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Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was an important figure of the Italian Renaissance. He was a humanist author who wrote on many topics, and he also worked as an artist, a linguist, a poet, a clergyman in the papal court, and an architect. Among his known works is a treatise on the subject of the family. The family was an important part of Italian society during the Renaissance, arguably much more so than it is in modern times. The family was an essential part of society because each member played his or her own role in contributing to the overall health and vitality of the family. In his treatise, Alberti uses a dialogical style to discuss these ideas about the family and what is the best way to manage the household. Alberti, through the character of Gianozza, explains how each member of the family has a role with specific tasks that they are each expected to play, whether it is the father being the manager and overseer of the other members of the house and the family business, the mother acting as the supervisor over the household servants and the children, or the servants who work the tasks that the master appoints for them. The family of the upper level of Renaissance Italian society could thus be said to mirror both the old Roman family model, with the father ruling as the pater familias, and the emerging capitalist idea of the division of labor.

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The father of the family was held to be the master of the home and he had authority over every member of the household. Given the rise of the merchant class within Italy during this time, it is no surprise then that Alberti, through Giannozzo, provides a view of the father in a manner that resembles a rich merchant who owns his own business and manages the duties of the employees working for him. In one part of the text Lionardo asks Giannozzo about how he would manage a family, to which Giannozzo responds by telling him that one needs to apply their system of good management to them. The father must make sure that every member of the household, from the lady of the house to the servants, is doing what is within his or her sphere of business to do.[1] This is very similar to how the merchant-capitalists of this period would run a business. The merchant would buy and provide the raw materials that the laborers would then work with until they completed the final product which the merchant could then sell to others. He could hire whomever he pleased, pay them whatever he pleased, and he could order their work in whatever way he pleased. Some have called this the “putting-out system.”[2] Likewise, the father owned the land and he allowed his servants to work for him in order that he could make a profit from their labor. Alberti also uses a simile to illustrate this by comparing the father of the house to that of a spider. The spider spins his web and remains at the center of the web where he can be aware of whatever is happening on the web. In a similar manner, the husband must himself be at the center of the family so that he can be aware of everything that is occurring in the household and so that if there are any matters that require his attention he is immediately notified of these and can address them. [3]

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In addition to the role of the father in the family, Alberti also describes for the reader the proper role of the wife within the home and the way she is to carry out her duties. During this period of time, finding a good wife was a very important matter for an eligible young man fromeither the nobility or the merchant class. He could not just marry any girl; he had to marry someone who was most suitable for a man of his class.

This was such an important matter that entire books were written during the period teaching young men how to find the right wife and what qualities she should possess. She should be from a good family (to ensure a good political alliance), possess a dowry (to ensure the family profited), be healthy (to ensure she bore him many children), and be of a good character (to ensure that she could instill a good character into his children).[4] One could say that finding a good wife was very much like making a good business investment, because a man’s wife could help enrich his life financially and provide himwith both companionship and with good heirs to his business and fortune. Alberti, again speaking through the sage Gianozza, describes for the reader the role of the wife within the home.

He explains that it is the duty of the wife to look after the minor affairs of the household that are not related to business. She should have control over the details of housekeeping and raising the children. The wife also acts as a type of mediator between the father and the household servants. It is her responsibility to ensure that the household servants do their own tasks. She should also keep an eye on the things within the house, to ensure that no one steals anything that belongs to her husband. Nevertheless, it is not her place to know the finer details of her husband’s business and indeed it is better for her not to know these things lest she accidentally tell others about his secrets.[5] And so while the wife is an important person within the household, she nevertheless is expected to do the tasks that her husband requires of her and to not venture into his areas of business.

 

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Servants are also included in Alberti’s definition of the household, and they too have a specific role to play within the familial structure. Gionozzo describes to Lionardo how a man must make sure that his servants are performing their duties efficiently. He states, for example, that if only one servant is needed for a task and yet two servants are working on it then time is being wasted, and likewise if only one servant is toiling away at a task that takes two or more servants, then time is being wasted also. And if he has his servants working on a task that they are ill-suited for, then time will be wasted also. Gianozzo’s solution is simple: each man should be assigned to do what he knows how to do and who can perform the work.[6] Again, this appears to be very similar to the idea of how the putting-out system worked, with the master of the house owning the land or the raw materials and getting the workers/servants to do their tasks for either room and board or low wages perhaps. Gionozza specifically advises Lionardo to make sure that he rewards the servants who are doing their jobs well.[7] He compares this to giving a worker a bonus for a job well done. The servants were thus expected to obey the orders given to them by both the master of the house and his wife, while also being able to enjoy the rewards of a job well done.

In conclusion, the advice that Alberti gives about managing a family is very similar to how a wealthy merchant would manage his business. Just as the merchant’s workers make use of the materials he provides to make products that will give him a profit, so too do the members of the family make use of the property and resources that the father owns to bring him many benefits. The father himself acts as the manager, overseeing the entire family unit and making sure everyone does their part. The wife is the helper of her husband and helps oversee the affairs of the household, especially the raising of the children and the duties of the household servants. And the servants themselves play a key part in this by performing all the tasks that the master and his wife require of them, such as farming his lands, cleaning his house, and looking after his flocks. The entire family works together, each in his or her determined role, in order to ensure that the group as a whole benefits from the assigned tasks of each.

 

Notes:

[1] Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, Book Three, tr. Reneé Neu Watkins (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1994), 50.

[2] Eugene F. Rice and Anthony Grafton, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 58-59.

[3] Alberti, The Family, 76.

[4] Rice and Grafton, The Foundations, 65.

[5] Alberti, The Family, 77-79.

[6] Alberti, The Family, 50-51.

[7] Ibid., 65.

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