everyday life in late 16th century Italy?
August 18, 2016 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I failed the Google. I need sources on "everyday" stuff as it would have been experienced in Lombardy, around 1600. Lots of different household types and social classes. I know this is super niche but I've seen some history buff types on here before so... maybe?

I'm writing a historical fiction novel and I keep getting distracted by everyday-life details. Like what my characters are eating, and how the rooms were lit, what material their clothes were made of, what they were using for medicine, what they were burning in the fireplaces, how a wound would have been treated, what their weapons looked like... all that kind of thing.

The story takes place in Lombardy around 1600. The characters range from leading Spanish nobility, to local priests and nuns, to shopkeeper types... It's based on a true story that's always fascinated me and now I'm trying to make a novel out of it (wish me luck!) but I keep getting sidelined by this stuff.

Do you know where I ought to be looking to find this information? My Italian isn't really good enough to read original reference materials, so I need English. No Spanish either unfortunately.

posted by fingersandtoes to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Braudel's Structures of Everyday Life might be useful.
posted by gyusan at 12:53 PM on August 18, 2016

Best answer: You might also get some good context out of A History of Private Life, Vol 3.
posted by dis_integration at 1:09 PM on August 18, 2016

Best answer: I'm not sure this answers your question (and I'll get to that stuff, too), but I have to start with one disclaimer for you.

My current job is reading novels and what's called "writing coverage" on them. (Coverage is the entertainment industry equivalent of a book report, wherein people like me read things so that more important people can pretend they read them.) I read 2-3 novels per week, mostly self-published genre novels.

Nobody cares about any of this stuff. A little bit of it is good to establish the historical fiction genre and setting, and you don't want to ruin the mood by having your 17th century characters take a taxi to the airport or something. But please please please I beg of you PLEASE do not get bogged down in these details.

My fantasy is getting to go through the novels I read with a red pen, slashing out unnecessary mundane details and logistical stuff like how rooms are lit and what people are eating. Because many of the novels I read include paragraphs and paragraphs of this stuff. I recently read a 300 page novel that could have been cut to at least 250 with the removal of entire pages of this stuff.

Before you include a historical detail like this in your novel, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does this further the plot or help me learn more about the characters in any way?

2. If I were writing a contemporary novel, would I dedicate any space to explaining this?

3. Will my novel be confusing or hard for readers to follow if I don't explain this? Would this be easier solved by simply eliminating this plot point in the first place?

And, honestly, I think there's a lot more leeway in #3 than most writers think.

But, OK. Let's say you just want to make sure you're getting the broad strokes right, and you're not having northern Italians eat spaghetti and meatballs (that's a 20th century American version of a southern Italian dish) or having doctors yammer on about germ theory (that's a 19th century thing).

A quick rundown of stuff you hopefully already know: 17th century Lombardy wasn't a discrete political unit, so it's probably going to depend whether you're talking about the Duchy or Milan or the Duchy of Mantua, or somewhere not under those jurisdictions. You're probably going to be talking more about the Holy Roman Empire/Hapsburgs/Spain/etc. than about "Italy", which was not a thing as I'm sure you know.

An Italian peasant is called a "contadino" (plural is "contadini"). This in itself could be like 80% of the historical flavor you need.

Food was not well differentiated from other parts of Europe. Aside from peasants eating local flora and fauna because it's what was available to them, there wasn't really regional cuisine at all. A wealthy merchant or noble in Mantua would eat the same dishes as her counterpart in Marseille or Munich. Be careful about "Columbian Exchange" ingredients like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. while these foods would have been somewhat known to Europeans by 1600, people were VERY SLOW to adopt some of them. Polenta made of corn is probably the big exception to this, though in 1600 you probably would have still seen it made with other grains or chestnut flour. Avoid mentioning Italian tomato dishes, which by and large hadn't come into use in 1600 and is more of a southern Italian thing, in general, anyway.

Similarly to food, the prevailing medical and scientific knowledge of the day would have been roughly the same across western Europe. Generally speaking, the humoral system of medicine would have been used, disease was considered spread by miasma, etc. Italian Renaissance ideas are OK, Enlightenment stuff not so much.

