It’s become nearly dogmatic in academic history that the writer ought to focus as much as he can on the disenfranchised, the “marginalized,” to avoid “privileging” the viewpoints of the upper classes, of men, and of white people. And so anxious are the historians not to perpetuate injustice that there is little or no room for constructing a book that is also a work of art. Often the only pleasure for the reader is in cheering on the revelation of some forgotten unfairness, or the voices of some “oppressed” group—if that’s what rocks your boat.

Lost Girls is a welcome exception, a smart and highly calculated exhibition of the archival historian’s art that entertains the general reader—and checks all the PC boxes the author presumably needs to keep in mind as professor of history at the University of Toronto.

Nicholas Terpstra set out to crack a mystery in his field, the social history of Renaissance Italy. He designed his book as cunningly as a thriller, and with considerably better prose; but because Terpstra is a scholar, not a commercial novelist, he leaves us with multiple answers rather than a neat resolution. Lost Girls has the advantages of a sexy topic—saving teenaged girls from prostitution—and the always-seductive setting of 16th-century Florence. But what makes it shine is Terpstra’s determination to create a work of art.

He “stumbled across” the central mystery of this book while researching the Casa della Pietà, a home for abandoned girls founded in 1554. At the time, such homes were something new, even in a city famous for the civic activism of its confraternities. The homes sprang up in an effort to prevent orphaned or abandoned pubescent girls from being forced into prostitution. They were often called “conservatories” because they were devoted to conserving their charges’ virginity until they could be safely married off.

In a turbulent period of famine, plague, the new disease of syphilis, and constant warfare between city-states, there were many girls who found themselves on the streets, or living in perilous conditions with distant relatives, neighbors, or those who took them in as servants. Such girls were vulnerable to sexual assault and to being pimped out by their families or caretakers.

The mystery Terpstra unravels is the fearful loss of life among the girls of the Casa della Pietà in its early decades. Three “conservatories” opened in the first half of the 1550s: In two of them, the girls died at the high rates common to all Florentines of the time. But the death rate of the girls in Casa della Pietà was appalling: “Well over half of the 52 girls registered on the day the Pietà first opened died under its care,” Terpstra notes. Three hundred and twenty-four of the 526 girls who entered the Pietà between 1554 and 1568 died there—a death rate of 62 percent, far surpassing the usual 20 percent of other institutions at the time. Such death rates were characteristic of orphanages for abandoned infants, not homes for adolescents.

What’s more, the Casa della Pietà was a special place: It was much closer to a utopian social experiment than to a Dickensian orphanage. Terpstra calls it the “most distinctive charitable shelter established anywhere in 16th-century Italy.”

First, it was started by a large group of laywomen that included not only the high aristocracy and rich, but (more or less) middle-class women as well. Most of its donors gave small amounts. Second, it allowed its charges a considerable degree of freedom and individuality. The girls wore their own clothes rather than uniforms, they could visit with family and friends, and they could work as domestics or apprentices in the neighborhood.

Most intriguingly, the Pietà appears to have had an ideological agenda drawn from Savonarola’s politics: not the bonfire of the vanities with which his name is mainly identified today, or the drive to purify the church, but the embrace of democratic self-government.

Florence had been a republic in the antique model, governed by citizens chosen partly by lot from 1328 to 1434, and then again intermittently in the early 1500s. The Medicis appointed themselves dukes in 1537 and consolidated their power in the decades immediately prior to the establishment of the Casa della Pietà. But there was resistance to their power throughout the 16th century, and the Pietà began as a bastion of the republican faction. The author goes through the roster of hundreds of donors to explore their connections with Savonarola’s followers.

Terpstra emphasizes that the Pietà not only allowed its charges unusual freedom and autonomy, but that it was governed in an unusually informal and responsive manner as well—by a circle of women donors, together with the warden. This changed when the Medicis took over and the directors became male. The once-rapid and informal admissions practice became protracted and difficult—and with fascinating consequences for the mortality of the girls.

What was killing these children and adolescents? Terpstra suggests several good answers, including one with which he skillfully shocks us. In the course of describing the mystery, Terpstra gives us only as many clues as he wants us to have at any given time, so the reader experiences the impact of progressive revelations much as a researcher would. While explaining his discoveries, Terpstra also takes us on a tour of a time and place many readers know something about. But readers who haven’t focused on 16th-century Italy are in for some surprises.

I had no idea, for example, that medieval and Renaissance theologians didn’t agree that life begins at conception, and that abortion, even fairly late-term abortion, was an open secret that might take place scarcely a day’s journey from the Vatican. Nor did I know that silk and wool were already being produced under factory-like conditions in Renaissance Florence. Or that girls could hire themselves out as apprentices in weaving, sometimes to female master weavers. Or that Florence had cheap, city-run brothels to keep young unmarried men from assaulting respectable girls.

The poignant subtext to Terpstra’s mystery is one he never mentions: the slow decline of Florence. The Medicis were great patrons, but as the 16th century wore on, the city, like the Casa della Pietà, became more organized, more secure—and less creative. During 1553-55, Michelangelo was working on the Pietà sculptures that are now in the Accademia and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. But he would be dead 10 years later, and no one filled his shoes: Raphael and Leonardo had died decades earlier—as had, for that matter, Machiavelli. By the time the Casa della Pietà faded out in the 17th century, Florence was becoming a backwater.

It would be interesting to know how many of the women who contributed to the Pietà had an inkling that their city would be famous centuries later not for its power, or its social organization, or its riches, or even its piety, but for its art.

Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context.

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