PROVVEDITORI ALLA SANITÀ
Proclamation regulating prostitutes in Venice.Venice, n.pr., 18 July 1558
Broadside folio, 42 x 28,4 cm, 66 lines. Roman letter, woodcut depicting Venice’s Lion of St. Mark, winged and holding the gospel under a paw, at head, woodcut historiated initial. A few neat marginal repairs, end of two rows a bit rubbed affecting a couple of letters. A very good, large, well preserved and clean copy in a card window mount.
The sole known and otherwise unrecorded copy, clean and well-preserved, of this interesting Venetian proclamation regulating the activities of prostitutes in Venice. It was issued by the Provveditori alla Sanità (‘superintendents of health’), a health committee established in 1485 and composed of three nobles. A major commercial port, Venice was particularly vulnerable to the spread of diseases, and, after the 1478 plague devastated the city, need was felt to create a permanent magistracy competent in health care and hygiene. In particular, Provveditori had power over lazarets, urban hygiene, food, beggars and homeless, prostitutes, hotels, burials and over associations of doctors, physicians and barbers.
The government of Venice legalised prostitution in 1348 and set up an official brothel area in the central district, the Rialto, supervised by public officials. However, although legal and highly regulated, prostitution was still looked on with unfavourable eyes in the XVI century. The health department was aware that prostitutes, or ‘meretrici’, could bring and spread a variety of diseases especially when they were ‘forestiere’ (of foreign origin) – meaning from different Italian cities. In order to avoid the risk of plague, the first part of this order states that all the foreign prostitutes who have lived in Venice for under two years must leave the city, or otherwise they will be punished with whipping from San Marco to the Rialto, six month in prison, a fine of 100 ‘lire di piccoli’ (a week’s wages for an unskilled worker) and banishment. All the other prostitutes must, within 8 days, go and live in regulated brothels and exercise their profession only in the “appropriate places”.
In the Renaissance, contagion was not only considered biological, but also moral. As prostitutes were considered sinners, even casual contact with them could ‘infect’ others. This notion is useful to understand a series of regulations that follow in this proclamation. Specifically, it is stated that prostitutes cannot live near churches and other sacred places, and are forbidden to attend major religious celebrations. When they attend the mass, they must stay separate from the “noble and respectable women” in order to not bring scandal on them. Specific hours of the late evening are indicated, in which they are allowed to go to confession, so that they cannot “contaminate those who go there in good faith”. Severe fines are also imposed on ‘Ruffiani’, a term indicating those who earn money from facilitating and organising encounters with prostitutes. Finally, it is also prohibited to welcome any foreign woman who does not possess a valid permit to reside in Venice.
This official order was first made in 1539, recorded in the State Archives of Venice (see: Provveditori e Sopraprovveditori alla Sanità, Capitolare I, ll. 45-46). The text printed here is the same, except for the additional final line recording the authorisation of the notary Marco de Franceschi. Unfortunately, no information seems to be available regarding him. During the 16th century, episodes of plague frequently broke out in northern Italy. Interestingly, one occurred in Padova – not far from Venice – in 1558, possibly explaining why the proclamation was published.Unrecorded in USTC, Worldcat, EDIT16, Library Hub, OPAC SBN Italy (Online Public Access Catalogue, National Library Services), unrecorded in the major libraries of Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Milan. See: Leggi e memorie venete sulla prostituzione fino alla caduta della Repubblica, p. 101-103, n. 99 (Venice, 1870).