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  • Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy by Nicholas Terpstra
  • Rossella Pescatori
Nicholas Terpstra, Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy, I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 2013) x + 379 pp.

Charity plays an important role in Italian culture, and Terpstra’s study wants to be an historical and sociological analysis of some outcomes related to this concept. His volume concentrates on Bolognese society from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries and how in that city poor relief was organized and structured. Terpstra observes that Bologna had a unique approach to deal with its own poor, and elaborated a civic system that was extremely functional for its economical structure. This study evidences that gender was the key factor for its peculiarity. In fact the most of the beneficiaries of charity were women, who suffered the most social injustice. Many creative new plans were adapted to deal with women’s poverty like illegitimate births, hunger, unemployment, and domestic violence, and helped them to get a start in life.

The book is organized in six chapters, which focus on different aspects—religion, charitable institutions, politics, and finances—that characterize and make Bologna peculiar. Chapter 1, Showing the Poor a Good Time: Gender, Class, and Charitable Cultures, gives a contextualization to the book, offering an historical background for “practical” and “patronal” charity, which according to the author are two different and antagonist ways of understanding the giving to the poor. Terpstra observes that “practical” and “patronal” charity can be respectively connected to the theological concepts of misericordia and caritas, even if their cultural distinction is due more to political or social issues. It is analyzed in particular the system of OPM (Opera Pia dei Poveri Mendicanti) and the attention is given to the fact that managers/officers of this institution were not only men, but also women named “prioresse.”

Chapter 2, Worthy Poor, Worthy Rich: Women’s Poverty and Charitable Institutions, focuses on the fact that many new institutions were created in Bologna to help women’s poverty despite of political or demographical crisis. Terpstra offers accurate descriptions of both locations and structures of these shelters and institutes. Chapter 3, Tightening Control: The Narrowing Politics of Charity, deals with the politics that was behind these charitable institutions, and the competitions of the communal and oligarchic parties for the control of the city. The main focus is given to the OPM from the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. [End Page 339]

Chapter 4, Meeting the Bottom Line: Alms, Taxes, Work, and Legacies, studies some economical problems that were in connection with these charitable institutions, in particular the OPM. As it is remarked by Terpstra “the poor needed work and the silk industry needed workers, and both the communal and oligarchic groups in government believe that the OPM could be the nexus of a charitable-industrial strategy” (16) To maintain these charity institutions, in particular the OPM, was not easy, but despite facing escalating deficits, donations always allowed their existence. The political and financial issues connected to the OPM enlighten the contexts and challenges for Bologna’s welfare network. Chapter 5, The Wheel Keeps Turning, Moving Beyond the Opera, goes back into the analysis of the structures of the charities in the late sixteenth century focusing on gender matters. In effect these institutions mostly helped young women, giving them opportunities to manage their life without compromising themselves. The author remarks that this was unique of Bologna’s system. Chapter 6, Baroque Piety and the Qualità of Marcy, deals with some changes that occurred in Bologna in the seventeenth century. Bologna at that time became part of the papal state and new government started investing more in art and architecture than in the charity institutions. Patronal charity became prevalent, and often the institutions were changed into fee-charging shelters, and others into punitive enclosures used to relegate people. By the end if the seventeenth century, Bologna lost its innovative welfare, and become alike other Italian and European cities.

Terpstra’s study gives an exhaustive analysis of Bolognese social...


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pp. 339-340
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