On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

By Douglas Biow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Visualizing Cleanliness, Visualizing Washerwomen
in Venice and Renaissance Italy: Reflections on
the Peculiar Case of Jacopo Tintoretto’s
Jews in the Desert

“THE HISTORY OF CLEANLINESS,” THE HISTORIAN PETER BURKE OBSERVED IN an article devoted to the topic of cultural history as polyphonic history, constitutes “a meeting-point between studies of the body as a physical object and studies of the wider culture, between purity in the literal and in the metaphorical senses.”1 Anyone who has thought seriously about the history of cleanliness can certainly attest to the polyphonic nature of it. Historiographically, the history of cleanliness yields no linear master narrative, although some have tried to fashion one.2 More to the point, the history of cleanliness must engage multiple sources, from low to high culture, from verbal to visual material. And it requires drawing on a host of fields, from religion to architecture, anthropology to economics, medicine to urban planning, environmentalism to natural philosophy, literary studies to visual studies. Put differently, the pleasure of thinking about the history of cleanliness—not to sound too coy about it—is that it makes for such a delightfully “messy” subject of study. It is conceptually so much about purity yet methodologically so impure. It forces scholars to weave back and forth between, say, abstract symbolic structures (see, for instance, Mary Douglas’s classic Purity and Danger) and gritty material culture (see, for instance, Bas van Bavel and Oscar Gelderblom’s splendid essay “The Economic Origins of Cleanliness in the Dutch Golden Age,” which grounds the obsession with cleanliness in seventeenth-century Holland in, of all places, the quotidian material practice of making first-rate, marketable butter).3 It is hardly accidental, then, that Burke, a scholar so invested in thinking about where various disciplines intersect, identified the history of cleanliness as a privileged “meeting-point” in current academic studies to exemplify how cultural history can indeed become polyphonic history.

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