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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Private Affairs

"I would like all my family to reside under one roof, to warm themselves at one fire, and to eat at one table."

Leon Batista Alberti, I Libri della famiglia

From episode 21 to the most recent episode of my podcast, I examine the politics and culture of Florence in the 15th century (The Quattrocento). This period saw transformations in many aspects of European society. A new method of thinking emerged in the form of humanism. There is a revival of interest in the works of classical antiquity and the idea that classical authors can inform and inspire the contemporary world. Themes shift from purely religious and the divine toward emphasizing the secular sphere and the individual’s place within it. Realism is developed in art, and new techniques of recreating reality, like linear perspective, are introduced. And by the end of the century, new political philosophies will be expounded on. The printing press's technological innovation will alter how people communicate and consume knowledge. Reading will move from being a group activity done aloud, as in monasteries, to a more private activity done in silence. Thinkers like Petrarch will praise the need for introspection and examining the inner self.

Artists began to depict life with greater accuracy and attention to detail, moving away from the previous attitude of contempt for worldly appearances. This shift allowed for a more accurate portrayal of private life, with painters depicting intimate scenes and providing insights into domestic interiors. Physical artifacts became less scarce. Archaeological excavations, particularly in deserted villages following the Black Death, uncovered remnants of everyday life, shedding light on the realities of the late Middle Ages. Literature and official documents from the 14th and 15th centuries provide greater insight into private life. Literary texts become more detailed, revealing aspects of daily life that were previously obscure. Official documents offer glimpses into the private thoughts and affairs of individuals.

Cicero and other classical authors define Public - publicus - as that which belongs to or concerns an entire people, emanating from the collective authority represented by the state. This includes institutions supported by the state and goods accessible to all, not subject to private ownership. Additionally, the public denotes what is openly visible or manifest, contrasting with the notion of private property and hidden or secret matters. On the other hand, Private - privatus - refers to actions and resources associated with individuals rather than the state or collective, often conducted in isolation or within the confines of one's home. It denotes exemption from common usage and pertains to domesticity, personal property, and familial relations. In medieval contexts, privatus also conveys the idea of retreat or seclusion, such as within monastic communities.

Fresco, Davanzati Palace, Florence, Italy

Throughout history, the distinction between public and private has been crucial in delineating spheres of authority and governance. Public life revolves around communal interests, collective goods, and the administration of the state by elected or appointed officials. In contrast, private life encompasses familial relations, personal property, and individual autonomy within a confined social circle. The relationship between public and private extends beyond physical space to encompass different realms of power and governance.

From the 14th century, there was an evolution in how people thought of privacy and what constituted one’s private life. The first half of the fourteenth century witnessed significant changes in the understanding and expression of private life. As economic growth led to increased individualism and introspection, there was a transition towards a more intimate and self-contained existence within the household.

It was a widely held belief that society was broken into three types of communities, each more exclusive than the other. The one with the broadest inclusion was the city or kingdom, the political community. Then there is the neighborhood. The most exclusive is the household. Distinct groups coexisted within the public or political sphere. These groups had a certain amount of autonomy and thus were considered private. Private life was centered on the casa, the house, but it was not confined by it. Private life extended out into the neighborhood and other associations formed by groups of individuals.

Pisanello, Wedding Banquet, first half of 15th century

But the family makes up the core of an individual’s private world. The manifestation of the family was the house, the home. In 15th century Tuscany, a household was defined as a husband, wife, children, and perhaps a single female domestic. The tax records, the Catasto of 1427, paint a portrait of what households were like in Quattrocento Florence. The average household size was about four people. Households comprised single individuals (13%), nuclear families, extended families, and multiple families living within a single residence. The traditional married couple made up 55% of Florentine households. Few families shared quarters with other families, less than 12%. Multi-family dwellings were more common in the rural countryside than in urban centers.

The notion of family extended well beyond the walls of a house. Family included uncles, cousins, and other kin. Friends and neighbors played roles that complemented those of relatives. Powerful men, such as the Medici, were surrounded by what we would refer to as clients. Then there are the confraternities, corporations, and other associations.

In poorer households, one room served multiple purposes until families could afford more space. When homes expanded to include two rooms, one was typically used as a living room and kitchen (sala), while the other served as a bedroom (camera). This division was common across Italy. As families gained more rooms, they diversified their functions.

In rural Florence, wealthier peasants faced decisions on whether to expand work or private spaces first. For example, Papino di Piero added a second bedroom and a storage room to his sala-camera. Similarly, another family prioritized working space by adding a storage room and a "bread room."

Courtyard of Gondi Palace, Florence, Italy

Adding a third room in urban areas usually meant a kitchen or another bedroom. Thin partitions could easily create additional bedrooms, though privacy was limited. Wealthier families had more diversified rooms, including storage vaults, stables, and offices. In the fifteenth century, vestibules, studios, and loggias became common additions to aristocratic homes. Rooms and amenities were strategically distributed throughout the house. Service rooms were typically located on the ground floor or basement. If a house did not have shops, the rooms that opened onto the street would be converted into bedrooms. Most of the daily life happened on the second or “noble” floor, which contained the most prestigious rooms: the master bedroom and great hall. Homes could be divided for rental or occupied by one family, allowing for separate private areas on any floor.

Vittore Cappaccio, Legend of Saint Ursula, "Dream of the Saint," 1495

The bedroom was a place for sleep and a gathering space during the day. It was common for people to gather around benches and tables arranged near the bed for conversation, work, and prayer. Chests served as wardrobes and as storage for valuable treasures, books, and personal papers. The bedroom was meticulously arranged, with few objects left lying about. While 15th-century Italians did not typically adorn their bedrooms with decorations, they appreciated the rich fabrics, protective icons, and constant activity that made the bedroom the liveliest room in the house. The bed was a significant piece of furniture, often the first investment for couples and a symbol of prestige.

