Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy

On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy
    Book Description:

    In recent decades, scholars have vigorously revised Jacob Burckhardt's notion that the free, untrammeled, and essentially modern Western individual emerged in Renaissance Italy. Douglas Biow does not deny the strong cultural and historical constraints that placed limits on identity formation in the early modern period. Still, as he contends in this witty, reflective, and generously illustrated book, the category of the individual was important and highly complex for a variety of men in this particular time and place, for both those who belonged to the elite and those who aspired to be part of it.

    Biow explores the individual in light of early modern Italy's new patronage systems, educational programs, and work opportunities in the context of an increased investment in professionalization, the changing status of artisans and artists, and shifting attitudes about the ideology of work, fashion, and etiquette. He turns his attention to figures familiar (Benvenuto Cellini, Baldassare Castiglione, Niccol Machiavelli, Jacopo Tintoretto, Giorgio Vasari) and somewhat less so (the surgeon-physician Leonardo Fioravanti, the metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio). One could excel as an individual, he demonstrates, by possessing an indefinablenescio quid, by acquiring, theorizing, and putting into practice a distinct body of professional knowledge, or by displaying the exclusively male adornment of impressively designed facial hair. Focusing on these and other matters, he reveals how we significantly impoverish our understanding of the past if we dismiss the notion of the individual from our narratives of the Italian and the broader European Renaissance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9050-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    I begin with a reflection, and a decidedly personal one at that. Some time ago, in the late 1970s, long before I embarked on a career in the humanities or even ventured to imagine doing so, when a host of fascinating topics of highly specialized scholarly interest were not even remotely on my mind or, for that matter, in some cases even circulating as topics of widespread interest in the academy, I began working my way through Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas in bucolic Bennington, Vermont, doing the best I could on my own with those complex pieces of...


    • CHAPTER 1 Professionally Speaking: The Value of Ars and Arte in Renaissance Italy—Reflections on the Historical Reach of Techne
      (pp. 21-92)

      Let me begin a reflection on the role of ars and arte in Renaissance Italy, the first such reflection of this book, by sketching out the history of the concept of techne in classical antiquity. By doing so, we will be in a position to see how the Italian Renaissance treatment of it rehearses as well as revises elements that were originally embedded in the classical notion of techne itself. To this end, I examine in the first section of this chapter the general significance of the term “techne” (pl. “technai”) in ancient Greece and then how that term changed,...

    • CHAPTER 2 Reflections on Professions and Humanism in Renaissance Italy and the Humanities Today
      (pp. 93-114)

      Humanism, I maintained in the previous chapter, was a language-based educational and cultural program in Renaissance Italy that did not, in point of fact, have a particular professional bent to it. Yet humanists in Renaissance Italy, the vast majority of them of course being men, did have professional identities, even if humanism itself was “not,” as Lisa Jardine emphatically observes, “job-specific.”¹ Humanists typically worked as secretaries, notaries, chancellors, ambassadors, courtiers, editors, and schoolteachers in private, civic, courtly, business, and ecclesiastical settings. They thus tended to occupy, as Paul Oskar Kristeller observed long ago, certain professions throughout the Italian Renaissance, and...


    • CHAPTER 3 Constructing a Maverick Physician in Print: Reflections on the Peculiar Case of Leonardo Fioravanti’s Writings
      (pp. 117-151)

      The various writings of Leonardo Fioravanti (fig. 18), virtually all of which are dedicated to popular medicine, and certainly all of which stand at the antipodes of the sorts of highbrow humanist writings we looked at in the previous chapter, furnish an understanding of Renaissance culture in literary and rhetorical terms in ways that have not always been adequately explored by scholars attending to his life and work as a surgeon/physician. The historian William Eamon, for example, brilliantly disclosed how Fioravanti, as a radical empiric invested in discovering the “secrets of nature,” contributed in a significant way to the development...

    • CHAPTER 4 Visualizing Cleanliness, Visualizing Washerwomen in Venice and Renaissance Italy: Reflections on the Peculiar Case of Jacopo Tintoretto’s Jews in the Desert
      (pp. 152-178)

      “The history of cleanliness,” the historian Peter Burke observed in an article devoted to the topic of cultural history as polyphonic history, constitutes “a meeting-point between studies of the body as a physical object and studies of the wider culture, between purity in the literal and in the metaphorical senses.”¹ Anyone who has thought seriously about the history of cleanliness can certainly attest to the polyphonic nature of it. Historiographically, the history of cleanliness yields no linear master narrative, although some have tried to fashion one.² More to the point, the history of cleanliness must engage multiple sources, from low...


    • CHAPTER 5 Facing the Day: Reflections on a Sudden Change in Fashion and the Magisterial Beard
      (pp. 181-206)

      Look at any portrait of elite men in Renaissance Italy before 1500. Take, for instance, a sophisticated humanist: Angelo Poliziano, Pomponio Leto, Ermolao Barbaro, Leon Battista Alberti, Jacopo Sanazzaro, Lorenzo Valla, Bartolomeo Platina, or Giovanni Pontano, for whom wearing a beard, as it turns out, could at times constitute a hideous sight.¹ Or take a rulingclass Florentine patrician, such as Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Piero de’ Medici, or any other elite Florentine of the period, much less any other Italian man belonging to the cultural elite before 1500, such as those depicted with sometimes unflattering realism in Andrea...

    • CHAPTER 6 Manly Matters: Reflections on Giordano Bruno’s Candelaio, and the Theatrical and Social Function of Beards in Sixteenth-Century Italy
      (pp. 207-224)

      I end this series of reflections with a work of imaginative literature, Giordano Bruno’s comedy theCandelaio, a rather curious and cumbersome play that has sometimes been read in light of his philosophical positions advanced in his more famous writings, such as hisDe umbris idearum(Concerning the Shadow of Ideas, 1582),Ars reminiscendi(The Art of Memory, 1583), andDe gl’ heroici furori(Concerning Heroic Furors, 1585). But the play, I think it is fair to say, does not seem to be philosophically serious in nature, the way, say, some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist plays are, and a case...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 225-228)

    “Who’s there?” the guard cries out at the beginning ofHamlet, unsure of what he is going to discover in the dark and the mist and the cold. And the answer that comes back if we ask that question of the Italian Renaissance—as if we were engaged in an elaborate academic “knock-knock” game—is that it all depends on how people, both menandwomen, are seen to have dealt with the multifarious constraints in which they were compelled to live their everyday lives. We can therefore talk, for instance, about how people in the Italian Renaissance felt collectively...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 229-260)
    (pp. 261-292)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 293-308)
    (pp. 309-311)