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Women, charity and community in early modern Venice: the Casa delle Zitelle.

In 1559 a group of Venetian noblewomen founded the Casa delle Zitelle (the Home for Unmarried Women), a charitable house to shelter and educate needy young women.(1) They did so in response to the nervousness sweeping the city about the perceived growth in prostitution among the city's young folk as well as a rise in poverty and crime. Indeed, the mandate of the Zitelle charter was to protect and train Venetian girls who were particularly at risk of falling into a life of sin. In order to fit this definition, girls had to be poor, physically attractive, and at clear risk of becoming prostitutes.

One of the most recent and detailed studies on the subject of women's institutions in this period is Sherrill Cohen's The Evolution of Women's Asylums since 1500. Cohen places Tuscan female asylums in the context of the history of institutions in early modern and modern Europe. Italy was a leader in many types of reform, and Cohen points to the rise of the Case di Carita (charitable houses) in this period as part of that development, with particular ramifications both for individual women and for social ideas about female behavior. In particular, Cohen focuses on the increasing confinement and containment of "marginal" women, and that development's link to a growing state interest in controlling its people, especially its poor.(2)

I agree with Cohen that the charitable institutions founded in this period were designed in part to control what some perceived to be dangerous social elements. In this article, however, I focus instead on what the history of the Casa delle Zitelle can tell us about early modern social concerns, particularly in regard to both traditional and changing notions of female community. Further, while I share Cohen's interest concerning the ways in which these institutions affected the lives of the girls and women who found shelter in them, I will examine the importance of the Casa for the women who worked there as well. Finally, the Casa should be explored as a locus of female community that bound all of the women involved to one another, including administrators, patrons, staff, and wards; by doing so, the Zitelle, along with the other case for women founded in this period, could be said to have offered a new type of female community that consciously echoed, and occasionally replaced, the traditional communities of family and neighborhood in early modern Venice.


Documents pertaining to the Zitelle are located at the Istituzioni di Ricovero e di Educazione in Venice.(3) The primary source for this article is the Casa's charter, which expressed the ideals of its founders and outlined in great detail the responsibilities of both the staff and the wards of the house. Apart from the charter, very little archival material on the Casa in the sixteenth century has survived. For example, we have virtually no information on the individual women who worked and lived there. While clearly more prescriptive than descriptive, this charter reveals much about what the men and women who designed the Casa delle Zitelle wished to accomplish, and about the assumptions behind those wishes. Moreover, the charter was reprinted several times into the eighteenth century, suggesting that those involved with the Casa still found its regulations relevant.

The Casa delle Zitelle's charter follows a format used by similar charitable institutions throughout Italy, and indeed the Casa shared characteristics with other female shelters springing up by the mid- and late sixteenth century: they were designed to provide material comfort and spiritual guidance to poor women; the poor women concerned had usually either fallen or were in danger of falling into sinful practices; although there was a strong religious component, the women staffing the institution were not nuns. Both Italian and American scholars have studied the history of such case; what these studies suggest is that throughout early modern Italy a common desire was growing on the part of the wealthy and the pious to ameliorate the physical and moral poverty of the poor, particularly poor women.(4) These institutions were products of what Brian Pullan has called "the new philanthropy" of sixteenth-century Italy, which was a combination of counter-reformation fervor and a growing appropriation by state governments of charitable activities.(5)

The women who founded the Zitelle participated actively in this movement. Andriana Contarini, Isabella Grimani, and Isabetta Loredan were by birth or marriage all members of powerful Venetian families. They were also deeply religious women who wanted to use their faith and prestige to erase the scourge of prostitution from their cities by helping its primary victims. These women may also represent another dimension of Venice's new philanthropy: the investment by wealthy widows in the lives of their city's poor.(6) Wealthy widows could have immense resources upon which to draw, and the freedom to dispose of them as they wished. While widowhood often spelled disaster for early modern women, the very wealthy found in their unencumbered status a new freedom from family obligations to pursue individual interests.(7)

The Zitelle was not the only house founded for the salvation of poor women in Venice. Others, like the Casa delle Convertite and the Casa del Soccorso, had different immediate aims and worked with different constituencies. The Zitelle focused on young girls at risk of falling into prostitution; the founders aimed to shelter and educate these girls for a number of years, after which time the young charges could marry, take religious vows, or remain in the house as a Maestra, or mistress, to look after their successors. By contrast, the Soccorso was designed to shelter adult women, both prostitutes and adulterous wives, for a shorter period. The Convertite offered a life of seclusion and contemplation to reformed (and often aging) prostitutes who remained within its walls until their deaths. Despite the differences among them, these houses and others like them throughout Italy shared a common larger goal: to eliminate sexual promiscuity and especially prostitution from their city.

