Women in the Republic of Venice: Destinies and Choices

[*] in the Republic of Venice, political citizenship was limited and had no participation of women at all.

[*] The two statuses Venetian society had, clearly defined social class distinctions, a feature that forces us to treat the choices for women separately, according to their social rank.

Women of noble families,
  • Also called patrician families, had their future attached to the social, political and/or economic interests of their family.
  • Families had to manage their daughter’s matrimonial carriers, as marriage was a catalyst of social integration with families; who held lower social status wishing to improve their status through marrying their daughters to more respectable families.

    In this context, being able to pay for the dowry, which is the money brought by the wife to the marriage, was a main preoccupation to parents. The dowry was so important at the time, being one of the main financial transactions, that even the government was involved in trying to regulate dowry’s amounts.

    Calling these brides ‘women’ is not appropriate, as they were usually married at around the age of 15, an age that for today’s Italian society is regarded as teenage. Also, upper class weddings usually involved a teenage woman and a man 14 to 20 years older.

    A Venetian patrician daughters’ second duty, after having married and older man, was to survive the births of their many children, fulfilling their reproduction role.

    If they managed to survive, and as their husband was older, they often became widows. Needless to say, not even in this situation would a woman be really entitled property. Even if her dowry returned to her in the form of real property, it was supposed to be again used as a dowry, in case of remarrying. Even if real property was used as dowries, it never included the family palace, which was kept whenever possible in the male hereditary axis.

If not Marriage to man, Marriage to God

A second ‘choice’ to that social stratum of patrician women was to go to a convent and become a nun. This choice was made by the family, and as much as the choice of marrying did not involve how much the girl was fond of the man, neither this choice involved how much a girl had religious vocation.

The family should also pay a sort of dowry to the convent. However, there were different kind of convents, from the most religious and secret to those in which girls were not entirely separated from the rest of society, thus allowing some sexual life, as portrayed, for example, in Casanova’s literature.

The Spinster

The third ‘choice’ for patrician women consisted in not marrying to someone you did not love, and not being forced into religious life in a convent. Instead, only seldom there was some form of semi-lay spinsterhood in the father’s (and later in the brother’s) home, and the woman was called zittela. This position, depending on the family, would be one of a semi-servant, and would not necessarily offer more freedom than the other two choices, since her life would still be defined by the male relatives’ wishes.

For Lower ranked Women

In the lower ranks, women could work in the silk industry, but what might sound good today women working was actually a situation of social vulnerability in the past, for example, of orphan girls that did not have a father to ‘protect’ their destinies, neither a husband.

Poor women could also work as domestic servants, but like in the silk industry, no salary was involved. In the best cases, they only received a dowry in the end. Women could be silk weavers, but not really own a trade and shop, and the government at the time only stimulated their autonomous work due to the cheap labor they represented. Therefore, women were usually the less skilled and remunerated positions in the silk industry.

Other ways of living the third status were subletting rooms in a domestic female enterprise, like La Locandiera (Carlo Goldoni, 1753), being water carriers, or prostitutes. The later also has to be divided in at least two different groups of prostitution: the poor one, making little money in brothels or on the street, and having to have sex with any men, or the courtesans, educated women who had more fixed relationships that would support them.

The courtesan's life, then, provided only a certain measure of freedom from the restrictions of the private family structure or the severity of conventual life. As much as they were venerated and respected, they were also judged and accused.

Some mothers, for instance in the merchants’ stratum, who tried to defend their daughters’ choices in their wills. By trying to protect their dowries in their wills, still much under the control of their husband’s dominion, merchant mothers were trying to prevent forced monachization of their daughters, showing more preoccupation in doing so than patrician mothers. Also, the lower the social rank, the more freedom to choose a partner a woman could have.


Women trying to escape the restrictions on their literacy and learning participated in cultural institutions, like convents and congregations. The term scuola is used to describe the confraternities that women used to participate in, since the fourteenth century. However, in the eighteen century many women were not willing to be solely devoted to God anymore, and started participating in universities and academies, as well as the salons.

An example of Italian salon culture where women were said to have started as simple note takers to become active participants of discussions in the Republic of Venice that was not a courtesan, a nun or even a noble. That humanist educated fathers allowed women to be educated and, as honourable daughters, the woman intellectual could be understood as at once “public” and “chaste”, from mid-quattrocento on.

They were more ‘public’ than the nuns and suffered less criticism of promiscuity then the courtesans. A woman who belonged to a family who worked for patricians, showing us there was another possible way for a woman not married, not nun, nor widow or noble to speak outside the domestic sphere without losing respect; and it was by using the daughter image. This was an intellectual woman who was socially normal, so being a good scholar (highly dedicated) and a good woman (bowing to her father’s wished in marrying) was possible, and gave way for many other intellectual women to be regarded not as transgressors, but as exemplary members of her sex, as long as they had a support from their fathers. Male support was very important for any women who wanted to live beyond the domestic or the convent life, and such support could also be found in lower ranks, in work collaboration between husband and wife, for instance.

Considering the poor women, even those who had more mobility (locandieras, for instance) and public activity were not necessarily more empowered at that time. The more freedom they had, the more vulnerable they were, socially, and therefore with more dubious moral status.

Having all those things at that time, or being a transgressor, could represent having a terrible reputation, and therefore not being empowered, but marginalized by society. Moreover, a woman who did not have a strong male figure father, husband, uncle, brother, patron, lover to support her was already much more vulnerable than any other woman.

We can definitely say that the female transgressors existed in the Republic of Venice, but in order to be able to express their thoughts and be heard, they had to be respected; they had to have a good reputation and, above all, they needed to have strong support of men.

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