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The Italian Family from Early Modern to Contemporary Times

Instructor: Elizabeth Bernhardt [see profile]

Disciplines: History, Sociology, Women's & Gender Studies

The Italian family, the basic building block of society and state, is continually evolving, and this course will focus on the institution itself as well as the roles of women, men, children, servants and sexuality within it from the Quattrocento until now.  Over these past six centuries we will discuss issues such as shared family time and resources (housing, meals, childcare, extended family influences, family-run businesses, and entertainment). How a couple planned for children, named them, and educated them according to gender, rank, and geography will be addressed as will family housing, the creation of family-related art and various forms of home-based material culture.  Italian marriage will be set into historical context by examining major changes made to define it at the Council of Trent (1563), in parliament with the legalization of divorce (1970) and of same-sex civil unions (2016). Canon law governing marriage as a religious sacrament based on consent alone would be challenged by civil laws since the Renaissance, and we will see how different laws affected remarriage, legitimacy of children, divorce, widowhood, inheritance, etc. The course concludes by studying more recent social phenomenon such as women working outside the home, differences between northern and southern Italy, birth rates in ethnic Italian vs. migrant families, domestic violence and crimes of passion, recent laws on “fast” divorces (2014), ongoing discussion of the rights of same-sex partners, parents ‘fit’ to adopt children, illegality of surrogate motherhood, and Pope Francis’s role in discussions of Italian and global family life and the Vatican’s annual “Family Day” events.

Site visits include Palazzo Spada, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, the Archivio Storico Capitolino, and the neighborhood of Testaccio (Rione XX).


  • two reading quizzes
  • a research paper (8 pages)
  • an oral presentation
  • a final exam