Concern with prostitution was widespread in early modern Venice.(8) In the early sixteenth century, the patrician Marin Sanudo recorded that prostitutes made up over ten percent of the population(9) - an obvious exaggeration that shows how pervasive prostitution seemed to the chronicler.(10) A few decades later, the government's concern led to the passing of legislation that attempted to discourage noblemen from sampling the favors of the high-class version of the prostitute, the Venetian courtesan,(11) while in 1572 the city's Council of Ten tried to attack prostitution by passing laws against general "sins of the flesh."(12) At the same time, prostitution, or the acceptance of it in some sections of society, appeared to be on the rise; at least two catalogues were published in the sixteenth century that listed the names and addresses of local courtesans for easy reference.(13)

The increase in prostitution, if in fact this was the case, was a product of Venice's demographic growth in the early modern period. Women and men flocked to the island in search of economic opportunities as well as relative religious tolerance.(14) Many of the men who immigrated were artisans who built successful businesses in the city,(15) whereas female immigrants, in Venice as well as Florence, remained clustered at the bottom of the economic and social scale.(16) The influx of poor women in this period added to the crowding and poverty of the popular class neighborhoods, and both the women and their poor male counterparts became the focus of increasing concern and resentment by the mid-sixteenth century.(17) Many prostitutes came from this pool of recent arrivals, a fact which is suggested by the 1539 and 1572 legislation that attempted to expel prostitutes who were recent immigrants.(18)

Another factor contributing to the new attention Venetians gave to the problem of prostitution in the late sixteenth century was the changing social and religious ethos of the city. Venice, like the rest of Europe, experienced a sharpening of religious tensions and antagonisms in this period. Both heretical and counter-reformation sentiments created an intense religious environment that crossed social and economic boundaries.(19) One offshoot of counter-reformation fervor was the view that prostitution symbolized and in fact led to the plethora of perceived moral, social, and economic problems the city faced. Some Venetians blamed prostitutes for their troubles, but another more benign response was a desire on the part of laymen and laywomen to care for these women and other unfortunate groups actively, rather than leave the job to the traditional caretakers, the religious orders of the Catholic Church.(20)

It was a combination, then, of spiritual conviction mixed with social anxiety that led to the foundation of these charitable institutions. Their records reveal the emergence of a new type of female community in several ways. First, women of all classes were involved in the Casa, as administrators, staff, and wards. Second, women moved beyond their neighborhoods to work, visit, or seek shelter at these institutions. Finally, many of the women associated with the Casa found themselves armed with new personal and professional opportunities, opportunities that would have been unavailable to them had they remained within their traditional family or neighborhood.


With the exceptions of maintenance workers, gardeners, and the male administrators called Governatori, all of the administration and staff of these institutions were women.(21) The women who worked at the Casa seem to have lived there as well, with one Zitelle chapter reminding employees that they must look after one another as well as their charges, and "that they should concern themselves with the welfare of all the women who govern, . . . making sure that none is too weary or too negligent."(22) A closer look at their responsibilities highlights the central and nearly exclusive role that women played in the governing of the Zitelle and the Soccorso.


Governatori and Protettori, male and female, functioned essentially as trustees, although the female Governatrici and Protettrici appear to have had closer contact with the House, as will be discussed below. There appear to have been three types of women who actually lived and worked in the Casa delle Zitelle: the Madre or Madonna; her assistants, called Coadjutrici; and the Maestre, who had the closest contact with the house's young women. The Madonna's duties included overseeing the general running of the house and the well-being of the individual women dwelling there, as well as maintaining regular contact with the noble patrons.(23) The Madonna was instructed to leave the house as rarely as possible in order to attend better to the souls under her protection, with a warning that she could not advise others if her own spiritual health were in peril. When problems arose that she could not resolve herself, she was to consult the president, the Protettrici (noblewomen who took an interest in the house and visited it occasionally), and the priest.(24)

The Madonna or Madre was elected by the Governatrici, her superiors, in consultation with the Coadjutrice, her future assistants.(25) The procedure for the Madre's election and the necessary qualifications mandated in both charters provide a picture of one professional avenue open to elite women in this period. First, a candidate for the position of Madre of the Zitelle had to be at least forty years old. In addition, she would ideally have already spent at least twelve years working for the house in some capacity, presumably as a Coadjutrice.(26) Thus it appears that working for the Casa delle Zitelle could be something of a career for a woman.(27)

The rules regulating the conduct of the Madre were as strict as those regulating the girls and women in her care. She was to show no preference for any of them, and when reprimanding them was to avoid terms of disparagement. The Madre was to take care that all the women in the house were respectfully and modestly dressed; she herself was asked not to wear clothes that were too opulent, and was reminded that her charges were in dire financial straits.(28) Her responsibilities ranged from the distribution of food and clothing to the orchestration of the procession to the confessional by the girls when the confessor was at the house.(29) Simply put, the Madre or Madonna of the Casa was in charge of virtually every aspect of life there, and consulted with the board of governors only when she deemed it necessary. In addition to running the daily activities of the Casa, she was also deemed capable of offering spiritual consolation and advice to her charges, and she was entrusted with selecting the girls' confessor.(30)

Below the Madonna were the Coadjutrici and the Maestre. The former came from noble families and were selected at a young age to be trained for a job that was seen as a vocation.(31) The Governatrici and the presiding Madonna had the authority to appoint a Coadjutrice. At that time, she had to be at least thirty years of age, with at least "five or six" years already spent at the House, presumably in some sort of apprenticeship. In addition, she was to possess the professional skills of literacy and numeracy, to "know how to write and figure," and she was to be "an alert woman, yet humble and devout."(32) The Coadjutrici dealt with the girls on a daily basis, oversaw the physical maintenance of both the girls and their quarters, and reported regularly to the Madonna.(33)

The relationships between the women who worked at these houses received considerable discussion in the Zitelle charter. This may have been because of the potential for conflict between the "noble daughters" who administrated the houses and the former zitelle who became the Maestre. Since the Maestre appear to have acted both as housekeepers and big sisters to the young girls, the Madonna and the Coadjutrici were instructed never to reprimand them in front of the wards, "so that the respect for and the authority of [the Maestre] shall be maintained."(34) For their part, the women administering the House were reminded that without the Maestre "this house could not be governed effectively, for they are like great columns which support the place."(35) The Maestre enjoyed the closest daily contact with the girls, and were exhorted not to engage in either excessive violence or affection.

