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The Italian Renaissance Still Matters: A Compilation of Recent Studies (September 2022): Gender, Race, and Diversity

By Brian Jeffrey Maxson

Gender, Race, and Diversity

The Italian Renaissance first became popular in English-language scholarship because of the importance bestowed on its art and its contributions to ideas about modernity. Those narratives privileged the experiences of some people while excluding many others. In recent decades, scholars have reexamined the period to reassess how different people experienced the years of the Italian Renaissance and what changes—cultural, political—or other developments might have had on their lives. The history of women and notions of gender, for example, came to prominence in the scholarship of the 1970s and continue to yield important insights. In The Birth of Feminism Sarah Ross reveals debates about feminism and the family structures that supported women writers during the period in both Italy and England. Across numerous studies, notably Heirs, Kin, and Creditors in Renaissance Florence and Family and Gender in Renaissance Italy, 1300–1600, Thomas Kuehn reveals the power exercised by and the limitations placed on women in court and in the law. In Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, Sarah Cockram shows how Isabella d’Este and her husband Francesco Gonzaga worked together as rulers, especially during Francesco’s frequent absences. Isabella d’Este is just one example of the many women who served as regents or rulers in their own right during the period. There is no doubt that the Italian Renaissance occurred within a patriarchal society, yet women were still able to wield power through their writings, politics, and families, among other means.

Scholarship also reveals the successes and oppression racial and religious minorities and other often-marginalized groups encountered during the Renaissance. Whereas once people argued that racial prejudices and race-based slavery occurred only after the Italian Renaissance had ended, recent scholarship convincingly illustrates that that was not the case. As Stephen Epstein reveals in Speaking of Slavery, racism and slavery were present in Italian communities long before the transatlantic slave trade of the 17th century. African Europeans were present in Italy and beyond before, during, and after the Renaissance, as recounted in Olivette Otele’s African Europeans and in T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe’s edited collection Black Africans in Renaissance Europe.

Recent studies have focused on the experiences of other previously ignored groups. For instance, scholars have begun to look at the cross-fertilization of Jewish and Christian books and ideas during the period and at the lives of Jews in Italy in and outside of Jewish ghettoes, as in Edward Goldberg’s Jews and Magic in Medici Florence and in The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy, edited by Joseph Hacker and Adam Shear. Also prominent has been the work of scholars investigating LBGTQ lives and experiences during the Italian Renaissance, such as Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships and Gary Ferguson’s Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome. Finally, a relatively new field has recently emerged that seeks to uncover the voices of people from the past with disabilities, as exemplified by A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance, edited by Susan Anderson and Liam Haydon. 

Works Cited