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Money, Age, and Marriage in Venice: A Brief Biocultural History


Venice’s restricted geographical base forced the early development of a communitarian ethos and hierarchical norms for distributing wealth and power without violent conflict. Venetian civic iconography privileged pacifying gestures, images that increased in the early sixteenth century as the city faced assault from the massed powers of Europe and steep financial losses. To retain their class privileges, the Venetian patriciate responded with severe restrictions on eligibility and heirs; at the same time, their loss of status was reflected in their adoption of lowerclass clothing with dual submissive-dominant iconography and their abandonment of patrician sobriety of manner.


Money, Age, and Marriage in Venice: A Brief Biocultural History

A Natural Experiment

Conducting experiments on large social groups over long periods of time is not of course ethically possible and is, in any case, hardly feasible. Still, actual events sometimes offer us good approximations to experiment. The history of Venice, to take just one striking example, looks something like a socio-political experiment conducted under controlled conditions: how to organize a large and prosperous population in a small space containing limited local resources? And not just invest this population with a sustainable economy but elevate it to a position as a world power and a beacon of civilization? Unfortunately for the Venetians, that is only the first phase of the experiment. In the second phase, the experimental problem takes on a more sinister cast. What are the boundary conditions for this cultural success story? At what point do external threats and internal weaknesses tip toward demoralization and decline?

These are political and economic questions, but they also have a dimension in imaginative culture—in art, social iconography, and drama. The hypothetical experiment can thus include questions more common to the humanities than to the social sciences. During their rise and decline, how did the Venetians themselves envision their social identity? How did they enact these identities symbolically and depict them in drama?

Cultural historians have tended to look for explanations within history and culture. At first sight, that seems reasonable, but it involves a basic mistake in conceptual method:  seeking cultural and historical explanations for cultural and historical events locks explanation into the same level as the things being explained. Real explanation locates its phenomena at a level of causal principles simpler and more general than the phenomena being explained. Because cultures developing over historical time are created by human beings driven by basic motives and reacting to specific environmental conditions, explanations of cultural history should be rooted in biology, ecology, and anthropology.  A specific set of basic motives and forms of social organization should be identified, as should the specific means by which universal principles operate within particular ecological conditions. This is the biocultural approach.

In the case of Venice, the basic elements in a biocultural analysis include the tension between young and old men—their competing needs for reproductive access and social power. It includes also the interplay between dominance and cooperation within and among social classes and between states in the Mediterranean region. These elements operate in tight systemic interdependence, interacting with one another and with external forces. And of course, for Venice, always, geography is a crucial constraining force. Politics grow out of the land and water, and culture holds its discourses with politics.

The Lagoon

Because of its inhospitable conditions, the Venetian lagoon was largely neglected by the Romans. Until the sixth century, it was inhabited only by small populations occupied with fishing and producing salt. Then hostile incursions into the mainland north and west of the lagoon made its natural water barrier an attractive feature. As the population grew, it became concentrated on a large complex of islands centered around a high bank (Rivo-alto, eventually Rialto). Rejecting the constraints of their very limited economic resources, the early medieval Venetians exploited their location at the meeting point between East and West and North and South. They developed far-flung trade networks that at their height produced enormous wealth.[1]

Since Venice lay outside the feudal system, and since its natural protection had spared it from the necessity of developing a defensive force, the city’s social structures were relatively untouched by the exclusionary inheritance customs and hierarchical devices of territories governed by the imperial military nobility. Its general population elected the doge and approved basic laws. Lacking fiefs, the rich did not isolate themselves on estates but lived alongside the poor. Their patrimony was divided equally among all sons, who often held property for a generation in a collective called a fraterna, though immovable property could be functionally claimed by each son through use. Venetians also distributed the risks of commercial voyages by dividing the investment into carati or shares, an early form of insurance.