The Maestre began their tenure as young women, elected from among the zitelle themselves.(36) Their duties included teaching the girls to read, training them in a skill, supervising their prayers, and making sure they dressed properly.(37) The charter reminded them that "the hours spent in the governance, care, and administration of these virgins are hours well spent, and the distractions and difficulties (distrazzioni e le fatiche) of these duties . . . will pass."(38) In addition to their function as role models to the girls in their care, each Maestra had a particular duty. One woman guarded the chapel; another acted as porter to protect the House from unwanted visitors. This Maestra was also in charge of buying bread for the House and accompanying (male) manual laborers to their work site, presumably to prevent contact between these men and the virgins.(39)

The Maestre also ran the infirmary at the Zitelle. While they naturally deferred to the doctor and informed the Madre and the Coadjutrice of important developments, they kept the place running on a daily basis and functioned essentially as nurses. Maestre were responsible for monitoring the progress of the ill girls, and for reporting the medical history of the patient to the doctor. Sometimes they had to provide comfort to a dying girl and even administer last rites when a priest was not available.(40)

In sum, the Maestre performed the daily tasks, to ensure that every aspect of the Casa delle Zitelle functioned smoothly. One woman was in charge of clothing for the girls, and several women ran the kitchen.(41) One chapter of the Zitelle's charter describes the necessary qualities for the Maestra in charge of the office of writing. She was enjoined to treat carefully the documents in her care, keeping the most valuable ones, such as wills, under lock and key.(42) This Maestra was the institution's secretary, writing all the letters ordered by the Madonna or Coadjutrice, keeping track of all correspondence, and maintaining a record of all her activities in a special book.(43) A third woman kept the account books, recording all incoming and outgoing money, debits and credits, as well as the financial status of the girls and their subsequent activities: for example, who married, who entered religious life, and so on.(44) Some Maestre also worked outside of the Casa, running errands for the institution. A Maestra with this duty had to be at least forty years of age and of impeccable reputation, for her main task was to collect donations to support the institution. Apparently these women were expected to visit homes, probably of wealthy Venetians, to ask for financial help for the house. "And upon their return to the house," according to one injunction, "they will inform the Madonna or the Coadjutrice of the balance of their day's activities, and they will turn in the charity, be it bread or money or whatever has been given to the House." A Maestra then recorded the donors' names for future reference.(45)

The Protettrici were noblewomen who visited the Casa of the Zitelle regularly to ensure that the young women were well cared for. The Madonna and the Coadjutrici were admonished to give free reign to these special visitors, to allow them to see all of the grounds as well as speak with all the girls and offer advice. If a Protettrice noted a grave problem with the administration of the place, she had the power, along with the Governatrici, to replace the woman responsible.(46)

The Governatrici were crucial to the operation of the Zitelle and the other women's hospitals. They were the primary administrators, noblewomen with considerable power who often acted as liaisons between the hospital and the board of male Governatori. At the Casa del Soccorso, they had the final word on the acceptance of an applicant after she had been selected by the board of governors.(47) As noblewomen, they served as the link between the noble men who formed the board of governors and the poor women who depended on them. Their selection was as rigorous as that of the girls with whose welfare they concerned themselves. When a young patrician girl was found to have the necessary qualities to be a future Governatrice,(48) she came to the house and served as an apprentice for several months. If after this period both the girl and the current administrators were satisfied that this service was indeed her vocation, she might become a Governatrice.

This description of the administration and staff shows the clear intent of the Casa's founders to create a female community, a community in which individual women with distinct responsibilities were carefully inserted into an orderly hierarchy. For all practical purposes, these women controlled every aspect of the Casa, from guarding the front door to choosing their colleagues by election. To be sure, the ultimate authority lay with the male Governatori, but the extant evidence strongly suggests that they provided little more than a rubber stamp to the activities of the house. At virtually every level of authority, women ran the show.


The lives of the girls who found shelter at the Zitelle were at least as regulated as those of the women who cared for them. Administrators were enjoined to monitor their charges closely: Venetian women who wished to visit a relative or friend at the Zitelle or one of the other case had to apply for permission, and even then direct contact between such a visitor and a ward was rare. Contact with men was forbidden outright, except for the necessary visits of the women's confessor and the Casa's doctor. The doctor himself operated only under the supervision of the Madonna or one of the Governatrici. The reason for this caution is clear: zitelle needed to be temporarily protected from the outside world and especially from the influences that had presumably led them astray before. Another charter, that of the Casa del Soccorso, warned that these influences could include female relatives.(49) Thus, women protected the female inmates from other, more dangerous women.

