Italian Scholarship on Pre-Modern Confraternities in Italy

By Eisenbichler, Konrad | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Italian Scholarship on Pre-Modern Confraternities in Italy


Eisenbichler, Konrad, Renaissance Quarterly


The last fifteen to twenty years have witnessed a phenomenal growth in the study of medieval and Renaissance confraternities, those lay religious associations that pervaded the spiritual and social fabric of pre-modern European society. In English-language scholarship, the field was first surveyed by three historians who firmly left their mark on this fertile soil: Brian Pullan examined the place of the Venetian scuole (as local confraternities were called) in the social fabric of the state; Rab Hatfield investigated the social and political influence of the Florentine confraternity of the Magi; and Richard Trexler probed the place of confraternities for youths in Florentine civic ritual.(1) The field was not, however, tilled in depth until Ronald F.E. Weissman labored in the Florentine archives for his 1981 book on "ritual brotherhood," a concept and an effort that have since become a basic frame of reference for much of English-language scholarship on the history of confraternities in pre-modern times. In the years that followed, a number of English-speaking scholars have produced a bountiful harvest of books and articles too numerous to mention.(2)

In Italy, interest in lay religious associations has deeper roots.(3) A historical survey of the confraternal movement was first carried out by the eighteenth-century savant Ludovico Antonio Muratori. In his Dissertation 75, "De piis laicorum dissertationes" (1742), Muratori noted the abuses that plagued the confraternities of his time and earnestly wished for their reformation. By the end of the century, in the wake of wide-ranging suppressions at the hand of governments in Tuscany, Lombardy, and elsewhere, the Florentine scholar Lorenzo Mehus took a harsher stand in his Dell'origine, progresso, abusi, e riforma delle confraternite laicali (1785), unmercifully exposing abuses (real and imagined), and shamelessly praising Grand Duke Peter Leopold for his "enlightened" general closure of these "decayed" organizations. With their silence about and general disinterest for confraternities, Italian Risorgimento and post-unification scholars ensured the longevity of Muratori's and Mehus's severe criticisms of lay religious organizations and contributed to the marginalization of the pre-modern confraternal movement as an area of scholarly research.

After a century and a half of near-total neglect, the first major work on confraternities to appear since the eighteenth century was Gennaro Maria Monti's Le confraternite medievali nell'alta e media Italia (1927). This two-volume work had its weaknesses; it was, for one, a fairly cursory description of a variety of confraternities, with far too few footnote references and far too many factual errors. Nonetheless, it remains to this day the only work by an Italian scholar to examine the phenomenon at a quasi-peninsular level (I use the word "quasi" intentionally because in his survey Monti completely ignored southern Italy).(4) In spite of its weaknesses, however, Monti's study still offers a number of valuable insights that merit further examination.

The second modern scholar to cast a wide net over Italian confraternities was the Dominican Fr. Gilles Gerard Meersseman, whose three-volume set of collected essays on the confraternities affiliated with his order, Ordo fraternitatis (1977), immediately became a fundamental text for anyone working on Italian lay religious associations.(5) Meersseman was instrumental in establishing a scholarly methodology firmly based on archival research and keenly aware of questions of terminology. His own work also revealed the extensive implications, both social and religious, of medieval and Renaissance confraternities.

Meersseman's focus on confraternities associated with the Dominican order reveals a characteristic of all Italian scholarship on confraternities after Monti - the institutional nature of such research, focusing either on a specific confraternity, city, or diocese.

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