Who is the woman on the balcony? It is a familiar Venetian motif. In the paintings of the public ceremonies of Venice, the women are to be seen looking down at the processions from a myriad of balconies and terraces. It is a sign, not of their presence, but of their seclusion. They are in the prison of the home. Yet in this ambiguous territory of the open balcony, half public and half sheltered, there are other possibilities. Byron wrote in Beppo:
I said that like a picture by Giorgione
Venetian women were, and so they are,
Particularly seen from a balcony
(For beauty’s sometimes best set off afar).
The women are perhaps available; therefore they are all the more alluring. Turner painted many Venetian windows and balconies. His “Jessica,” derived from The Merchant of Venice, is seen at an open window; the painting is accompanied by Turner’s version of Shakespeare’s text, “Jessica, shut the window, I say.” The window is an opportunity for sexual display. It is a way of showing off the goods. The gaze is intrinsic to Venice. In Marco Polo’s account of social life in China he congratulates the young ladies of that country for their modesty. “They do not,” he wrote, “hang out at the windows scanning the faces of the passers-by or exhibiting their own faces to them.” It is not hard to see the allusion here to his native city.
Venice has been called a feminine city. Henry James noted that “it is by living there from day to day that you feel the fullness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit. The creature varies like a nervous woman …” He then expatiates on the various “moods” of the city before reflecting on the fact that “you desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it.” This, from a man who is never likely to have possessed any real woman, suggests the amount of displacement that Venice can provoke. It was considered to be licentious in action and attitude. It was, after all, the city of touch, the city of sight, the city of texture. It spoke openly to the senses. It revealed itself. The presence of water is also believed to encourage sensuality. Luxury, the stock in trade of the city, represents the apotheosis of sensuous pleasure. The lovers of the world came, and still come, here. It was known to be the capital of unlimited desire and unbridled indulgence; this was considered to be an expression, like its trade and its art, of its power. Venetian conversation was known for its lubriciousness and its vulgarity. The French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called Venice “le sexe même de l’Europe.”
In poetry, and drama, Venice was often portrayed as the beloved woman, all the more charming for being constantly in peril. It could be said in Jungian terms that when the masculine identity of the city was lost at the time of its surrender to Bonaparte in 1797, it became wholly the feminine city enjoyed by exiles and tourists from the nineteenth century onwards. The journalism and literature of the last two centuries, for example, has included many representations of Venice as a “faded beauty.” It has been celebrated for its power to seduce the visitor, to lure him or her into its uterine embrace. The narrow and tortuous streets themselves conjured up images of erotic chase and surprise. The city was invariably represented as a female symbol, whether as the Virgin in majesty or as Venus rising from the sea. It was stated in legend that Venice was founded on 25 March 421, the feast of the Annunciation, and on that same day Venus was in the ascendant. The city was doubly blessed. How could it not be invincible?
So Venice was the city of Venus. The goddess was born from the sea. She was intimately associated with the sea. It was said that she was created by the white spume that Neptune cast on the islands where the city arose, implying the deep sexuality of the city within the lagoon. For the traveller crossing the water from Marco Polo Airport the city does seem to rise up miraculously from the waves. It is one of the primal sights of the world. The word Venice conjures up Venus within its syllables. The naked Venus was represented by the city without walls. “Venus and Veniceare Great Queens,” James Howell wrote in his Survey of the Signorie of Venice, with a further pun on “quean” or prostitute. Venus was queen of Love, and Venice was queen of Policy. Thus in the DunciadAlexander Pope apostrophises the city:
But chief her shrine where naked Venus keeps,
And cupids ride the Lyon of the Deeps;
Where, eased of Fleets, the Adriatic main
Wafts the smooth Eunuch and enamour’d swain.
But Venice was also the city of the Virgin. Images of the Annunciation are to be found on the Rialto bridge, on the façade of Saint Mark’s, and on the walls of the ducal palace, as well as diverse other places in the city. The worship of the Virgin entailed, even demanded, the glorification of the state. The endurance of the republic was another proof of its divine origin. Like the Virgin herself, it had been taken out of time. That is perhaps still its condition. In the paintings of Mary swooning before Gabriel, executed by Tintoretto and Titian as well as by a host of lesser Venetian artists, the Virgin is portrayed as a Venetian maiden in a typically Venetian house.
