Gitta's Literary Escapades

Just another reader taking on (modern) classics, best-sellers, award-winners, non-fiction, and (guilty pleasure) chicklit armed with common sense, a brain and feminism.

Venice: A Documentary History edited by David Chambers and Brian Pullan

Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630 - David S. Chambers, Brian S. Pullan, Jennifer Fletcher

Venice, who does not see a mental image of gondolas, bridges, the lagoon, carnival and Casanova? Apparently, contemporary travellers shared this image of the myth of Venice, viewing it as the 'Pillar of Italy' and the 'bosom of all Christendom', where its women are 'adorned with big jewels and finery'.


However, early modern Venice was a vibrant republic where all this spender and decadence was often frowned upon and criticised. My purpose for reading this book was its section on sexuality: 'The Defence of Morality'.


Venetian carnival


Rialto, part of the San Polo sestiere, was assigned the place for the whores to reside. Arrangements were agreed upon to house these 'sinful women [peccatricibus]' where it would be 'least harmful for the island' and the prostitutes' business was restricted to the evenings. A place where these unfortunate women needed permission to leave the island and would have to display 'the usual sign' (it is not stated what that sign was).


Venice was a republic where, in 1480, it was decided that women dressed to much like men. That they 'conceal their sex and strive to please men by pretending to be men, which is a form of sodomy'. Where, from then on, your hairstyle could get you excommunicated and where the prostitutes would get flogged and get their head shorn -- I presume they choice of employment had already resulted in excommunication.


But the immorality, apparently, was also caused by men. By 1509, according to one document, homosexual behaviour was 'widely practised and highly esteemed in this city'. And if we are to belief the writer, it was partially because the youths would dress to effeminately, baring their chest and perfuming themselves. Their 'lascivious' appearance and conduct tempted fathers and senators to become passive homosexuals, which is a 'wicked and abominable thing, [...] especially among old men.' Had these early modern Venetians strayed so far from Christian behaviour? The author seems to think so, but also offers a consoling conclusion: among the twelve apostles of Christ there was one bad too.


Titian's Venus of Urbino


This section paints a picture of a Venice pre-occupied with its prostitutes. Strikingly, they did not ban or condemn prostitution, but came up with methods to regulate it. Not only did 'good women' get mistaken for men, they increasingly confused with the prostitutes by the middle of the sixteenth century. For the latter were too well dressed and were thus easily mistaken for noble women. An easy solution was devised: prostitutes were not allowed to wear any clothing or jewellery made of or featuring gold, silver, silk, pearls or precious stones. Now that there was a method to distinguish the good from the bad apples, they also deemed it fit to define the whore:


"[W]omen who, being unmarried, have dealings and intercourse [commertio et praticha] with one man or The term 'whore' [meretrice] shall be understood to refer to those women who, being unmarried, have dealings and intercourse [comertio et praticha] with one man or more. It shall also apply to those who have husbands and do not live with them, but are separated from them and have dealings [comercio] with one man or more."


The life of the common prostitute was thus clearly defined and severely restricted, both in terms of their appearance and their behaviour. Another type of prostitute in Venice was the cortigiana onesta (both 'honest courtesan' and 'honoured courtesan'), who enjoyed and prospered in early modern Venice. I will be reading more about their lives shortly...

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