The residents of the Zitelle gained entry to the Casa by applying either by themselves or through the representation of a concerned relative or friend. A girl's candidacy was evaluated by the Governatori and Governatrici.(50) Once a young woman was brought to the attention of this group, she received a visit by two of the governors, who inspected her and her home to determine whether she was deserving. Was she poor enough? Was she beautiful enough? The latter qualification was especially central to the success of her candidacy for two reasons: the founders believed that beautiful women were especially vulnerable to the lures and purveyors of prostitution; and the administrators would have a better chance of marrying off a beautiful poor girl than an unattractive one.(51)

Once admitted, zitelle found every aspect of their lives organized. Not just their spiritual upbringing but their daily activities had been planned out by the board of governors; how they dressed, ate, and interacted with one another was carefully described in the charters. One clear concern on the part of the governors was the risk of cliquishness, or perhaps homosexual activity among the zitelle. The Zitelle charter hinted at the type of behavior that Governors feared, and outlined the procedure that should be followed if two girls were suspected of such activity. "When it is noted that one of the zitelle is too affectionate with another girl," the charter read, "the two must be separated from each other and accompanied by others."(52)

Who exactly were these wards? The Zitelle archive offers few clues about the young girls and women who stayed there in the early modern period. One important source however is a collection of dowry contracts, with the earliest extant contracts dating from the 1620s, and 119 contracts remaining from that period through the 1640s. Each contract consists of two documents, the first being a formal statement by the Governatori acknowledging the Casa's obligation to pay the dowry upon proof of the girl's marriage or monacation, the other an affidavit either from the parish priest who married the young woman, or from the reverend mother who accepted her into a convent.

While not all of the contracts provide the same type or amount of information about the zitella in question, they do suggest a general picture of some of these young women. It seems clear, for example, that the vast majority of zitelle chose marriage over monacation. Of the 119 contracts studied here, only fifteen, or 12.6 percent, entered the convent. The rest of the young women married.

The men who married zitelle were usually respectable artisans or workers. There was little parish endogamy; a zitella was far more likely to marry a man from another parish than she was to marry someone from her family's contrada. This is not surprising, since a young woman who sought shelter at the Zitelle presumably had found nowhere else to turn within her traditional communities of family and parish. Sixty-nine contracts list the home parish of both bride and groom. Of these, twenty-three couples, or one-third of the total, hailed from the same parish. Thirty-five couples came from different Venetian parishes, and eleven came from different cities.

Although zitelle were supposed to be estranged from their families, by the seventeenth century at least some were marrying men who practiced the same trade as their fathers. Of the twenty-nine documents which give the occupations of both the zitella's father and her husband, twelve married men who practiced the same trade as their own fathers. In four of these cases, both men were weavers; the list also includes masons, boatmen, servants, tailors, and spice vendors.(53)

By the mid-seventeenth century, then, zitelle did not always come from the traditionally poor and marginal sectors of Venetian society. Rather, they came from the "deserving poor," as daughters of families who had fallen on hard times. In addition, many of them appear to have married fairly well. Much depended on what a zitelle's Proveditrice could find for her at the time of marriage. Just when that time was is uncertain; only three of the contracts mention the age of the zitella at marriage. Two young women were wed at the age of twenty-eight, while another married when she was only sixteen. These ages may have been noted because they were unusual, suggesting that a more typical zitella married in her early twenties.(54)

Wards of the Casa delle Zitelle, by Age, 1597


07-09 02
10-14 38
15-19 73
20-29 51
30-39 10
40-49 07
[greater than] 50 03


Source: IRE, Zit G 1, 10-12.

Some zitelle, however, neither married nor took vows. A few remained within the Casa's walls, either as Maestre or simply as permanent residents, according to an inventory of the Casa's wards taken in 1547.


The Casa delle Zitelle offers evidence of a female community that was designed by members of the Venetian elite and sanctioned by the Venetian authorities. We find this evidence both in the female hierarchy and in the elaborate rules that governed the comportment of both the staff and charges, while emphasizing the mutual trust that should exist between them. For the women who worked at the Casa, that substitution was permanent. For most of the zitelle, the female community in which they found themselves was a temporary one, designed to prepare them for re-entry into Venetian society. The liminality of this community points to the ways in which some early modern communities - or networks of social obligation and interaction - functioned. Neighborhoods, for example, were sites of frequent emigration and immigration, their continuity dependent not only on the personal connections that individuals formed with one another over time, but also on the predisposition to form such connections that transcended individual relationships. Neighbors felt linked to each other, sometimes simply because they were neighbors. Their shared physical space - a campo, a calle - fostered a shared identity, a common bond that might survive a move to another contrada, albeit tenuously. It was that shared identity which permitted the incorporation of immigrants into neighborhood life.(55)

The family was also a temporary community in some ways. Unlike elites, popolani often did not boast multi-generational homes. Lack of space was one factor, the need for sons and daughters to venture out and seek their own fortunes was another. These families did not boast patrimonies that needed to be kept intact through careful marital strategies and constant supervision of the activities of adult offspring. While a man might practice the same trade as his father, and Venetians did often remain in the neighborhood where they had grown up, physical mobility was a fact of early modern popolano life.(56) Thus the family community could also function as a temporary one in the sense that the intensity of family ties could diminish over time, as sons and daughters left their parents' home, eventually to set up families of their own.

