Sharon Strocchia, Social and Cultural History of the Renaissance


Sharon Strocchia is a Renaissance woman who casts her eye over history, religion, gender, sexuality, health, medicine, and art. But no matter where her gaze falls, she views her subjects through the lens she finds most fascinating—that of the European Renaissance.

Strocchia, who received her B.A. from Stanford University and M.A./Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, began her career as a scholar of the social and cultural history of Renaissance Italy. Over time, she developed a particular interest in studying women of this era. The Renaissance, comments Strocchia, "has often been touted as one of the most stunning periods of human achievement, and I was interested in what that achievement was. And then very quickly I got interested in why women were never part of that narrative." When she set out to examine the subject more closely as a graduate student, she was told that there were simply no sources for studying women of the Renaissance. But as she dug deeper, it became clear that this was a misperception. Strocchia has since discovered a multitude of documents describing the lives of women during the period, and has been particularly successful in unearthing information about women living in institutions that were monitored by cities, such as convents.

Strocchia used these documents to develop a history of religious women who lived during the Renaissance. Her newest book, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (forthcoming), explores Florentine female religious communities. While many may assume that such communities existed apart from the rest of society, Strocchia found exactly the opposite. She states, "As opposed to being really sequestered away from the city, nuns formed a very important labor pool, and were absolutely central to the development of the textile industry in Florence." In addition to their large contributions to the economy, nuns played an important role in sheltering Florentine women from all walks of life. Not always there by choice, many women were placed in convents by their families for economic reasons, as part of broader marriage strategies, or lived in convents temporarily to protect them from the dangers of invading soldiers. Others were forced to become nuns because they were considered "unmarriageable" due to physical disabilities. In taking on the role of guardian to so many women, convents grew from small, semi-autonomous groups to large, custodial institutions that played a central role in Italian Renaissance society.

Her book completed, Strocchia is now concentrating on a related project: a history of the health and healing practices of religious women living in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italy. "After about 1500, Italian nuns entered the medical marketplace as commercial apothecaries in very vigorous numbers," says Strocchia. She knows that nuns were well-respected as apothecaries, but that certain types of people were more likely to approach the nuns for medicine and advice. Consequently, she is studying Renaissance-era documents to learn more about the nuns' clientele. Additionally, she is paying close attention to the health and well-being of the nuns themselves. While Strocchia is interested in the nuns' healing practices, she is also interested in how they experienced good health, illness, and disability. Thus, her history of health encompasses both the medicinal practices and health patterns of religious women in Renaissance Italy.

Recently, Strocchia found an opportunity to apply her passion for Renaissance Italy to the study of a modern-day topic. She is a member of an international, interdisciplinary, all-female group of scholars whose interests span the areas of musicology, art history, history, medicine, and literature. The group's project is entitled "Veils," and its goal is to integrate members' diverse areas of study with scholarship on contemporary Islamic women. Strocchia's role within the group is to draw from her knowledge of religious women's healing practice in the Renaissance in order to better understand modern-day healing practices among Islamic women.

In a second international collaboration, Strocchia is working with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on a gallery installation. The museum is currently restoring an original Renaissance chapel from a convent, and Strocchia, along with other scholars, is serving as a consultant on the project. Together, they will create an exhibit that is historically accurate but also easily accessible to the public. The gallery re-opens in November 2009.

Strocchia appreciates the unique perspectives that a group of international scholars brings to the table. She also, however, is committed to the work that she does closer to home. At Emory, Strocchia teaches courses on the history of religion, history of sexuality, history of the family, Machiavelli, and history of Renaissance medicine. Her favorite course, entitled "Love and Sex in Renaissance Europe," encourages students to view human sexuality through the lens of the Renaissance. In class, as in her scholarly work, she strives to emphasize both the similarities and differences between Renaissance and modern-day perspectives of sexuality.

For Strocchia, integrating Renaissance history and contemporary gender studies is a way of contributing to a culture of greater understanding; of working towards a progressive, egalitarian society that also appreciates difference. She comments, "I think that the kind of issues that I try to raise in my scholarship about agency, about women's authority, about power, about constraints, are very immediate and timely." Whether in her teaching, scholarship, or international collaborations, Strocchia uses Renaissance lenses to examine questions about the past and present. The answers to such questions can help shape our understanding into the future.