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Friday, March 24, 2023

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Telling Venice's Secret Stories

History department chair Joanne Ferraro explores the fascinating yet unsung lives of Venetians who didn't make it into the history books.
By Michael Price

“These were smart, savvy women who knew how to twist things to their favor”

The 117 tiny islands and 400 bridges that compose the floating city of Venice, Italy collectively hold more than 1,500 years of politics and poetry, engineering and industry. But the chronicles that have made it into history books tend to center on men interacting with other men—and that is a very incomplete story, according to Joanne Ferraro, historian and author of a number of books delving into Venetian history and its gender issues.

Ferraro, chair of San Diego State University’s history department, was selected by a faculty committee as this year’s Albert W. Johnson Research Lecturer, an honor bestowed on SDSU’s most distinguished researchers.

“When I was trained as a historian, women and family were almost always absent from the narrative,” Ferraro said. “I entered this field because I wanted to rewrite the past to show how ordinary men and women shaped the history of this city.”

Ferraro first visited Venice in 1971 during her junior year abroad. Her Italian immigrant parents were proud to see their daughter exploring the family heritage. She returned in 1978 to undertake doctoral research in the city’s archives and libraries. And she fell in love with the city, especially the parts that locals call Venezia minore, the paths less traveled by gawking tourists.

Joanne Ferraro
Joanne Ferraro

“You can still sit down on a bench with a cup of espresso and observe everyday life,” she said.

Miles of files

It’s this “everyday life” that Ferraro explores in her historical research, too. For the past 36 years, she has traveled to Venice several times a year to visit the colossal archives of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. There are nearly 100 miles of archival repositories stored there. Ferraro’s niche is in judicial collections, a cache of tribunal manuscripts stretching back centuries.

The manuscripts — some bound in volumes, others piled loosely in boxes — include legal arguments and transcripts for family disputes, marital break-ups, criminal charges, civil disagreements, and more. Going through the documents isn’t easy. They’re mostly written in Venetian dialect of the 16th- and 17th-centuries, Italian, and Latin. Some words in all three languages are completely different from their modern counterparts. And the notational, shorthand language of the court is nearly illegible if you lack Ferraro’s trained paleographical skills.

There’s also a large cultural divide between present-day understanding of legal issues and the precedents of the past. Without understanding the rules of contemporary canon and Venetian law, the court testimony won’t make much sense, she explained.

Voices from the past

They are tough codes to crack, but for those who persevere, these ancient judicial proceedings divulge the stories of Venetians who don’t normally make it into history books, Ferraro said.

“You have the protagonists of the case, but also their relatives and neighbors who weigh in with their own testimony,” she explained.

These voices are anything but dry historical record. Gossip and conjecture play a large role in the recorded testimonies, she said, and end up shaping the judicial process.

For example, a marriage not consummated could be annulled. If a wife declared that to be the case, it brought up questions about her husband’s virility and impotence. With his masculinity questioned, he might boast of the number of prostitutes he had slept with — willing to admit to adultery to save his manly reputation.

“These were smart, savvy women who knew how to twist things to their favor,” Ferraro said.

Modern reflections

There are a great many court transcripts dealing with accusations of rape, abortion, infant abandonment and the legal rights of unwed mothers. Finding the truth behind these cases is difficult, as the testimonies and judgments were heavily influenced by the patriarchal attitudes of the day. Ferraro can’t help but see reflections of modern issues in these ancient transcripts.

On a larger scale, Ferraro wants to broaden Venice’s history. For almost as long as historians have been writing about the city, they’ve focused on its political and economic history, its architecture and industry. The actors and actresses who built the fleet at the State Arsenal or wove Venice’s prized silk textiles are all but invisible.

“I’m interested in telling their stories,” Ferraro said, “or asking even bigger questions: How did people of the past handle failed marriage, sexual conflict, illicit liaisons, and unplanned parenthood? The answers offer important insights into the human condition.”

The 2015 Albert W. Johnson Research Lecture is scheduled for Friday, March 20, at 3 p.m. in room 201 of the Arts and Letters Building.