In its transitory nature, then, the Zitelle community shared some characteristics with those of the neighborhood and family. In other ways, however, this community offered something new. Let us begin by examining evidence that the Zitelle was a city-wide institution rather than a parochial one. Specific records of the provenance of most of the women affiliated with the Casa are scarce. However, the Zitelle archive does include one compelling document indicating that the wards came from throughout the city. The Casa delle Zitelle was located on the Giudecca island, where the church and grounds remain today. In 1597, a Zitelle administrator recorded the provenance of the current charges by charitable fraternity, or Scuola. The Scuole Grandi were non-professional fraternities run by devout laymen who dispensed charity, often primarily in the geographic area of the city in which they resided.(57) All six of the Scuole Grandi appear to have sponsored zitelle in 1597, with seven girls arriving from the Scuola della Carita, eight from the Misericordia, four from San Teodoro, five from San Rocco, nine from San Marco, and four from San Giovanni Evangelista.(58) Each Scuola was located in a different parish, in a different section of Venice; since the girls affiliated with them almost certainly came from the same area, we may conclude that at least in 1597 the zitelle came from throughout the city. Information from the same year also shows that some of these girls came originally from as far away as Corfu and Rovigo, which indicates that immigrants as well as locals took advantage of the shelter.(59)

Women who did not live in the Casa could participate in their activities in other ways that enhanced their city-wide nature. The role of the noblewomen who served the institutions as Madri, Governatrici, and Protettrici was crucial to their development. These wealthy women took a deep interest in the lives of their charges and the health of their institutions, and, as we have seen, regularly visited both. Other wealthy Venetians made charitable contributions to the Casa and may have visited them as well.(60) In addition, women and men from the upper classes left gifts to the Zitelle in their wills.(61) The IRE index of wills lists 168 bequests by Venetians to the Casa delle Zitelle from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Seventy-eight (forty-six percent) of these were women, primarily from wealthy families. Most of these people never traveled to the grounds of the two houses, but their recognition of the institutions in their last testaments shows an awareness of the role this Casa could play in addressing city-wide concerns about poverty and sin.(62)

In these ways, we see that the Casa delle Zitelle was a Venetian institution rather than a parochial one, designed to address a citywide problem of poverty and prostitution. By gathering wards, employees, and patronesses from across the city, this counter-reformation institution challenged the traditional and more localized forms of assistance to poor women, including the parish priest and the informal neighborhood network.

The documents of the Zitelle also point to another important aspect of this female community: its familial role. The zitelle themselves were isolated from their traditional familial and neighborhood communities, with the Zitelle building deliberately constructed to limit even visual access to the outside world.(63) The aim was clear: to keep the girls and women away from the dangers and influences of the outside world. In this way, the Casa emulated a convent by creating a secluded environment of prayer, discipline, and contemplation. This emulation was to some degree conscious; the women who founded the Zitelle had themselves been members of the evangelical barnabiti movement around Milan, which encouraged a life of seclusion and contemplation.(64)

Yet wards of this Casa were not cloistered in the religious sense, because during their seclusion the staff prepared them to reenter wider society. The zitelle might marry (as we have seen, most did), and were taught skills to make them good helpmates. In this way, the House fulfilled a familial duty by sheltering the girls and women from the outside woad while at the same time preparing them to return to it.

Language is sometimes an important indicator of relationships, and in this case illustrates the way the founders of the Zitelle consciously modeled their institution on that of the family. For example, just as widows in notarial documents described themselves as Procuratrici (executors) for their orphaned children, so too did the dowry documents of the zitelle describe their wealthy benefactresses as Procuratrici of the recently married girls.(65) In this way, these noblewomen identified themselves as motherly figures, not only through affective language but through legal terminology as well. Their role was to provide guidance and protection to the zitelle.

Even after a girl was settled either in a marriage or a convent, the responsibilities of the Zitelle's administrators did not end. The charter states that

[w]hen these daughters are in need, they must notify the Congregation of Governatrici, who will have [already] visited them, to ask advice regarding what they should do to resolve the issue [provedere]. . . . The Governatrici must remember that these daughters do not have mothers other than themselves [the Governatrici], in order not to miss a visit to them, as has already been said, because visiting them frequently will keep the fear of God in them , . . . which they had at the casa, and they will love [the Governatrici] always when they see the motherly concern that the Governatrici show for them. It is also good that with these visits the husband will not treat [the daughters] badly, since they will see that [their wives] are under the protection of many matrons.(66)

The noblewoman's duty, then, was not simply to guide the zitella from a distance, as an expression of noblesse oblige. Rather, she was to be the girl's mother, to protect and advise her, give her love and discipline even after she left the family fold of the Casa's walls. Like a girl's relationship with her natural mother, the female bonds forged within the institution should remain strong even after a zitella had moved beyond it.

