Confraternities and the Rhythm of Renaissance Republics

Lucia Delaini and Hilary Barker

Early modern urban landscapes were raucous spaces: streets, squares, churches, and markets teeming with priests, functionaries, merchants, artisans, servants, bankers, and soldiers. Despite the period’s strict hierarchies, people from radically different walks of life called each other “brother” or “sister” in one context: confraternities. These were lay religious societies, which gathered for group prayer, religious observances, and served many functions we now think of as social services: organizing hospitals and orphanages, providing the poor with dowries and funerals, and comforting the condemned before execution. Confraternities had strict membership, but also sidestepped hierarchy, uniting people from a specific neighborhood, patronage network, faction, or occupation regardless of class.  In confraternity halls masters and apprentices, bankers and servants, all shared a united religious and political education, promoting images of a suffering Christ, local patron saints, religious movements, and political factions.  Many confraternity brothers wore hoods or masks during meetings, stepping outside their identities to stand as equals for the duration of a service or charity.  Present in virtually every Renaissance urban space, confraternities often disappear in accounts of the Renaissance, since their meetings, processions, orations, songs, and lectures were ephemeral activities, leaving few records. Yet confraternities were a nexus between all forms of power: lay and religious, local and super-local, even Earthly and heavenly as they collaborated with the priesthood as another intermediary between humankind and divinity.  Like the accompaniment behind a soloist, confraternities may disappear from surviving accounts of society’s major actors, yet they maintained the daily rhythm of loud Renaissance streets.

Benediction Of The Pope In St. Peter's Square

Etching with engraving
Ambrogio Brambilla, Pirro Ligorio, Claudio Duchetti, engravers
[1581-1586]

From the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae

Confraternities knitted together the social fabric of cities, otherwise rife with class tensions. These tensions were often on display (and most likely to break into violence) when all classes gathered for important feast days and processions. Confraternities as institutes participated in a variety of charitable activities, such as care for the sick and the provision of dowries for poor women–much like religious charities do today. By doing so, they fostered goodwill between citizens of different classes. In this way, confraternities promoted the health of civic bodies as a whole.

Book of Hours
MS346
Ca. 1400

Codex Manuscript Collection, Bequest of William J. Bl

Saints’ day calendars like the one shown here (open to the month of December), are often included in Books of Hours. Among their other activities, confraternities often held religious ceremonies or processions on specific feast days, such as that of their patron saint. The succession of various religious celebrations held throughout the year by both the church and confraternities marked out repeating annual rhythms of early modern civic life. Confraternal celebrations thus constituted an important measurement of time as well as devotion.

Flagellation of Christ
Etching with engraving

[ca.1570]

From the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae

Depictions of Jesus’ Passion were common devotional images throughout Europe. Images of the suffering or dead Christ prompted the faithful to examine themselves and question whether they were worthy of for such a sacrifice. In the context of confraternities, meditation on Jesus’ sacrifice and on the common sinfulness of all men erased social boundaries and encouraged individual devotees to see themselves as equally humble before God. Some confraternities practiced flagellation, the self-infliction of wounds as a way to more closely relate to Jesus’ suffering.

Portraiture Of Diverse Street Vendors
Etching with engraving

[probably after 1579]

From the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae


Renaissance cities were divided by sharp class lines. While Venice and Florence were nominally republics, power rested in the hands of a small number of powerful elite families. Ability to participate in the forms of government and in the power of the state derived from successful commercial and financial ventures, not land or noble blood, as elsewhere. However, cities and economies contained both the high and the low—including the myriad of vendors of minor goods pictured here. Confraternities were the institutions where a wealthy merchant was most likely to meet the tripe seller accompanied by cats in the upper right.