The cult of Mary penetrated every aspect of Venetian society. The doge attended mass at Saint Mark’s, according to a sixteenth-century chronicler, “on all the days of Our Lady.” There were processions and festivals, like that of the “Twelve Marys” which culminated in the ritual journey of twelve statues along the Grand Canal; the celebrations lasted for eight days. There were more than three hundred altars, in the fifteenth century, devoted to the worship of the Virgin. In the church of S. Maria Gloriosa there were no less than eight separate altars dedicated to her. The famous nikopeia, a Byzantine icon of the Virgin supposed to have been painted by Saint Luke himself, was carried in state around Saint Mark’s Square on the feast of the Assumption; this relic became the palladium of the republic, its safeguard and defence, and is still to be found in the basilica of Saint Mark’s. It was also a source of prophesying. It was said that if anyone wanted to know if a friend was alive or dead it was only necessary to place a lighted candle before the image; if the friend was alive the candle could not be put out by any wind but, if the friend was dead, its flame would be extinguished by the merest breath or sigh.
Venice was the Virgin, too, because she had never been assaulted. She was inviolate and immaculate, protected by the waves of the sea like a precious girdle. Mary is peace. Peace is stability. James Howell, in his Instructions and Directions for Forren Travell, declared of Venice that “this beautious Maid hath bin often attempted to be vitiated, som have courted her, som brib’d her, som would have forc’d her, yet she hath still preserv’d her chastity intire.” No other city had remained so pure for so long. The coronation of the Virgin in heaven by Christ was then employed, in painting and poetry, as the victorious image of Venice. The Queen of Heaven is also the Queen of the Sea, “like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners.” As late as 1746, fifty-one years before the republic was destroyed, a Venetian friar, Fra Francesco, could utter a prayer to the divine protrectress. “O great Virgin, look down upon this City which you have elected here on Earth as the principal object of your Maternal Love.”
Hers was a popular devotion. There were many shrines on the corners of the calli, with a votive lamp burning before the Virgin; these were maintained by the people of the immediate neighbourhood. There was not a Venetian home, however humble, without its picture of the Virgin. There were artists who did nothing else but execute cheap images of the Madonna known disparagingly as madonnieri. They were, however, only following in the tradition of Bellini. When the bells rang for the enunciation of the prayer “Ave Maria,” the Venetians would fall down on their knees in the streets and squares.
Images of the Madonna were venerated as the workers of miracles; one icon in a niche on the exterior of an old house in the parish of S. Marina was believed to possess powers of healing. Votive lamps, candles and flowers were piled before it in ever greater profusion, and the crush of worshippers in the narrow street became so great that the statue had to be removed to an inner courtyard. On the site was erected the splendid jewel box of a church named S. Maria dei Miracoli. One evangelical Englishman of the early seventeenth century, William Bedell, wrote of the “multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliquies in every corner, not of their churches onely, but houses, chambers, shoppes, yea the very streets … the sea it self is not free; they are in the shipps, boates and watermarks.”
The Virgin was also the archetypal “mother,” in whose capacious embrace the sons and daughters of Venice could rest. In Venetian folk songs the city is depicted as the mother. The mother is such a formidable figure in the Venetian imagination that there may be other and more remote forces at work. Is it possible that the Venetians yearned for the mother because their city was not built on the soil? Mother Earth did not bear it or rear it. In Jungian theory the mother represents the place of origin. But in a sense Venice had no place of origin. The mother also represents aspects of life and consciousness for which the Venetians longed, materiality and sensuousness among them. Could the art and culture of the city therefore be a form of recompense for a motherless state?
And then, as living proof of the efficacy of virgin love, there emerged in the sixteenth century a mysterious woman who became known in fact and legend as the Virgin of Venice. She appeared from nowhere. She began cooking for hundreds of homeless people, every day, in one of the public squares; she begged from the rich to feed the poor, and such was the force of her example that a permanent institution was found for the dispossessed named the Ospedaletto dei Derelitti. She uttered prophecies concerning Venice, the first of which began with the declaration that “The beginning of the Reformation of the world will take place in Venice.” She called both herself and the city Jerusalema Ponentina, and as a result in sixteenth-century literature Venice became known as the New Jerusalem. The artificial city was also the archetypal city.