These examples suggest an atmosphere of familial or at least enduring connection on the part of the administrators. If this was not always the reality (and we have no way of knowing if it was), at least it was the intention of those who founded and established the rules of the Casa and others like it. By using this terminology, the founders of the Zitelle asserted their role as familial communities for girls and women who found themselves, either permanently or temporarily, without the traditional ones.(67) The importance of the family structure - its cornerstone being loving discipline - was recognized and reconfigured as an almost entirely female community, where the children and parents were women, where women set the standards of behavior and education, and provided shelter and support, all with the sanction of the city's leaders.

The implications for traditional forms of family and charity are several. First, members of the Venetian elite assumed a responsibility for problems that had been previously addressed either informally or by smaller, religious organizations. Second, the conscious creation of a female hierarchy, albeit under male authorization, by the founders of these case reveals a decision to replace the traditional family with an unconventional one when circumstances demanded. Finally, those who wrote and accepted these charters offered their own description of a traditional family by suggesting ways in which the Casa delle Zitelle would serve as its substitute. That is, according to these charters, Venetian, Christian families had a duty not simply to shelter their daughters materially, but teach them and love them as well.

But the administrators, staff, and wards of the Zitelle did not simply create an alternative familial environment composed almost exclusively of women. As the founders laid out the organizational structure of the Casa, they also drew on another traditional Venetian community: the informal, cross-class female network of charity that existed within Venetian neighborhoods. In Venice, rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. Men of all classes crossed paths throughout the city, but wealthy women were most likely to encounter their humbler counterparts nearer to home, in the central campo of the parish or through the window of an apartment. Often these encounters became more than casual sightings; the wills of elite women testify to that. Upper-class women regularly included bequests in the last testaments, not just for their female servants, but for their female neighbors as well.(68) The local patrician might remember the daughter of her tailor, or the widow of the butcher down the street. When such legacies were meant for young women, they were usually given upon the condition of marriage.(69) Similar in purpose to the Casa delle Zitelle, the goal of the elite women who left their neighbors bequests was often to assist them in marrying well and in finding greater security than their current circumstances could provide.

Nicholas Terpstra has shown how elite men in sixteenth-century Bologna relied on their confraternal background to organize new charitable agencies.(70) By contrast, it is likely that the women behind the foundation of the Zitelle had little direct involvement with the confraternities in which their male relatives may have participated. Instead, they drew on their neighborhood experience to create a particularly feminine model of charity, designed above all to create an environment in which young women could safely grow, thrive, and eventually marry.

Thus elite Venetians, and especially women, assumed a newly active responsibility for the poor women of their city, and in doing so offered those women an alternative to the traditional family community. They did so by looking both to the family and to traditional networks of female charity for models upon which to draw. In an age when other options open to unmarried women of all classes grew increasingly scarce, these houses provided one important alternative to prostitution for poor women, and offered upper-class women a respectable career in a female community. Such a career or activity would have been all the more valued at a time when that traditional option for wealthy matrons and widows, the loosely organized convent, was beginning to disappear.(71)

Of course, the fact that these communities challenged traditional social boundaries in new ways does not mean that the overall social and political structure was affected. Actually, the opposite was true. While women directed the daily and even the larger activities of the Casa delle Zitelle, the male governors represented the final authority. They had the last word on the admissions of women to these institutions, and they were the ones who signed the dowry contracts. Nevertheless, for the women and girls who found shelter, employment, and community at the Casa, a new opportunity had emerged, albeit within the parameters of the rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal Venetian society. For the zitelle and the women who cared for them, this Casa offered the chance for a new and better life.


Research for this article was funded by a grant from the Glady's Krieble Delmas Foundation and a University of Georgia Faculty Research Grant. An early version was presented at the Emory University Vann Seminar on early modern Europe; the author would like to thank its participants for their suggestions, particularly Sharon Strocchia and Laura Mason. In addition, the author wishes to thank Edward Muir for his helpful comments.

1 Historians generally credit a Jesuit, Benedetto Palmio, with having inspired the creation of the Zitelle through a famous sermon he delivered in 1559, advocating special assistance for poor young girls. In addition, it was Palmio who wrote the Zitelle charter in 1588, a charter that appears to have been faithfully followed throughout most of the Zitelle's 400-year history. However, these noblewomen are credited with having brought about the concrete realization of the house. See Lunardon, 9-10; and Ellero, 1994.

2 Cohen, 1992, 1-9, 101-23, 142-76. On the humanist background of counter-reformation reform, see Coleman. On the shift to municipal poor relief in this period, see Terpstra.

3 This archive holds the records of Venetian charities which were united under a single administrative entity in the late nineteenth century. For the history of the institution IRE and its archive, see Ellero, 1987, 19-31.

4 On Bologna, see Ciammitti; and Ferrante. For a general survey of the period, see Cohen, 1989. Most recently, see Cavallo.

5 Pullan, 1989, 10-34. Pullan is writing about Venice; for Bologna, see Terpstra.

6 Lunardon, 13-14.

7 On widows in early modern Italy, see Baernstein; and Klapisch-Zuber, 1987.

8 On the flourishing of prostitution in Venice throughout the early modern period, see Canosa; and Colonnello, 149-64.

9 Sanuto, 414, cited in Rosenthal, 11.

10 It is impossible to count accurately the number of prostitutes in the early modern period. My own study of parish censuses from the 1590s identifies only 204 prostitutes by their profession, out of over 90,000 adults. Many may have been reluctant to state their profession to the parish priest taking the census, or the priest may have hesitated to list too many prostitutes in his contrada, or parish. In any event, there were undoubtedly many more than the censuses reflect. Chojnacka, 1994.

