I know I’m fortunate my father allows me to study with a tutor (most girls don’t get this chance), and I dream about attending the University of Padua in a few years. My father says it’s the best university in the world, and he should know, since he took his medical degree there. Not only that, Padua is a short boat ride from Venice and has an amazing botanical garden.
The university’s motto is Universa universis patavina libertas (Paduan Freedom is Universal for Everyone). But as far as my father knows, no woman has ever graduated from a university.
I hear that most young Venetian women become wives, nuns, shopkeepers, lace-makers, weavers, or laborers in a workshop—but not one of those choices appeals to me.
How I wish for the freedom to study at Padua! If I can’t attend, somehow I must find a way to keep learning!
“The Church created the Holy Office of the Inquisition to protect God’s people from wrong ideas about God and the Church.”
The priest’s words sounded comforting when I was seven years old in Catechism class, but I learned to fear them a few years later. Thanks to the Inquisition, my beloved father lost his position as a professor of medicine and went to prison for several years.
When we moved to Venice, I thought we had escaped the Inquisition’s reach. After all, Venice is far from the Church’s home in Rome and has a reputation for independence. The city has even stood up to the pope more than once.
But times have changed. Even before I was born, Venice began to cooperate with the Church. Three members of the local Inquisition are nobles from our city, so they’re involved in the Inquisition’s trials (and my friends have told me rumors about the gruesome things that go on there). As if Venice didn’t employ enough workers to keep the city safe!
When I asked my father if I should fear the Inquisition, I wished I hadn’t. His face turned pale as chalk, and he walked away.
Now I wonder why Venice needs the Inquisition. Does it protect us or force us to constantly look over our shoulders?
By the light of day, who could imagine a safer city than Venice? Aside from rowdy Carnival celebrations, all the Venetians I’ve seen out in the piazzas, walkways, or on the canals have been impressively well-behaved.
But my father tells me the city’s peaceful appearance comes at a high cost. Venice employs several police forces—the Signori di notte (night policemen), the sbirri (secret police) who throw their cloaks over suspects to muzzle them, and the Council of Ten (“black inquisitors”) who wear black mantles and hire secret agents all through the city.
My friend Valeria tells me about people who’ve been arrested here, just for criticizing the Venetian state. Before the prisoner’s friends have even heard about the arrest, the unfortunate person has been tried and condemned, then banished, imprisoned, or executed.
These stories would make me think twice before speaking rashly, let alone committing a crime! If all Venetians feel the same way, it’s no wonder this city stays safe.
As soon as newcomers arrive here, they notice an obvious difference from nearly anywhere else—instead of streets crowded with people, horses, and carriages, in Venice, boats of all sorts traverse canals.
But in the months since I moved to Venice, I’ve learned that what can’t be seen is just as important: Venice has a unique system that gives people their place in society, and determines what they can expect or hope for in life.
My first clue came when I realized no one here addresses anyone (except God) as “Signore (Lord).” Instead, they refer to even the highest city officials as clarissimo (brilliant) or magnifico (glorious) to show respect. How different from what I used to hear in Verona, where I didn’t have to see what people were wearing to know who was the master and who was the servant!
Why? My father tells me that unlike the nobility elsewhere, Venetian nobles don’t own grand estates or lord it over subjects. In this city, nobles’ names are written in the Book of Gold, but their only privilege is the right to govern Venice (because they inherit seats in the city’s Great Council).
The second strange thing I noticed in Venice: the only other class people speak of with respect are the cittadini (citizens). It’s not easy to join this group—families can only become cittadini after they’ve lived in this city for twenty-five years, and have made such a name for themselves by their wealth or service to Venice that a current cittadino nominates them to join this class. Then their names are written in the Book of Silver, and they can work for the city.
In other parts of Italy, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and guild members form the next social class, but in Venice, everyone who doesn’t qualify for the top two classes belongs to the popolo (people)—tradesmen, artisans, laborers, and the poor. Most of these people work for the nobles and cittadini, and have no power over life in Venice.
I wish my father and I could become cittadini, as other physicians’ families have. Papa says he can’t qualify, so I’d have to marry a cittadino to join that class. Venice is a beautiful city, but it may not be easy to have a good life here!
Images from New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/mid-manhattan-picture-collection#/?tab=navigation&roots=412:b6241bd0-c53f-012f-0cd8-58d385a7bc34