By about the year 1000, the increase in resources procured through commerce allowed the population to grow far beyond what the islands alone could support. Within less than a century, it would reach 50,000, doubling in the following hundred years. With this increase came the multiplication and distancing of family descent lines and the establishment of an overarching civic entity attracting the energies and loyalties of leading families. Specific families lost control over individual islands. Units of family immobile property were fragmented. The epicenter of the thriving commercial community at Rialto, which had originally had been in private hands, was largely taken over by the state. With the consolidation of a polity came the drive to control it. The larger population divided into factions, conflict between them resulting not infrequently in ducal assassinations and deposings. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Doge Vitale II Michiel. In 1172, after returning from a defeat at the hands of the Byzantine emperor (whose favor was essential to Venetian commerce) and quarrelling with his councillors, the doge was killed by an angry crowd. Shocked by its own extreme response, the populace and its leaders sought to prevent similar episodes by centralizing and distributing governing power, beginning with the delegation to a committee of the election of the doge. Over time, a system of interlocking governmental committees developed that allotted power to many and served as counterpoise to the doge. Despite this and other reductions in his powers, the doge retained more than leaders of most other Italian communes. He was, moreover, elected for life. The Venetians thus constructed a polity that achieved a workable balance between two basic impulses that propel social life: the drive toward social dominance in individuals, and the countervailing drive of the collective toward suppressing dominance in individuals (Boehm).

The tension between the old egalitarianism and the new hierarchicalization culminated in the 1297 Serrata (Locking) of the Maggior Consiglio, the basic body of the polity upon which the committee structure was built. The Serrata made access to the Maggior Consiglio extremely difficult for those who had not already been elected to significant office, locking in a hereditary governing class for the remaining history of the Venetian Republic. From this point on, the members of the patriciate cooperated with one another in supporting shared class privileges and in preventing them from being extended to others in their society. They limited individual terms of office on committees, restricted the number of family members who could serve on important committees, and prohibited campaigning for office. Patrician dissenters or rebels were sentenced to an exile monitored by the Council of Ten. If dissenters attempted to conspire against the government, the Council had them executed. To keep the lower classes docile, the patriciate kept them well provisioned with food and allowed them significant scope in governing their guilds. As always in Venice, the actual geography entered intimately into the political economy of the state. Venice’s numerous small islands and waterways prevented the formation of large popular gatherings that could turn into revolts, thus helping to perpetuate the status quo.

How did the Venetians themselves envision their polity? Consider Venice’s famed representation of itself as a woman, and consider also the multiplication in Venetian painting of female figures, often languid (as in Giorgione’s Dresden Venus), especially in certain periods (Smail, Meiss,  Carroll “Who’s”). In contrast with the martial masculine icons of other Italian city-states such as Florence, Venice’s images teach the cultural norms of non-violence, patient submissiveness, pleasing the other, subordination to a dominant. These images clearly originate in biologically-conditioned efforts at pacification. Females and juveniles of most species are typically smaller and have much lower levels of testosterone than the average adult male. Consequently, females and juveniles use pacifying gestures much more frequently than adult males, but any individual attempting to avoid a violent encounter will employ them. The ethos of non-violence being especially functional in Venice, the government made extensive efforts to support it that included providing (at least the rudiments of) justice for all and extinguishing the vendetta tradition. Not surprisingly, this ethos was reflected in proverbs: Prima de parlar, tasi ‘Before speaking, shut up’; Ochi vedi, boca tasi, Se ti vol viver in pase ‘Look, see, keep your mouth shut, if you want to live in peace’.

Commerce and Reproduction: An Inter-generational Economy

The sophisticated commercial culture of Venice seems a long way from the hand-to-mouth subsistence economy of hunter-gatherers. But the differences are in surface detail, not in underlying life-history dynamics. Hillard Kaplan and his collaborators have made a compelling case that subsistence skills have co-evolved with human intelligence, those co-evolved aptitudes intertwining with the phases of human life history and with the bonds of kinship (Kaplan, Hill, Lancaster and Hurtado).

