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The Charity of the Poor in Late Renaissance Venice

The Charity of the Poor in Late Renaissance Venice by Dr Ioanna Iordanou, CSR Honorary Research Fellow

The Venetian popolani were a social group distinct from the higher levels of Venetian society, namely the patricians – the Venetian ruling class – and the cittadini – the Venetian citizens. They comprised the mass of Venetian residents who enjoyed no legal status and were divided into two categories, the popolo minuto – the city’s workers – and the popolo grande – ‘the well-to-do commoners’, those who owned workshops, employed workers, and possessed property. Concerned with how the popolani contributed to the Venetian economy through their labour, a great deal of scholarly attention has been placed on their professional services. Some significant work has also been done on their civic function, especially their participation in well-documented rituals like the battaglie dei pugni, the famous battles for sole possession of a bridge that entertained laity and royalty alike. An area that has been poorly researched, mainly due to scarcity of archival material, is their charitable activity. Based on a thorough analysis of 225 last wills from the Venetian State Archives, this post exposes a hitherto unexplored and, in consequence, unknown contribution of the Venetian popolani to the city’s economy and society; their conscious charitable activity towards the needy of their community. As a case study, we will use the well-defined popolani group of the Venetian shipbuilders and sailors. This is because their professional homogeneity somehow preserved their presence in the Venetian State Archives.

The last quarter of the 16th century was a period of significant economic turbulence for the maritime communities of Venice. Firstly, while other Venetian industries, like printing, wool and silk production, were thriving in the period, the latter was particularly harsh for Venice’s shipbuilding industry. The rich loot of Turkish ships captured during the War of Cyprus, necessitated their maintenance at the expense of the production of new vessels. As a result, shipwrights, whose expertise lay in designing and building ships, were left with no occupation. By the end of the century, Arsenal caulkers followed suit. The Venetian sailors faced similar difficulties, as the war, and ultimately the loss of Cyprus had significant repercussions for maritime transport and trade. Work was by no means available by the cartload.

To make matters worse, in 1575 a devastating plague struck the city, claiming a quarter to a third of the population in just two years. While human resource recovery was steady, the plague was accompanied by typhus that added to the death toll. Unable to escape and with large families to sustain, despite high rates of infant mortality, the popolani were the most susceptible victims. In many cases entire families perished. Alvise di Francesco, a caulker in the Arsenal, lost his wife and new-born son to the plague. Isepo de Nicolò was more fortunate, since his entire family survived. Still, he did not manage to escape the plague of unemployment.

A spell of bad weather after the plague, followed by ‘a disastrous decade of famine’, led to heavy inflation that was particularly harsh on wage earners. The shortage of agricultural products caused the prices of basic victuals to rocket. Between 1575 and 1590 the price of wheat rose by a staggering 125 per cent, while in the late 1590s it fell and adjusted to double its value in 1580. Food supplies could not keep up with the growing needs of the recovering population; nor could salaries, even those that rose due to the temporary shortage of skilled craftsmanship owing to the plague. While the wages of some specialized workers increased significantly, the shipbuilders only saw a marginal pay rise in the 1580s, the first one they received after 1407. Needless to say that the heavily inflated prices of goods annihilated this pay rise.

Yet, consider the following. In July 1585 Andrea d’Armar, a Greek sailor in Venice, left 100 ducats in his will for the benefit of orphaned children. Two years later, the Arsenal worker Zorzi from Messina made provisions for 60 ducats to be granted to impoverished maidens for their marriage. Marriage was a crucial priority at the time, mainly because it offered a degree of financial stability, but also emotional security though lasting companionship. In numerous last wills Arsenal workers and Greek men and women donated significant sums as dowry portions to random young females. Lucretia, for instance, the wife of an Arsenal caulker, dictated that 100 ducats from her dowry be equally divided and distributed to ten poor unmarried women after her husband’s death. Aside from destitute maidens, the popolani donated sizeable sums to the poor in general. The sailor Nicolò d’Arcà, for instance, instructed that half of his property should be dispensed to the needy every Sunday. He also left 100 ducats for the production of shirts and shoes for those who could not afford them.

These instances of generosity on the part of the maritime folk of Venice are by no means exceptional. 55% of testators (124 out of 225) bequeathed substantial portions of their property to people outside of their immediate family, displaying a general concern for the welfare of others. In 76 cases (c. 32%), donations were directed to beneficiaries who were unrelated to the testators. A cursory reading of the documents could lead to the hypothesis that such generosity was due to the plague having deprived several popolani from their immediate relatives. But out of the 225 cases presently analysed, only 11 testators (c. 5%) seem to have been left with no relations to nominate as beneficiaries.

Let us be clear before we go on, that in Renaissance Venice charity was not the responsibility of the labourers. Indeed at that time, influenced by the doctrines of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, charity was systematised as the moral obligation of the government and wealthy patricians. The distribution of alms was made through the religious confraternities, the scuole, and, to a lesser extent, the occupational confraternities, the arti. So, what was the motivation behind the charitable activity of the lower classes, that were regarded, both by the authorities at the time and by contemporary historians, as recipients rather than providers of alms?

Attempting to fathom the motives behind such generosity is not an easy task. This ostensibly altruistic attitude was, to be sure, not entirely selfless. The contemporaneous connection between charity and the salvation of the soul was a key drive, evident in nearly every testamentary document. However, a thorough analysis of the records suggests a proliferation of bequests to non-relatives out of compassion, sympathy, even gratitude for the kindness and care received, especially during and shortly after the plague. Is it possible that that the plague raised these people’s social awareness and turned them towards one another?

Romano, indeed, claimed that the plague’s gruesome combination of poverty and contamination increased people’s social alertness and produced a new form of charity as an antidote to the ills of society. This found expression in the charitable activity of the city’s scuole. The philanthropy of the maritime popolani towards strangers, however, indicates that the Venetian scuole were not the only agents of this new form of charity in post-plague Venice. In an act that illustrates their mutual sense of solidarity, the Venetian shipbuilders and sailors opted to directly assist the needy of their community. Living in the same neighbourhoods, exercising similar trades, and developing a common sense of professional identity and pride, it is highly likely that misfortunes, such as the sudden loss of family members, were experienced collectively. This solidified their sense of community. Perhaps, it was this sense of community that can, in part, explain their conscious altruistic behaviour.

What, then, can we conclude about the socio-economic role of the popolani in late sixteenth-century Venice? As I hope to have demonstrated here, it is not only the products of their work and their occasionally volatile civic function that are worthy of the historian’s attention. Their contribution to the economy and society of Venice at that particular point in time exceeded the realm of constructing and staffing merchant and warship vessels or entertaining locals and visitors with their civic rituals. Their contributions encompassed their substantial charitable bequests, principally to those who, though able-bodied, lacked the means to support themselves. At a time of financial hardship, rather than seeking benefits themselves, they offered benefits to others.


The interested reader can read the detailed article on which this post is based in The Economic History Review: