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.)