One thing that can help with stuff like what armor looks like and what fabrics people are wearing is by looking at art of the period. If you're mostly looking to avoid gross historical inaccuracy, it's probably better to look at 16th century rather than 17th century art. It's a safe bet that a random peasant in rural Lombardy in 1602 has a life that aesthetically resembles 1572 than 1645. For wealthier characters this is probably less true, but the great thing about art as a resource is that you can probably find portraits of specific 17th century Lombard nobles to draw inspiration from.

Wikipedia will be a better resource than you think, because there really shouldn't be anything in your novel at more than a wikipedia level of detail. If it takes more than four words to explain, cut it and use something simpler. I've actually been down a wikipedia rabbit hole about textiles lately, and it's quite easy to find out whether a given fabric was a 19th century British or French product of the industrial revolution, or whether it dates back further than that. Wikipedia also has tons of photos of historical artifacts, engravings of national costume from different periods, etc.

Beware of generalizing different parts of Italy and different centuries. Borders shifted a lot, and in the more cosmopolitan areas, things like fashions and political loyalties evolved very quickly.

Another good resource is SCA research and websites. While your era butts up against the end of the SCA's period, again keep in mind that a peasant in 1610 will still have a lot in common with a peasant in 1580. Just be careful not to generalize too far back in time.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on August 18, 2016 [40 favorites]

Best answer: I thought of another potential resource.

Modern day Italy has a kind of bizarre obsession with historical reenactment. It's sort of halfway in between the American concepts of Ren Faire and Civil War reenactors. Usually, in any town of size -- especially medieval walled cities that have been well preserved/avoided WW2 damage -- there will be an annual heritage festival where citizens dress in period clothes and model period handicrafts, battle techniques, and sports (archery and horse racing are popular). It is very easy to find information about these festivals online, and because they're lovingly put on by the people who live in those cities today, there is, to an extent, an obsessive level of detail to it. They tend to get a lot more right than your typical American Ren Faire would.

On the other hand, be careful using this as your main source or as a definitive fact-check. They get a lot wrong (especially because it's not like they're striving for any one exact year, just a "medieval" or "Renaissance" era), and there isn't a close attention to detail on things like textiles, colors, and social rank. It's much more a fantasy of what modern Italians wish Renaissance Italy was like, and much less perfect accuracy. But this sort of thing can definitely give you a good feel for things like armor, crafts, architecture, etc.

Googling terms like "Palio", "Giostra", and "Festa Medievale" should bring up tons of images of these festivals from around Italy.
posted by Sara C. at 2:32 PM on August 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Sara! Point taken about not getting bogged down.

This particular town would have been under local Milanese jurisdiction, and ultimately of course answerable to the Emperor in Spain. It does wind up mattering because the characters eventually get in trouble with both the civil and canon authorities.

The thing that is making me crazy right now is interior lighting. Say a noble family is having a banquet, something public and special: would they have used candles? Torches? What about a modest household - would they have bedside candles?

I'ma make the menu up out of my own imagination, but the lighting thing is bothering me!
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:38 PM on August 18, 2016

Ruth Goodman has done a bunch of historical home life documentaries and though set in England, will answer questions like the lighting one. They're all on YouTube.

You might also like At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Not specific to Italy, but talks about stuff like exactly how dim and expensive candles were. It was really interesting.

The above should hit a sweet spot of not relying completely on Wikipedia, but not going academic either.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:07 PM on August 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The book you need is Marta Ajmar and Flora Dennis, At Home in Renaissance Italy, based on an excellent exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2006-7. The V&A had a useful microsite accompanying the exhibition; this now seems to have disappeared from the V&A website, but can still be accessed via the Wayback Machine.
posted by verstegan at 3:48 PM on August 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Perhaps it might be helpful to dip into John Florio's 1611 Italian-English dictionary A New World of Words to get an idea of what kinds of thing were and weren’t part of Italian vocabulary at that time. While it won’t be all that useful as a reference work as there’s no corresponding English-Italian part, it might nevertheless give you some of the flavour of those times.
posted by misteraitch at 2:09 AM on August 19, 2016

Anything about Britain is NOT a good source for anything about Milan/the Holy Roman Empire but maybe foodways and the sciences, and even that only if you're talking about upper class people.
posted by Sara C. at 1:10 PM on August 19, 2016

Response by poster: The Ajmar/Dennis book is a bit pricey for me right now but I got the Braudel and am enjoying it. Thanks all!
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:30 PM on August 29, 2016

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