Because their trade routes stretched from England to Asia, Venetian merchants such as Marco Polo began training in the family enterprise in adolescence—a Venetian proverb said that a young man should begin his career when his beard sprouted—travelling first with their senior male relatives. After they had spent many years attaining competence in the numerous and complicated coinage and weight systems, gaining expertise in solving computational problems, and becoming knowledgeable about products and foreign peoples, they in turn assumed the direction of younger male relatives. Mastering the extensive and complex systems of information necessary to their commerce made it possible for the Venetians to acquire and govern significant land and sea empires. By the early thirteenth century, Venice was developing its extensive network of holdings in Dalmatia, Greece and its islands, and Byzantium. Trade was the lifeblood of Venice, and these holdings helped to protect it from Greek, French, Genoese, and Moslem rivals (Michael of Rhodes; Dotson).

During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the rise of competing city-states in the Po Valley led Venice to take over that region up to the edge of the Milanese state. While the maritime empire could be protected by ad hoc rearrangements of commercial naval resources and the election of a capitanio zeneral da mar (a senior patrician commander of the armada), the defense of the mainland required the development of an entirely new force, an army, which drew upon the mainland imperial nobility for its generals and Venetian patricians for its proveditori (civilian overseers) (Mallett and Hale). The Po Valley territory had been at the core of imperial holdings and thus contained numerous important feuds with exceptional legal privileges that attracted an increasingly elitist Venetian patriciate. By acquiring these feuds from the Venetian state, the patricians entered into the imperial feudal system (Zamperetti).

Patrician males often remained away from the city until middle age. Having then amassed a fortune sufficient to support their families, and having launched their sons on their own careers, they would return home to undertake government service. The laws regulating government service were designed to subordinate individual political ambition to the good of the city as a whole. A patrician was required by law to accept all nominations to office, whether he wished them or not, and he was not to seek any office. There was one exception to the rule limiting office-holding to the most senior males, the savi ai ordeni or maritime commission, which made decisions about commercial voyages and was the province of young patricians. Serving on it tested their mettle and gave them an opportunity to take control of their future. The crowning patrician governmental achievement was the dogeship. By reserving this post for elderly men with few or no sons, the Venetians put a brake on the accumulation of personal and dynastic power.

Given the prerogatives of age and wealth, it is perhaps not surprising that many Venetian patrician men lived to a great age, competing fiercely for the dogeship and disporting themselves like young males. Perhaps the most famous example is Doge Enrico Dandolo, who led the Fourth Crusade when he was in his late 90s. In 1530, the elderly Nicolò Venier, whose preceding four wives had died (most likely in childbirth), took as his fifth a young girl. In the same period, an 82-year-old patrician, who could barely walk, was so anxious to show off his crimson velvet vesta that he insisted on attending Easter services. Crimson was the color of authority and wealth, and the vesta, priced at half a million dollars (500 ducats), did indeed give incontrovertible proof of his wealth.[2]

The Squeeze is On

Over the course of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a convergence of antagonistic forces permanently reduced Venice to secondary status among states. The Portuguese discovery of the sea route around Africa, increasing Moslem aggression in the eastern Mediterranean, and several wars with coalitions of European powers cut deeply into Venice’s core trade, precipitated numerous bank failures, brought spectacular and humiliating military defeats, and inflicted damage on both its maritime and mainland states. The loose organization and relative local autonomy that Venice had relied on to govern its empires was no match for the centralizing early modern states (France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire) that were its rivals, as numerous subject cities contested Venetian rule.

Cultural iconography from this period reveals the deterioration of Venetian power. The older patriciate had dressed in a sober black floor-length vesta (gown) exclusive to their class. Abandoning this emblem of grave dignity, the younger generation of men adopted colorful fashions originating in lower-class military attire, with tight hose and short jackets that revealed their buttocks, or they donned poets’ shirts that slid off their shoulders and bared white necks (Carroll “Who’s”). Eschewing the rigors of commercial travel, success in which had become much more difficult to achieve, they mooned over love poetry or languid songs. Contemporary comedies show them plotting with their girlfriends to force their parents to allow them to marry by engaging in illicit sex (the consequent loss of the girl’s honor could only be repaired by marriage), after which they could live off her dowry. The traditional use of dowries to underwrite the commercial journeys of young patricians having become too risky, dower funds were increasingly invested passively in the state bond issues that supported war expenditures and in nearby land that could easily be protected and whose foodstuffs were vital to a densely-populated city.

