The Medieval Review 14.09.31


Cohn Jr., Samuel, Marcello Fantoni, Franco Franceschi, Fabrizio Ricciardelli. Late Medieval and Early Modern Ritual: Studies in Italian Urban Culture. Europa Sacra, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. vii, 364. €90.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503541907 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Cecilia Hewlett
Monash University
cecilia.hewlett@monash.edu

Over the past three decades, studies of ritual in late Medieval and Renaissance Italy have experienced an exponential growth. According to Marcello Fantoni in his introductory essay to this volume, ritual has become a veritable obsession for historians. Certainly any one of us could reel off the names of several dozen recent studies of ritual in the medieval and Renaissance city without even trying. And herein lies the challenge. In the context of this embarrassment of scholarly riches, how do you produce a coherent volume that not only contributes in a substantial way to current debates, but that also challenges and stimulates the very framework itself?

In his introduction, Samuel Cohn Jr. admits that the editors did not make any attempt to guide or direct contributors but instead "relied on the strengths of individual scholars across a wide range of interests and specialties" (2). This is a risky strategy and one that has resulted in a stimulating and challenging collection of studies that ranges broadly in both temporal and thematic focus. Geographically, there is a predictable Florentine bias, with over half the essays in the volume depending on Tuscan examples to support their arguments. The authors of these studies raise a plethora of interesting questions and provide many stimuli for further research. What is missing from this collection, however, is an overview of ritual forms or any sort of comparative framework that could be used to move it beyond a collection of disparate studies. Interestingly enough, it is this very gap in current scholarship that is acknowledged explicitly by both Cohn and Fantoni in their introduction to the volume, but it is one that they have clearly made a decision not to fill.

Perhaps the most usefully synthetic contribution in the volume is Marcello Fantoni's introductory essay "Symbols and Rituals: Definition of a Field of Study." In this chapter, Fantoni traces historiographical developments in the field and engages with some of the key methodological questions faced by historians of ritual, such as how historians can explore change over time, rather than just providing a static view of a particular ritual form.

The first section of the volume, "Consensus and Social Identity," begins strongly with a contribution from Illaria Taddei, "Between Rules and Ritual: The Election of the Signoria in Florence in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries." In this essay Taddei provides us with a sensitive reading of the elaborate rituals associated with the electoral process in Florence--highlighting their "incessant repetition" and exploring the significance of the crowning of the Marzocco as a symbol of liberty. The author convincingly argues that these rituals were sophisticated tools in the legitimization of the Signoria as the sovereign power of the city.

Continuing on the theme of civic rituals, Franco Franceschi shines some much-needed light on guild rituals in his essay, "The Rituals of the Guilds: Examples from Tuscan Cities (Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries)." Here Franceschi provides us with a description of the numerous rituals that punctuated the life-cycle of guild members--oath swearing, the celebration of holidays, group banquets, death and burial. Through these examples, he demonstrates that guilds continued to offer solidarity and assistance to their members long after historians have argued that lay confraternities had absorbed these functions.

Fabrizio Ricciardelli's essay, "The Rhetoric of Power in Renaissance Florence," discusses the Florentine government's use of ritual to actively assert their authority over recently acquired subject territories during the fourteenth century. Ricciardelli uses the examples of the public spectacles organized on the acquisition of Arezzo, and the conquest of Pisa, to argue that Florence used spectacles as active tools to assert their superiority and role as defenders of liberty. Ricciardelli's essay makes a valuable contribution our understanding of Florence as a territorial power and one that would be well worth developing further.

The final chapter in this section, Carlo Taviani's "Peace and Revolt: Oath-Taking rituals in Early Sixteenth-Century Italy" moves us out of Tuscany and compares the role of oaths in peacemaking between the Papal States and Genoa. Like Riccardelli, Taviani is interested in questions of political authority and the rituals involved in conquest, asking questions about the identity of peacemakers and the longer-term efficacy of these rituals. He focuses on two specific examples in the context of the Italian Wars of the sixteenth century, the first being the role of the papacy in bringing about peace between factions in Viterbo and Perugia and the second, an oath taken by artisans in Genova in the seventeenth century to abolish factions and redistribute office holding.

