The Magazine

House of Hope

The quest to save the vulnerable of Florence.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By ANN MARLOWE
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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