Domestic Devotions

The Early Modern Catholicism Network welcomed to Oxford on 12 November 2014 the ground-breaking interdisciplinary research group Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home from the University of Cambridge.

A busy day of events featured a joint meeting with the Early Modern World Seminar and object sessions with the Ashmolean Museum’s University Engagement Programme. These events forged new connections between researchers in both universities working on early modern Catholic art, history, and literature and provoked a fascinating, sustained discussion around many of the innovative research questions posed by the Domestic Devotions project. How far did religious devotions structure everyday life in this period? What are the boundaries of domestic space? How significant is the home as a site of conflict or compromise between official and popular religion? And what sources and methods can researchers best use to understand these dynamics?

The seminar foregrounded the contribution of the project’s doctoral and post-doctoral researchers in a thrilling series of presentations. Marco Faini presented the life of Santi Saccone, a popular healer from the Marche, in order to explore the role of miracles in domestic spaces. Depictions of the Nativity in maiolica inkstands featured in Zuzanna Sarnecka’s presentation, which suggested the prevalence and significance of these objects in ordinary people’s homes. Drawing on her archival research into trials before the Neapolitan Inquisition, Irene Galandra Cooper highlighted flashpoints of conflict in domestic devotional culture in Southern Italy. Katie Tycz uncovered fascinating amuletic texts used for a range of healing and devotional practices that tested the limits of the religious authorities’ permissiveness. And moving from these pocket-sized, fragmentary texts to a heterodox learned collection, Alessia Meneghin introduced the library of Antonio Trento in Vicenza emphasising the limits of official control over devotional practices in the home. Together, these presentations demonstrated the great potential of in-depth research across neglected archives, objects, and regions in rethinking the connections between the Renaissance and early modern Catholicism, as well as the benefits of shared expertise that can be gained from interdisciplinary collaboration across the humanities.

After stimulating discussions over lunch in New College, we moved onto the second part of the day’s events. Maya Corry of the Domestic Devotions project and Jim Harris of Ashmolean Museum’s University Engagement Programme selected objects for our two groups of doctoral students, early career researchers, post-holders, and curators to discuss. These objects included engravings and drawings, plaquettes and bas-relief sculptures, maiolica, a reliquary, and even a tiny child’s ring carrying a devotional inscription. Handling them, we considered their use and significance, particularly focusing on their materiality, iconography, and later reception among museum collections. In this way, we continued the discussions began in the seminar about the problems and opportunities raised by studying domestic devotions, and left the museum excited by the new directions for research that the project is pioneering.

The day proved a great success and we hope it will lead to productive future collaborations. Thanks to TORCH, the Early Modern World Seminar, and the Ashmolean University Engagement Programme for making these events possible, and above all thanks to the Domestic Devotions team for sharing their research with us!


Early Modern Catholicism