Growing numbers of patricians directed their interest toward careers in the wealthy international state that was the only one that they could hope to lead, the Catholic Church. Its elective papacy had been captured twice by Venetian patricians in the later fifteenth century, and two strong candidates emerged in the early sixteenth century. The numerous rich ecclesiastical benefices located within the Venetian state (and thus more easily retained by its patriciate) rendered worthwhile the social death of that branch of the patriline caused by the cutting off of legitimate issue. Far from being a sacrifice, such legal sterility was consistent with other efforts to reduce the number of patrician heirs. (The sterility was only ‘legal’ rather than biological in that when priests produced bastards, the children’s illegitimacy relieved the fathers of the formal requirement to provide for them and include them in an equal share of the patrimony.)

The same period saw a reform of the socio-sexual norms of the Venetian polity-governing patriciate that took visible form in the new Golden Book: the registry of legitimate Venetian patricians Chojnacki). They included far stricter measures of proof of the patrician status of both groom and bride, of the legitimacy of the marriage, and of the timely reporting of the birth of the child. Gone was the old, casual definition of patrician legitimacy, which required only that the father accept the child and raise it within his household. The continued decline of financial resources would soon lead patrician families to allow only one brother to contract a legitimate marriage (Davis).

Consider, then, the tremendous pressure exerted by the need to sustain power, wealth, and prestige—a pressure great enough to cause families to constrain the reproductive actions of individual family members. That kind of constraint is common enough among pack animals that allow only a single reproductive female. In humans, though, the behavior is not regulated only by instinct; it is a biocultural product—a product of interacting and conflicting needs: conflicting needs of individuals, family units, and the state. The basic motives driving these conflicts are the status (power) of one’s family and the class it belongs to, with the replication of it in one’s offspring. These goals can only be achieved by a wealth that goes well beyond that required for simple subsistence.

Bared Buttocks and Open Gowns: Icons of Cultural Decline

During this critical phase in Venice’s decline as a world power, several Venetian patrician youth groups, known as Compagnie della Calza (Stocking Troupes), produced entertainment at both private and public festivities, some of the latter rising almost to the level of state occasions. The Compagnie’s colorful doublets (zipon) and hose (calze), originating like the battle jackets and blue jeans of 1960s anti-Viet Nam radicals in lower-class military and naval wear, communicated dual biologically-rooted messages. The inflated shoulders artificially created by the jacket mimic the form created in nature by developed muscles that is a sign of superior male strength, and the bared buttocks signal submissiveness, while the cinched, feminized waist mediates between the two. The dual symbolism functions both within one’s own fighting force–to indicate a superior capacity to fight alongside a willingness to submit to military authority–and in relationship to the opponent–to signal one’s off-putting strength while providing a life-saving means of surrender should such become necessary.

Over the course of the late fifteenth century, zipon and calza had become the daily dress of working class men (permanent social subordinates who often also signed up to fight on warships or as infantry). By contrast, the officer corps composed of imperial nobles, when not in armor, wore the robon, whose amplitude inflated the entire torso and whose knee length kept the buttocks covered. The adoption of zipon and calza by young patricians correlates with two dynamics of subordination: first, their age meant that they would remain under the authority of the family patriarch for many years to come, the radical reduction of commercial travel meaning that their lives would pass under the dominion of the patriarch, without means of self-affirmation; and second, when they finally did assume direction of their state, they would have to submit to the overwhelming military threats that they, better than their fathers, knew it faced. The members of the Compagnie frequently entertained visiting representatives of important foreign powers. By eschewing the black vesta in favor of frivolously-styled zipon and calze for their Compagnie, they signaled their subordinate status both to those powers and to their elders. This interpretation of their dress is supported by their frequent choice of ribald peasant plays as part of the entertainment (Carroll Angelo).

