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Abstract

Through the lenses of Caravaggio’s life and work, this article studies late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century social thought and charitable practices. It examines, among others, the theology and social thought of Carlo Borromeo, Filippo Neri and François de Sales, as well as the conduct and rules adopted by a variety of subjects active in the field of social welfare, including hospitals, religious charities, lay confraternities, municipalities and states. Without denying the novelty of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century social thought, the article suggests that the roots of what Karl Polanyi called the “discovery of society”—that is, the idea that evils like sickness and poverty are the consequence of societal flaws, as opposed to one’s moral shortcomings—date back at least to the late sixteenth century, if not earlier. At that time, of course, this ethical view was still embryonic, uncommon and full of contradictions—so much so that it did not translate into significant legislative reforms for another couple of centuries. But the seeds of the subsequent “discovery” were there—scattered in the works of theologians like Juan Luis Vives and artists like Caravaggio.

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