- Women and Men in Renaissance Venice: Twelve Essays on Patrician Society
These twelve essays written over the last quarter of the twentieth century are the fruit of one of the most important historians of women and gender in the Renaissance. They are divided into three thematic sections: ‘The State, its Institutions, and Gender’; ‘Women, Marriage, and Motherhood’; and ‘Varieties of Masculinity’—but common themes resound throughout with the state at the heart of the analysis. Chojnacki argues eloquently that the late fourteenth century provoked a crisis for the Venetian nobility. It responded by passing laws to tighten its ranks and separate itself from the rest of Venetian society. By the sixteenth century, it had emerged as a social caste.
These laws were of two sorts, the creation of registries to prove social pedigree and regulations fixing dowry prices. The laws, however, had unforeseen consequences. Dowries jumped the legal hurdles, increasing by 83 percent from 1425 to 1524. The increase, Chonjacki argues, strengthened women’s economic and social position within Venetian society. Because of their consequential increased holdings, men had to take them more seriously. Increasingly, women contributed to the dowries of their daughters and other kin and as result exercised more power in shaping future careers, not only of their own children, but also those of other kinsmen and women. As a further consequence, ages at marriage for both men and women increased during the fifteenth century, and women were given more choice over whether they married, went into convents, or even stayed unattached.
Rising dowries also impinged on patrician men, forcing almost half of them to remain unmarried during the [End Page 213] fifteenth century. Further, those able to marry became increasingly reliant on their wives’ inflated dowries, which may have contributed to the nobility’s decline in entrepreneurial initiative during the Renaissance. On the other hand, Venetian society became more variegated with gender divisions deepening between those who married and those who could not, further leading to a heightened youth culture focused on men’s organizations (the compagnie delle calze), which led to stronger personal and political bonds across the ranks of the nobility as well as to homosexuality, prostitution, and non-marital liaisons between noble men and women from lower classes.
The most important consequence of the rise of dowries and women’s increased economic clout, however, was women’s capacity to weld horizontal ties across the patrilineal family structure of Venice’s ruling élite. Through examining almost a thousand last wills and testaments and the sponsorships of young men for political entry into Venetian government (the annual Barbarella competitions), Chonjacki argues that women’s cross-lineage networks constituted the key explaining Venice’s remarkable political stability in the Renaissance (the ‘myth of Venice’). While Chonjacki’s essays are fixed tightly on Venetian history from the Black Death to the early sixteenth century, they place the republic in the wider contexts of social and symbolic anthropology, the history of early modern Europe, and especially the history of women and gender in Renaissance Florence. Indeed, his essay ‘Gender and the Early Renaissance State’, essentially a comparison between Venice and Florence, examines the current historiography on women in Florence as well as any essay I know, even by Florentine specialists. Yet, despite his awareness of the literature across regional and national boundaries, his essays cry out for further comparative scholarship. First, the rise of ages at marriage and dowry prices was hardly unique to fifteenth-century Venice. The same was true of Florence and, with its pro-inflationary Monte delle Doti, dowries rose faster than in Venice. Yet, the consequences were not the same. While some may not draw as negative a picture as Christiane Klapisch-Zuber has done, few would deny that in Florence women’s legal and economic independence declined over the century. The difference between men’s and women’s testaments in the two cities also reveals similarities. In both cities, women were the links between natal and marital groups...