The story of the “Zitelle”: the young Venetian maidens saved from prostitution and transformed into noblewomen instead

13 August 2021

Venice, 3rd August 2021 - It stretches along the canal that divides the Island of Giudecca from Venice and looks straight towards Punta della Dogana. It took the name from the term used to call young venetian maidens who, due to their poor economic conditions, ran the risk of becoming prostitutes. It was the institute of “Zitelle”, one of the venetian healthcare facilities of the XVI century, that provided support and assistance to venetian young girls. Inside, the structure also includes the church of Santa Maria della Presentazione, which is still located on the fondamenta where originally, the “pio istituto” was established. The house of “Zitelle” (a term used in the venetian dialect which literally means “young girls”) was created with the aim of giving a second chance to poor and beautiful women who, due to their beauty and poor economic conditions, could run the risk of entering the prostitution market. The “zitelle”, who lived within the institute – built in 1561 on the order of the patriarch Giovanni Trevisan – were very young, poor, and beautiful with the great ambition of becoming noblewomen. As a matter of fact, after the educational path within the institute, it was very likely for them to achieve this aim. 

This institute’s activities were very different from the ones carried out within the “Istituto delle Penitenti'' located in San Giobbe. Indeed, while in the “Istituto delle Penitenti '' a rehabilitation path for prostitutes of all ages was provided, at the “Zitelle” only poor, beautiful young maidens – aged between 12 and 18 – could enjoy care and assistance. Moreover, the living standard promoted by the structures was another characteristic that underlined how different these two institutions were. In the “Zitelle '' institute, the standard of living was high, since women were educated in order to be later introduced into the nobility, while in the institute of San Giobbe, the living standard was far lower, since a second chance to repented prostitutes was given. 

«Beauty was the entrance ticket to the “Zitelle”; ugly girls were not allowed – explains Agata Brusegan, curator of 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.) -. The maiden’s selection process was regulated by a set of rules approved by governors, after being reported by priests, who used to save young girls from prostitution in order to provide them with a brighter future».

“The institute of “Zitelle” provided young venetian girls with a psychological and educational path. Established in 1561 – developing into a very luxurious institution in the1600s – from this structure young women left resembling very much the noble governors by whom they were educated. As a matter of fact, Adriana Contarini was the first noble governor who donated her belongings as a dowry to these young women. From the bottom of the social ladder then, it was possible to climb, reaching the top and becoming women of good manners who could practice the art of lacemaking and other chores, typically practiced by perfect noblewomen to marry. 

«It was a place in which young, beautiful and well-educated women gathered - continues Brusegan – actually it was a boarding-school which taught young women how to become well-educated maidens, although at the beginning their background was not so promising».  

Life within this institution was characterized by the isolation from the activities of the city. Young women – in 1583 the institute welcomed two hundred young maidens at the same time – could not have any external contact. Nevertheless, one day a year, they were allowed a trip by boat, to the islands of Venice. Moreover, they could also cross the institute threshold in case of being selected as a potential wife by wealthy men. 

«Every year, young women suffer from hysteria or neurosis due to isolation – claims Agata Brusegan -. They were beautiful teenagers looking for a husband and this caused a great deal of rivalry». 

None of the guests stayed for life. The structure, in fact, was a transitional stage: from adolescence to adulthood, the latter to be lived not as poor – and potentially prostitutes – but as well-educated, beautiful and respected noblewomen. 

Today, the Zitelle complex of structures is considered as one of the five hidden gems of Venice, together with the: Oratorio dei Crociferi, the Chiesa delle Penitenti, the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto and the Scala Contarini del Bovolo. 

Here you can find the interview with Agata Brusegan, curator at IPAV (Istituzioni pubbliche di assistenza veneziane):