Life on the Streets: Regulating Space and Sociability in Early Modern Italy

AHA Session 166
Society for Italian Historical Studies 6
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Bernard D. Cooperman, University of Maryland, College Park
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel examines the intensely social street life of early modern Italian cities and the attempts by city authorities to regulate the activity of men and women in public spaces. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries city governments in Italy attempted to use laws and enforcement to shape the social and sensory landscapes of their cities in ways that reflected the priorities of governing elites and the newfound moralities of post-Tridentine urban sensibilities. These regulations frequently collided with the traditions and habits of urban populations accustomed to a great deal of behavioural leeway and freedom from government interference. The varying shape and success of these attempts to regulate street life in Rome, Florence and Bologna tells us much about the negotiation and limits of civic authority over urban populations with their own distinct communities and claims to the roads and alleyways of the urban enceinte.

John M. Hunt examines gambling and gaming on the streets of Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Gambling was an opportunity for working men to show off their skill and daring among friends and coworkers. It was not just a working-class habit: elites gambled too, but generally indoors and in dedicated salons. On the street corner, immigrants from disparate areas found in gambling a sense of community and shared Roman experience. Gambling was one of the few activities that allowed immigrant men to lay claim to public spaces in Rome, which often privileged the city’s elite. Despite frequent edicts against gambling and numerous arrests, throughout the early modern period gambling remained a favourite street-corner activity of Roman men.

Julia Rombough turns to the impact of such noisy carousing as gambling on the enclosed women’s communities of early modern Florence. Exposure to the noise of urban riff-raff threatened the moral and physical well-being of these women; that threat was verified by medical literature which understood sound to be a physical force which moved through space and disrupted bodies. Florentine governments thus sought to control and regulate sound for the health of enclosed women, of whom they counted themselves protectors. The socio-sonic dynamics of female enclosure in Florence add a new sensory dimension to our understanding of gendered spaces in the early modern world.

Colin Rose examines violence in the streets of Bologna. Covered by towering arcades of wood or marble, Bologna’s streets formed contested boundaries between public and private spaces, where shopkeepers, artisans, students, and elites laid claim to property and precedence. Often these claims contradicted one another and Bolognese of all stripes fought and killed on another in defense of their interests or in pursuit of status and resources. Bolognese streets were watched carefully by the city’s powerful criminal court, and a network of informants kept its officers apprised of goings-on in the city. Bolognese public violence and its regulation reveal a weak civil society prone to high levels of disorder.

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