Domestic Devotions

Domestic Devotions

The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home

Domestic Devotions Day

On a crisp and clear Autumn day in September, our team welcomed eleven speakers and an invited audience of scholars to the beautiful setting of the Upper Hall in Jesus College, for a day of intellectual exploration and exchange. Many of our guests had  journeyed from across Europe, some even crossing the Atlantic, in order to share with us their thoughts on Renaissance domesticity and devotion. What resulted was a uniquely stimulating workshop, in which each speaker confronted our topic with fresh insights, and the resulting conversations challenged us to think in new ways about domestic devotion in early modern Italy.

Gervase Rosser-exvoto

Ex-voto, 1569. Church of Santa Maria di Castello, Genoa. Image Courtesy of Gervase Rosser

The day opened with Michele Bacci (Fribourg) posing questions about the genesis of the use of religious images in domestic settings. Did the Byzantine icon worshipped in the home function by appropriating something of the power of a church altarpiece? When a fifteenth-century Greek family proudly displayed a religious painting in their home that cannot be neatly classified as ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Western’, what did they communicate about their identity and beliefs? In the confrontation of the iconic form with Italian artistic styles, Bacci pinpointed the intersection of the personal with the cultural, and even the political. The three other speakers in this first session echoed this challenge to the neat dichotomies of ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘communal’ and ‘domestic’. Gervase Rosser (Oxford) asserted that these binaries are unhelpful, as all religious behaviour incorporates aspects of each. When a Genoese family awoke in the night to find their house on fire, they turned for help to a specific miraculous image of Christ on the cross. But belief in the efficacy of this artwork was shared and communal, evidenced by numerous ex-votos that recorded the crucified Christ’s interventions in the lives of the faithful. Having been delivered safely from harm the family added their own ex-voto to the shrine. By doing so they gave thanks for their particular domestic miracle, and asserted their membership of this community of believers. The theme of collective memory also informed Fabrizio Nevola’s (Exeter) examination of street shrines – sites which brought the domestic out of the house and into the city and countryside, delineating spaces of familial and communal significance. Contemporary Neapolitan shrines dedicated to the great footballer Diego Maradona testify to the continued potency of these practices of devotion!


Shrine to Diego Maradona in Naples. Photo by Cymbella via Wikimedia Commons

The case presented by Elisa Novi Chavarria (Molise) confirmed that an intensely personal religious experience that took place within the home could also have major collective significance. In the later sixteenth century the Madonna, clothed in brilliant white, appeared to a friar in the home of Isabella della Rovere, thereby affirming the deeply pious atmosphere of the princess’s palazzo. As word of the vision spread, devotion to the cult of this Madonna gained enormously popularity throughout Italy, effectively linking Isabella’s ‘private’ spiritual space with a broad network of devotees of all social classes.

Having opened the day with stimulating contributions that urged careful consideration of the relationships between the personal, familial, dynastic and communal, and the connected spaces of the church, the city, the region and the house, after lunch we turned to examination of religious artworks found in Italian Renaissance homes. A common theme of this session was the fluidity and ambiguity of meaning that defines many religious artefacts from the period. Rachel King (National Museum of Scotland) and Dora Thornton (British Museum) both raised salient points regarding problems of the historical interpretation of devotional objects intended for domestic contexts. For instance, did religious iconography always denote devotional function? This surely cannot have been the case of the numerous pieces of maiolica and glassware that were displayed in elite houses. Yet the materiality alone of a piece of glass could hold spiritual connotations – recalling as it did the fragility of man’s earthly existence – so it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. The resistance of many religious objects and images to neat classification is a warning note against their easy labelling as devotional or decorative, contemplative or functional. So often it is in the interactions between devotees and artworks that meaning is located, rather than being something inherently and inflexibly imbedded in the work itself.


Penitential Tunic of Galeotto Roberto Malatesta.   Photo Courtesy of the Monastery of the Corpus Domini’s Poor Clares in Bologna

The contributions of both Jim Harris (Ashmolean) and Alessandra Chessa (RCA/ V&A Museum) highlighted ways in which objects and images provided opportunities for individuals to shape their own religiosity. Chessa drew attention to the significance of the body as a site of devotional practice, introducing us to the penitential tunic of Galeotto Roberto Malatesta. As for Isabella della Rovere, here too an apparently very ‘private’ piety gained wider social and political significance: in life Malatesta had to be sensitive to the perceived decorum of his bodily mortification, and in death his tunic became itself a type of holy relic. Harris addressed the issue of the replication and repetition of religious iconographic motifs across mediums, stressing the ways in which an individual patron could adapt the meaning of a work by locating it in a different space, or by transposing it from an ecclesiastical to a domestic context.

After ministering to our own bodies and souls with coffee and biscuits, we turned to the final panel of the day, with papers examining spiritual communication in the home through reading, singing and prayer. Specific details of these practices can be hard to come by, so we were delighted to have Sabrina Corbellini (Groningen) share with us her discovery of a text in which a Sienese lanaiolo (a member of the local wool industry) carefully copied passages from religious books left in public spaces for this purpose by the authorities. As well as shedding light on the traditions of the copying, reading, memorising and speaking aloud of religious writings, the case provided further evidence of the links that could bind private homes and places of worship. It was not only through the spoken word that the divine was addressed in the home, but also through song. Although precise information about religious singing in the house can be scanty, Noel O’Regan (Edinburgh) deftly explored this world of laude and canzonette, highlighting the fascinating lack of clear distinction that could exist between secular love songs, and spiritual ones.


Leandro Bassano, ‘The Concert’, oil on canvas, c. 1590. Image via Wikigallery

Of course, there are occasions when religious behaviour in the home comes into sharper focus. Naturally, the illicit has always attracted more attention that the licit, and contemporary texts attacking or defending the followers of Savonarola provided rich source material for Stefano Dall’Aglio (Leeds) to consider the importance of prayerful worship in domestic environments to those who venerated the friar. As conversation turned to the positive and negative associations of ‘privacy’, and the responses of authorities to the challenge of regulating this area, we were extremely sorry not to have been able to hear the thoughts on church censorship of Giorgio Caravale (Roma Tre), who unfortunately could not join us on the day.

The richness of the day left all the members of our team with much to digest and meditate upon. Questions were raised that echoed some of those we have been asking since the inception of our project, but that still lack clear answers. As each glimpse into the world of Renaissance domesticity and pious practice allows us to slowly build a clearer picture, we remain alive to the ambiguities and challenges of our research. We are enormously grateful to all those who came and shared so freely of their knowledge and expertise, and hope to be able to replicate a similar atmosphere of intellectual exchange at our conference in July of next year!

-Maya Corry


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