The best books on Renaissance Italy

Celeste McNamara Author Of The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy
By Celeste McNamara

The Books I Picked & Why

The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento

By Guido Ruggiero

The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento

Why this book?

This book is a fantastic, broad overview of the Italian Renaissance (or rinascimento, the term Ruggiero prefers and which his subjects would have recognized). The Italian Rinascimento was a period, according to Ruggiero, of vibrant cities, social change, and cultural expression, in which intellectuals, politicians, and artists both looked back to an idealized classical past and forward to uncharted territory.

I love the way this book focuses on issues that preoccupied the people he studies and incorporates topics often absent from works on the Renaissance, including women, sexuality, economics, disease and death, and religion, among others. Even more important, perhaps, is that it is clear, accessible, and engaging, and demonstrates a wealth of knowledge developed over an illustrious career as a historian of early modern Italy.


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Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli During the Renaissance

By Edward Muir

Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli During the Renaissance

Why this book?

We often think of the Renaissance as a time of intellectual and artistic advances, elite cultural experiences, and royal courts or sober republican governments. It was also a time of violence – and attempts to control that violence. Muir focuses on a violent riot known as the Cruel Carnival of 1511, which took place in the remote Friuli region of northern Italy, then under the control of the Republic of Venice. He uses this event to explore vendetta conflict, factional violence, and peasant culture, showing a very different side of Renaissance Italy. This book is a fascinating exploration of ritualized violence and its meanings and makes a compelling case for its gradual control – or at least redirection – as dueling became the ritual of choice to maintain or restore honor.


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Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy

By Paula Findlen

Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy

Why this book?

This is an excellent and fascinating book on the scientific culture of Renaissance Italy, where intellectuals and the wealthy elite began collecting and cataloging curiosities long before their northern European counterparts. Findlen demonstrates a key way in which Renaissance intellectuals could look back to an idealized ancient past while also creating new knowledge and institutions – namely the museum. This book is beautifully written, full of engaging stories, and shows a side of early modern science often ignored.


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Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection

By Katherine Park

Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection

Why this book?

In spite of the impressive intellectual and scientific achievements of the Renaissance era, doctors and anatomists still had a very limited understanding of “women’s secrets,” that is, how the female body functioned. This era saw an increasing number of human dissections for medical study, but the vast majority of medical specimens were male, leading to an imbalance of knowledge.

In this captivating book, Park focuses on dissections of female bodies and the development of knowledge about the titular “secrets of women.” By expanding her study beyond university dissections to include those done in religious and domestic settings, she finds not only dissections of women’s bodies, but also dissections performed by women. The argument and analysis are sharp and incisive, it expands our understanding of early modern medicine, and the case studies of individual dissections are fascinating.


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Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence

By Michael Rocke

Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence

Why this book?

This book, now more than twenty years old, is still a key work in the history of sexuality. Rocke explores masculine culture in Renaissance Florence, focusing on seemingly rampant homoeroticism. He explores the topic from both proscriptive sources (sermons, laws, etc.) and through criminal trials against men accused of sodomy (as the practice was called). Contrary to what we might expect, he finds that sodomy was a relatively tolerated aspect of male culture, so long as it followed acceptable patterns. As with so much else in Renaissance Italy, here too the Florentines looked to the ancients, essentially recreating the ancient Greek form of pederasty, in which older elite men formed sexual relationships with adolescents, taking the “active” role with their younger partners. None of this challenged their masculinity or precluded heterosexual marriage; this was something different. Rocke’s study thus challenges us to rethink early modern sexuality as a spectrum, rather than a binary.


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