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Renaissance Life

A characteristic of the daily Renaissance life was its great simplicity, even among the rich. In the palace of the Medici, the ordinary hospitality consisted in the offer of wine and chestnuts! At the table of the great Lorenzo de' Medici, we read that there was no recognition of rank in the order of seating, but that each took his place according to the time of arrival, whether he was a member of the city government or the student of sculpture, Michelangelo.

Ghirlandaio-The Birth of Mary
Domenico Ghirlandaio -
The Birth of Mary, 1486-1490
(actually a scene of Renaissance life)
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The Florentines could justly congratulate themselves on the comfort and even luxury of their houses during the Renaissance. Life in these houses was not very comfortable according to our standard. They were large and roomy, but they were not provided with corridors which enabled one to reach the various rooms without passing through others. On the contrary, the whole house was arranged in suites of rooms, thus diminishing the privacy, except for very few rooms. The Florentine’s house was, however, no less his castle than was the Englishman’s; for it was not at all unusual for private citizens to keep armed retainers in their houses, whether looking to a change in the government or for the revenge of some private matters. This is probably one reason why many of the private houses were so large. Otherwise it seems more than superfluous to have so much room as we find in many of those old residences. Still there was another and a good reason for having large houses, and that was the existence of an almost patriarchal system of family life; as it seems to have been usual for the married sons to bring home their wives to dwell under the paternal roof, and rise their children as part of the general family.

Varchi, in describing Florence in 1529, speaks of the elegance of his native city and of the life there. As to the houses he says they all have terraces, loggie (which may be described as open galleries), stables, courts, ante-chambers, and at least one, if not two, wells of healthy, cool water. Regarding the prices of these houses, they varied greatly. We read of a house being bought for 118 florins, which must have been a very fair kind of a house, judging by the parties to the contract, for one of them was a Tornabuoni. In another case there is a record of a house, which was apparently several stories high, and situated in the middle of the city, which costs only 30 florins.  Moving day seems to have been the first of November; but the contracts for rent were generally entered into six months in advance.

The basis of the family was naturally the marriage tie but in Italy generally, and not less so in Florence, this bond had its very particular traits. No divorce was permitted, still the marriages do not seem to have been any more unhappy than those we see today. A natural result of this manner of treating the marriage tie was, as Commines remarked at the time, that little difference was made in the treatment of legitimate and illegitimate children. If however, we may judge of the Renaissance life in general from the few concrete examples preserved to us, the relations between husband and wife, and especially between parents and children, were not unhappy, but the reverse. Leon Battista Alberti’s description of life at the Villa Pandolfini shows the existence of warm affection between husband and wife, parents and children. Some of the letters of the Medici do the same. And a letter of the notary Lapo Mazzei, after the death of his oldest son, gives a beautiful picture of fatherly affection.  The religious art of the Renaissance, the writings, and what the age accomplished, should teach us that beneath the surface, which was too often frivolous and shocking, there was much that was earnest and noble, which commands our homage and respect.

It is quite difficult to get an adequate idea of the domestic Renaissance life. What we know is that the Florentine women were thrifty housewives; that there were servants, and that such servants, on occasion, could command good wages, even in those days of the high purchasing power of gold. A record in reference to a wedding entertainment in the year 1407 is  mentioning that the cook who prepared the table received the sum of four florins and 10 soldi. When it is recalled that a city residence could be bought for less then 200 florins, well, this was a very high pay for cooking the meat of one entertainment. Another anecdote of about the same time illustrates the fact that servants were more or less the tyrants of the household; for our friend Mazzei invites his correspondent to supper, and says that his coming will make no disturbance in the household, as "in order not to trouble the house servants, I have sent to the bakery (to be roasted?) a fat pullet and a loin of mutton."

Burckhardt remarks that "the Renaissance first attempted consciously to make of the household a well regulated matter, nay, to make of it a work of art." One of the principal ways in which this was shown was in the bridal outfit, of which the house linen formed a very important part, as the Florentine women were particularly proud of the display they could make of it.

Men and women also gave considerable attention to their dress. On the occasion of grand civic displays, the reception of public guests, and great processions, the men appeared in magnificent costumes, made of gold and silver brocades, of velvets and fine silks, etc.  Sacchetti, a famous novelist who died early in the 15th Century, complains of his contemporaries not being content with many colors on the back only, but they must even have each stocking "divided and crossed with three and four colors."  Plain colors, however, seems to have been much esteemed, as shown by the portraits of the Medici and others still preserved; and in the 16th Century, Varchi mentions black as the usual color of men clothes. Laws indeed were also made, attempting to restrain the men as well as the women in their extravagance for personal adornment.

Renaissance Country Life
Life in the Countryside, 16th Century.

Another important element of domestic Renaissance life was the securing and storing of quantities of wine and oil for future consumption. It was customary for the Florentine housewives to buy the olive oil for a whole year’s consumption, when the new oil came in, and place it in the store room in one or more large earthen jars, called orcio, which were never closed air-tight, and were opened from day to day according to the needs of the family.

In a country where Bacchus has been worshiped for ages, it is not surprising to find that great care is bestowed on the selection and housing of a proper store of wine. The juice of the grape then cost but a trifle, when we read of a man buying a store of twenty barrels, which was sufficient for two years’ consumption, for fifteen florins. One of the Florentines' favorite dishes consisted of bread soaked in wine. This was apparently their original zuppa or soup. The use of the word in almost the original signification is found today in zuppa-inglese, or English soup, which consists of sweet cake bathed in wine sauce.

