Jen McFarland

Jen McFarland, ‘“Qual’è utile alla Città”: Pizzochere Networks, Social ‘Usefulness’, and Female Precarity in Early Modern Venice” (MA in History, 2021)

This thesis provides the first dedicated study of the identity, social status, and social roles of pizzochere, or lay religious women, in early modern Venice. Pizzochere professed simple religious vows, usually to a mendicant order and, as professed laywomen lived a complex duality, neither fully secular nor fully religious; vita activa and vita contemplativa. Most also lived outside of the social statuses of wife (and mother and widow) or nun, the roles viewed as conventional for women. This thesis argues that pizzochere’s social position was, nonetheless, not only accepted, but perceived as integral to the proper functioning of the city.

Drawing from archival, visual, literary, and architectural evidence, the thesis approaches pizzochere primarily through the concept of utilità, or usefulness, a concept raised surprisingly frequently with regard to these women. It asks what sort of women became pizzochere in sixteenth-century Venice and how they were perceived by, and interacted with, their contemporary community. Bringing together histories of gender and women’s experiences, histories of lay devotional structures, and the related histories of charity, poor relief and hospitals, the thesis uses pizzochere, viewed as a kind of working woman, as a lens through which to explore the social and economic opportunities available to and the experiences of non-elite laywomen in early modern Venice more broadly.

Situating these individual women and communities within the city and its other charitable, devotional and social structures, both informal and governmental, reveals that pizzochere networks included and assisted women of widely varied social background, and filled a significant space in Venetians’ approaches to the systemic vulnerabilities faced by women. The works that pizzochere undertook within the city for vocational fulfilment and income were tasks that were necessary and valued within the community. Consequently, pizzochere contributed and were perceived to contribute to establishing Venice’s status as an ideal Christian state. The thesis highlights how women’s work served and sustained the early modern State, and how non-elite women’s agency operated in the early modern city.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Catherine Kovesi, and Dr Una McIlvenna