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A Veil of Silence

A Veil of Silence

Women and Sound in Renaissance Italy

Julia Rombough

ISBN 9780674295810

Publication date: 07/09/2024

An illuminating study of early modern efforts to regulate sound in women’s residential institutions, and how the noises of city life—both within and beyond their walls—defied such regulation.

Amid the Catholic reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the number of women and girls housed in nunneries, reformatories, and charity homes grew rapidly throughout the city of Florence. Julia Rombough follows the efforts of legal, medical, and ecclesiastical authorities to govern enclosed women, and uncovers the experiences of the women themselves as they negotiated strict sensory regulations. At a moment when quiet was deeply entangled with ideals of feminine purity, bodily health, and spiritual discipline, those in power worked constantly to silence their charges and protect them from the urban din beyond institutional walls.

Yet the sounds of a raucous metropolis found their way inside. The noise of merchants hawking their wares, sex workers laboring and socializing with clients, youth playing games, and coaches rumbling through the streets could not be contained. Moreover, enclosed women themselves contributed to the urban soundscape. While some embraced the pursuit of silence and lodged regular complaints about noise, others broke the rules by laughing, shouting, singing, and conversing. Rombough argues that ongoing tensions between legal regimes of silence and the inevitable racket of everyday interactions made women’s institutions a flashpoint in larger debates about gender, class, health, and the regulation of urban life in late Renaissance Italy.

Attuned to the vibrant sounds of life behind walls of stone and sanction, A Veil of Silence illuminates a revealing history of early modern debates over the power of the senses.


  • A Veil of Silence takes us into the rich sonic worlds of female enclosures—nunneries, charity homes, reform houses—in late Renaissance Florence. Rombough skillfully reconstructs the purifying regimes of silence, the sonic intrusions of sex work, and the rowdy sociability of male youths to illuminate how and why sound mattered to the health and governance of these communities. An original, imaginative study that captures the gendered nature of sensorial experience in Italian Renaissance cities.

    —Sharon Strocchia, author of Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy


  • Julia Rombough is Assistant Professor of History at Acadia University.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press