In Venice, the Società di Mutuo Soccorso dei Carpentieri e Calafati, a treasure trove guarding naval history 

13 January 2022

Venice, December 20th, 2021 – Rusty pincers, wooden hacksaws, old tools originally used at the Arsenale of Venice, Regattas ancient flags dating back to the period that preceded the Unification of Italy and tiny models of ancient venetian boats. Part of the venetian naval history is hidden iin this tiny treasure trove where objects, stories and anecdotes tell the glorious naval past of Venice, which this year celebrates 1600 years from its foundation. This place, which is barely known, continues to preserve an important part of the history of this city, preventing the present from erasing the traces of our past. In the area of Castello, inside the building that used to host one of the seats of the Hospital San Giovanni e Paolo, there is the most ancient, although still active, venetian association, the Società di Mutuo Soccorso Carpentieri e Calafati

Established on April 1st, 1867, this society was the heir of the Scola picola dei Calafai de l’Arsenal, basically the school of workers specialised on naval constructions, whose status and values have been kept alive.

Today, as in the past, the Società di Mutuo Soccorso Carpentieri e Calafati of Venice, which maintains ancient hierarchical traditions for its own members, is regulated by the mariegola, a book of rules that the association has been owning since its establishment, marking a vital piece of its own history as well as the city’s. It is a unique volume which dates back to 1867 and it is preserved inside the actual seat of the society in San Pietro di Castello (the original version of the mariegola was sold to the Correr Museum in 1921). A very ancient book whose historical and philological value is priceless, and a book which gathers rules, names, and signatures of important historical characters who, throughout years, have become members of the venetian Association.

The mariegola of the Società di Mutuo Soccorso Carpentieri e Calafati of Venice can be admired and studied. It is guarded inside its original case, which can be considered as a real work of art. In venetian dialect it is called “cassea”, a priceless, rectangular wooden antiquity entirely decorated, which used to be used in several craft schools of the city as cases to guard every single mariegola. 

We just have to gently open it, and page after page we can stumble across a fascinating ancient handwriting, articles, rules, regulations and, glancing deeper, we can also touch ink traces left on paper by one of the most important characters of the Italian modern history: Giuseppe Garibaldi. He became an honorary member of the association on April 14th, 1867 whilst Pope John Paul I, member since April 3rd, 1977 and the former Mayor of Venice, Giuseppe Giovanelli, honorary member since 1969. In the mariegola there is also the signature of Umberto di Savoia, who used to be a honorary member of the Società dei Carpentieri e Calafati since May 27th, 1878. 

Once the Veneto region was included in the Kingdom of Italy, every ancient craft corporation of the Serenissima Republic, such as the one of the Carpentieri e Calafati, were abolished, precisely between 1806 and 1807 in the name of economic freedom, and all their belongings were sold to privates. This, though, did not stop some naval workers from bringing back to life these societies, especially in Venice.

So, on March 24th, 1867, in calle San Gioachin in San Pietro di Castello an assembly among those who exercised this profession in the dockyards and those who worked at the Arsenale, to establish a new Società di Mutuo Soccorso. One year after its creation, on August 30th, 1868, members of the association decided, unanimously, to abolish the original regulation, in order to create a new one. This decision was put in place in 1980, with the creation of a new set of rules which brought about a great change for this association: the acceptance of any working category, regardless of gender. At the end of the 1990s, once the new reform of the social security system entered into force, the third regulation was approved.

Two years after its establishment, one of the members of the Società di Mutuo Soccorso Carpentieri e Calafati of Venice r Giuseppe Tonello, donated to the society its own dockyard of San Isepo, located along the fondamenta of San Pietro di Castello.

In addition to the dockyard, the association acquired several other properties through the years, such as flats, warehouses and objects related to traditional shipbuilding, without never leaving aside its real objective: passing on and preserving the venetian flourishing naval expertise. 

Today, 1600 years after the foundation of the city where the Società di Mutuo Soccorso dei Carpentieri e Calafati of Venice is located, the aim for which it has been established continues to be perpetrated, by preserving tools, proofs of the past and by developing new cultural projects to spread naval culture and avoid losing traces of a craftsmanship that made Venice famous worldwide.