Record: Silvia Evangelisti, “Learning from Home: Discourses on Education and Domestic Visual Culture in Early Modern Italy” in History 98, no. 333 (December 2013): 663-679 [Abstract Here]
Summary: Evangelisti, a Reader in History at the University of East Anglia in the UK, here uses pedagogical and artistic advice literature composed in 16th and 17th century Italy to make claims about the use of images and other forms of material culture as education in early modern Italian homes.
Evangelisti sees her work as building upon the broader examination of domestic education during this era to which many historians have been contributing. Most of this work has limited its purview to literacy acquisition and other text-based topics. Evangelisti’s primary argument is that images were also, and very deliberately, used to educate children at home. Reformers, be they Catholic or Protestant, wanted learning in the home to join learning in schools “to indoctrinate children, reflecting the idea that they embody…the future of the whole society.” (p. 665)
She notes that clergy on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide were prolific authors of tracts encouraging domestic education.The pedagogical tracts were, in the 16th and 17th centuries, almost always addressed to the father as head of house. The art tracts, which discussed the value of sacred and profane images in public and private settings, were usually directed toward artists or patrons of art, but they too embraced the use of images in moral and spiritual education.
Both sets of tracts recommended that morally appropriate images be artfully placed in homes so that children would be constantly reminded of the beauty and goodness of exemplary behavior. Recommended objects included holy images or sculptures, especially of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus and other Biblical scenes involving children. Images of female saints and martyrs were “most appropriate for girls in order to introduce them to the notion of holiness, sacrifice, and virginity.” (p. 671) Small altar-sculptures and other trappings of Catholic ritual in the home would encourage boys to play priest and possibly inspire a life-long sense of vocation. The Crucifix especially was recommended to be prominently placed in the home for many purposes, one of which was as “a material memory aid, useful for helping children to memorize the ‘mystery of our redemption.'” (p. 672) Advice was also given about what sorts of images to avoid: “‘Vain’ paintings and statues, naked bodies, particularly if female, classic images representing emperors and persecutors of the church, and pagan Gods could have no positive effect on the household.” (p. 673).
In addition to images, a household room called an “oratory” was recommended as an area set apart for individual or family worship. If an entire room was not possible a corner space would do. Here prayers, preferably sex-segregated, would be offered regularly as a means of inculcating proper moral and spiritual habits in children.
Throughout the art and pedagogical tracts pictures are described as “popular writings,” hearkening back to prior centuries when literacy was not so widespread and images were often the only books illiterate Christians would ever read. Children were recognized to be in this state still, and thus they could benefit from parental explanations of the meaning behind the pictures that surrounded them in their homes, explanations that would bear fruit later when they learned to read properly. Some even argued that sacred images were better than books for educating children because they were immediate, visceral, appealing directly to the emotions.
Appraisal: The fundamental thesis articulated here, that images were important sources of moral and spiritual education for children in early modern Italy, is surely sound. I was less convinced, however, of some of Evangelisti’s more specific claims. She argues that this emphasis on images applied to Catholic and Protestant alike, but the only example she gives of a Protestant advocating anything like what she describes here is John Amos Comenius. Comenius did, as she notes, publish one of if not the first illustrated children’s book, but that is a far cry from these Catholic recommendations to fill the home with sacred images of the saints, crucifixes, and shrines. While later Protestants will relax their iconoclasm considerably, early modern Protestants were on the whole very distrustful of the sacred image and far more enamored of the Biblical text.
Secondly, this article falls into the common trap of histories built upon advice literature. Just because the priests and artists writing these works recommended such practices does not mean families actually followed them. Documenting actual household practices is far more difficult a task than summarizing what published texts recommended, for it requires careful attention to hard-to-find sources like unpublished letters and diaries, paintings of common life, and material artifacts. It is a bit ironic that an article so keen on arguing that material culture is just as significant as written words relies only on written words for evidence.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College