Part Two of this volume, "Family and Gender," begins with a contribution from Guido Alfani, "Family Ritual in Northern Italy," linking relational aspects of rituals such as baptism and marriage with an examination of the public ritual itself. Alfani is particularly interested on the impact of the Council of Trent on these practices, arguing that there is still considerable work to do before we fully understand the impact of these reforms on modern social institutions. Paired with this essay is Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's study of the painting of male and female nudes in marriage chests, "The First Female Nudes of the Quattrocento." Here Klapisch-Zuber explores the power of these very private images, by carefully placing them within the context of their role in wedding rituals and the wider changes to dowry laws taking place during the first half of the fifteenth century. Considering the extensive work that has been undertaken on the gendered nature of public ritual, it is unfortunate that this section of the volume was not developed further. At the same time, we should not underestimate the difficulties involved in balancing thematic considerations when dealing with such a vast field of study.

"Death and Violence" is the focus of the third section of the volume, with topics spanning medieval warfare, funerary rites and the street violence of youths. William Caferro's essay, "Honour and Insult: Military Rituals in Late Medieval Tuscany," attempts to counter the lack of scholarly attention that has been given to warfare, drawing attention to the elaborate practices of humiliation and shaming that were involved in conflict situations. These practices were part of a continuum of shaming rituals that were fundamental to medieval and renaissance justice systems. The elaborate rituals involved in state military funerals are interpreted as being just as much about insulting enemies as paying due respect to military heroes. Funerary rites are also the subject of John Marino's analysis of two narrative cycles from the exequies of Philip II in his essay, "Philip II's Royal Exequies in Two Italian Cities: His Deeds and Virtues as Seen in Florence and Naples." Through a careful comparison of the Florentine cycle with that found in Naples, Marino argues for a local distinctiveness of ritual and its power to innovate and transform.

Andrea Zorzi concludes this section with a discussion of the practice that saw young boys involved in mutilating the bodies of executed criminals (or even participating in violent murder) in "Rituals of Youthful Violence in Late Medieval Italian Urban Societies." Zorzi, echoing other historians before him, explains that these were not acts of gratuitous violence but sacred rituals that performed an important role in the purification of the community. Relying largely on Florentine examples, Zorzi argues that through a process of disciplining advocated by Savonarola and other preachers, there was a progressive reduction in youthful violence that began in the fifteenth century. While introducing some fascinating primary materials, the essay suffers a little from a lack of in-depth critical engagement with the sources themselves.

The final section of this volume, "Civic and Power Rituals," is perhaps the most wide-ranging in geographical terms. The first two essays, Maria Antonietta Viscegli's "Papal Sovereignty and Civic Rituals in the Early Modern Age," and Genevieve Warwick's "Ritual Form and Urban Space in Early Modern Rome," are both concerned with urban spaces and the ritual topography of Rome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Visceglia examines the appropriation and suppression of civic rituals by the papacy. In doing so she demonstrates that this process did not result in the death of civic ritual, but instead saw it evolving into new shapes and forms. Warwick continues with this theme in her analysis of the physical transformation of Piazza Navona under Innocent X. Her analysis is based on the assumption that the (re)configuration and imagining of public spaces were inextricable linked to the political life of the city and providing us with a compelling 'biography' of this particular space and its important role in the ritual life of the city.

Andrew Hopkins examines the removal of the figure of the doge from public ritual under Doge Andrea Gritti in the early decades of the sixteenth century in "Symbol of Venice: the Doge in Ritual." Hopkins argues convincingly for the ritual significance of the doge's absence or invisibility, reminding us that rituals are often just as much about what you don't see as what you do. In the final essay of this collection, "The Pope as Conqueror: Rites of Possession, Episodes and Unexpected Events in 1598 Ferrara," Giovanni Ricci explores the impact on public ritual of the transfer of power to the papacy when the D'Este dynasty died out.

The editors and the contributors to this volume are to be commended for the richness of the offerings contained within it. Emerging from these studies, and reinforced in Cohn's introduction, is a strong sense of the sheer vitality and inventiveness present in ritual life in Italy well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For this alone, the volume makes a valuable contribution to the field and will hopefully stimulate further critical analysis of these themes.



Copyright (c) 2014 Cecilia Hewlett



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login