- Working Women of Early Modern Venice
Venice’s rich archives continue to serve as a laboratory for the social history of the renaissance and early modern period but are now doing so in a new manner. Monica Chojnacka’s solid book shifts the focus from the freewheeling and sexually aggressive young nobles of the Contarini and Dandolo lineages, well known from other works, to the female underclass that so often fell victim to their predatory ways. The world of the popolane or women of the popular class was a complex one, she argues, and on the whole it bears little resemblance to the received stereotypes about Italian women in this age with which we are all too familiar.
Chojnacka starts with an extensive discussion of the status animarum records for Venice at the end of the sixteenth century, which she interprets anew with a clear focus on women of the popular classes. The pattern that emerges is different from that usually associated with the Mediterranean: more than 90% of married couples lived alone rather than with their parents, for instance, and there were far more households headed by single women than found elsewhere in Italy at the time. Chojnacka sensibly reserves judgment on these and other findings, but notes that “in many respects, the Venetian example is much closer to that of northern Europe than the less-developed sections of the Italian peninsula. Venice may be an anomaly. Or, the range of living patterns found here, which show strong ties among natal family members as well as unrelated women, may be more typical of southern European cities than has been previously thought” (p. 25). She then proceeds to flesh out these raw data by looking at sources that inform us about women’s lives in a variety of ways: economic, social and personal or emotional. A study of notarial records and tax rolls shows women owning or controlling property and income independently from their husbands to a greater degree than commonly thought—again indicating conformity to the northern rather than southern European model—, while her exploration of Inquisition and other court records suggests that women, far from being secluded inside their homes, could form social ties within or beyond their neighborhood through multiple means. Much of this apparent mobility, she argues, seems due to the impact of immigration, which accelerated in the late sixteenth century and attracted hordes of foreign women to the city, often as servants. Another fundamental change occurred when the Counterreformation helped establish [End Page 1095] new charitable institutions, the case di carità, that were geared toward the support of single women from the lower classes but also allowed some upper-class women a retreat from marriage (in ways, I might add, that resemble the beguinages of northern Europe). Her picture of women in the Venetian cityscape thus recognizes the strictures of patriarchy in all its guises but allows for greater female agency than most historians of the Italian city have done in the past.
In her preliminary remarks, Chojnacka defines agency or social power as “the ability to make independent decisions as well as influence the actions of other people” (p. xvi) but also more broadly as “a range of activity—occupational, familial, and social—that permitted and demanded that women function either as partners with or independently of the men around them” (p. xvi–xvii). The dual definition could have spelled trouble, for it complicates her thesis and risks conflating such widely different actions as appearing as an individual in court and buying groceries in a shop around the corner. When it comes down to analyzing the material, however, Chojnacka does make such distinctions; the result is a richly textured discussion that takes into account both the options and the limitations of female agency and can thus be read as a corrective of one-sided, overly theoretical accounts. Readers interested in particular aspects of women’s lives in early modern cities will also be delighted by her willingness to share her data on numerous smaller questions: on the living...