Teaching Venice in Schools, pp. 5 of 7

The other organization which helped to absorb and allay the tensions of society was the scuole grandi (a lay, Catholic-sponsored organization promoting charity). The early modern period in Europe was one in which many stresses of globalization (for example, depletion of diminishing resources, displacement of industries) being felt across Europe were most intimately felt by inhabitants in small and trading states like Venice. In a survey around the first half of 17th century, 16% of the population was found to be “hospital poor” in Venice (Jutte, 1994, p. 128). There was a range of confraternities, numbering about 500 in the 18th century. These were state within a state – the richest foundations even financed military expeditions. Although trying to portray a secular image, these organizations had a religious bent – to promote pious living they forbade blasphemy, adultery and gambling. In addition, they looked after the members’ material welfare – from providing dowry or loans, to free lodging and medical treatment (Jutte, 1994, p. 125). Beyond the above institutions, regularly organized events and activities in the city such as the carnivals and pugni (lasted till end of 17th / beginning of 18th century) lent a further hand as a cushion to external forces affecting the society. Along the “informal” channel, the institution of the pugni (fights that took place on the bridges involved personages from influential classes who mobilized resources and fighters/workers from an array of lower classes) helped groups acquire honor or settle differences they could not resolve in more civilized settings (Davis, 1994, pp. 47-88, 165-72). In the 18th century, the lower classes increasingly turned to the carnival of the ragata (boat rowing races). Although the social institutions and groups have been discussed as a stabilizing force in Venetian society, the same institutions have the potential to be destabilizing. Instances of this can be seen in the council of ten being “particularly nervous” that pugnis might disrupt the state’s business or the Jews feeling liberated during the Napoleonic invasion in 1797 after a long period of being discriminated (Davis, 1994, p. 143, Lane, 1973, pp. 299-304). 


The coverage in the textbook is on the whole a balanced one touching on Venice’s rise, peak and fall in a chronological fashion and provides static discussions of the individual factors accounting for these milestones in the history of the city. The field of Venetian studies is seeing new impulses which view the developments of the city-state beyond its “mythical image”; one that embraces “fissures, disorder or the periphery.” It is important for readers to critically reconsider the issues pertaining to republicanism in Venice and its empire, the Venetian political system and corruption as an explanation of the decline of the Venetian empire, and the role of social system and groups as a stabilizing force in the prolongation or decline of the city-state. The term and issue of corruption for example, if understood in its historical context and in the context of pandemics, reduces the importance of it as a factor in the discussion of the decline of Venice. Overall, a benefit to the study of Venice is that it can allow, if facilitated aptly, a deeper exploration of political systems. This, in addition to learning from complementary subjects and experiential programs on modern topics, can permit a more intimate understanding of how socio-political systems operated in the past and present; and in the process, hopefully enable the molding of a learned individual concerned enough to understand and partake in his/her environment in the new millennium. (See Appendix B for a summary of teaching ideas based on this article.)

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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