Venice-Babylon: Foreigners and Citizens in the Renaissance Period (14th-16th Centuries)

Venice-Babylon: Foreigners and Citizens in the Renaissance Period (14th-16th Centuries)

By Ludivine-Julie Olard

Imaging frontiers, contesting identities, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Lud’a Klusáková (Pisa University Press, 2007)

Abstract: The concept of “ville mangeuse d’hommes” is no longer credible, and there is a wealth of scholarship on the complex forces surrounding urban migration in Renaissance Europe which affirms the primacy of human agency in the development of the city. The present chapter builds on this tradition, reconstructing the legal, economic and social conditions which informed the status of foreigners in Renaissance Venice, or ‘Venice- Babylon’. While the city’s dynamism, diversity, and apparent tolerance attracted many foreigners to settle there, the influence of Italian jurists was being felt among the local native elite. In reorganizing themselves socially and politically, the Venetian oligarchy’s attitudes towards foreigners became less sanguine: some communities were considered more useful than others, while, especially during times of crisis, foreign citizens and patricians came under increased scrutiny by the natives.

Introduction: In the article Venise et les villes de la République: communautés nationales et artisans, Paola Lanaro describes the mobility which characterized pre-industrial societies. She insists that the concept of the “ville mangeuse d’hommes” (literally, the man-eating city), is no longer tenable, as there were other impulses which prompted migration to urban areas. The present chapter is concerned with foreigners in the city of Venice in the late medieval period. Immigration was a fundamental feature of life in the city; at the close of the 15th century, Philippe de Commynes, the French ambassador, was moved to observe that “most of [the Venetian] people are foreigners”. Before embarking on such an exploration, of course, we must define what ‘foreigner’ meant in Renaissance Venice. The English language has two distinct words for the notion of strangeness. ‘Stranger’ refers to someone coming from another place, and often unfamiliar with the prevailing conditions in the new environment; ‘foreigner’ refers to someone from another ‘nation’, defined, for example, by the use of a different language. In the Venetian language, the word forastier refers to the stranger, one who comes from fora (Latin foras), in other words, from outside. In Venetian legal terms, he who did not have Venetian citizenship was accounted a forastier. During the period under review here, the definition of the legal status of foreigners in the Italian city-states, and their ability to integrate as citizens, were questions of great importance; and the distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, and between the members of the civic community and the disenfranchised, had to be clear and firmly established.

Ernst Kantorowicz has asserted that: “for Greeks or Romans, the word πατρίς or patria stood mostly, if not only for the city. Only barbarians, like the citizens of modern nations, were named according to their fatherland and only they were patriotai, while the Greeks were proud to be politai, citizens”7. The city-states in medieval Italy borrowed this ‘political’ concept of urban organization from the Greek polis concept. However, unlike in Antiquity, the acquisition of the idea of civilitas in the 14th century did not necessarily allow one to take part in the res publica. There was no equality between the “civis originarius and the new civis”. In Venice, only the patriciate (members of the Great Council, the assembly that voted for laws and elected officials) governed. But that is not to say that foreigners were completely ostracized from society.

Migrants were important to a city like Venice, which despite its wealth was still prone to problems associated with disease, famine and war. During the Great Plague of 1347- 1348, Venice lost three out of five inhabitants. For the 15th century, Freddy Thiriet estimates the number of inhabitants at 150,000, and 190,000 around 1550. In the second half of the 16th century, with victims falling to another plague, Venice barely reached the number of inhabitants of cities such as Rome or Palermo, with approximately 90-100,000 inhabitants around 1590. It was a city devoid of any mining and agricultural resources (except fish and salt), constantly importing from other regions (the Terra Ferma – the Venetian hinterland and its dominion), and always threatened by depopulation and a lack of manpower. Immigration quotas were thus devised to meet the needs of the city. Those who wished to settle for a long period of time, or apply for citizenship, had to meet very strict standards. To qualify for Venetian citizenship, the applicant had to give proof of his willingness to assimilate (including his intention to settle and practice his profession in the city for life, and acquire real estate, etc.). And, of course, it should be noted that citizenship was granted exclusively to men.

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