Pestilence, poverty, and provision: re‐evaluating the role of the popolani in early modern Venice

Ioanna Iordanou
Published Online:
12 Oct 2015
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 69 Issue 3

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The labouring classes of early modern Venice, the popolani, made up nearly 90 per cent of the city's population. To this point the relevant historiography has focused almost exclusively on their professional and civic role. It is the core contention of this article that the contribution of the popolani to the Venetian economy and society far exceeded their documented professional and civic function. Using as a case study the homogeneous group of the shipbuilders and sailors of Venice and drawing on newly discovered primary sources from the Venetian State Archives, this article shows the distinct contributions of the popolani to the city's economy and society through their charity to those in need. This took the form of sizeable dotal and charitable donations within and beyond the family. In one of the first attempts to explore the philanthropy of the Venetian workforce, this article challenges the existing scholarly view that charity was the sole responsibility of the government and the nobility in early modern Venice. It further shows that marriage was not merely a financial union for the popolani; it was a sanctuary for lasting companionship. Ultimately, the article offers a fresh vista onto the socio‐economic role of the popolani in early modern Venice.

© Economic History Society 2015

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