Varchi mentions among the noteworthy virtues of his fellow citizens of the early part of the 16th Century, the fact that they kept house with "incredible neatness and cleanliness." To cleanliness they added its sister virtue, that of orderliness in the affairs of domestic economy; for they have the credit of first having introduced the idea of book-keeping into their household matters; and the housewives are supposed to have been in this respect model helpmates to their husbands.

Although the Florentines lived well and comfortably in the city, Renaissance life seems to have offered even greater pleasure in their country residences ; and on these they spent so much, that some of their contemporaries are said to have regarded them as insane. Within a radius of twenty miles of the city there were twenty thousand estates belonging to Florentine citizens, with eight hundred palaces, whose walls were built of cut stone; the average cost of those palaces was more than 3,500 gold florins.

Three ceremonies in life are considered of especial importance in all Christian countries, namely, baptism, marriage, and burial. The Italians of the Renaissance, like good people in other places, carried their children as soon as convenient after birth to the baptistery, and had them christened at the public font. But in one respect they inaugurated a new idea; for in their enthusiasm for the antique, many of them ceased naming their children for the saints of the Church, and gave them classical names. Or if they did not go so far, they translated the names into Latin or Greek, as taste dictated, or at least gave a classical form to them.

The most joyful occasion of Renaissance life was the marriage feast, and right royally did the Florentines celebrate it. Young girls were excluded from the society of the Renaissance, even when not educated in nunneries; so that the marriage festivities were with many the first occasion on which they met men. Engagements for young children were not uncommonly entered into by the parents of the respective families, examples of which are found in such agreements of the Soderini and Medici families, and of the different branches of the Strozzi family. It was a universal custom to give a dowry with the daughter. The amount, of course, differed with the standing and fortune of the family; but in the first half of the 15th Century, the average dowry of a girl of good family was 1000 florins; as we may gather from that sum being made a unit of dowry in 1424, when the Monte delle Doti was established. Those who wished to endow their daughters more highly could have one and one-half dowries, or 1500 florins. In the last will and testament of Neri Capponi, one of the foremost men of his day, we read that he left for each granddaughter 1000 florins as a dowry, showing that the amount was considered sufficient for one even of their rank. As the Medici rose in wealth and position the dowry of their women was naturally increased. And it is related of the cardinal Giovanni, who afterwards became Pope Leo X., that he offered to endow his niece with 5000 or 6000 florins; but although "all the marriageable youths would have married her with pleasure, on account of the quality of the dowry," says a contemporary, "still there was not a single one who burned to take her, fearing it might be made a political matter."

Of the ceremonies of public burials, with their processions, and their speeches, there exist several descriptions. As the company of Misericordia, which still exists, was founded in the early days, we may gather some idea of funerals of those days from the ancient customs which that company still perpetuates. A painting representing a burial, and believed to be of the 16th Century, shows the use of torches, masks, and dominos. Most of the funerals occurred at nightfall; the religious ceremonies were the same as elsewhere in Roman Catholic countries; the coffin was carried on the shoulders of men who wear long domino, and black masks, who may be gentlemen of the highest social rank, even when the poor are buried; for this company numbers among its members men of all classes, who offer their services free, for the love of humanity. Women, as a rule, took no part in the public solemnities  of burial; and men very often went afoot, following in this humble manner the remains of the honored dead.

Burckhardt says that riding in vehicles was, during the Renaissance, becoming common on the well-paved streets of Italy, while elsewhere such a pleasure was practically impossible.

Renaissance Life-Notary
Italian Notary, 15th Century
From the scarce details we have, we may form an idea about the Renaissance life etiquette. In meeting in the street, the men raised their hats only to the gonfaloniere di giustizia, to a bishop, or a cardinal; and to the magistrate, to knights, doctors, and canons, they touched the front of the hat, or elevated it a little with two fingers. Styles however seem to have changed; there are statements that the men of other trades or professions raised their hats in token of respect to the doctors of laws. Varchi complains that the men have of late years, that is, in the early part of the 16th Century, adopted the miserable fashion of wearing beards. Perhaps it was at the same period that the formality of salutation was diminished, and that thereafter, the hat was raised only to those of the highest ranks.

Looking at the private life of the Florentines as a whole, we find it a picture of great simplicity. Though their houses were large, they did not enjoy anything like such a degree of comfort as can be had nowadays by people of even moderate means. The Italians are credited with having invented the art of polite conversation, and anticipated the French salon after an original and urbane fashion of their own. If this was true of the Italians as a whole, it was preeminently the case with Florence, where learned conversation was cultivated as a fine art. Marriages which would have been intolerable according to our standard, do not appear to have been particularly unhappy; and there seems to have existed a great deal of real family affection. Women, however, were expected to attend to domestic duties, and to leave other matters of life principally to the men, although there were brilliant exceptions to the rule. The beauty of the Renaissance life in general was largely in the long summers in the country, where people enjoyed intellectual debates, together with pure air, and invigorating exercise. Above all, the Florentine was of a bright and lively temperament, and could enjoy to the utmost the pleasures of social interaction, whether living in the lap of luxury, or in the most simple manner.

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