Michael Kelly, an Irish tenor who lived in Venice a century earlier than Henry James, declared that the city was “the paradise of women, and the Venetian woman worthy of a paradise.” Note that for him it is a paradise of, rather than for, women. Mrs. Thrale, in the same century, remarked more astringently of the Venetian woman that “the government knows every pin she wears and where to find her at any moment of the day or night.” This sense of watchfulness, and of close scrutiny, is part of the truth. The patrician women stayed out of sight; they appeared in public only on ritual occasions, and if they ever did stray from home they were accompanied by servants. They always wore veils. Theirs was an almost eastern seclusion.
The women of the middle and lower classes possessed considerably more freedom of movement. Peasant women brought their produce to market, and the “middling sort” (to use an ancient phrase) often worked in their husbands’ shops or studios. Women are listed in the public records as linen-makers, bakers, spice-sellers and cobblers. It was often said that Venetian females were stronger, and hardier, than the males.
A Venetian wife was not considered legally to be part of her husband’s family; she remained within the family of her father. Marriages were arranged between families rather than between individuals. In public documents the woman was known only in relation to her father or her husband. There were more severe restrictions. In a statute of the fifteenth century, adultery, on the woman’s part, sometimes merited the death penalty.
Yet legal convention is not everything. It was widely reported that Venetian women commanded much authority at home. It is clear from testamentary bequests that, after the death of husbands or fathers, women of the upper and middle classes could often accumulate great wealth. There were also institutions, such as the singing schools, that consolidated the female presence in the city. The female servants or concubines of the Venetian priests often became the matriarchs of the local church, ministering to the community. There were also “wise women” and healers known in every neighbourhood. In such a superstitious place as Venice, they were fully employed.
There were many other social ties between women. The patrician females in one district, for example, might act as patrons to younger and poorer girls. The plays of Goldoni, and the memoirs of Venetian citizens, reveal a close-knit parish community of servants, neighbours and friends who would stand on the thresholds of their houses or cluster around the well-head to exchange news and gossip. There was not the sense of privacy that obtained in England or in northern Europe. If a husband was beating his wife unduly or unjustly, according to the standards of the time, he would become the target for abuse and even prosecution. In Venice it was the society that determined individual behaviour. The parish was essentially the female preserve in a male city; where the public areas were dominated by men, the private and domestic spaces were the realm of women. The parish was the place where they bartered, bought and sold, exchanged services. This arrangement satisfied all parties, and to a large extent maintained and consolidated the famous harmony of Venetian society.
Yet women had one crucial advantage. On marriage, they brought their dowries with them. There was always a dowry. It was the central feature of marital negotiation, in the marriages of the working people as well as of the nobles and merchants. One old Venetian song asks the question. “How many merchants got their start with dowries they were paid?” Yet although the dowries were in the control of the husband during his lifetime they were returned, at his death, to the wife to manage as she pleased. Most females became brides at the age of fourteen or fifteen; their spouses tended to be twenty-nine or thirty. Since the women were younger, they were likely to live longer. Some women became very rich. So even if they were invisible, they were still influential.
The more astute mothers used that wealth to increase the dowries of their own daughters, thus augmenting their eligibility. By the late fourteenth century, in fact, there was a phenomenon in Venice known as “dowry inflation”; the expenses, and the rewards, of a marriage were so great that only one girl in the family could be exchanged and only one male in the family could reap the rich harvest. As a result there was in the city a huge store of unmarried men and women; the men lived with their families, and the women characteristically were consigned to convents.
Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC that the tribes of the Veneti were accustomed to sell their daughters at an open auction to the highest bidder. As late as the tenth century AD there are reports of annual matrimonial fairs in Venice itself, conducted on the feast day of Saint Mark (April 25) at S. Pietro di Castello, where the young girls came holding their dowries. It is an example of a persistent Venetian tradition, continued by other means. In a city of markets, unmarried women were the ultimate commodity. The merchandise of female flesh and money was exchanged for increase in nobility or political power. It was essentially a transfer from visible to invisible assets. When the newly married bride went in procession to her marital home, it was a way of making the exchange public and accountable. It represented the free circulation of capital through the body politic. Since the goods could be easily damaged, young girls were often placed in convents for a time; the nunneries were a kind of warehouse.
