Being a Jesuit in Renaissance Italy: Biographical Writing in the Early Global Age

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Being a Jesuit in Renaissance Italy: Biographical Writing in the Early Global Age | Camilla Russell

Being a Jesuit in Renaissance Italy: Biographical Writing in the Early Global Age

Camilla Russell

I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History

Harvard University Press

April 2022


280 pages

A new history illuminates the Society of Jesus in its first century from the perspective of those who knew it best: the early Jesuits themselves.

The Society of Jesus was established in 1540. In the century that followed, thousands sought to become Jesuits and pursue vocations in religious service, teaching, and missions. Drawing on scores of unpublished biographical documents housed at the Roman Jesuit Archive, Camilla Russell illuminates the lives of those who joined the Society, building together a religious and cultural presence that remains influential the world over.

Tracing Jesuit life from the Italian provinces to distant missions, Russell sheds new light on the impact and inner workings of the Society. The documentary record reveals a textual network among individual members, inspired by Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. The early Jesuits took stock of both quotidian and spiritual experiences in their own records, which reflect a community where the worldly and divine overlapped. Echoing the Society’s foundational writings, members believed that each Jesuit’s personal strengths and inclinations offered a unique contribution to the whole—an attitude that helps explain the Society’s widespread appeal from its first days.

Focusing on the Jesuits’ own words, Being a Jesuit in Renaissance Italy offers a new lens on the history of spirituality, identity, and global exchange in the Renaissance. What emerges is a kind of genetic code—a thread connecting the key Jesuit works to the first generations of Jesuits and the Society of Jesus as it exists today.

Camilla Russell is Publications Editor for Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu at the Roman Jesuit Archive. She is the author of Giulia Gonzaga and the Religious Controversies of Sixteenth-Century Italy and Fellow in History at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

  • Introduction: A New Society and Its Jesuits, 1540–1640
  • 1. Vocation and Entry
  • 2. Candidates for Overseas Missions
  • 3. Being a Jesuit in the “Indies”
  • 4. On the Italian Home Front
  • 5. Deaths and Departures
  • Afterword: Writing Jesuit Lives
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

It is daring to write in a single breath the early history of the Society of Jesus, which encompassed thousands of exemplary lives in all their diversity, fluidity, and mobility. Fortunately, Camilla Russell dared. Looking closely at unpublished documents and foundational texts, she creates an illuminating fresco of the lives of Italian Jesuits. Her lucid account reveals how individual members both shaped the Society and, in turn, were shaped by it.
Ines G. Županov, coauthor of Catholic Orientalism

Camilla Russell’s collective biography tells a remarkable story about the early Italian Jesuits. Examining why a variety of individuals joined the order, what they did there, and why some of them left, this book brings their world back to life.
Peter Burke, author of The Italian Renaissance

Utterly original in its approach, this study fundamentally changes our understanding of how the Jesuits saw themselves and the Society in its first hundred years. Russell’s insightful analysis shows that the early Jesuits not only negotiated their identities with reference to authoritative texts, but also viewed these texts through the lens of quotidian experience.
Simon Ditchfield, author of Liturgy, Sanctity and History in Tridentine Italy

In the first century of the Society of Jesus, thousands signed up to join the new order. This richly textured study draws on a treasure trove of biographical records to reconstruct the motives and experiences of those who lived and died as Jesuits.
Mary Laven, author of Mission to China

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