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Lost Girls

Paperback
, 264 pages

10 halftones

ISBN:
9781421407722
July 2012
$33.00

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Lost Girls

Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

In 1554, a group of idealistic laywomen founded a home for homeless and orphaned adolescent girls in one of the worst neighborhoods in Florence. Of the 526 girls who lived in the home during its fourteen-year tenure, only 202 left there alive. Struck by the unusually high mortality rate, Nicholas Terpstra sets out to determine what killed the lost girls of the House of Compassion shelter (Casa della Pietà).

Reaching deep into the archives' letters, ledgers, and records from both inside and outside the home, he slowly pieces together the tragic story. The Casa welcomed girls in bad health and with little future, hoping to save them from an almost certain life of poverty and drudgery. Yet this "safe" house was cruelly dangerous. Victims of Renaissance Florence’s sexual politics, these young women were at the disposal of the city’s elite men, who treated them as property meant for their personal pleasure.

With scholarly precision and journalistic style, Terpstra uncovers and chronicles a series of disturbing leads that point to possible reasons so many girls died: hints of routine abortions, basic medical care for sexually transmitted diseases, and appalling conditions in the textile factories where the girls worked.

Church authorities eventually took the Casa della Pietà away from the women who had founded it and moved it to a better part of Florence. Its sordid past was hidden, until now, in an official history that bore little resemblance to the orphanage’s true origins. Terpstra’s meticulous investigation not only uncovers the sad fate of the lost girls of the Casa della Pietà but also explores broader themes, including gender relations, public health, church politics, and the challenges girls and adolescent women faced in Renaissance Florence.

Nicholas Terpstra is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and author of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna, also published by Johns Hopkins, and Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy.

"The book contains fascinating, and sometimes shocking, information about Terpstra’s topic. I appreciated that Terpstra does not exclusively limit himself to the subject of Casa della Pietà, but uses the mystery of what happened to the home’s residents as a way to examine related issues."

" Lost Girls is a fine addition to any history collection, especially those with a focus on the Renaissance."

"The Casa della Pietà, or House of Compassion, was one of Renaissance Florence's earliest shelters for orphaned or otherwise abandoned adolescent girls... Of the 526 girls who lived there during the 14 years it was open, 324 died there. What was killing these girls? Terpstra attempts to solve this mystery."

"[Terpstra's] study of Pietà can be recommended highly not only to those interested in women's history, social history, medical history, and economic history but also to anyone who cares about the historian's craft."

"A masterpiece of historical writing and an invaluable contribution to the study of premodern Italy... This book should be welcomed by anyone interested in social history, gender history, the history of sexuality, religious history or the history of medicine."

"Energetic, archival scholarship."

"Unusual and ingenious... Those interested in the history of early-modern Catholic Europe and Catholic institutions on the Italian peninsula will find much to think about while reading this book."

"It is well written and well researched by an established and erudite historian of this period, and it treats a difficult subject: the situation of Florentine orphaned or abandoned adolescent girls in the sixteenth century."

"Terpstra weaves literary evidence, intelligent guesswork, and vivid historical imagination into an eminently readable micro-history that forms part of a growing body of scholarship that challenges long-held historical assumptions about female honor in the Mediterranean world."

"Nicholas Terpstra uses the puzzling deaths of teenaged girls in a Florentine asylum for the poor to take us into many surprising corners in the life of working people, and especially women, in that sixteenth-century city—sexual, medical, religious, and more. A fascinating Renaissance mystery story and a wonderful read!"

"This is history with a decidedly human face. The author’s vivid descriptions of urban life and its material realities are unsurpassed. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book makes the streets of Renaissance Florence come alive like no other."

"In this finely crafted microhistory he exposes the social and cultural contradictions often lost in more general studies that were critical to the existence and functioning of the Casa della Pietà."

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