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Renaissance Florence: Society, Religion and Culture


Module description

For centuries, Florence has played a central role in the study of the Renaissance, one of the most important cultural movements in western European history. However, gradually our perception of that movement has been subtly changed and enriched as the great artistic achievements have begun to be examined and understood within their socio-economic, religious and political context. In the process, traditional preconceptions of the Renaissance have been rethought, as has the enduring aesthetic of nineteenth-century writers such as Jacob Burkhardt, Walter Pater and John Ruskin.

The course will thus begin by exploring the historiography of the Renaissance, a theme that will provide a link to subsequent classes, which will be framed by a critical assessment of recent research to include the economy, politics, religion, the family and disease. 

Each class will discuss contemporary textual and visual evidence. Thus, shifts in the demographic and economic profile of the city will be examined through changes in the urban landscape, while recent work on the family and household can be studied through the extraordinarily detailed Catasto tax survey of 1427, in conjunction with diaries and material culture. This was linked closely to the central role of political and artistic patronage of leading patrician families, such as the Medici, and also of religious corporations including convents and friaries.

Indeed, one of the more striking shifts in recent years is the reassessment of the role of religion, as historians have moved away from the dominant secular paradigm towards a picture of the fundamental importance of devotion at all levels of society through an examination of ritual and the art of devotion. Another shift in the historiography has been the study of groups other than male patricians; much has been revealed, for example, about the multifarious roles of women, whether as daughters, wives, widows or nuns. Humbler sections of society have also been examined not just as recipients of institutional charity, but also as actors in both politics (the Ciompi revolt of 1378) and at the level of neighbourhood networks.

All these themes will help us to appreciate the context of this period of great artistic and intellectual production.