11 In 1542, the authorities threatened nobles who protected courtesans before the courts with hefty fines. Rosenthal, 66.

12 Davidson, 77.

13 Ibid., 93. On prostitution and illicit sexuality in Venice, see Ruggiero, 1985 and 1993.

14 On the economic opportunities of sixteenth-century Venice, see Sella(1), and Sella(2). In both articles, Sella points to a clear decline in the city's economic activity in the first decades of the seventeenth century. Rapp, 1976, has suggested that in relative terms the city may not have been so badly off in that period. On the cosmopolitan nature of Venice and its role as a magnet for heretical thinkers, see Martin, 1993, especially chap. 6.

15 See, for example, Bravetti, 1985.

16 On the poverty of women who migrated to renaissance Florence see Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, 1978, 322; and Brown, 1986.

17 Pullan, 1979, 23.

18 Pullan, 1971, 380. For more information on sixteenth-century prostitution in Venice, see Ruggiero, 1989; and Rosenthal.

19 On the religious environment of counter-reformation Venice, Pullan, 1971; as well as Kuntz. On the ways in which heretical thought transcended social boundaries, see Martin.

20 "In the era of the Reformation and of Catholic reform, clergy, laity, governments and city magistrates displayed a new sensitivity to the spiritual and material needs of beggars, orphans and prostitutes. The new religious societies and religious orders discharged a militant, evangelical function, directed ultimately at the salvation of souls imperilled by the ignorance and temptation which poverty brought in its train." Pullan, 1971, 216 and 72-422. For a useful summary of the different types of religious charity found in Italy from the late medieval period through the early modern one, see Pullan, 1979, 19-22. On the relation between humanism, counter-reformation theology, and social reform, see Coleman.

21 Even at hospitals where both boys and girls were charges, like the Derelitti (and, later, the Soccorso), women were the primary care-givers to the female (and young male) patients.

22 IRE, ZIT A 1, chap. 11.

23 These duties are identical for the Madonna of the Casa del Soccorso. See ibid., Soc A 1 (Capitolari della Casa del Soccorso), chap. 16, 43-46.

24 Ibid.

25 "Questa elezzione appartiene alla Congregazione delle Governatrici, con la Coadjutrice." IRE, Zit A 1, section 6, chap. 2. The charter of the Zitelle goes on to warn these women not to allow their choice to be swayed by affection, but to choose instead that woman best qualified to govern the House. Ibid., chaps. 1-4 and 6.

26 Ibid., chap. 4.

27 Most likely, such a woman was of noble or citizen birth. One of the most famous Madonne of the Zitelle was Marina Bernardo, the sister of Andriana Contarini. Lunardon, 23.

28 IRE, Soc A 1, chap. 16.

29 Ibid., Zit A 1, section 5, chap. 10.

30 Ibid., section 6, chap. 22.

31 Chap. 31 speaks of "the care that the Madonna and the Coadjutrici must have to raise two noble daughters who may succeed them in governing the house." Ibid., section 5.

32 "... che sappia scrivere, e tener conti, Donna svegliata, ma mile, devota." Ibid., section 6, chap. 21.

33 For example, see ibid., section 5, chaps. 7-11.

34 Ibid., section 5, chap. 21.

35 "La casa non si po governar bene senza l'ajuto delle Maestre, che sono come tante colonne, che la sostentano." Ibid., section 5, chap. 27.

36 Ibid., chap. 28. From among the Maestre were chosen Consultrici, who had special responsibilities and conferred regularly with the Madonna and Coadjutrici. This was a prestigious position, and suggests that even the popular-class women who served the Zitelle as a Maestra could attain a certain level of privilege and influence within the House. See ibid., section 6, chap. 21.

37 "[O] insegnadole leggere, o di lavorare, o ammaestrandole nelle divozioni, e buoni costumi Christiani, che tutti sanno per amore di Gesu Cristo." Ibid., section 7, chap. 2.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid., chaps. 13 and 28.

40 See ibid., chap. 15, particularly no. 14: "che sempre siano presenti alcune, che facciano Orazione sopra quella, che s'avvicinasse a passare a miglior vita" (that there should always be present women who can pray over the girl who is about to pass on to a better life).

41 Ibid., chaps. 21-22.

42 "Tutte le altre scritture di minor importanza le avera in un'altro armato distinto, con tener l'Inventario delle scritture dell'uno, e dell'altro armaro, e saranno chiusi con due chiavi, una delle quali avera lei, e l'altra Madonna, o la Coadjutrice." Ibid., chap. 21, no. 3.

43 Ibid., nos. 4-6.

44 Ibid., chap. 26. None of these records appears to be extant.

45 Ritornate, che faranno a Casa, renderanno conto a Madonna, o alla Coadjutrice di quanto averanno fatto, eli consegnaranno la limosina, che averano raccolte si di pane, come di danari, o di qualsivoglia altra cosa che gli fosse data per la Casa." Ibid., chap. 29, especially no. 7.

