Population Curiosities

While doing research recently on the Black Death that visited Venice in 1630-1631, I came across some interesting population statistics. Venice kept very good census records and categorized them in various ways. People were classified as nobili (the nobility or those families listed in the Golden Book for their high social status), the cittadini (the civil servant and merchant class, some of whom later worked their way into the nobili), and the popolani (the working class).

Of course, we hear the most about the nobili and sometimes the cittadini. With wealth brings fame, power, and notoriety. Venice’s politicians and rulers came from the nobili, while its writers and artists came mostly from the cittadini. So … where does that leave the popolani? They left few written records of any kind. And yet, according to the census for 1581, 90.2% of Venice’s population belonged to the popolani class. A mere 5.3 were cittadini and 4.5 were nobili. That number stayed virtually the same for 1586. In 1624 and 1633, the cittadini grew while the other two shrank, and by 1633 the cittadini were 10.6% of the population. Who were these vast numbers of the popolani, Venetians that we know so little about? (Actually, there are a few good books on them, most notably Working Women of Early Modern Venice by Monica Chojnacka.)

But then the Black Death visited the city, and in 1642 the popolani was back up to 88.6%, the cittadini dropped to 7.7. and the nobili to 3.7. Even though history usually shows that the wealthy are less adversely affected by plagues because they have better health and the means to flee the worst areas, their numbers were lower after this particular plague.

But the next set of statistics are what I found most interesting. They concern the breakdown of males and females in the city. While in 1563, 1581, and 1586 men made up about 50% of the Venetian population, it later started to change. In 1642 males dropped to 49% and in 1655 they were 48% of the total population. However, when this researcher looked at just the nobili for the same time period, the number of women steadily decreased. While in 1563 noble women were 48% of the nobili, by 1642 they had dropped to only 42% of the noble class population. What was decimating the population of noble women? These numbers, and this study I read, did not answer this question. But I was left feeling quite sad for the fate of these women who would have appeared to be surrounded by material wealth and luxury and yet seemed to be an endangered species.

This could be a great study for someone to undertake. (Who knows–maybe someone already has, and I just haven’t seen it.) But after spending a couple years researching Venetian women, I did notice a trend in the upper classes: Many of these women suffered from various maladies related to stress and anxiety. Nancy Isenberg, in her work on the life of Giustiniana Wynne, posits that many of these intelligent and capable women suffered from “thwarted ambitions” that negatively impacted their health. Intuitively, this makes sense. We now know that chronic stress leads to a myriad of health issues, and that stress can be induced by constantly being silenced, belittled, negated, harassed, and thwarted at every turn.

(Statistics come from “The Demographic Effects of the Venetian Plagues of 1575-77 and 1630-31″ by Gordon M. Weiner, in Genus, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (1970), p. 41-57.)

(Nancy Isenberg’s thesis is from “Without Swapping her Skirt for Breeches: The Hypochondria of Giustiniana Wynne, Anglo-Venetian Woman of Letters.” The English Malady: Enabling and Disabling Fictions. Ed. Glen Colburn. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008. 154-176.)

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A Little Dream of Venice Past

Have you ever wondered what Venice, that tourist destination so often clogged with crowds, looked like before such crowds swelled to over 12 million every year? This film gives you a glimpse of Venice in 1940, the canals and campi and narrow streets. Children seem to people this Venice more than adults, making these sixteen minutes of footage feel like a fable.  My friend Piero recently sent me this video, titled Venezia Minore, made by Francesco Pasinetti. Sit back with a glass of soave or some other Veneto wine and enjoy time traveling.


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In Memoriam–The Steaming Lady

176 years ago today, Marina Querini Benzon died. She is the subject of the famous song “La Biondina in Gondoleta” about a languorous blond with her lover, floating down the canals. She was quite a liberated woman for the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century. She witnessed the fall of the Venetian Republic and Venice’s takeover by the French and then Austrians. But she still ran a literary salon at her palace, entertaining her guests with refreshments that weren’t always so fresh, plus music and conversation. Her most famous guest and good friend: Lord Byron.