On the day for the signing of the marriage contract, in the families of the patricians, the bridegroom repaired to the house of his prospective father-in-law; when the groom and his friends were all gathered, the young girl, dressed according to convention in white gown and brilliant jewels, was paraded twice in a circle to the sound of fifes and trumpets. Then she proceeded into the courtyard, was greeted by all her female kin, and by means of a gondola was transported to all the convents where her relations were immured. The bride’s gondoliers were obliged to wear scarlet stockings. Behind the walls of the convents the young girl was shown to the nuns, who may have had mixed feelings about the matter. On the dawn of the marriage day a small orchestra would play outside the bride’s house as she prepared herself for the procession to the parish church. After the marriage ceremony itself there was a public feast, to which all the guests brought presents.
In the marriages of the other classes, there were customs no less rigorous. The aspiring groom would wear velvet or broadcloth; he would wear a dagger on his girdle, and he would be elaborately coiffed and perfumed. He first declared his love by singing under the window of the beloved. At a later date he would relay a formal request to the family. If he was judged suitable the two families would meet at dinner, and the two parties would exchange gifts of handkerchiefs and almond cakes. There was then a sequence of gifts, carefully regulated according to convention and superstition. At Christmas the man gave to the woman a confettura of fruit and a raw mustardseed, and on the feast-day of Saint Mark a button-hole of rosebuds; other gifts were given and received. There were prohibitions. No combs were to be exchanged, because they were the instruments of witches; scissors were also prohibited because they were a symbol of a cutting tongue. The pictures of saints, curiously enough, were forbidden; they were considered to be an evil augury.
The marriage day was always a Sunday, the other days deemed for a variety of reasons unfortunate. The bride’s family was supposed to furnish the bedroom of the newly married couple; according to custom it had to contain a bed of walnut wood, six chairs, two chests of drawers and a looking glass. Walnut was the only permissible wood. It is an example of the stolid conservatism of the people. No race had a smaller propensity for social or political revolution. In this city, therefore, married life was not necessarily a pleasure; it was a solemn social and familial duty. Perhaps that is the source of the Venetian proverb that marriage comes from love in the way that vinegar comes from wine.
The relative anonymity of women in Venetian society is confirmed by the paucity of female portraiture. Tintoretto completed 139 portraits of men, and only 11 of women. There are 103 surviving portraits of men painted by Titian, with only 14 of women. Titian also left the women out of the family “group portraits” upon funerary monuments. This is not simply the consequence of a patriarchal society. There are plenty of examples of female portraiture in Florence, for example. This erasure of women from the public record is distinctively Venetian. It has to do with the authority invested in the state rather than in the individual. It has to do with the concept of restraint and control, characteristically seen as male virtues. That is why there are many female nudes, and far fewer women in full dress. The woman was considered to be the subject of sensuousness and delight rather than of serious attention. The women who do emerge on Venetian canvas are, in any case, almost always anonymous. They may not even be Venetian. So we have the paradox of the innumerable studies of the Virgin alongside the dearth of real women. And that may be the key. The image of the woman was idealised and sacred. It was not to be sullied by studies of the female in time.
When the wives of the merchants or richer shopkeepers did become visible, they were the subject of much comment. In the late fifteenth century Pietro Casola noted that “the women of Venice do their utmost, particularly the best-looking, to show their bosoms … when you view them, you become astonished that their clothes do not fall from their backs.” He also observed the fact that “they neglect no artifice to improve their appearance.” In 1597 Fynes Morrison described them as “tall with wood, fat with ragges, red with paint and white with chalke.” The “wood” was that of large platform shoes. In an unnatural city, therefore, they were the image of unnaturalness. In the city of trade, fashion was a large element of consumption. In Venice female fashions changed faster than anywhere else in Italy.
For many travellers Venice was a vast open-air brothel, the “flesh shambles of Europe” as one visitor put it. Even Boccaccio, writing in the Decameron, which is not dainty, declared that the city was “the common receptacle for all sorts of wickedness.” Roger Ascham, two centuries later, said that he saw in nine days “more libertie to sinne than I ever heard tell of in our noble Citie of London in nine yeare.” It was remarked that the young men who went on the Grand Tour to Venice invariably returned with the present of syphilis to bequeath to future wives and children. Venice had no famous lovers, only famous roués and courtesans.
