Yet the chronicles and histories of the time show little sign of such profound sexual divi- sions, and we are tempted to write off these accounts as the logical extremes of a moralizing vision. Diaries, or more accurately ricordi, when they can be found, provide interesting information especially on the economics and emotions of marriage. Gregorio Dad's businesslike recording of childbirth, wife death, and dowry price comes immediately to mind.
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But in his accounts of married life the countinghouse mentality that emerges may be largely a facet of the format of these ricordi, which were often little more than articulated family ledgers rather than attempts to record emotional life. Another way to develop some picture of sexuality is through the demo- graphic records.
Birth patterns, illegitimacy rates, male-female ratios, age at marriage, and age differential in marriage are all significant indicators of the parameters of sexual life. Most important, they provide information on a wider range of the population than do writers, moralists, or diarists, who tend to focus primarily on the higher strata of society.
Unfortunately, such records reveal only indications of sexual life, not that life itself. One is forced with this material to fall back on other sources to explain what practice stood behind the data. In addition, demographic material for the Renaissance, while at times very rich as in the case of the Florentine Catasto, so ably exploited by David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch- Zuber,1 is normally too spotty to be used systematically.
Thus, the historian seeking to understand the sexuality of the Renais- sance is faced with a good deal of information covering a wide range of different points of view, but with little apparent way to sort through their biases and prejudices to arrive at a meaningful overview. It would be satisfying to claim that this book reveals the source that will unravel the Gordian knot of Renaissance sexuality. But that would be claiming too much.
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Rather, by looking at the records of Venetian sex crime, we can gain a new and deeper understanding of Renaissance sexuality from a largely unexamined perspective—one that should provide a firmer basis for reevaluating Renaissance literature, moralists, and demographic pat- terns in terms of their relationship to sexuality. At the same time we should be able to provide a basis for a deeper understanding of the social life, the culture, and the perceptions of the Renaissance itself, for, with apologies to Michel Foucault, sexuality was not a discovery of the modern world, and with apologies to the comfortable preconceptions of many others, it was not always much as it is today.
Rather, it was a complex and often contradictory set of relationships that occupied an important and changing place in human life and society. Sex crime reveals these complexities and contradictions in an interesting and concrete manner, especially in a city like Renaissance Venice. There criminality, theoretically controlled by a thirteenth-century law code, the Promissione Maleficorum and its later reforms, in fact was handled much more pragmatically by members of the merchant-banker elite of the city.
It was the practice for each criminal case to be judged by a substantial number of the ruling nobility, who took into account the status of the victim and the accused as well as the nature of the crime.
In broad outline, when a crime came to public attention, it was handled in one of three ways. First, summary justice could be meted out at the scene of the crime. Second, the case could be investigated by the Avogadori of the Commune—loosely speaking, the communal attorneys—and argued by them before one of the larger councils of state, normally the Council of Forty known as the Forty. This large body, after hearing oral arguments and reviewing the written ones, would decide guilt and penalty, generally with little reference to law. Third, direct justice was reserved for the most important cases, which were handled in a flexible manner within one council.
This was the operating procedure of the most powerful and feared Council of Ten, which dealt with conspiracy and treason and in the fifteenth century took over the prosecution of sodomy. Most sex crimes were handled by the second method.
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They were investi- gated by the Avogadori and tried before the Forty. The primary records that survive are an almost complete run of the Avogadori's summation of their investigations in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with a report of the Forty's decision and action on each case. This documentation is supplemented irregularly by the rough scribal notes of testimony heard by the Avogadori. Sodomy was the principal sex crime in which this pro- cedure was not followed. For Mature Readers Only!
Download it once and read it on your Kindle device, PC, phones or tablets. In the fourteenth century it was investigated by the Signori di Notte and tried before a small three-man court, the Giudici di Proprio. The records of these cases are much more detailed than those of the Avogadori. In the early fifteenth century jurisdiction was taken over by the Council of Ten, and because the cases were heard internally, their records are much less detailed. Over a period of two centuries and across all these councils, however, the records preserve a distillation of what was perceived to be most unacceptable in deeds labeled criminal.
And, in turn, in the penalties handed down, the records show just how seriously such deeds were judged by some of the most important men in Venice. Cer- tainly such documentation is extremely biased. Yet that very bias consti- tutes its unique historical value. These records reveal the values and perceptions of a Renaissance elite not through their intellectualized litera- ture or philosophy, but directly at the level where people name the objects of their fears and aversions and attempt to control or eradicate them.
In such a situation every word takes on meaning, and one is forced to work with criminal documents much as an intellectual historian pores over a text from Plato. But such an exhaustive approach pays handsome dividends for understanding society and its values. First, it allows us to reconstruct Renaissance Venice's official vision of unacceptable sexuality in all its complexities and inner contradictions.
At the same time, in setting sexual boundaries, the records speak to the society's perception of "normal" sexuality, often with disarming directness. As a result, a close study of such documentation for Venice should provide a significant new insight into the role and function of sexuality in one Renaissance city. Taken as a whole, these two centuries, the focus of our study, might be seen from a Venetian perspective as a period of unusual success. The end of the thirteenth century found the city fraught with internal bickering.
