Sex, Romance And Venice’s Women — A Reputation Centuries Old

Behind it a proud record of empowered women who made a difference.

Women of Venice
A woman and a man in aristocrat costumes in PIazza San Marco, Venice. Photo by Cristina Gottardi.
Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

Behind it a proud record of empowered women who made a difference in Venice.

In the popular mind, Venice is sexy. It is regularly voted among the most romantic places in the world. It used to be a favorite spot for honeymoons among southern Italians, not just foreign couples. More lies behind its allure than beautiful scenery and moonlit boat rides, however. That fascination includes the prominent role of its women.

From the earlier years of the first millennium, perhaps before, women of the Veneto region stood out for their independence and had important roles in seafaring families, often taking charge of finances and household management when husbands and other male family members were on voyages around the Adriatic Sea. Plaques and funerary inscriptions even from pre-Roman times testify to the female roles as distinct from that for woman elsewhere at the time.

The rights of woman continued with the expansion of the Venetian empire from the end of the first millennium. Documentation from wills held in the Venetian archives, for example, testifies to the way women asserted their rights. Take Fantina Polo, daughter of famed traveler Marco Polo, who ventured to China and back in the 13th century.

When challenged by the family of her husband over her inheritance of object including the gold passport given her father by the Chinese emperor, she successfully sued to protect the legacy left to her.

During the 900 years of the Venetian Republic, Venetian women led the way. For example, the wife of the doge, the dogaressa, held a role of substantial import in the family alliances behind power and as a patron of charities. Though how role fell short of that enjoyed by the British queens, it made a contrast in the ages of feudal kingdoms.

In the 1500s, the city had more than 50 nunneries, serving as home for several thousand women, many excluded from marriage by families determined to preserve their inherited wealth. Woman ran these places mostly autonomously, and they enjoyed considerable freedom within their confines, at least until the 16th century backlash caused by the challenge of Catholicism from Protestantism curtailed that liberty. It opened a period when women were blamed for the woes of the outside world, for allegedly having brought on god’s wrath with their sinfulness, accused of letting nunneries to become bordellos. This was unfair and mostly untrue, but Venice by that time had a growing reputation for licentiousness, an outgrowth of the sex trade officially encouraged, in part to counter what was seen as excessive homosexual activity among Venetian men.

What happened there resembled the trade in Paris or Rome, but the Venetian flamboyance gave the profession a reputation later spread by the 17th and 18th century Grand Tour visitors from Northern Europe. Venice featured a higher-class of prostitutes, the courtesans, who would entertain their clients with poetry and music as well as sex. This allowed some women to enjoy greater freedom, such as the poet Veronica Franco, who set an example of independence and self-expression, publishing poetry, speaking out and standing up for her rights. She paid a heavy price for freedom, however, telling a mother who asked about whether to encourage her own daughter to take up prostitution, that a prostitute’s life was “to eat with another’s mouth, sleep with another’s eyes, move according to another’s will.”

Other women spoke out for women’s rights, became important — but less celebrated until very recently — artists, writers and later opera singers.

After the Venetian Republic was integrated into Italy, it maintained many liberal attitudes, reflected in its left politics and tolerance of homosexuality, for example. But Venice is a tiny place long integrated in Italy so, even though Venice has its own dialect and traditions and regional variations remain, Italian women share the same issues in the family, in child care and in partnering as elsewhere, women told me. But pressed to put a finger on what distinguishes life for women of Venice from life elsewhere, one leading woman of today conceded that, after all, there is still something to the talk of the city being romantic.

Venice an Odyssey Book cover

Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

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