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Love and Death in Renaissance Italy

Gratuitous sex. Graphic violence. Lies, revenge, and murder. Before there was digital cable or reality television, there was Renaissance Italy and the courts in which Italian magistrates meted out justice to the vicious and the villainous, the scabrous and the scandalous. Love and Death in Renaissance Italy retells six piquant episodes from the Italian court just after 1550, as the Renaissance gave way to an era of Catholic reformation.

Each of the chapters in this history chronicles a domestic drama around which the lives of ordinary Romans are suddenly and violently altered. You might read the gruesome murder that opens the book—when an Italian noble takes revenge on his wife and her bastard lover as he catches them in delicto flagrante—as straight from the pages of Boccaccio. But this tale, like the other stories Cohen recalls here, is true, and its recounting in this scintillating work is based on assiduous research in court proceedings kept in the state archives in Rome.

Love and Death in Renaissance Italy contains stories of a forbidden love for an orphan nun, of brothers who cruelly exact a will from their dying teenage sister, and of a malicious papal prosecutor who not only rapes a band of sisters, but turns their shambling father into a pimp! Cohen retells each cruel episode with a blend of sly wit and warm sympathy and then wraps his tales in ruminations on their lessons, both for the history of their own time and for historians writing today. What results is a book at once poignant and painfully human as well as deliciously entertaining.

Read an excerpt.

320 pages | 11 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2004

History: European History

Medieval Studies


"Love and Death in Renaissance Italy offers sparkling tales of intimate life in sixteenth-century Rome. Cohen has given voice to the desire, anger, fears, and excuses of Romans as they testify before the governor’s court, even while he reflects on and experiments with the historian’s predicament in telling their story. This is a book of learning, humor, and insight."

Natalie Zemon Davis, author of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France

"Rome’s streets always seem to promise an infinite series of hidden histories. Here Thomas Cohen reveals six of these with gusto and compassion, reconstructed from Roman court records with a historian’s eye for the telling detail, a novelist’s flair, and an exuberance all his own."

Ingrid Rowland, author of The Scarith of Scornello

"For the past two decades, Thomas Cohen and his wife have systematically explored the Roman judicial records of the second half of the sixteenth century. From these court proceedings and from ancillary sources they have gained a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural world of the Eternal City and its rural hinterland. Cohen here has selected six cases out of the thousands to illustrate the tensions and conflicts within Roman families in these decades. His introduction succinctly describes the Roman legal system and his methodology in interpreting the evidence from court proceedings. These richly documented episodes reinforce received wisdom with respect to this ’honor and shame’ culture; the prevalence and range of social networks as sources of support; the weakness of political structures; and the pervasiveness of lawlessness. But Cohen also develops novel perspectives and insights, for example, the ability of women to develop effective domestic strategies in this patriarchal society. These tales often raise more questions than they answer, but they do provide instructive glimpses into a world so vastly different from our own."

Gene Brucker, author of Renaissance Florence

"Turbulent, colorful, murderous, lyrical--the people who lived in Renaissance Italy were all of these. Is it possible to transport a modern reader back to their times, and see and hear--and even smell them? Thomas Cohen does just that for the ordinary people. . . . Cohen weaves absorbing tales out of the most unpromising material. Court records can be dry, and incomprehensible, even in English, now. He interprets Italian sixteenth-century records in the State Archives of Rome, including court records, and distills from them the human stories in his book. Their voices are clear, and untouched by any editorial amendment; but where we need it, Cohen gently interposes his summary of the conditions under which his characters lived. He gives just enough guidance, never a word too many. . . . . [The book] engages and deserves your full attention. Renaissance Italy will never be the same again for you."

Liza Picard | History Today

". . . and so the book continues with stories that keep our attention pinned to the seamy underbelly of Roman society at the end of the Renaissance. Cohen’s versatile and lively pen not only brings to life the complex characters that move the plot of these court-room narratives, but also invites us to ponder a variety of questions that rise from these stories."

Konrad Eisenbichler | Toronto Globe & Mail

"It is very moving to read about such powerful passions centuries after all the characters are long gone and would have been consigned to the dustbin of history had it not been for Cohen’s patient reconstruction. . . . This is a remarkable book. In these days of ever increasing specialization and jargon, it is hard to find books that combine scholarly excellence with such lively, colourful writing. Love and Death in Renaissance Italy will bring pleasure to both specialists and general readers.”

Robin Ganev | Canadian Journal of History

"It is very rare to find a history book that you simply cannot put down, but the latest contribution to Italian social history from Thomas V. Cohen is just such a book. Set in and around Renaissance Rome, this work comprises a collection of six incredible microhistories of love (or more often lust), intrigue, betrayal, dirty old men, and death. . . . This book is a wonderful addition to the burgeoning world of Italian microhistory. It is a beautifully crafted work in which Cohen sets up his dramatic tales, then brings his wealth of knowledge and experience to the interpretation of the texts. The result is inspiring to scholars and provides students with an intriguing glimpse into the complex world of the Renaissance criminal court."

Mary S. K. Hewlett | Renaissance Quarterly

"These are Renaissance true crime stories, cleverly and entertainingly told, that give us a glimpse of the reality behind the stereotype we have long accepted. We may well respond, as contemporaries in English playhouses seem to have done, with a mixture of fascination and horror."

James P. Hammersmith | Southern Humanities Review

"The work reflects an admirable combination of historical sleuthing, literary analysis, and creative imagination. . . . Yet each story offers much more than archival minutiae. Cohen writes with exuberance and style, utilizing flashbacks and other devices to build the tension while remaining true to the archival record. . . . We come away with an enhanced sense of the past and an appreciation for the importance of literary style happily married to historical research."

Christopher Carlsmith | Sixteenth Century Journal

"This is a generous and illuminating work of early modern historical scholarship that would also be useful to anyone teaching in the profession. . . . Cohen’s prose is witty, colorful, and delightful to read."

Carole Collier Frick | Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

1. Double Murder in Cretone Castle
2. Lost Love and a Handkerchief
3. The Last Will of Vittoria Giustini
4. "This Is My Dowry": The Vile Loves of Prosecutor Pallantieri
5. The Lady Lives, the Pigeon Dies
6. Three in a Bed: The Seduction of Innocentia


American Historical Association: Helen & Howard R. Marraro Prize

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