The rising refinement showed itself in the form and life of the home. While the dwellings of the populace remained as before—unadorned whitewashed stucco or plaster walls, flagstone floors, an inner court usually with a well, and around the court one or two stories of rooms furnished with the simple necessaries of life—the palaces of the nobles and nouveaux riches took on a splendor and luxury again recalling Imperial Rome. The wealth that in the Middle Ages had been concentrated on the cathedral now poured itself out into mansions equipped with such furniture, conveniences, delicacies, and ornaments as could hardly be found, north of the Alps, in the seats of princes and kings. The Villa Chigi and the Palazzo Massimi, both designed by Baldassare Peruzzi, enclosed a labyrinth of rooms, each ornate with columns and pilasters, or fretted cornice, or gilded coffered ceiling, or paintings on vault and walls, or sculptured chimney pieces, or stucco carvings and arabesques, or floors of marble or tile. Every mansion had elegant beds, tables, chairs, chests, and cabinets built for a century and cut to please the eye; its massive credences or buffets were loaded with silver plate and fancy pottery; it had soft and comfortable beds, fine carpets and handsome drapes, and linen abundant, enduring, and perfumed. Great fireplaces warmed the rooms, and lamps, torches, or chandeliers lighted them. All that was lacking in these palaces was children.
For family limitation rises as the means for supporting children mount. The Church and the Scriptures bade men increase and multiply, but comfort counseled infertility. Even in the countryside, where children were economic assets, families of six children were rare; in the city, where children were liabilities, families were small—the richer the smaller—and many homes had no children at all.64 What lovely children Italian families could have appears in the bambini and putti of the artists, the cantorie of Donatello and Luca della Robbia, and such sculptural portraits as The Young St. John of Antonio Rossellino in the Washington National Gallery. The solidarity of the family, the mutual loyalty and love of parents and children, stand out all the more attractively amid the moral looseness of the times.
The family was still an economic, moral, and geographical unit. Usually the debts of one defaulting member were paid by the rest—a marked exception to the individualism of the age. Rarely did any member marry or leave the state without the family’s consent. Servants were freeborn free-spoken members of the family. Paternal authority was supreme, and was obeyed in all crises; but normally the mother ruled the household. Maternal love was as fond in the princesses as in the paupers. Beatrice d’Este writes about her baby boy to her sister Isabella: “I often wish that you could be here to see him, as I am quite sure that you would never be able to stop petting and kissing him.”65 Most families of the middle class kept a register of births, marriages, deaths, and interesting events, interspersed here and there with intimate comments. In one such family record Giovanni Rucellai (ancestor of the dramatist of the same name) wrote, toward the end of his life (c. 1460), these proud words of a Florentine:
I thank God that he has created me a rational and immortal being; in a Christian country; close to Rome, the center of the Christian faith; in Italy, the noblest country in Christendom; and in Florence, the most beautiful city of the whole world…. I thank Our Lord for an excellent mother, who, though only in her twentieth year at the time of my father’s death, refused all offers of marriage, and devoted herself wholly to her children; and also for an equally excellent wife, who loved me truly, and cared most faithfully for both household and children; who was spared to me for many years, and whose death has been the greatest loss that ever has or could have befallen me. Recalling all these innumerable favors and benefits, I now in my old age desire to detach myself from all earthly things in order to devote my whole soul to giving praise and thanks to Thee, my Lord, the living source of my being.66
Two men, who were perhaps one, wrote, about 1436, treatises on the family and its governance. Agnolo Pandolfini was probably the author of an eloquent Trattato del governo della famiglia; Leon Battista Alberti, soon afterward, composed a Trattato della famiglia, whose third book, “Economico,” is so largely similar to the earlier treatise that some have thought the two works were different forms of one essay by Alberti. Perhaps they are both genuine, so alike because they both based themselves upon Xenophon’sOeconomicus. Pandolfini’s performance is the better. Like the Rucellai, he was a man of means, serving Florence as diplomat, and contributing generously to public causes. He wrote his treatise toward the end of a long life, and cast it into the form of a dialogue with his three sons. They ask him should they seek public office; he advises against it, as necessitating acts of dishonesty, cruelty, and theft, and as exposing one to suspicion, envy, and abuse. The sources of a man’s happiness lie not in public office or fame, but in his wife and children, his economic success, his good repute, and his friends. A man should marry a wife sufficiently younger than himself to submit to his instruction and molding; and he should teach her, in the early years of their marriage, the obligations of motherhood and the arts of household management. A prosperous life comes from the economical and orderly use of health, talent, time, and money: of health through continence, exercise, and a moderate diet; of talent through study and the formation of honest character by religion and example; of time through shunning idleness; and of money through a careful accounting and balancing of income, expenditure, and savings. The wise man will invest first of all in a farm or estate, so arranged as to provide him and his family not only with a country residence, but with corn, wine, oil, fowl, wood, and as many as possible of the other necessaries of life. It is well also to have a house in the city, so that the children may use the educational facilities there, and learn some of the industrial arts.67 But the family should spend as much of the year as possible in the villa and the country:
While every other possession causes work and danger, fear and disappointment, the villa brings a great and honorable advantage; the villa is always true and kind.… In spring the green trees and the song of the birds will make you joyful and hopeful; in autumn a moderate exertion will bring forth a hundredfold; all through the year melancholy will be banished from you. The villa is the spot where good and honest men love to congregate…. Hasten thither, and fly from the pride of the rich, and the dishonor of evil men.68
To which one Giovanni Campano answered for a million million peasants: “Had I not been born a rustic, I should readily have been touched with pleasure” by these descriptions of rural happiness; however, having been a farmer, “what to you are delights are to me a bore.”69