Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence
Founded in 1554 by a group of charitable women who called themselves the Compagnia della Pietà, the Casa della Pietà, or Compassion House, was built in Florentine to shelter girls who had been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. The goal of the home was to keep children and adolescent girls from turning to (or being forced into) prostitution in the absence of familial support, and to provide them with the possibility of a dowry and marriage. Despite these good intentions, only 202 of the 526 girls and women who resided in the home survived their stay. As Nicholas Terpstra repeatedly asks in Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence, “What was killing the girls of the Casa della Pietà?”
Terpstra sets out to solve this 456-year-old mystery using the limited documentation still available about the home, as well as other documents that discuss contemporaneous Florence. Throughout the text, Terpstra explores and elaborates upon various theories about what was killing the residents of Casa della Pietà, weaving these theories within the story of the home and the conditions of Florence of the era. In telling this story, Terpstra touches on topics such as the work available for adolescent girls, birth control and abortifacients (and the abortion debate), prostitution, and religious fundamentalism. Although the book is structured as somewhat of a mystery, Terpstra’s question about the fate of the residents is only one part of what is ultimately a social history of the Casa della Pietà and Renaissance Florence.
In terms of women’s history, the book is interesting in two ways. First, it discusses the challenges and options an orphaned or abandoned girl could anticipate facing at the time, even when external support was provided. Second, as was previously mentioned, a group of women established the Casa della Pietà. This was not the norm at the time. Although Terpstra warns against overly romanticizing these women, it is somewhat difficult not to, particularly when the author outlines the differences between the way the Casa della Pietà admitted girls and the way that contemporaneous shelters did, and when he compares Casa della Pietà under the guidance of Compagnia della Pietà to the way it operated once the founding members ceased their involved. As Terpstra notes, “these women challenged more than just the sexual politics of Renaissance Florence—they challenged its political and ecclesiastical establishment.”
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. Admittedly, some of these discussions were less interesting to me than others. For example, although the section that discusses the textile work done by the home’s residents and the wool and silk industry in general is necessary to have as complete an understanding of the home as possible, I did find it difficult to get through because it is a topic in which I have little interest. This is my bias, however, and I appreciated the level of detail Terpstra demonstrated in this section when he turned this focus to topics that were more in line with my interests.
Overall, despite containing a few sections that were less interesting to me, the text puts forth considerable fascinating information. Perhaps most importantly, the text both taught me about a shelter I had never before heard of, and made me want to learn more about the topic and the social climate of Renaissance Florence and its impact on women and girls.