A trio of Renaissance scholars from the University of Cambridge has been awarded over 2.3 million Euros by the European Research Council in order to launch a groundbreaking interdisciplinary project on ‘Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Renaissance Italian Home’.
In opposition to the enduring stereotype of the Renaissance as a ‘secular age’, their research sets out to demonstrate that religion played a key role in attending to the needs of the laity, and explores the period 1400-1600 as an age of spiritual revitalization. Devotions, from routine prayers to extraordinary religious experiences such as miracles or exorcisms, took place within the home and were specifically shaped to meet the everyday demands of domestic life.
The three Principal Investigators, Abigail Brundin (from the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages), Deborah Howard (Architecture and History of Art) and Mary Laven (History) offer a rare combination of expertise and experience across several disciplines. By bringing together the study of books, buildings, objects, spaces, images and archives, they aim to show how religion functioned behind the doors of the Renaissance home. The project moves beyond traditional research on the Renaissance in two further ways. Firstly, it breaks away from the ‘golden triangle’ of Venice, Florence and Rome in order to investigate practices of piety in three highly significant yet under-explored zones: Naples and its environs; the Marche in central Italy; and the Venetian mainland. Secondly, it rejects the standard focus on Renaissance elites in order to develop an understanding of domestic devotion across a wide social spectrum.
The project will provide opportunities for three PhD students and three post-doctoral researchers to undertake research in Italy. Back in Cambridge, the University will provide a unique environment for interdisciplinary collaboration and dialogue. The PIs comment that, unlike many of the other successful Synergy teams, they do not need funding to set up a laboratory or to pay for expensive equipment: ‘Our pooled knowledge and expertise are key to this project, which, in the way of arts and humanities research, gains its strength and vitality from the bringing together of people, and the opportunity to arrive at a 360-degree view of a research question that alone we could never achieve’.
2012 was the first year in which the ERC published its Synergy call. The competition attracted over 700 applications, only 1.5% of which were retained for funding. ‘Domestic Devotions’ is one of only two projects from the Humanities and Social Sciences to be funded, and the only project to be led by an exclusively female team.
Votive image from the shrine of the Madonna dell’Arco, Naples, depicting a domestic scene, in which a man, surrounded by his wife and children, give thanks to the Virgin Mary for healing his leg.