"Venice once was dear, the pleasant place of all festivity, the revel of the earth, the masque of Italy." Lord Byron describes Venice as a place of great revelry with carnival, masquerades, and opera. This is a common stereotype of early modern Venice. However, the experience of hundreds of patrician women involved more sacrifice than festivity. The writings of Arcangela Tarabotti were created in seventeenth century Venice. Venice at that time was a place of great contradiction. The republic proclaimed the great political and social liberties that its citizens enjoyed. However, as political freedoms were being developed the women of Venice were dealing with great inequality. Influences from Greek, Roman, Hebrew and Christian sources gave evidence for the complete subordination of women in the seventeenth century. These traditions were adapted into the intellectual, legal, religious and social structures of the republic. This led to the religious imprisonment of hundreds of women into convents across the city. What was the experience of a woman in this society? Paternal Tyranny is a great source of information to help capture the personal consequences of the restrictions placed on women. This paper will show that the feminine experience in Venice was shaped primarily by increasing social pressures placed on the patriciate and continued because of the restrictive access to education.
The nobility of Venice was extremely protective of their status. Around 1400 the patriciate consciously created restrictions that would widen the gap between the nobles and the populace. There was a major emphasis placed on restrictions preventing interclass marriage alliances. Stanely Chojnacki writes that by the sixteenth century these laws were leading to the practice of restrictive marriages. Families were limiting the marriages in sibling groups in order to protect familial wealth from being divided. These laws had dire effects on young patrician women.
The laws resulted in dowry inflation which made it impossible for families to marry their daughters to earthly husbands. Many families discouraged their children from marriage to prevent the fragmentation of the patrimony which would ensue from the proliferation of heirs. This affected all young patricians. However, men had a broader range of options available to them. They had career opportunities including military, political, professional, and commercial endeavours which could ensure their freedom. Their sisters on the other hand had extremely limited lifestyle options. They were either permitted to marry a patrician of equal standing or they were often forced into the convent.
The nobility believed strongly in these restrictions even though they were forcing women into vows for which they had no calling. By the late sixteenth century even the archbishop of Venice recognized that the practice of coerced monacation had grown outrageous. He claimed that the 2000 noble female religious were being stored in convents "as though in a public warehouse." But his voice of opposition was lost in the crowd of supporters. Supporters like Pietro Loredan who was a founding member of the otherwise progressive Accademia delgi Icognoti. He wrote to a young niece, who was looking for support from her liberal uncle, that her social status was more important than her liberty. As a woman without a dowry to meet her social standing she only had unacceptable marriage options. A marriage below her rank would bring "universal contempt," from others in the nobility for the "stain of an inferior alliance." Her only option was to give up hope of freedom and to enter the convent.
As a result of social pressures large sections of noble women were deemed unmarriageable and thus absorbed by the cities convents. The numbers outlined by Jutta Gisela Sperling are quite dramatic: in 1581 nearly 54 percent...