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On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy

Arguing that the notion of individuality is central to understanding Renaissance Italy, Douglas Biow examines the ways that men of the period asserted their individuated selves, such as becoming masters of an art, creating a signature professional style or voice, or asserting themselves through a distinctive, fashionable look.

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

Douglas Biow

2015 | 328 pages | Cloth $59.95
Cultural Studies / History
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Professionally Speaking: The Value of Ars and Arte in Renaissance Italy—Reflections on the Historical Reach of Techne
Chapter 2. Reflections on Professions and Humanism in Renaissance Italy and the Humanities Today

Chapter 3. Constructing a Maverick Physician in Print: Reflections on the Peculiar Case of Leonardo Fioravanti's Writings
Chapter 4. Visualizing Cleanliness, Visualizing Washerwomen in Venice and Renaissance Italy: Reflections on the Peculiar Case of Jacopo Tintoretto's Jews in the Desert

Chapter 5. Facing the Day: Reflections on a Sudden Change in Fashion and the Magisterial Beard
Chapter 6. Manly Matters: Reflections on Giordano Bruno's Candelaio and the Theatrical and Social Function of Beards in Sixteenth-Century Italy



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book reflects on the importance of the notion of the individual in the Italian Renaissance, with an "individual" understood as someone with a mysterious, inimitable quality, a signature style, and/or a particular, identifying mode of addressing the world. More specifically, it examines how the notion of the individual was important for a variety of men in the Italian Renaissance, both men who belonged to the elite and those who aspired to be part of it, as a way of understanding, characterizing, and representing themselves and others, both "real" and "fictional" others. At the same time, this book explores the individual in light of the new patronage systems, educational programs, and work opportunities that had come into place and, in the context of an increased investment in professionalization, the changing status of artisans and artists, shifting attitudes about the ideology of work, technological advances, the collecting habits of people with significant disposable incomes, new dominant fashions among men, an increased concern for etiquette, and the eventual rise of court culture in the sixteenth century. Moreover, scholars, beginning with the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his foundational essay The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, have not—this book shows—always adequately appreciated how complex and sometimes deliberately mystifying the notion of the individual in the period actually was. Nor have they always sufficiently recognized how that notion permeated simultaneously so many different areas of expertise, from the visual arts to the medical arts to the intellectual arts of the humanists, and how it pervaded so many different visual and verbal forms, from works of imaginative literature to treatises to paintings to fashion.

The overriding concern of this book, then, has been not to resuscitate in any form or manner a Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance individual. Rather, it has been to reconsider how valuable the notion of the individual was for some men who lived and worked in Renaissance Italy and, at the same time, to reassess the value of thinking about the notion of the individual in the period generally. This notion, it is important to emphasize from the outset, has largely, if not at times completely, fallen out of favor when we talk about identities in the period. And it has come under serious attack over the past few decades. A good deal of that attack has come from the so-called New Historicists, primarily literary-trained scholars associated with Stephen Greenblatt and his project of "cultural poetics," which is deeply invested in a variety of anthropological, Marxist, and postmodern critical theories but principally those that locate identity as a cultural product endlessly constructed and performed in light of a person's historically determined subject position. However, some of the reason that the notion of the individual has fallen out of favor over the past decades has to do, in part at least, with the work of scholars engaged in social history. Social history itself, which is still for every good reason a significant force in the academy even with the formidable rise of cultural history, does not per se call into question the importance of the individual or deny the existence of individuals in periods. Indeed, one key, vital aim of social history, which is dedicated to examining and tracing macro structures, has been to comprehend better the limits within which individual agency may or may not occur, for many social historians—of various liberation movements, for example—actually see agency as a crucial category at the individual as well as collective level. And yet as social historians have labored hard to explain large-scale trends and developments, drawing on the insights and methodologies of sociologists, they have also nevertheless offered generalizations at the macro level that tend to break down at the individual level. As a result, the individual has virtually disappeared from their narratives and consequently, in time, faded from view. This is even true, up to a point, with respect to microhistory, which focuses on the individual less as an individual, and certainly not as a means for investigating the notion of the individual itself, and more as a vehicle for understanding different sorts of interwoven intellectual, cultural, legal, and social trends that macrohistorians have neglected, shown little interest in, or traditionally had difficulty accessing in their studies.

As this book works to rehabilitate the notion of the individual, it also seeks to provide an historical explanation for why certain things took place in the period, in particular why certain momentous changes concerning the individual took place when and where they did, especially as these matters are addressed in the first chapter of this book, which is by far the lengthiest of them all. Yet the historian's task, it is also fair to say, is not always to explain why something took place in the past, although that is always a desirable and ultimate goal. A good deal of the historian's task is to just try to document that something had taken place, to disclose its complexities, unveiling them as deftly as possible for the reader, and to make a case for its overall importance. Surely scholars of the Italian Renaissance have to face that sort of issue over and over again. For a host of strong explanatory models that historians have put forth to try to account for why the Renaissance itself emerged in Italy when it did, in roughly the mid-1300s, have fallen to the wayside over the years or have been found wanting in one way or another. Scholars, to be sure, will continue to debate and debunk each other's explanatory models. Yet scholars of the Italian Renaissance still persist in documenting and arguing that there was in fact a Renaissance in Italy and that it differed from "renaissances" elsewhere, both before and after, even though to this day it remains such a vexing issue for scholars to try to explain convincingly why the Italian Renaissance happened when and where it did in Europe. So, mutatis mutandis, it is with this book: the notion of the individual did indeed have cultural force in the period for many men, it did matter to them, and it did manifest itself in extremely complex and often novel ways. To that end, if this book has successfully documented that fact as indeed a fact (despite the claims of many historians—as well as literary scholars—to the contrary), then On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy has done its main job, even if it cannot always provide a satisfactory, strong explanatory model to account for all historical changes.

Finally, to adopt a much more personal mode of address, I feel compelled to say something in this preface about the book's focus strictly on men—an issue significant enough to warrant frank discussion here. For a host of scholarly studies dedicated in great measure to the notion of the individual in the Italian Renaissance, much less the European Renaissance, were written principally by men about men. And those books were written often enough, as in the case of Burckhardt's key essay, with the presumed, and somewhat anachronistic, identification of male authors with their male subjects. Consequently, for some readers, those books inevitably shaped a view that the notion of the individual in the Renaissance was and should be associated strictly with men. For the record, I do not share this view. There were, as I see it, male and female individuals in the period, each operating within a variety of gendered and institutional constraints and power relations that determined and conditioned agency. Were I looking at primarily or uniquely women in this book, for instance, I'd be forced to engage in a serious manner the history of domesticity along with, among other areas, the history of letter writing and the like. However, even if I do not endorse a male-inflected view of the notion of the individual, I may well seem to do so just by writing this book because its focus is exclusively on men. And that is an objection to this book that no position statement placed in a preface can ever preemptively forestall, even as it exercises self-conscious critical detachment about matters of gender and authorial identification. In any event, if this book achieves anything, it demonstrates that we should not shy away from embracing the notion of the individual when it comes to looking at either men or women in the Italian Renaissance. More important, it shows that if we dismiss the notion of the individual from our narratives of the European Renaissance in general, as so many scholars have done over the past few decades, we do so at the peril of significantly impoverishing our understanding of the past.

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