Its Eastern commercial empire was dangerously threatened by Genoese competition, Byzantine revival, and Hungarian expansion. Its Italian hinterland was confused with a host of flourishing communes, each potentially a problem for the city's short-distance trade and several potentially disruptive for long-distance trade connections over the Alps. By the end of the fifteenth century Venice had successfully eliminated Genoa as a competitor for Eastern trade domination and even to an extent worked out a modus vivendi with the new power in the East—the Turks.
In Italy they had built a powerful mini-empire on the remains of the Carrara and Delia Scala signori, which included most of the eastern lands of the rich Po plain. In addition, they controlled the southern accesses to the passes over the Alps to Germany, so crucial for Venetian trade.
Finally, the social tensions of the city had been largely brought under control with the establishment of a hereditary ruling group based on approximately families drawn primarily from the merchant-banker aristocracy of the city. Thus, while most other republics of Italy had fallen by the wayside during this period, Venice endured and might even be said to have triumphed.
There were storm clouds, of course, on her horizons.
by Christine Crowle
The Turks were seen as a major threat, and the continued necessity of defending an extended maritime empire put a severe financial strain on the city—a strain that at times tested not only the economic fabric of the city but its social fabric as well. Equally troubling was the circumnavigation of Africa by Portuguese spice traders, which threatened to undermine Vene- tian domination of trade in this lucrative area.
Recent scholarship has ably demonstrated that the immediate impact of this new spice route was perhaps more psychological than economic; but as a reflection of the successful voyages of discovery and the eventual forging of an Atlantic civilization that would move the city from the center of European civiliza- tion to the periphery, the discovery was a harbinger of change for Venice. Closer to home, following Italy was rent by the nation-state armies of Europe, leaving the city-state largely a system of the past and threatening the very existence of Venice's mainland empire.
Once again Venice sur- vived; but after the War of the League of Cambrai, the city lived on in a much different Italy—politically, socially, and economically. Thus, in contrast to what preceded and followed, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries might be seen as Venice's golden age. Yet, like most golden ages it loses much of its luster on closer examina- tion. Perhaps the most outstanding counter to Venice's successes were the waves of the plague that struck virtually every generation in the city from the late s on.
This demographic catastrophe, however, was if anything merely the tip of the iceberg when one assesses the plague's impact. Labor-hungry cities such as Venice sought to recoup their losses as quickly as possible by offering incentives to workers and potential sailors to come to the city and repopulate its work force. The success of this policy meant that the devastation wrought on the family's fabric by the mortality of the plague was exacerbated by the immigration of many young and able-bodied to the city, further breaking down the placement and disciplining force of the family in society.
This immigration probably also had a negative impact on the male-female ratios in the urban environ- ment. Thus, not only the mortality of the plague but also the population movement it triggered put dangerous stresses on the city's social fabric. And, of course, behind these problems lurked the long-term impact, always more difficult to assess, of such periodic catastrophes on the psyches and personalities of those who survived.
Less dramatically, but with almost equal significance for the nature of Venetian life, the city's triumphs were largely built on military victories over tenacious rivals. In an age that fought its wars primarily with professional armies led by famous and hence expensive captains—the condottieri—a consistent record of victory meant a continued series of financial crises for government. In turn, such a record meant an almost constant level of tensions arising from the need to apportion taxation if not fairly, at least effectively.
Debate on the sources and methods of taxation always threatened to divide the ruling nobility into hostile factions, and the imposition of those taxes frequently exacerbated social tensions, especially among those below the nobility who felt exploited by excessive taxation. Indicative of these dangers inherent in Venice's military victories is that virtually every major war of the period engendered a conspiracy to overthrow the state.
Venice endured, helped by two crucial transitions during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first, the serrata, or closing, of the Major Council, might actually be said to have initiated the period.
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Faced with declining markets and increasing competition, hostility from Genoa, and deepening internal social and political tensions, Venice initiated a set of governmental reforms in , which at first seemed designed merely to improve the method for electing the Major Council, Venice's largest legislative body.
By , however, the effect of the serrata of the Major Council was to create a hereditary ruling group composed primarily of merchants and bankers. Members of this nobility, as they styled them- selves, sat automatically on the Major Council when they came of age. In turn, most government officials were elected by the council from their number, and all governmental power came to be seen as originating there. An apparent technical change in electoral principles became, within about twenty years, a quiet revolution that left political power in the hands of a hereditary ruling group.
The importance of this association cannot be overstressed. There are few societies in which politi- cal and social status match exactly. Perhaps even in Renaissance Venice that would be claiming too much. Yet, as a result of the serrata, the social elite of Venice came to be perceived as largely contiguous to the political elite, and this helped undercut one major source of political and social tension. While other Renaissance cities would debate questions of status and power in theory and bloody deed, Venice settled down to defend a legally established hierarchy based on merchant wealth.
The second transition that helped the merchant nobility survive, prosper, and adapt to changing times was a diversification of the Venetian economy perhaps best signified by the city's expansion onto the mainland in the fifteenth century, which symbolized a break from the traditional trade orientation. Of course, trade was to remain a central focus of the Venetian economy and the main basis of noble wealth. But land and industry were to play an increasingly important role that diversified the city's economic base and helped it survive in relative prosperity the turmoil of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Actually, that transi- tion was neither a quick nor an easy one for the merchant nobles of Venice to accept or implement.
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