"Virtuous Riches": The Bricolage of Cittadini Identities in Early-Sixteenth-Century Venice*

By Schmitter, Monika | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

"Virtuous Riches": The Bricolage of Cittadini Identities in Early-Sixteenth-Century Venice*


Schmitter, Monika, Renaissance Quarterly


"It has been our good fortune," Pietro Aretino wrote to his fellow Tuscan expatriate, Jacopo Sansovino, "that here [in Venice] the worthy foreigner is not only the equal of a cittadino, but on par with a nobleman." (1) Ever the astute observer of status distinctions, Aretino provides an intriguing, even paradoxical, view of social stratification and social mobility in early-sixteenth-century Venice. He indicates the hierarchical relationship between cittadini and nobili, while at the same time suggesting that the rigid political and legal distinctions between the two orders could in some sense be transcended. Despite Aretino's estimations of his own possibilities, however, the highest social level that immigrants to Venice could ever hope to achieve was cittadino status since the ruling nobility was a closed caste.

The cittadini, an intermediary social group between the popolo (common people) and the patriciate, have traditionally not received much attention in Venetian historiography. This has begun to change in the last decades and especially in the past ten years; as the number of studies devoted to cittadini has increased, the social group has begun to assume a more prominent, as well as a more nuanced, position in our view of Venetian society. (2) Although we now have a better understanding of the development, make-up, and political and economic roles of the class, it is still hard to grasp the exact nature of their social position and status. In short, it remains difficult to understand what it meant to be a cittadino, especially in the early sixteenth century, when the group was less precisely defined than later in the century. This article contributes to this developing area of research by investigating the collecting practices of two prominent early-sixteenth-century cittadini. By examining the literal bricolage with which these men surrounded themselves we may gain access to the metaphorical bricolage of their identities. (3)

My aim is also to investigate how members of this "second elite" might have contributed to the development of Venetian art. Although some research has been done on private cittadini patrons and collectors in later periods and a few earlier cittadini have been studied as individuals, their impact as a social group on the style and iconography of Venetian art of the early sixteenth century deserves further examination. (4) This article questions the assumption that cittadini emulated the interests and behaviors of the patriciate, at least in their collecting practices. An alternative theoretical model, drawn from sociological, anthropological, and historical analyses of collecting, suggests that the cittadini should be cultural innovators rather than followers. I investigate this hypothesis through case studies of the collectors Francesco Zio (1477-1523) and his nephew, Andrea Odoni (1488-1545).

1. CITTADINI AND SOCIAL EMULATION

The idea that cittadini constituted an identifiable "order" grew over time and can be seen as a byproduct of the Serrata [Closure] of the noble caste in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. (5) In Venice, unlike in other Italian cities, individuals and families who distinguished themselves through wealth, occupation, or accomplishments had no possibility of entering the ruling elite. As a result, over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a new social group began to emerge, whether through their own ambitions or for the convenience of the patriciate. Citizens who were educated and "honorable"--but not noble--were increasingly given important bureaucratic positions in state government, as well as in the administration of the major charity institutions, the Scuole Grandi. (6) While not all cittadini were so employed, the ability to hold offices that were often reserved only for cittadini was a valued privilege. (7) Over the course of the sixteenth century the requirements for obtaining different levels of citizen status (and the economic rights and bureaucratic offices with which they corresponded) became more stringent, contributing to the exclusivity of the cittadini as a group. …

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