The signs of status loss in the dress of the younger men developed a correlative in a degraded image of elder male patricians shortly thereafter. One of the most famous stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte is Pantaloon, whose patrician vesta is embarrassingly compromised by expressions of his libido (it is often shortened or flies open as he rushes after young girls to reveal that he is still wearing his youthful hose, colorful and tight-fitting). It was this figure that represented the Venetian patrician on stages all over Europe.[3]

In its period of healthy growth, the Venetian state had succeeded in organizing the cycle of youth to age in ways that satisfied the needs of both and integrated both into the economic system. In its decline, however, rather than distributing sacrifices equally across the population, the Venetian state chose to maintain as high a status as possible by creating a false image of continued power and prosperity. It did so by decreasing the sacrifices of its leading, senior citizens, which, given its lack of resources, could only be achieved by increasing the sacrifices of its youth. It thus achieved a fragile stability, but it also forestalled the development of genuine maturity in its leading men. If Marco Polo is the cultural icon for the healthy phase of Venice’s history, Pantaloon, sadly, is the world-historical symbol for Venice in its decline. Pantaloon is comical, even farcical, an image of lecherous old age given over to its still-youthful appetites. That image of age is very different from an image of the wise elder judiciously husbanding the resources of his state. Buttock-baring youths flirting with dominant foreign powers, libidinous old men who never quite grew up—these are the icons of Venice in its decline.

Works Cited

Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Carroll, Linda L. “Who’s on Top?: Gender as Societal Power Configuration in Italian Renaissance Drama.” Sixteenth Century Journal 20 (1989): 531-558. Print.

—–. Angelo Beolco (Il Ruzante). Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print and Web.

Chojnacki, Stanley. “Identity and Ideology in Renaissance Venice: The Third Serrata.” In Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 12971797. Ed. John Martin and Dennis Romano. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 263–94.

Davis, James C. The Decline of the Venetian Nobility as a Ruling Class. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.

Dotson, John E., editor and translator. Merchant Culture in Fourteenth-Century Venice : the Zibaldone da Canal. Binghamton, NY : Center for Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1994. Print.

Kaplan, Hillard, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, A. Magdalena Hurtado. “A Theory of Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence, and Longevity.” Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (2000): 156-85. Web.

Katritzky, M.A. The Art of Commedia. A Study in the Commedia dell’arte 1560-1620 with special reference to the visual records. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006. Print.

Lane, Frederic C. Venice. A Maritime Empire. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. Print.

Madden, Thomas. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.

Mallett, M.E.  and J.R. Hale. The Military Organization of a Renaissance State : Venice, c. 1400 to 1617. Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Meiss, Millard. “Sleep in Venice. Ancient Myths and Renaissance Proclivities.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 110.5 (1966): 348-382. Print.

Michael of Rhodes, The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth Century Maritime Manuscript, ed. Pamela O. Long, David McGee, and Alan M. Stahl. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Sanuto, Marino. I diarii. Ed. Rinaldo Fulin et al. Venice: Visentini, 1879-1903. Print.

Smail, Daniel Lord. On Deep History and the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Zamperetti, Sergio. I piccoli principi: signorie locali, feudi e comunità soggette nello Stato regionale veneto dall’espansione territoriale ai primi decenni dell ‘600. Venice: Cardo, 1991.

[1] The historical information in this section is drawn largely from Lane and Madden.

[2] Although lack of consistent public records makes it impossible to provide scientifically-valid statistics on longevity among male Venetian patricians, anecdotal evidence abounds. Members of the Minio family of the early sixteenth century, for example, lived to the ages of 90, 85, 81, 78. For the two episodes, see Sanuto vol. 54, col. 267; vol. 36, col. 111.

[3] Katritsky 189 and numerous illustrations.

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