But I have a favorite story about Marina. As she grew older, she would have her gondolier take her to visit friends at their palaces. The gondoliers developed a nickname for her. “Xe qua el fumeto!” “Here comes the steaming lady!” they said. She kept a slice of hot polenta hidden in her bosom, and the steam escaped. She’d pull out the polenta for a little nibble now and then.

Marina Benzon

The original portrait of her was apparently lost, but this copy gives you a sense of what she looked like. Minus the polenta.  (from the website


I’ll have a whole chapter on her in my forthcoming book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, due out by summer.

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Quattro Minuti con Casanova: San Samuele

Casanova’s earliest origins–San Samuele is the church where his parents were married, where Casanova was baptized, and where he gave his first one and a half sermons. Watch this video to get the full story of what he found in the collection plate and why he decided that the life of a priest wasn’t for him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnGIXoNAGMw

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Random Journal Entry

Here is one in a very occasional series where I type up one of my journal entries from when I was in Venice. This is from last summer, a Saturday in July when I apparently didn’t know what the date was:

“I’m sitting in the window of my apartment as I write, recuperating after a long day of walking and exploring. Listening to Brazilian music (Tum Tum Tum), eating brie and crackers, and sipping a soave.

My apartment windows just above the white awning.

My apartment windows just above the white awning.

I started the day with too much internet and book time in the morning, and then finally got out the door and took the vap to Giardini. Started with S Francesco di Paola and draped a wrap on my shoulders so I could enter. Honestly, I forgot which of the women from my research I was supposed to be looking for, but I knew it was on my list.

Next was the church and ex-convent of Sant’Anna, where Arcangela Tarabotti lived. The church is all sealed up, though through a chink in the door I could see some interior. Not much to see but some rubble and columns. There’s a small corte alongside the church, then a slightly larger area adjacent, with some grass and a tree or two. An elderly woman stood on her balcony in front of her laundry, so I asked her if this was the “ex-convento.” Even though I repeated myself three times (and though my Italian is not great, I’m sure I was intelligible), I don’t think she heard me. Her cat took a look at me and kept going, and I think the lady might have offered me to enter her fence. Sweet, but I had to reason to visit, and the cat who had spurned me had already moved on.

Interior of Sant'Anna

Interior of Sant’Anna

The area of the former convent is now built up into apartments. I think they might have built up the land itself; when I looked at the area in comparison to Barbari’s 1500 map, it now seems bigger. But it looks like the original cloister courtyard is still there. Each archway facing it is bricked up, as are the windows at the back of the church. But they may have been that way during Arcangela’s time.

Ex-convent of Sant'Anna

Ex-convent of Sant’Anna

The thing that struck me was the isolation. In her time, that was a pretty remote corner of Venice, the convent wall and garden facing the canal and S Pietro, which doesn’t have much going on. Then to wall up the windows as well must’ve been like putting a bird in a cage and then covering the cage. Horrid, like she said, unnatural.

Exterior of Sant'Anna

Exterior of Sant’Anna

I poked around S Pietro a bit until I got hungry. Polenta with gorgonzola on it is pretty yummy. I went over my notes while I rested and digested, then realized there was another site nearby related to my research–a hospice founded by women for women.

Former hospice

Former hospice

Then the long walk back to S Marco. I saw two women coming from the Biennale, wearing their museum tickets as nose guards held in place by their sunglasses.

My street has no name.

But it has a skull. On my first day I looked down to see what I thought was crumpled gray paper but discovered was a tiny, fragile bird’s skull. I placed it in the corner at the base of the door, a talisman. But a couple days later I found it crushed.”

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Where Am I?


Can you name the actual building I was in when I took this picture?

If you can do that, can you also guess why I was in that building? I’ll give you a hint: it was last July 2014.

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Acqua Alta, Acqua Viva?

You may have noticed the new banner I posted. It shows a number of bottles on a shelf, one of which contains water from the historically high acqua alta in December 2008. This cafe bottled some and stuck it up on the shelf. It was still there last time I visited.

If you want to see it for yourself, here are some directions. It’s on the main street between Campo San Aponal and Campo San Polo, almost facing Da Sandro. I’m sorry I don’t know the name of the cafe. It’s one of the traditional looking ones, not modernized. If someone knows the name, please post it so I can give them credit for their creative approach to memorializing this acqua alta event.

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