The master bedroom was a well-furnished and secure space and served as a warm and intimate setting where married couples spent time together, discussing various matters ranging from minor marital issues to family business and etiquette. Eventually, discussions transitioned to private matters between husband and wife, with topics varying widely.

Before retiring for the night, couples might pray for prosperity, harmony, fertility, and other blessings. Once alone, they would make themselves comfortable, with the husband often becoming aroused by his wife's undressing, with couples engaging in rituals of intimacy. Nudity held a fascination, yet modesty sometimes led wives to wear nightgowns. However, some husbands, exhausted from their day's work, fell asleep quickly, which concerned moralists and preachers who issued warnings about marital intimacy.

Memmo di Filipuccio, Couple Preparing for Bed, c. 1320

Contemporary commentators suggested that both husband and wife should have their own rooms to avoid burdening each other, especially during illness or pregnancy. These rooms should be connected to allow discreet meetings, with private space particularly crucial for the head of the household, especially if from a prestigious lineage. The bedroom served as a private chamber where the master contemplated important matters and consulted family documents, often resembling a sacred space. Women also had moments of solitude and sometimes their own bedrooms, especially in cases of illness or pregnancy. Wealthy women had the luxury of withdrawing to their rooms whenever they pleased, some even turning them into chapels for personal sanctification. However, for most women, the bedroom was a space for sentimental reflection, where they could read, write correspondence, and dream of loved ones.

In contrast to the more emotional atmosphere of women's private spaces, men often used their rooms for administrative tasks and pursuits of personal interest. Women's bedrooms were sometimes filled with books and writing desks, reflecting their evolving humanist tastes. However, women tended to make their spaces more domestic or mystical compared to men's offices. However, while affluent urban families enjoyed the luxury of private spaces, women elsewhere, particularly those engaged in labor-intensive work, would have found the concept of private space foreign and impractical.

Parrot Room, Davanzati Palace, Florence, Italy

In bourgeois households, the availability of multiple rooms allowed unmarried adults and even children to have their own bedrooms. Among the elite, individuals acquired private spaces similar to the master bedroom, including locked chests, lamps, benches, stools, and beds. These rooms provided comfort and independence, a trend that existed before the fifteenth century but was accelerated by the availability of additional rooms.

In medieval Italy, the organization of space in cities and villages fostered strong bonds between households, primarily benefiting the nobility. Italian aristocratic families, especially in cities like Florence, Pisa, Siena, and Genoa, constructed towers and houses in compact sections, establishing their presence and sometimes fortifying these areas. Each noble family was deeply rooted in its own district, forming tight-knit neighborhood solidarities that remained intact throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

Gondi Palace, Florence

In cities such as Florence, noble families often clustered their residences around prominent landmarks like towers, churches, or small squares, while in Pisa and Siena, leading clans inhabited fortified groups of buildings called castellari. Similarly, in Genoa, influential families known as alberghi occupied houses concentrated in specific areas, with similar dense neighborhoods surrounding their rural residences in the suburbs. Peasant families mirrored the behaviors of the nobility, forming tight-knit communities within villages. Over time, these communities expanded to accommodate growing families, creating identifiable hamlets or sections of towns.

Urban centers were characterized by separate districts, sometimes isolated by walls or intricate street layouts. Despite these physical divisions, residents remained united through familiarity, alliances, and shared interests, whether familial, social, or economic. Informal gatherings were held daily among neighbors, facilitated by various means such as designated meeting rooms in affluent households, outdoor benches along building walls, and communal spaces like squares, abbeys, and church parishes. The parish church and the loggia played significant roles in fostering community cohesion. The parish church served as a sacred space for religious gatherings and a secular meeting hall. At the same time, the loggia provided an open area for socializing, settling disputes, and displaying wealth.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Daughter of of Emperor Gordian is Exorcised by St Triphun, detail, 1507

The rural houses of the aristocracy were designed to accommodate large private gatherings, with recommendations from architectural treatises like Alberti's "De re aedificatoria," emphasizing expansive views, parks for recreation, and various indoor and outdoor spaces for different social purposes. While such grandiose estates may not have been common outside of princely palaces, they reflected the aspirations and tastes of wealthy Italians from the 14th century onward. Examples like the Peruzzi family's renovation of a country house near Florence and the renowned Alberti property, dubbed "il Paradiso," highlight the extravagance and allure of these rural retreats, where affluent families and their guests could enjoy the charms of the countryside close to urban centers. Similar estates existed outside other significant cities like Naples, Genoa, and Venice, providing spaces for socializing and recreation for the elite.

Urban spaces in various cities underwent many transformations. Municipal councils convened in dedicated rooms or buildings, while facilities for sports like tennis and jousting and archery practice areas were established. Arsenals housed artillery; some spaces, like document rooms and libraries, were reserved for university activities. These changes reflect a shift towards delineating spaces for specific functions, mirroring developments in urban residences and palaces. From the 13th to the 16th century, urban and rural housing saw gradual improvements in quality, possibly influenced by the upheavals of the late Middle Ages. Despite increased intervention by authorities, homes became more of a sanctuary, reflecting a dialectical reaction to external pressures.

Andrea Mantegna, Wedding Chamber, Ducal Palace Mantua, Italy, detail, 1474

Both the 14th and 15th centuries saw a change in how private space was utilized and a developing recognition that one needed to have both a public life and a private life one retreated to. Concurrent with this was the growing self-awareness of the individual self. In writing, individuals express intimate emotions, thoughts, and images once kept secret and private. It is not that people didn’t have private lives before the Renaissance, but now, people feel the need to speak of private matters in their families and social circles.


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