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Venezianische Vermachtnisse: Die soziale und wirtschaftliche Situation von Frauen im Spiegel spdtmittelalterlicher Testamente. (Reviews).

Linda Guzzetti, Venezianische Vermachtnisse: Die soziale und wirtschafthiche Situation von Frauen im Spiegel spdtmittelalterlicher Testamente

(Ergebnisse der Frauenforschung, Bd. 50.) Stuttgart and Weimar: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 1998. 356 pp. DM 78. ISBN: 3-476-01624-2.

Linda Guzzetti's study of Venetian women is a valuable late-medievalist addition to the growing literature on non-elite women in Italian cities in the early modern period. Complementing recent work by Monica Chojnacka, Joanne Ferraro, and Daniela Hacke on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it documents for working women the long-term distinctiveness of Venetian gender structures and relations familiar from scholarship on elite women. As Guzzetti emphasizes, however, it was a distinctiveness that set Venice apart not so much from Italian cities generally as from the Florentine model that has long dominated the scholarly discourse on women in Italy. Like Samuel K. Cohn, with whose work she frequently compares her findings, Guzzetti argues that it was the harsh gender environment of Florence that was the exception. Her book thus offers evidence for an alternative model of the situation of women in late-medieval urban Italy.

Guzzetti's essential argument, synthesized in an essay in Italian, (1) is that popolane -- and patrician women as well, though on a lesser scale -- were ubiquitous in Venice: traveling confidently about the city, engaging in a vast array of economic activities, associating with large networks of kin and non-kin, joining institutions -- in short they were vigorous and confident participants in both private and public life. Those conclusions emerge from an exhaustive analysis of 1,000 women's and 200 men's wills, half from 1300-25, half from 1376-1400. Roughly one-fifth of the wills were drawn up by or for patricians, but the most important new findings concern popolani testators. Guzzetti estimates that overall, women constituted 55 percent of all testators, a consequence, she asserts, of favorable property rights for women and broad latitude (Freiheit) in disposing of property. She refines that argument in a chapter surveying women's comparatively favorable status in Venetian law. The keystone of a married wo man's legal status, in Guzzerti's analysis, was her dowry, her proprietorship of which the Venetian statutes, in marked contrast to those of Florence, carefully protected. A recurrent theme in the book is the functional balance between husbands' temporary administrative control of the dowry and their wives' statutory freedom in using and disposing of it, in wills during marriage, and in investments and personal and pious bequests during widowhood. Unlike Florence, where studies by Cohn and Isabelle Chabot show that only ten percent of female testators were married women, wives accounted for about 55 percent of Venetian women's wills. The rest were written or dictated by single women (10.5 percent) and widows (about 35 percent), with a few nuns' wills. (In the notes Guzzetti refers to her many tables by number rather than page, but the tables are in fact unnumbered.)

Widowhood and dowry property, in Guzzetti's account as in other scholarship, were the two pillars of women's economic and social activity. Widows' wills disclose investments in business and state securities and proprietorship of real estate, in addition to a wide range of other economic activities in which married women engaged as well. Testating wives and widows displayed familiarity with economic practice when bequeathing their dowry property, a result of experience in borrowing, lending, investing, and producing. Guzzetti's broad definition of women's economic activity also includes bequests of clothing and other personal effects, usually women's own property rather than the symbolic gifts from husbands suggested by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. She maintains moreover that the evidence of the wills only hints at the extent of women's economic activity, and that women's scarce visibility in public economic records was a result of their more varied, less craft-specific economic activity than men's. Their dealin gs were widespread, their practical business knowledge extensive, and their bequests knowledgeably directed. To David Herlihy's question, why were women excluded from the economic life of the Italian communes, Guzzetti's answer is that they were not, at least in Venice.

She charts social relationships in a meticulous accounting of all the persons mentioned in the 1200 wills, their relationship to the testator, and their function in the will. Women appear in this analysis as having wider non-family and non-kin social networks than men, as constituting more than 40 percent of executors, as more inclined than men to bequeath equally to sons and daughters and to nurture ties to natal kin as a counterweight to their husbands. Guzzetti also finds a strengthening in women's social and economic position from the first to the last quarter of the Trecento, when, for example, they were more often than earlier named by husbands as sole beneficiary and sole executor, especially among non-patrician testators, and when their provisions for alternative surviving beneficiaries were more elaborate and assertive than in 1300-25. She attributes this higher profile in the late Trecento to increases in the size of dowries and the wealth women gained as survivors of plague victims.

Guzzetti brings a vast secondary literature, on Italy and on other countries, to bear in her analysis, but she does not engage in a systematic debate with rival interpretations; theoretical discourse is wholly absent from the book. Instead, she advances her thesis of women's strong and growing social and economic position by means of her massively detailed dissection of the wills. The same is true of her account of women's tendency to direct their pious bequests more to individual persons than men did, consistent with her overall emphasis on women's more extensive and varied social networks, and of her reconstruction of women's widespread membership in and benefactions to minor confraternities (the scuole piccole). The exception to this method is her strong assertion of women's busy participation in public life, where evidence from wills of their acquaintanceships throughout the city is supplemented by evidence of their presence in, or at least at, Venice's festivities and, relying on the biography of the sai ntly Maria da Venezia, of their free and confident participation in the commercial life of the streets.

The detailed accounts of the will data can be heavy going, and some of Guzzetti's interpretations of it are presented as more conclusive than seems warranted. But her punctiliously systematic excavation of the intentions and relationships conveyed in the wills is what gives her overall argument its force and makes Venezianische Vermachtnisse a major contribution to the study of women in Venice and Italy.

(1.) "Le donne a Venezia nel XIV secolo: uno studio sulla loro presenza nella sociera e nella famig1ia," Studi Veneziani, n.s. 35 (1998): 15-88.
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Author:Chojnacki, Stanley
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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