46 For the Zitelle, see ibid., section 5, chap. 43. For the Soccorso, see ibid., Soc A 1, chap. 3.

47 "The acceptance of women to the Soccorso [after the Governors have sent the case to the Governatrici] is the purview of the Governatrici." Ibid., chap. 11, 31. In addition, the Madre was cautioned not to attempt to bring women of her choice into the hospital but to leave the selection of charges to the Governatori and Governatrici: "Non dover per se stessa accettare donna nissuna nel Soccorso, ne prometter di farla accettare, ma lasciar questo uffitio alii Governatori, e Governatrici." The Governatrici also regulated the comings and goings of the soccorse. Ibid., chap. 16, 46.

48 "First, they must be at least 18 or 20 years of age, second, born of a father and mother who are fearful of God and well trained in this, the third is that they must be clever and of good judgement . . . the fourth that they are prepared to leave the world, the fifth that they follow the Sacraments, and the sixth that they comport themselves with dignity" (che abbiano buona maniera di procedere, e presenza). Ibid., Zit A 1, section 5, chap. 34.

49 "Et huomini non mai ammettino di qual si voglia sorte se non nelle necessita di confessori, e medici dati dalli Governatori colla presenza dela madre, et d'alcuna altra di quelle, che l'aiutano nel governo della casa, e colle circostanze convenienti alia maggiore custodia." Ibid., Soc A 1, chap. 7, 26. The next chapter asserts that letters are not to be delivered to the women, but instead that the messenger should be sent to the board of governors to be questioned. Further, "the relatives of the soccorse, like mothers, sisters and other scandalous women of corrupt ways [mala vita], shall never be permitted to speak with them. If they have female acquaintances who are virtuous, they may be permitted to visit occasionally, but very rarely and then only in the presence of a Governatrice." Ibid., chap. 8, 27. See also chaps. 9 and 10 of the charter. This rigidity was undoubtedly designed not only to protect the charges, but also to protect the institution from accusations of loose morals.

50 Ibid., Capitoli per i Governatori, 19.

51 The importance of physical beauty for admittance was not unique to the Zitelle. See Ciammitti.

52 Ibid., chap. 15. The rest of the Zitelle charter is silent on the issue of overly intimate relations between the women living there. On the nature of female sexuality and female communities in early modern Italy, see Brown,(1) especially the helpful introduction on homosexuality in medieval and early modern Europe. On the changing perceptions of homosexuality in counter-reformation Italy, see Davidson, 94-96. It is possible that the concerns of the administrator regarding female closeness were not based on a suspicion of sexual activity, but rather on the apprehension that excessive intimacy between girls could lead to the formation of cliques, which would jeopardize the wider female community. This was the case in many convents. I am grateful to Sharon Strocchia for bringing this perspective to my attention.

53 IRE, Zit G. 4.

54 Although information on the marriage age of sixteenth-century commoners is scant for Venice, the general trend throughout Europe was that of a later marriage age among the general population than among the elites. On this topic, see Stone, 42-45; Laslett, 81-92; Flandrin, 185-86; and McLaren, 38-39.

55 I address this topic more fully in my book, currently in preparation, on family and community in early modern Venice. On the dynamics of neighborhood life, see Aymard, 478-80; Garrioch; Sewell, chap. 2; and Weissman.

56 The wealthier the popolano, of course, the more likely he was to emulate an upper-class lifestyle.

57 The most definitive work on the Scuole Grandi is Pullan, 1971.

58 RE, Zit. G 1, 16-17.

59 Lunardon, 25.

60 The charter of the Zitelle includes instructions for the staff to show existing or potential benefactors around the grounds. Wealthy women as well as men were important patrons for these case. Chapter eleven of the charter of the Zitelle is titled: "del modo che hanno da osservare le Governatrici con Madonna per mostrare la casa ad alcune Gentildonne, e Signore che desiderassero vederla." IRE, Zit, Constitutioni, chap. 11, 32.

61 For examples of women leaving money to the charitable institutions in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, see the archive of IRE, TESTAMENTI, e.g. TEST nos. 658, 660, 672, 693, 740, 798, and 821.

62 Traditionally, Venetians were encouraged to leave money to more localized centers of charity, such as their parishes or a religious order dedicated to helping the poor. The Scuole were also popular choices for testamentary largesse. See Pullan, 1971.

63 Lunardon, 28.

64 See Ellero, especially 54-59; and Lunardon, 33.

65 ZIT, G 4, number 61. Similar language is found in sixteenth-century statutes concerning a new women's hostel in Bologna. There, too, the women staff were specifically called upon to behave as "loving mothers of the family of the poor." Terpstra, 119.

66 IRE, Zit A 1, II, chap. 12.

67 Lunardon writes of wealthy Venetian society, "there was little faith in the salvation by the family of a girl either of the popular classes or of the middle classes in economic difficulty, unless she was aided by one of the institutions." Lunardon, 16.

68 The most thorough discussion of the relations between elite and humble women of the same neighborhood can be found in Romano, 339-53.

69 See, for examples, IRE, TEST nos. 476, 672, 740, 816, and 843.

70 Terpstra.

71 On the autonomy enjoyed by religious communities of women in the preceding century, see McLaughlin. On the increasing rigidity of counter-reformation convents, see Padani; and Baernstein.


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