Long before the foundation of Venice, in 421 C.E, according to the legend, the most important pre-Christian god worshipped in the Veneto area, was a woman: Reitia
Reitia was the goddess of Justice, Education, and Culture, celebrated for bringing social fairness, tolerance, and harmony in the society. A model for both women and men, She was the precursor to the representation of Venice as a female. Tiziano, Tintoretto, Veronese, all represented Venice as an extraordinarily beautiful woman, serene and majestic. The common representations of the Republic of Venice portray it as an institution of Justice, harmony, power, progress, loyalty, and grace, qualities which were commonly associated with respected women.
In the history of Venice, women were saluted as an intelligent and creative force, welcomed in many aspects of life, going from culture to writing, from painting to music, from finance to education.
Unlike most of their peers, Women in Venice had parental authority over their children and the right to nominate their teachers, the right to autonomously make use of their belongings, to donate and freely express their last Will: during the writing, the husband was obliged to leave the room, in order not to influence his wife. Women were also allowed to manage cafes, shops, and companies without the supervision of men. These rights given to women in Venice, which to us seem obvious and granted, were an incredible exception to the condition of women all over Europe, who were given no liberty and were in most cases a mere belonging of men.
In a city of merchants, an indicator of gender equality to consider could be the number of business ventures lead by women of any condition. Luckily the Republic of Venice had the habit of documenting everything and it is today possible to find clear information about the work women were pursuing. Unlike most of the other places at that time, in Venice, their presence in the working life and society was exceptionally widespread: there were women virtually everywhere, some who chose to work in the fields, others who went for the sea, women who founded cloisters and hospitals, others who founded institutions for people in need and pilgrims; glass bottles makers, alcohol distillers, glass factory owners, nurses, singers, glass makers, herbalists, “impiraresse“, “merlettaie“, etc…
Even though these conditions were not ideal and were far from those of modern western countries, they gave the chance to some Venetian women to express their potential and achieve remarkable results, as well as earn fame and respect that is still talked about today. The lives of Veronica Franco and Caterina Cornaro (the former a highly educated, literary and artistically very gifted courtesan, known for her liaisons with the leading notables of her time including the King of France; the latter the last Queen of Cyprus who was forced to abdicate in favour of the Serenissima), are well known. Yet, many other women contributed to the glory of Venice, and it should come as no surprise that the first woman in the world, to ever get an academic degree from a University was the Venetian Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia, in 1678.
Even in a relatively small population, the liberty given to women in Venice proved to lead several of them to become known and respected for their remarkable achievements. Here a few examples:
– Cassandra Fedele, already in the XV century, was offered a professorship in Spain and was renowned for her public debates with the professors of the University of Padova
– Gaspara Stampa, Poetess of the XVI century, is thought to be the greatest Italian poetess of all times.
– Moderata Fonte, a precursor of feminism. In the XVI century, she objected the common belief of women being inferior and she accused instead of the different education of men and women.
– Lucrezia Marinelli, who was granted higher education by her parents, who also did not pressure her into marriage or entering a convent, defended women rights and value, and is best known for her “La nobiltà et l’eccellenza delle donne co’difetti et mancamenti de gli uomini” (“The nobility and excellence of women, and the defects and lacks of men”) in response to a misogynistic pamphlet, in 1600.
– Arcangela Tarabotti, a Venetian nun, in the XVII century wrote texts and held correspondence with political figures, centering the issues of forced enclosure and bullying.
– Rosalba Carriera, born in a modest family, became famous for her miniatures and got invited to paint the French royal family. Rosalba was then elected, in 1721, a member of the Academy by acclamation.
– Elisabetta Caminer founded the “Giornale Enciclopedico” in 1773. Because of censorship, print shops were refusing to publish Elisabetta’s groundbreaking magazine, therefore she decided to open her own print shop in 1779 and continue printing.
– Gioseffa Cornoldi founded “La donna galante ed erudita”, “The elegant and educated woman”, the first magazine for women, in 1786.
– Maddalena Montalban Comello: took an active part in organizing the Venetian resistance in 1848 against Austria and was arrested in 1863 for her public request of liberation from Austria to Giuseppe Garibaldi .
– Adele Della Vida Levi founded the first Italian Kindergarten in 1859 and promoted public education with no economic or religious discrimination.
– Gualberta Alaide Beccari in 1861, at age 16, launched “Woman”: a biweekly published journal which promoted women’s rights and supported pacifist causes.
–Ida D’Este was arrested during WWII and sent to a concentration camp and tortured for her activity of conspiracy in the CNL, the center of national liberation. After her release, she actively took part in the Italian politics to defend women from abuses.
Last but not least, we would like to mention the legendary rower Maria Boscolo, who won her first Regata Storica as a teenager in 1740 and her last one in 1784, 44 years and 4 children later. The first public women regatta took place in 1481 and ever since the beginning, women champions were as important, admired and rewarded as their male counterparts, who at that time were really important!… Something which is sadly today different, and to be honest, it is quite disturbing that in Venice, since the re-introduction in 1977 of the “women” class in the Regata Storica, the value of the prizes handed out to women in public regattas are 1 part out of 10 of the value of the prizes handed out to men…
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