In the early seventeenth century Thomas Coryat estimated the number of prostitutes to be twenty thousand, “whereof many are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow.” It sounds like the overestimate of an outraged moralist, but the figure may not be so inflated. A century before, a Venetian chronicler, Marino Sanudo, estimated the number at 11,654. A great deal can happen in a hundred years, especially in a city that grew increasingly notorious for its incidence of lust and libertinism. Sanudo’s figure is also to be placed in the context of a population in the early sixteenth century of one hundred thousand; on this evidence, approximately one in five Venetian women was a prostitute. It was reported that Venetian men preferred prostitutes to their wives. One explanation for their ubiquity may rest in the large proportion of unmarried patricians. Fornication, according to Fynes Morrison in the late sixteenth century, was “esteemed a small sinne and easily remitted by Confessors.” Saint Nicholas was the patron saint both of sailors and of prostitutes, the two indispensable Venetian trades.
There were certain areas devoted to venality. There were brothels in certain favoured streets (some thirty or forty streets altogether) with a fair selection of them in the area of the city known as Castelletto. In one house thirteen prostitutes shared an apartment. The main centre was from the fifteenth century the Campo S. Cassiano, known as Carampane, close to the inns and hostels of the Rialto. Saint Mark’s Square itself was used as a meat market by Venetian mothers—“every mother,” a French traveller of the seventeenth century put it, “that is willing to be rid of her Daughter, carries her thither every Day as to a Market … nor are you oblig’d to buy a Pig in a Poke, for you may view and handle her as much as you will.” In the memoirs of Casanova there is an account of just such a transaction. Casanova met a mother and daughter in a coffee house where, on understanding his intentions, the mother asked for money; her daughter was not to lose her virginity “without making a good profit out of it.” Casanova offered ten sequins for her maidenhood, but wanted to assure himself first that he was not being swindled. And this, in his inimitable manner, he proceeded to do. This was an everyday story of Venetian folk.
The genteel courtesan, or “honest” courtesan, was a Venetian speciality. She was not to be confused with the common prostitute or meretrice. She was deemed to be a “free” woman, cultivated and refined. Coryat, who had become something of an expert in the flesh trade, described the courtesan as “decked with many chaines of gold and orient pearles like a second Cleopatra (but they are very little), divers gold rings beautified with diamonds and other costly stones, jewels in both her eares of great worth.” He recommended that travellers carry with them a herb called “moly” or “Ulysses herb,” a type of garlic, to ward off her attractions. But the merits of the courtesan were not merely carnal. She was disposed to intellectual conversation, to repartee and to poetry. She was considered to be the embodiment of the Renaissance ideal, of sensuality leading to the salon if not to sublimity. She also became the embodiment of a new type of woman, and a new form of female consciousness; the courtesans of Venice were significant figures, achieving a social and even intellectual dominance that other women could not equal. That is why they became notorious all over the European world. If Venice is indeed a female city, then it is best represented by the courtesan.
Sexuality also led to the painter’s studio. The status of the unnamed women in Venetian paintings is not at all certain—although it must be the presumption, for example, that Titian’s nudes were indeed courtesans. Images of the repentant whore, Mary Magdalen, may also have been based upon living originals. The ambassador of Ferrara in Venice revealed in a letter to his sovereign that “I suspect that the girls whom he often paints in different poses arouse his desires, which he then satisfies more than his limited strength permits.”
The city was a market in most commodities, so why not in the human body? You had to be able to see what you were purchasing. “By the light of a candle,” according to one Venetian proverb, “you do not judge women or paintings.” A false mole placed by the nose indicated insatiability; in the cleft of the chin, it signified an adventuress.
The state itself condoned, and encouraged, these venereal practices. The prostitutes of the city had their own guild, and they traded under the auspices of the department of public health. The reasons for this toleration have more to do with money than with morals. The tax revenues from the earnings of prostitution were reputed to be worth twelve warships for the protection of the state. The prostitutes also encouraged what might be now called the tourist trade. The adult males would spend money on other commodities, thus increasing the general prosperity of the city. In the process the women helped to parade the famous “liberty” of Venice. They became part of the “myth of Venice.” When Othello says to Desdemona, “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice,” everyone in the audience would understand the allusion.
