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

Who am I?

I teach medieval and early modern European history at Dublin City University, with a particular interest in 16th-18th century Italian history. My own research focuses on the religious, legal, and popular culture of northern Italy, particularly Venice and the Veneto region. I became fascinated with Renaissance Italian history as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and then went on to do a masters and a PhD at Northwestern University. I have taught at Northwestern, the College of William and Mary, the University of Warwick/Warwick in Venice, and the State University of New York at Cortland.

I wrote...

The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy

By Celeste McNamara,

Book cover of The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy

What is my book about?

The Bishop’s Burden examines the reform of the 17th-century Italian diocese of Padua within a framework of European Catholic Renewal, a process that occurred over the 15th-17th centuries. It argues that reforming bishops were forced to be creative and resourceful to accomplish meaningful change, including creating strong diocesan governments, reforming clerical and lay behavior, educating priests and parishioners, and converting non-believers.

The Bishop's Burden helps us understand not only the changes experienced by early modern Catholics, but also how even the most sophisticated plans of central authorities could be frustrated by practical realities, which in turn complicates our understanding of state-building and social control.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Guido Ruggiero,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Renaissance in Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers a rich and exciting new way of thinking about the Italian Renaissance as both a historical period and a historical movement. Guido Ruggiero's work is based on archival research and new insights of social and cultural history and literary criticism, with a special emphasis on everyday culture, gender, violence and sexuality. The book offers a vibrant and relevant critical study of a period too long burdened by anachronistic and outdated ways of thinking about the past. Familiar, yet alien; pre-modern, but suggestively post-modern; attractive and troubling, this book returns the Italian Renaissance to center stage in our…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Edward Muir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mad Blood Stirring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nobles were slaughtered and their castles looted or destroyed, bodies were dismembered and corpses fed to animals-the Udine carnival massacre of 1511 was the most extensive and damaging popular revolt in Renaissance Italy (and the basis for the story of Romeo and Juliet). Mad Blood Stirring is a gripping account and analysis of this event, as well as the social structures and historical conflicts preceding it and the subtle shifts in the mentality of revenge it introduced. This new reader's edition offers students and general readers an abridged version of this classic work which shifts the focus from specialized scholarly…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Paula Findlen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Possessing Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1500 few Europeans regarded nature as a subject worthy of inquiry. Yet fifty years later the first museums of natural history had appeared in Italy, dedicated to the marvels of nature. Italian patricians, their curiosity fueled by new voyages of exploration and the humanist rediscovery of nature, created vast collections as a means of knowing the world and used this knowledge to their greater glory. Drawing on extensive archives of visitors' books, letters, travel journals, memoirs, and pleas for patronage, Paula Findlen reconstructs the lost social world of Renaissance and Baroque museums. She follows the new study of natural…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Katherine Park,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Secrets of Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, medical writers and philosophers began to devote increasing attention to what they called “women’s secrets,” by which they meant female sexuality and generation. At the same time, Italian physicians and surgeons began to open human bodies in order to study their functions and the illnesses that afflicted them, culminating in the great illustrated anatomical treatise of Andreas Vesalius, in 1543.

Katharine Park traces these two closely related developments through a series of case studies of women whose bodies were dissected after their deaths: an abbess, a lactating virgin, several patrician wives and mothers,…

Book cover of Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence

Why did I love 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.

By Michael Rocke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forbidden Friendships as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1432, the Office of the Night was created specifically to police sodomy in Florence. Seventy years of denunciations, accusations, interrogations, and sentencings left an extraordinarily detailed record, which Rocke uses to its fullest in this richly documented portrait. He uncovers a culture in which sexual roles were strictly defined by age, with boys under eighteen the 'passive' participants in sodomy, youths in their twenties the 'active' participant, and men
in their thirties marrying women, their days of sexual frivolity over. This richly documented book paints a fascinating picture of a vibrant time and place and calls into question our…

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