era female servants were [End Page 1145] fair game for their masters; it was a literary trope and a quotidian reality. Terpstra develops this idea and the options for dealing with the consequences in "Teenage Girls and Birth Control." This chapter exemplifies what makes this book so very good. The overarching narrative of the Pietà demands a discussion of pregnancy at the Pietà itself. Terpstra does this but then expands on this point to talk about contemporary ideas on pregnancy and abortion, papal politics, and the inefficacy of pre-modern medicine, all the while maintaining the stream of...