The marginality of these women is defined by their exclusion from marriage. The chivalric ideal of chaste love existed side by side with the reality of clandestine affairs, foundlings deposited in the middle of the night at the gate of the Foundling hospital, and the separation of mothers from children. Woman’s virtue lay in her virginity or chastity, without these, other roles such as wife, mother, widow, daughter, sister, all defined in relationship to male others, were worthless. Husband, father, widower, son, brother, these roles were arguably secondary to merchant, banker, prior, rentier; a man’s virtue was never, except sometimes in hagiography, dependent upon sexual continence. The family in Renaissance Florence can be seen as a building block of the state. Those who lived outside the structure of the family structure (with the exception of the religious, who themselves used the language of the family to maintain structures: brother, sister, mother, father) were marginal and by creating parallel families or structures, were also subversive. However, both men and women were offered numerous alternative narratives in novelle, romances, painting, even hagiography. These fictional constructs were in direct opposition to the lives women had to lead in order to be socially accepted. Some women, such as Lucrezia Donati, Simonetta Vespucci, Ginevra dei Benci could flirt with romantic love outside marriage without serious peril to their status; for others, however, sexual involvement brought marginality and life-long exclusion from social normalcy. The Florentine Renaissance city state is hardly historically unique in this, but the contrast of socially accepted, even lauded, poetic constructs with lived illicit relationships, of courtly narratives with bourgeois family structures is particularly accute here. The lives of some of these women who formed a liminal social group in Florence can be reconstructed; it is time do so.
This essay first appeared in Pawns or Players?: Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women and is re-published with the kind permission of Four Courts Press