San Giobbe: the place where, in the 1700s, repended Venetian prostitutes could hope for a new and brighter future

9 August 2021

Venice, the 27th July 2021 - It is in Cannaregio, specifically in the area of San Giobbe, that the “pio luogo delle penitenti” is located. This used to be the place in which young repented prostitutes went to find shelter, be protected, and helped. Help was given through a process of redemption, which aimed at reintegrating women within society as: workers and, possibly, wives. Aged between 12 and 40, they did not have any children, and were mainly concerned with the establishment of their status and improvement of their economic conditions, usually characterized by extreme poverty.

As a consequence of the need for a structure in charge of developing a reintegration program for former prostitutes, it was in the 1700s that a specific institute was established. This institute helped women, both psychologically and economically, by leading them to take a socially accepted path which, for the time, provided women with three potential choices: becoming a mother, a nun or a maid.

Prostitution had ancient roots in the city of Venice which, already in the 1300s had begun to tackle this issue. Nevertheless, it would be only in the 1500s that institutes, helping former prostitute’s reintegration, will be projected and established, mainly as a consequence to the involvement of rich noblemen. Noblemen used to create and finance associations that were necessary to create the “ospizi or ospedaletti”-with the main aim of welcoming former prostitutes living in extreme poverty. As the phenomenon grew, the existent number of ospedaletti could not satisfy the request for help and assistance aymore. Consequently, it was in the early 1700s that new institutions were created: the “case di soccorso” and “convertite”. The first,  were hardly accessible due their high price, while the second had as a mandatory access condition the conversion of women to monastic life.

«When at the beginning of the 1700s the issue of prostitution re-emerged in Venice – said Laura De Rossi, consultant and art historian at IPAV[1] - priests began to face the issue by developing a rehabilitation centre that had neither religious influence nor profitable aim. The main reason for which this centre was created lies within the need to control a social problem which could have had great repercussions on people’s health. After several hearings to the Patriarch Giovanni Badoer, it was him indeed who decided to take charge of the issue, becoming the founder of the “Penitenti” institution».

Afterwards, volunteer citizens took the first group of repented prostitutes in corte Borella, located in Campo Santa Marina, although the group will later be transferred to San Giobbe, a suburb of the city which guaranteed isolation to young women. Once the rehabilitation program at the “Penitenti” began, no contact with the outside was allowed for one entire year. 

The structure of the “Pio Istituto delle Penitenti” was managed by an organizational body made up by a citizen, a nobleman and a delegate of the church. The latter was the one who would become the governor for life of the institute. The very first governor for life of the “Penitenti” was abbot Paolo Contarini, whose graveyard still lies within the church of Santa Maria delle Penitenti. The church of Santa Maria delle Penitenti - still part of the institute - is considered as on the five hidden gems of Venice, together with the: Oratorio dei Crociferi, the Chiesa delle Zitelle, the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto and the Scala Contarini del Bovolo

How prostitutes used to live at the “Istituto delle Penitenti”

To have access to the “Istituto delle Penitenti”, the former prostitute had to be sponsored by her priest, who had to guarantee for her real sorrow. Moreover, the priest had to make sure that the woman neither had caught syphilis nor was pregnant. Once welcomed to the centre, the woman was totally isolated from the outside and from other guests for one year. In this year, she had to undertake a spiritual process with the help of one prioress. Afterwards, she was reintegrated within the community through the assignment of house chores, such as: sewing or the creation of laces. Provided that the rehabilitation program succeeded, women could really hope to get married eventually.

«The first prioress who began to help the “Penitenti” – continues Laura De Rossi – was Elisabetta Rossi, an old maid from one of the few noble families of Burano. Elisabetta Rossi, together with her brother Francesco Rossi, a religious man very close to the patriarch Badoer, helped the “Penitenti” by founding the first laces school in Venice. In point of fact, the art of lace will then be taught to women within the walls of the “Istituto delle Penitenti”, later becoming a unique handicraft for which nowadays Venice - but mainly Burano - is famous worldwide».  

The building in which the “Istituto delle Penitenti” of San Giobbe is still located, was established in 1730. The project was based on the idea of developing an organized and wide space to welcome a growing number of people. The project was based on the idea of building an independent structure – that had to include a clinic, kitchen, and a laundry - in order to minimize the contact with the outside. The architect in charge was Giorgio Massari, well-known in the city and especially within the religious community. He decided to apply the project that Palladio used to build the institute of Zitelle, characterized by a church essentially located among the side wings of the building. The church was completed between 1744 and 1745, while it was consecrated twenty years later due to the lack of funds necessary to finish the façade. As far as the interior decoration of the church was concerned, the painter Jacopo Marieschi was chosen. On the ceiling, he painted the “Madonna in gloria con San Lorenzo Giustiniani”, the “Santissima Trinità” and some years later he painted the altarpiece of “San Lorenzo Giustiniani”and other saints whose lives had a connection with the activities carried out within the institute, as a path to follow. 

Today, the former “Penitenti” institute hosts a care home, while the church, not accessible to the public, displayed a temporary exhibition of the Biennale of Art in 2019.  


[1] IPAV: Istituzioni Pubbliche di Assistenza Veneziane – a public association that provides social assistance to people while also promoting cultural activities for the city of Venice.