Book Review: Everyday Renaissances

Everyday Renaissances:everyday renaissancesThe Quest for Cultural Legitimacy in Veniceby Sarah Gwyneth RossHarvard University Press, 2016Boston College historian Sarah Gwyneth Ross's new book Everyday Renaissances looks at sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Venice in a very refreshing way. She shifts the focus of her research into the book-culture of the Venetian Republic away from the “card-carrying members of the humanist elite” at the height of the Renaissance and toward the ordinary rank-and-file of the moneyed mercantile classes, the hustlers and bustlers who spent their days seeing to their business but spent some of their money to furnish their leisure hours with refinement, learning … and books. As Ross puts it:

We will be examining a world of aspiration inhabited by people who valued learning and literature but whose families lacked formal political authority and whose intellectual lives were not coterminous with their gainful employment.

That longitudinal shudder running through your corporeal form at the thought of reading 200 pages of clotted academese like “whose intellectual lives were not coterminous with their gainful employment” is, thankfully, premature; the number of places where Everyday Renaissances sounds like a doctoral thesis are handily outnumbered by the number of places where the sheer human fascination of her approach takes over. This is a look at the world of book-people who happened not to be Pico della Mirandola – bookish Venetians who staked a great deal of faith on the idea of uomo da bene, what Ross cleverly refers to as “metaphorical nobility”:

Cash, real estate, land, and marriage strategies no doubt played essential roles in the social transactions of early-modern Venice, but so did Renaissance culture's more abstract conceptions of merit and worth, topics generally reserved for intellectual historians and literary critics. We have learned here, however, that the metaphorical nobility conferred by interaction with education, books, and ideas was not just a pipe dream in the republic of letters but instead had tangible power. Men and women of upwardly mobile artisanal and mercantile classes voiced the notion that education held a central place in the portfolio of assets that could speed their kin to better things.

Ross urges the discipline to pay more imaginative attention to the kinds of quotidian records and inventories she herself marshals expertly in her reconstruction of the lives of three Venetian doctor-bibliophiles in particular, Nicolo Massa, Francesco Longo, and Alberto Rini, These reconstructions are cumulatively absorbing, so much so that readers will wish they were longer – which is hardly the norm with Renaissance sociological studies. Venetian scholar Alessandro Marzo Magno has styled Venice as “the Book Capital of the World,” and Everyday Renaissances neatly throws a spotlight onto the lives of some of that capital's more obscure but no less important citizens.