There were other social forces at work. It was argued that the presence of prostitutes meant that the more respectable women of the city were safer and purer. It was suggested, too, that the ready availability of women was a means of preserving order among the lower classes. They were also considered to be a guard against homosexuality. In the fifteenth century, in a period of sodomitical excess, the prostitutes of the city were ordered to bare their breasts as they leaned out of the windows. Some of them, however, decided to dress as young men.
The city was thereby also known as a centre of homosexuality and of homosexual prostitution. It was considered by many to be an “eastern” vice, and of course Venice was deeply indebted to eastern culture. It was believed that the men of Venice were, in the words of one eighteenth-century critic, “enervated and emasculated by the Softness of the Italian Musick.” The tenderness and luxuriance of the city were considered to be corrupting. But there was also the ambiguous status of land and water, of frontier and mainland. Anyone of weak sensibility might thereby be aroused or stimulated into transgressing ordinary boundaries. The love of boys is reflected in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, where the elderly Aschenbach is lured to his death by the sight of Tadzio. In the course of this novella Mann hits the perfect note to depict the sensuous genius of the city: “our adventurer felt his senses wooed by this voluptuousness of sight and sound, tasted his secret knowledge that the city sickened and hid its sickness for love of gain, and bent an ever more unbridled leer on the gondola that glided before him.”
Venice appeals to those of ambiguous sexuality—Proust, James, “Baron” Corvo, Diaghilev, and many others. As the French writer, Paul Morand, put it in Venises, “in Venice homosexuality was nothing more than the most subtle of the fine arts.” In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, it was the most feared and punished of all sex crimes. The shops of apothecaries, and pastry-makers, were denounced as centres of this criminal activity; the porticoes of certain churches, and the schools of gymnastics, were also considered to be dangerous. Venice was full of dark passageways, in any case, where Sodom might rise again. It was believed that homosexuality might “engulf” the city. It was believed that it was against nature and natural law, but then was not this also the case of Venice itself?
The city, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was being characterised as a whore. It was known for its apparent “decadence” and for its mercantile greed. The Queen of the Sea was transmogrified into “the whore of the Adriatic,” just as Byzantium was once derided as “the whore of the Bosphorus.” There seems to be something deeply troubling about cities of luxury and of sensation. In sixteenth-century London there was a brothel known simply as “Venice.” The city was a decrepit courtesan, sporting its baubles of gold. The futurist, Marinetti, described it at the beginning of the twentieth century as “steeped in exotic lewdness.” The English poet, Rupert Brooke, depicted it in a “tawdry and sensual middle-age.” It was perhaps inevitable. A place that continually asserts that it is a sacred centre, a city of the Virgin Mary, will inevitably incur disgrace and disillusion. That reputation has since changed for the better. Is it a matter of degradation that Venice has become a museum city? There is no reason to believe so.
The pervasiveness, or at least the acceptance, of prostitution may have led to a change in public morals. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, at least, there was a perceptibly more indulgent culture. When the women of Venice wore their dresses so low that their breasts were exposed, they may have been copying the example of their frailer sisters. The discipline of Venice, essential to its early survival, had relaxed.
In particular the presence of the confidant or lover, the cicisbeo, became noticeable in patrician circles. He became the intimate partner of the married woman; he, rather than her husband, escorted her to festivities or sat with her in the opera box. He dined with her, and travelled with her. He became her devoted servant. There was no remonstrance from the patrician husband. In fact the husband encouraged such a liaison; a wife without a gallant would lose prestige. Certain marriage contracts stipulated their presence in the household. The relationship may not have been a sexual one. It is possible that many of the cicisbei were in fact homosexual. But it was a sign that the desires of women were not altogether ignored.
The sensuousness of the women of Venice was the stuff of travellers’ tales. “The women kiss better than those of any other nation,” Byron wrote, “which is notorious, and is attributed to the worship of images, and the early habit of osculation induced thereby.” So Romanist piety is associated with profligacy. This was nowhere more evident than in the reputation of Venetian nuns.
