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21.03.15 Vitullo, Negotiating the Art of Fatherhood in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy

The Medieval Review

21.03.15 Vitullo, Negotiating the Art of Fatherhood in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy


Juliann Vitullo's Negotiating the Art of Fatherhood in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy explores debates surrounding fatherhood, what it meant to be a good father, and how fatherhood fit into a merchant republic. Vitullo argues that the "mercantile values" of the city influenced Italians to see children--whether biological or metaphorical--as part of their respectable wealth or material legacy. Fatherhood meant investing actively in their children and helping children (sons, in particular) to form the social networks necessary to continue the political and economic success of the family (2). Fathers benefitted their children and their communities by preparing their sons to assume future leadership roles.

Vitullo takes a theoretical approach to fatherhood, focusing in particular on the connections between wealth and fatherhood. As such, Vitullo builds on, rather than revisiting, the existing scholarship on the practice of fatherhood which has focused on actual bonds or interactions between men and their sons. Instead, her focus is on how intellectuals of the day thought about those bonds. After laying out the connections between fatherhood and wealth in chapter 1, Vitullo approaches the topic of fatherhood through its connection to five different subjects, each the focus of one chapter.

"Fertile Fathers of the Poor," the second chapter, focuses on fertility and the role of a civic father, drawing on sermons condemning wealth, literary and visual depictions of wealth, and defenses of wealth from merchants and city elites. It explores the conflict merchants felt between their desire for a reputation as a good Christian and honest citizen, on the one hand, and their wealth, grounded in business in general and often based in part on moneylending, on the other. Vitullo argues that these merchants negotiated this tension by separating usury, which was still seen as sinful and disreputable or dishonest, from honestly-earned wealth, often described as dovizia. The former was sterile--money cannot beget more money naturally, according to contemporary theology--while the latter was fertile, reproduced naturally when tended properly, and enriched the entire community. This fertility was metaphorical, but it could also be literal, as children were described as dovizia, a term otherwise used to describe honestly-earned wealth or household goods. Wealthy merchants therefore grounded their identity as respectable citizens on their wealth and their fertility, highlighting both their literal children and their roles as city fathers to the metaphorical children of the city.

This connection between children and dovizia continue into the third chapter, "Emotion and the Art of Fatherhood." Here Vitullo examines the debates among writers and thinkers of the era on whether or not it was appropriate for elite men to invest emotionally for their children, and specifically to mourn their deaths. While some, such as Petrarch, condemned outward displays of love or mourning as suitable only for women or those of low status, others, such as Alberti and Manetti, defend emotional bonds as natural and good (92). These authors and others justify this stance in part by arguing that children are similar to the wealth necessary for a family's success, and investing oneself in the wealth and taking pride and pleasure in it is a good and even noble pursuit (65, 93).

"Passion and Paternity: Debates about Fictional Fathers," the fourth chapter, changes directions to focus on several different retellings of two fictional stories, that of Seleucus, who renounces his marriage to his second wife and allows his son to marry her rather than die of lovesickness, and that of Tacred, who kills his beloved daughter Ghismonda upon learning that she has taken a lover. The multiple tellings of these stories, with their variations, and the reaction of the characters within the narrative frames of the stories, highlight debates about the duties of a father to his child among the audiences. What was the responsibility of a parent in terms of securing a spouse for their child? Should a father enforce his will with an iron fist or was that a failure to recognize the humanity of his child? This chapter is also noteworthy in being the only one to address the role of women in the family, touching on the relationship between fathers and daughters and the triangle between fathers, sons, and stepmothers, who were often closer in age to their stepsons than to their husbands.

The fifth chapter "Paternal Pedagogy and the Palate," returns to the theme of household wealth and fatherhood. As with wealth in general, Florentines had a complex relationship with food, as made clear in the writings from intellectuals ranging from San Bernardino to Boccaccio and Sacchetti, to Antonio Pucci, Matteo Palmieri and Leon Battista Alberti. They feared the sin of gluttony and worried that overindulgence in luxurious foods--especially sweets--would lead to children being undisciplined generally, and in seeking other sinful behaviors, such as gambling and illicit sex, which would rot both the individual and the household. But the abundance and variety of food available was also a mark of the success and the wealth of a city and its households. Parents therefore needed to carefully instruct their children in moderation, and an important site of that instruction, and cross-generational instruction in general, was the table.

The final chapter, "In Bed with the Infidel: Fathers, Slaves, and Children" focuses on the role of domestic slaves, almost entirely female, in disrupting the ideals of fatherhood for elite men of the era. In most of the pervious chapters, material wealth, household possessions, and children were equated with one another and with boosting the status of the father and his lineage. By contrast, slave ownership, itself a form of conspicuous consumption, was instead seen as undermining the family, at least by some writers. Contemporary writers roundly criticized both the enslaved women, accusing them of a long list of vices, and their elite owners, whom they said undermined the family by fathering children with their slaves (164-165;168-169). The elite merchants, meanwhile, were caught up in this tension. They continued to own and sexually exploit their slaves while founding orphanages that served the dual purposes of raising their status as charitable city fathers and housing the unwanted children of their slaves.

While the chapters are all bound together by the idea of fatherhood, and also by the idea of mercantile values, I would have appreciated a more explicit definition of both terms. Further the individual chapters vary in the degree to which fatherhood, at least as I define it, is in fact central. For example, chapter 6 includes a ten-page section, "Domestic Slavery and the Christian Household," which touches on the male householders' predation of servants and slaves, descent from Cham as a justification for slavery, and inclusion of a (likely) slave among a patron's children in a portrait, without firmly hitting the topic of fatherhood. I, at least, would have appreciated a thread that was more visible and more tightly bound the material to the central theme throughout, although Vitullo always circles back to the idea of fatherhood by the end of the chapter.

The strength of Vitullo's text is undoubtedly its interdisciplinarity. She draws from copious written texts, ranging from treatises on the family, letters between and debates by and featuring prominent thinkers, poetry and literature, sermons and theological works. In addition to these sources, she relies on art and architecture, analyzing those sources at length and in a way that is integral and fundamental to her argument. Her source analysis is not just broad but also deep, quoting at length, examining word use, and comparing different texts. This is evidence in all of the chapters but especially strong in her fourth chapter, "Passion and Paternity," in which she analyzes texts from five contemporary authors, four classical authors, two artists, and one fifteenth-century event mirroring the fictional stories. This chapter is also the most consistently focused on the theme of fatherhood.

Overall, the book is an intriguing look into how late medieval and early modern thinkers approached a variety of subjects, including fatherhood. As such, it has much to recommend it in whole or in part.