Rezension über:

Simona Lorenzini / Deborah Pellegrino (eds.): Women's Agency and Self-Fashioning in Early Modern Tuscany. (1300-1600) (= Kent State University European Studies; 8), Roma: viella 2022, 170 S., 10 Farb-, 11 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-88-3313-868-8, EUR 26,00
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Rezension von:
Eva Cersovsky
Historisches Seminar, Universität zu Köln
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ralf Lützelschwab
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Eva Cersovsky : Rezension von: Simona Lorenzini / Deborah Pellegrino (eds.): Women's Agency and Self-Fashioning in Early Modern Tuscany. (1300-1600), Roma: viella 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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Simona Lorenzini / Deborah Pellegrino (eds.): Women's Agency and Self-Fashioning in Early Modern Tuscany

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Historians studying premodern women and gender have long been interested in agency. In recent years, the subject has once again gained traction for the late Middle Ages and the early modern period in particular. [1] The short volume edited by Simona Lorenzini and Deborah Pellegrini adds to the existing scholarship by choosing a regional approach and focussing on women within different social and cultural contexts of Tuscany between 1300 and 1600.

The book aims at illuminating how women negotiated social networks and power relations to further their own interests and be agents in their own right - without necessarily challenging or changing the patriarchal systems they lived in. The editors pair the focus on agency with the concept of self-fashioning first coined by Stephen Greenblatt [2], thereby putting questions about female identity formation, negotiating or rhetorical strategies, and decision-making at the centre. However, the introduction only briefly touches upon self-fashioning and misses the opportunity to elaborate on the connections, similarities, and differences between its two central concepts, e.g., regarding the level of self-conscious action or authenticity implied for individual agents. A more detailed discussion of the conceptual framework would also have helped to situate the volume's approach more clearly within the context of similar books. [3]

Nevertheless, the seven chapters that follow add nuance to our understanding of women's agency and the creation of female identities during the late medieval and early modern period. The majority of authors deals with noble, patrician or saintly women during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One group of essays focuses on strategies of representing and/or advising on female agency in written and visual sources. Jane Tylus explores "fashioning" through the language of making objects, including manuscripts, and the interconnections of agency and time within the writings of Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Tylus underlines how Catherine oscillated between the realization that she herself possessed little agency at times (e.g., regarding the schism) and an impatient unwillingness to accept this fate. Bridget showed more patience relying on her community of helpers and prioritizing understanding before acting, Tylus proposes.

The chapter by Simona Lorenzini examines two letters written by the widow Brigida Baldinotti (ca. 1412-ca. 1491) to the tertiaries of the hospital Santa Maria Nuova and to a future bride of a patrician family in Florence. Brigida offered advice on how to act regarding proper conduct and religious devotion by adapting to her addressees in terms of language, content, and style. Focussing on the use of garden imagery, the chapter highlights Brigida's mastery of rhetorical strategies as a teacher.

Daniela D'Eugenio looks at depictions of and advice on female agency from a male perspective. The proverbs by Lionardo Salviati (1539-1589), Francesco Serdonati (1540-1602), and Orlando Pescetti (ca. 1556-ca. 1624) contain ambivalent attitudes towards women, accepting assertive actions of "good women" (in the bounds of patriarchal society) or condemning them as unruly behaviour of "bad women". Unfortunately, this chapter does not consider the proverbs' use in different genres and contexts which could have underscored their societal resonance and range of possible meanings.

Examining the portraits of the duchess Eleonora di Toledo (1522-1562) by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), Bruce Edelstein studies a combination of female - the commissioner's - and male - the painter's - visions. He convincingly argues that the portrait including Eleonora's son Francesco (1541-1587) reflected her identity as financially autonomous and politically active administrator of the Medici estate who prepared her son for his future role of duke and helped to forge their images on an international stage.

The other three essays in the collection have a stronger focus on lived experiences and scopes of action. They also introduce unpublished sources, some of them edited in appendixes (Filosa, Pellegrino). The essay by Elsa Filosa studies Lapa Acciaiuoli (d. ca. 1377) who administered lands, money, and goods as well as the corresponding account books and letters for her brother, the Gran Seneschal of the Kingdom of Naples, before, during and after her marriage. Filosa illustrates Lapa's close cooperation with Zanobi da Strada, secretary of the court of Naples, and highlights that Lapa stayed pivotal for her family's status and memoria both in Naples and Florence after her brother's death.

Deborah Pellegrino utilizes the ricordanze written by the Florentine widow Ginevra Brancacci (1432-1499) to explore her devotional practices and spiritual agency. Within these account books, Ginevra recorded financial transactions not only regarding household expenses or business but also relating to her religious activities. Pellegrino illustrates how the widow established a wide network of relationships with different institutions and people, forging her status as a family- and community-oriented patrician, and also teases out Ginevra's personal choices in her delivery of prayers.

Eustochia Bichi (b. 1461), daughter, wife, and widow from an influential Sienese family, takes centre stage in the chapter by Elena Brizio. Brizio draws on letters, wills, accounts, and inventories to examine how Eustochia navigated protecting her families' belongings and honour within a tumultuous context of political exile, debt, court battles, and two short marriages. Specifying the familial succession and the control of property in her will, Eustochia tried to influence her families' fate even beyond her death.

While almost all chapters focus on individual women, they manage to show that their agency was forged in networks of relationships with other people of both genders, e.g., male and female friends and family members, assistants, scribes, or painters. However, an edited volume never covers all areas of its subject matter and this short volume, too, has its caveats. It is regrettable that no standalone article was devoted to women of lower or unfree status; this reader would have liked to know more, e.g., about enslaved women and their scope of action and agency. [4] In any case, the volume and its many well written chapters showcase that the question of (female) agency still deserves to be studied from multiple angles and will invite readers to delve deeper.


[1] Most recently, e.g.: Merry Wiesner-Hanks (ed.): Challenging Women's Agency and Activism in Early Modernity, Amsterdam 2016; Martha Howell: The Problem of Women's Agency in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, in: Women and Gender in the Early Modern Low Countries, 1500-1750, ed. by Sarah Joan Moran / Amanda Pipkin, Leiden 2019, 21-31; and without a specific focus on gender: Ionut Epurescu-Pascovici: Human Agency in Medieval Society, 1100-1450, Woodbridge 2021.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt: Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Chicago 1980.

[3] The editors point towards: Manuela Scarci (ed.): Creating Women, Representation, Self-Representation, and Agency in the Renaissance, Toronto 2013; Laura Delbrugge (ed.): Self-Fashioning and Assumptions of Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, Leiden 2015.

[4] See, e.g.: Debra G. Blumenthal: Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia, Ithaca / NY 2009; Juliane Schiel: Mord von zarter Hand. Der Giftmordvorwurf im Venedig des 15. Jahrhunderts, in: Mediterranean Slavery Revisited (500-1800) - Neue Perspektiven auf mediterrane Sklaverei, ed. by Stefan Hanß / Juliane Schiel, Zürich 2014, 201-228; or Fabienne P. Guillén / Roser Salicrú Lluch (eds.): Ser y vivir esclavo: identidad, aculturación y agency (mundos mediterráneos y atlánticos, siglos XIII-XVIII), Madrid 2021.

Eva Cersovsky