History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - Home Dolce Home

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Where did the Italians of the Renaissance rest their weary heads? Cook up a family meal? Toss back a few cups of local wine? At home, of course. But much like today, things at home were different for the rich versus the poor, the urban versus the rural.

Rural Homes

Peasant homes were no-nonsense. Everything in them contributed to agricultural production. Houses were made of some combination of wood, mud or clay and straw. Day laborers lived simply with a few tools and if they were lucky, a few animals. Prosperous plowmen expanded their houses to make space for several plows, harnesses, horses or oxen, and storage areas for grain and straw. Still more well-to-do farmers had a pig sty, a sheep pen and a threshing ground. The floors were of packed earth or wood. Peasants slept on straw mattresses on the floor or on planks, and protected themselves from the cold with thin, patchwork blankets. Shepherds and servants slept in the barn with no light or heat. They also had to keep an eye on the stables in case a thief tried to come for the horses. Prominent villagers may have had a large baking oven, a mill, or an olive press that other peasants also used. Of course, most villages had to deal with fleas, mice, rats and lice in or near their homes.

Urban Homes

More Italians during the Renaissance lived in towns or cities than the average family in other European countries. Some historians agree that the fast rise of urbanism in Italy contributed to the country's amazing advances in culture, economics and learning. But how did the urban Italian live? Poorer families had to pay rent to live in their ramshackle wooden apartments, and they secured annual leases for the privilege. Wealthier artisans or the nobility probably owned their stone or brick homes, which may have had courtyards, mezzanines, great halls or loggias. The nobility and bourgeoisie decorated their homes in such a way that no one could mistake their wealth. Even Renaissance Italians kept up with the Joneses. Here are some common elements of their homes --

Windows and doors: A hole cut into the wall was all the window some people had. More fortunate families covered the hole with oiled linen which kept out the wind but welcomed sunlight into dark corners. After 1400, the wealthy had fixed or movable glass panels in their windows, with or without shutters. Lead framed the glass. Wealthy Italian families were constantly fighting, and that meant a need for household security. The windows often had bars or iron grates, especially ground floor windows. Doors were made of stone or wood, and for greater security, had iron bars embedded into them, with bolts, locks and studs.

Kitchens: If there was a kitchen at all, it was built on the top floor of a large house or urban apartment building as security against fires. There you would find a kneading trough for bread, a grain bin, cauldrons, skillets, pots, shelves full of plates and pitchers. Light and warmth came from the hearth, at times a massive affair tall enough for a man to stand in. The kitchen floors of the wealthy were often tile.

Bedrooms: This was arguably the most important room in an Italian Renaissance household. The bed dominated the bedrooms of the wealthy. A pine, oak or fir bed frame sat on a wooden bottom with legs that were high enough to store things underneath. Inside the frame, the Italian wife (or maidservant) piled straw, and then a mattress made of twill, wool or silk. The mattress was stuffed with straw waste, oats, wool flocking, and -- if the family was especially wealthy -- down or feathers. On top of the mattress went linen, cotton or hemp sheets, cushions or down pillows, a bedspread and a warm comforter. A curtain around the bed kept out the cold. A bathtub may have been curtained off in a corner of the bedroom. Carpets warmed the tile floors, and the family clothing was stored in oak and cypress caskets which lined the bedroom walls and doubled as seats.

Toilets: Even ordinary urban houses had latrines in Italy. Families often shared a latrine - perhaps a wooden seat over a shaft that lead to a cesspit between the houses. Public latrines could sometimes be found near rivers or next to the city walls.