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  • Gender, Honor, and Charity in Late Renaissance Florence by Philip Gavitt
  • Natalie Tomas
Gavitt, Philip , Gender, Honor, and Charity in Late Renaissance Florence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. x, 280; 9 tables; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9781107002944.

This book builds on Philip Gavitt's earlier work on the famous foundling hospital of Florence, the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) and its mission to receive foundlings and orphans during its early years in the fifteenth century. The author suggests that extending his research into the sixteenth century revealed that the institution shared with other charitable institutions - in Florence and its environs - and with other cities in Italy, a concern for the limited choices open to female foundlings once they reached marriageable age. Dowry inflation and a rigid patrilineal inheritance system meant that girls, and sometimes boys, were left in the care of charitable institutions rather than their families. To Gavitt, this suggests that lineage ideology and the development of an aristocratic status culture in sixteenth-century Florence better explains the need to house such a large number of foundlings - particularly females - rather than a more usually assumed, all-encompassing Mediterranean gender ideology, which deemed that women were subordinate to men across all time periods. However, as contemporary understandings of gender and attitudes to women were directly linked to a preference for male heirs and a reluctance to consider partible inheritance, gender ideology and lineage ideology were linked and interdependent. This means that gender ideology could influence lineage ideology and perhaps Gavitt could have considered this issue more fully in his discussion.

Gavitt argues that charitable institutions were part of a broader societal emphasis on discipline, state building, and confessionalization in Catholic Europe and it was these concerns that drove Cosimo de' Medici to reform charitable and conventual institutions as part of his efforts to consolidate his power within his realm. Vincenzo Borghini, the superintendent of the Innocenti in the mid-sixteenth century is a key focus of this book. He attempted to impose monastic discipline and inculcate confessionalized piety into the charges under his care. Throughout his tenure, Borghini tied the fortunes of the Innocenti as an institution to the state building of the Medici dukes. Equally important, he met a need to house (sometimes temporarily and sometimes for life) the surplus children of aristocratic families who were concerned to preserve primogeniture.

The second and third chapters provide a very sophisticated analysis of the link between gender, lineage ideology, and the development of an aristocratic status culture in Florence that drew more on the aristocratic humanist ideology of the courts than republics. The desire to preserve [End Page 241] patrilineal inheritance for the eldest son meant that girls within families were often the victims of dowry inflation and sent to convents or various charitable institutions, as a means of preserving their honour and reputation. If they were poor, residence at the Innocenti protected these vulnerable children from prostitution and a dishonourable life on the streets.

Girls predominated at the Innocenti, but admissions of boys equalled those of girls in years of famine and war crises. Boys also thus faced danger, when their families could no longer support them. Sometimes they were stepchildren and their stepfathers wishing to protect their own children's inheritance sent them to the Innocenti, where they would be taught a trade, or go into the priesthood. Some of the foundlings stayed into adulthood - running the tapestry workshops that contributed so much to the grand-ducal economy, or were involved in the administration of the Innocenti itself.

Female foundlings left at the Innocenti sometimes worked within the hospital, or were sent out as domestic servants to earn money for their own dowry. Some girls married and some entered convents. But the number of girls that the Innocenti had to care for was an increasing headache for Borghini. Many of the foundlings remained in institutions for life and as the numbers swelled, girls over the age of 36 were sent to the widows' asylum, the Orbatello. Gavitt vividly describes the rigid daily routines of the Innocenti, with its conventual cycle of prayer services to mark the day as well as the...


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