The best books about women in Renaissance Venice

Who am I?

My goal as a writer is to revive lost women’s stories through historical fiction. After co-authoring several historical novels, our last mystery set in Renaissance Rome, we decided to set the sequel in Venice. When we decided to split amicably before finishing that novel, I had spent so much time researching Renaissance Venice that I instantly knew I wanted to set my first solo novel there and focus on girls and women whose stories are so frequently lost to history. So began a quest to learn everything I could about the females of 15th and 16th-century Venice, leading me toward both academic and fictional works of the era.


I wrote...

The Virgins of Venice

By Gina Buonaguro,

Book cover of The Virgins of Venice

What is my book about?

In The Virgins of Venice, an engrossing coming-of-age novel set in 16th-century Venice, one young noblewoman dares to resist the choices made for her: marriage or convent.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent

Gina Buonaguro Why did I love this book?

Mary Laven’s readable academic book Virgins of Venice is the definitive resource on the topic of nuns in Renaissance Venice. She explores every aspect of what it was like to be and live as a nun during a roughly two-hundred-year period, when most convents were filled with high-status women of no religious calling, forced to live there by their fathers and the strict social conventions of the time.

By Mary Laven,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A portrait of 16th and 17th century Italian convent life, set in the vibrant culture of late Renaissance Venice. Early 16th century Venice had 50 convents and about 3000 nuns. Far from being places of religious devotion, the convents were often little more than dumping-grounds for unmarried women fron the upper ranks of Venetian society. Often entering a convent at seven years old, these young women remained emotionally and socially attached to their families and to their way of life outside the convent. Supported by their private incomes, the nuns ate, dressed and behaved as gentlewomen. In contravention of their…


Book cover of In the Company of the Courtesan: A Novel

Gina Buonaguro Why did I love this book?

Told from the point of view of a guard who happens to be a dwarf, this enjoyable, page-turning novel is about a courtesan who escapes the Sack of Rome in 1527 to ply her trade in Venice. As the dwarf and his mistress infiltrate their way into the highest ranks of Venetian society, they must contend with the mysteries and dangers found in every echelon of one of the Renaissance world’s greatest cities.

By Sarah Dunant,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked In the Company of the Courtesan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.

Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to…


Book cover of The Midwife of Venice

Gina Buonaguro Why did I love this book?

This evocative novel tells the story of a Jewish midwife making her way in a very Christian Renaissance Venice. Along with all Jews confined to the ghetto at night by doge’s decree, Hannah is not permitted to help Christians with her medical knowledge. However, when her husband is taken to Malta and sold as a slave, Hannah finds that certain laws can be broken, for the right price.

By Roberta Rich,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Not since Anna Diamant’s The Red Tent or Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book has a novel transported readers so intimately into the complex lives of women centuries ago or so richly into a story of intrigue that transcends the boundaries of history. A “lavishly detailed” (Elle Canada) debut that masterfully captures sixteenth-century Venice against a dramatic and poetic tale of suspense.

Hannah Levi is renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from their mothers using her secret “birthing spoons.” When a count implores her to attend his dying wife and save their unborn son, she is…


Book cover of Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice

Gina Buonaguro Why did I love this book?

This accessible academic work brings to life the inner workings – and breakdowns – of marriages at a time when annulment was the only option. Through court and ecclesiastical proceedings and petitions written by both sexes, the lives of ordinary women – including sexual relations, domestic abuse, cheating, and financial problems are made even more real by the voices of friends, neighbors, and in-laws.

By Joanne M. Ferraro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on a fascinating body of previously unexamined archival material, this book brings to life the lost voices of ordinary Venetians during the age of Catholic revival. Looking at scripts that were brought to the city's ecclesiastical courts by spouses seeking to annul their marriage vows, this book opens up the emotional world of intimacy and conflict, sexuality, and living arrangments that did not fit normative models of marriage.


Book cover of Ciao, Carpaccio! An Infatuation

Gina Buonaguro Why did I love this book?

A beautiful little book that showcases the paintings of early Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, we see many women in his works. Some of saints, some bordering on the fantastical, a few quite realistic – all the women in Carpaccio’s art would have been inspired by real women living and working in Venice in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

By Jan Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ciao, Carpaccio! An Infatuation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the course of writing Venice, her 1961 classic, Jan Morris became fascinated by the historical presence of a sometimes-overlooked Venetian painter. Nowadays the name of Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1520) suggests raw beef, but to Morris it conveyed far more profound meanings. Thus began a lifelong infatuation, reaching across the centuries, between a renowned Welsh writer and a great and delightfully entertaining artist of the early Renaissance. Handsomely designed with more than seventy photographs throughout, Ciao,Carpaccio! is a happy caprice of affection. In illuminating the life of the artist and his paintings, Morris throws in digressions about Venetian animals, courtesans, babies,…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Venice, Italy, and the Renaissance?

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