Patrician Purity and the Female Person in Early Renaissance Venice
By Stanley Chojnacki
Acta Histriae, Vol. 23:1 (2015)
Abstract: This essay studies the Venetian patriciate’s enforcement of its exclusiveness and superior status by focusing on the purity and social standing on the women of the class. It begins by reviewing legislation that through the early Cinquecento laid down status requirements for wives of male nobles in order for their sons to be eligible for membership in the ruling class. It then examines two marriage trials before the ecclesiastical court in the mid-Quattrocento in which marriages contracted by young nobles were disputed by their families alleging the inferior status and questionable chastity of the wives.
Introduction: In his essay on the concept of «contamination» in early modern societies, Claudio Povolo invoked the the great book of Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, to describe the anxiety felt by societies when familiar things are perceived as being «out of order». It is that anxiety which prompts leaders of those societies to label departures from established or prescribed patterns as dangerously polluting and therefore to impose taboos on them. Povolo’s insight can be expanded by applying it to another book by Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols, in which she outlined a framework in which those established patterns and the fear-inspiring – contaminating – departures from them can be applied to complex societies and in particular to their ruling elites. This consists of, in Douglas’s words, «two independent variables affecting the structuring of personal relations». One is the group, denoting a body with a common membership and acceptance of its defining codes by all of its members. The other is the grid, which differentiates the group’s members according to distinctions observed among them.
The framework of group and grid provides a useful way of examining Venice’s hereditary ruling class during the Renaissance. By the early fifteenth century that class, the patriciate or nobility, had politically, legally and culturally set itself apart from the rest of Venetian society. At the same time, though, it was divided internally into distinct elements varying by antiquity, wealth, and political influence. Starting in the late fourteenth century, both of these differentiations – between nobles and non-nobles and between different noble sub-groups – were addressed by government councils as the patriciate, newly concerned to protect its political monopoly and cultural distinctiveness, sought to exclude persons whose presence might «contaminate» it, and as certain elements within the patriciate sought to differentiate themselves from others they considered less worthy. Initiatives in both of these areas were focused on the wives and mothers of nobles – on the persons of women – as the sources of contamination.