In 1581, there were two and a half thousand nuns in Venice; that figure rose or fell a little over the centuries, but it is good as an approximation. A century later, for example, there were three thousand nuns scattered across thirty-three convents in the city and seventeen in the lagoon. One of the reasons for these cowled and huddled women was the tendency of patrician families to place their unmarried daughters in captivity. Over 50 per cent of the patrician women of Venice ended in a convent. In theory they represented the purity and inviolability of the ruling class, but the outward appearance was deceptive. One seventeenth-century Venetian nun, Arcangela Tarabotti, wrote that nuns were created for “Reason of State”; too many dowries, in other words, would impoverish the ruling class. The young women were sacrificed for money. Their enforced seclusion also enhanced the financial status of the marriageable females. The cult of the Virgin sanctified what was essentially a commercial exchange assuring the exclusivity of the ruling class. Religion was a good investment. At the beginning of 1580 the senate declared that the nuns of the republic were “collected and preserved in those sacred sites as in a safe-deposit.”
There is in any case something typically Venetian in the creation of these little prisons or little islands of unmarried females within the city. The ideal life, in the city of the lagoon, was one of enforced community. Convent life was itself modelled upon the constitution of the state, with a mixture of ruling powers including the abbess and a group of elders or “mothers of advice.” Abbesses, like doges, were elected. Age, and money, were venerated. On the wall of one convent is inscribed the homily: “Hope and love keep us in this pleasant prison.” It might have been the motto of the Venetian citizens.
The lives of the more saintly nuns were recorded in the annals of the city. In contemporary testimonies collected in such pious volumes as The Necrology of Corpus Domini there are many references to holy lives and deaths; there are references to “pure virgins” and the “purest virgins” whose demise is accompanied by visions and miracles. Virginity was a Venetian obsession. One of the enduring laments of the nuns on their deathbeds was the wish to be “released” from “this prison”; the prison is of course the prison of this life, but the wish is all the more heartfelt for issuing from the city of Venice.
For other nuns, the aura of pure virginity had evaporated long since. Some in fact earned a secondary living as prostitutes or courtesans. One English traveller, of the mid-eighteenth century, reported of the nuns that “their convents are light; the parlours of more extent and more open; the ladies have a gay air, fresher complexions, and a great deal of freedom in their behaviour and manner of talking … I need not add what is said of some greater liberties of the Venetian nuns.” When officers were despatched to close down the convent of S. Zaccaria, in the summer of 1514, the nuns stoned them from the walls until they were forced to retreat. There were reports of fist fights between the sisters. An abbess and a sister duelled with daggers over the sexual favours of one gentleman. At times of Carnival the nuns dressed up as men. One of them was known for having ten lovers. On receipt of an expensive papal dispensation, the more fortunate among them were allowed to go “on leave” for weeks or even months at a time. Placards were put outside the gates of the convent, forbidding “all games, noises, tumults, speaking obscene words, committing improper acts, fouling the ground.” Yet what was to be expected, in a society where most of the nuns were confined against their will? They were filled with resentment and with jealousy. Arcangela Tarabotti claimed that Venetian convents “represent a theatre where the darkest tragedies are performed … everything is vanity, perspective and shadow deceiving the eye.” It is remarkable how all forms of Venetian life were, at one time or another, denounced or celebrated as “theatre.”
A diarist of the first years of the sixteenth century, Girolamo Priuli, castigated the nuns as “public prostitutes” and the convents as “public whorehouses.” Fifteen or more were nothing less than “bordellos.” It was a common theme. A Franciscan preaching in the basilica of Saint Mark’s, in 1497, declared that “whenever a foreign gentleman comes to this city, they show him the nunneries, scarcely nunneries at all in fact but brothels and public bordellos.” To announce this fact from the pulpit suggests that it was recognised very widely indeed. The nuns of the Convertite convent, in the middle of the sixteenth century, were receiving gentlemen behind the walls; their father confessor was also their pimp. The male customers often dressed as nuns in order to escape detection. In his memoirs Casanova reports that he was offered the abbess of the Convent of the Virgins for one hundred sequins.
There seems to have been some deep consonance, in the public imagination, between the nun and the prostitute. Certain brothels were organised on the model of the convent. The madam was known as the “abbess” and the women were called “sisters,” their behaviour just as severely restricted as any female taking the veil. Prostitutes were known to frequent convents and discourse with the nuns very freely. There was a camaraderie between them, established perhaps on their curious status within the Venetian community. Both nuns and prostitutes were “unkept,” without spouses or families. They might merit the description of temple prostitutes, well known in the ancient world. In the modern world, Venice was their proper home.