Freedom for women and gender equality: a venetian avant-garde at the age of the Serenissima

4 November 2021

Venice, 4th November 2021 – In Venice, being a woman has never been considered as an obstacle. The city, which this year celebrates 1600 years from its foundation in 421, has always promoted, with a deeply modern vision, several inclusive aspects in the field of technology, trade, manufacturing and, last but not least, gender equality and freedom for women. Gender equality and freedom for women were essential aspects at the age of the Serenissima, which made the city one of the first that protected women rights; rights for which still, some countries of the world, are fighting for. 

The women of the Serenissima could be entrepreneurs, artists, writers and poetesses, so were allowed to choose to become whoever they wanted freely and this condition shaped the city as one of the most avant-gardist of all times. Women in Venice were the only ones in Europe, and in the whole world, that had the same rights as men. Until the fall of the Serenissima, women were listened to, admired and respected. As a matter of fact, many were the women who became main characters of several historical chronicles, showing Venice history and its uniqueness to the world.

Buying a furnace or a house, selling their hand-made products in a little atelier, getting a loan to start a business or deciding for their children’s lives was, at that time, impossible for any women outside venetian borders. Nevertheless, the Serenissima deeply believed in self-sufficiency and freedom for women, ensuring and protecting their rights, punishing anyone who did not respect them. Many are, indeed, the notary’s documents which are still guarded at the Venice State Archive, proving as women’s emancipation was an essential value applied in the city, centuries before the contemporary age.

In the venetian arts and crafts, already in the Middle Ages, entrepreneurship was not just a man’s business. Was Molfina fiolaria, with her furnace, one of the first women producing glass tools. Moreover, widows Uliana and Caterina had, already in 1373, signed for the first time a partnership agreement to produce perfumes. The union between entrepreneurship and glass making is embodied by Marietta Barovier, one of the best glass makers of the venetian history. It was indeed the Barovier who invented the perla rosetta that, in the following centuries, became famous as one of the most precious artefacts of the whole world.

Venice was the cradle of the first feminist though, which paved the way to future feminist movements. Modesta Pozzo, known to the public as Moderata Fonte, from the first half of 1500s wrote, for the first time, an ode to women, later considered as one of the first feminist manifesto. Ode which materialised with the achievement of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world who was allowed to graduate.

Venetian art, particularly in the 1700s, saw the rise of several important artists such as Rosalba Carriera and Giulia Lama. The former was the first woman in the world to have access to royal courts and art academies of the time, obtaining important rewards all over Europe and reaching the top of her career with the portrait of Louis XV King of France. The latter, Giulia Lama, was less used to royal courts and instead challenged the greatest artists of the time by displaying her masterpieces inside venetian churches, such as San Vidal and Santa Maria Formosa.

Century after century, venetian women began to make themselves room among what people used to consider as “men’s work”, although women were «able to do anything and equal to men» as claimed Elisabetta Caminer, journalist, translator, director and typographer. Daughter of a journalist, born and raised with ink and paper, she stole every trick of the trade, making herself room, already at 17, inside the «Europa Letteraria», becoming the first woman directing a journal, the «Giornale Enciclopedico».

In the eighteenth century, people living in Venice enjoyed freedom, and freedom always comes from culture. A culture that in Venice was perceived and seen in the cafes open late, in theatres, in people chats in campi and campielli or inside aristocrats' rooms. Culture that, through years, allowed the city to be opened to contamination and renovation of its own values guaranteeing, especially to women, the possibility to join social life and have a role in it. From aristocracy to the lower social classes, women in Venice were not part of the audience, but were main characters instead. Women, with their lives, arts and crafts transformed Venice into one of the most advanced cities of all times.