A census of sixteenth-century Venice

Cambridge University Library MS Add. 9461 is one of the more recent additions to our collections of medieval and early manuscripts; a small piece of Renaissance Europe sitting quietly on a shelf in Cambridge. Purchased at Sotheby’s sale on 1 December 1995 (lot 56) it consists of 18 paper folios, bound up as a small  limp vellum notebook (184 x 138mm), with the ends folded in and stitched at the corners; there are two tacks of twisted vellum serving as sewing stations to hold the book together. There is no ornament, but the book or rather booklet, is distinguished by having six finger tabs down the foredge, on which are written in red the names Castello, S. Marco, Canareo, S. Pollo, Sta  ‘+’  and Orso duro, which will readily be recognised by those familiar with the city  as the names of the six sestieri of Venice: Castello, San Marco, Cannareggio, San Polo, Santa Croce  and Dorsoduro. The islands of the Lagoon, such as Murano and Torcello are not included.

Damaged inscription to first leaf, the date missing

This is in fact a census,  recording, under the heading of each sestiere the number of persons in each category of the population, followed by a list of the  parish churches with the numbers of the capi di casa (heads of houses) and Boche  (mouths to be fed in each house). The names of the various places will bring back memories to the traveller. Under Castello are listed nobles with the numbers of their children, families, massere (female servants), then come the citizens with their various categories, and the artisans and shopkeepers, men, women, boys and girls. The poor are counted, divided into beggars (118) and those in the ospedali (754), ending with priests, friars and nuns. The total comes to 31,066. There follows a list of thirteen churches, beginning with San Pietro da Castello (the former Cathedral of Venice) and including San Provolo, known now only as a gothic doorway and the name of a campo. San Giovanni in Bragora appears in the Venetian dialect as ‘Zuanebragolla’.

Each sestiere has a slightly different composition: San Marco has beggars but no hospitals: Canareggio has them all, and also gives, at the end, the number of ebrei (1694), in other words, the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto; the total population being 34,311. San Polo, further away from the centre has a mere nine churches and a population of 11,381. ‘Santa Crose’ has only eight churches, but a population of 16,777. The Dorsoduro with a population of 31,448 has eleven churches, but connoisseurs will note the absence of, for example, the Salute and the Redentore, as well as other post-medieval churches. This raises the question of the date of the MS. At the top of the first leaf is a damaged inscription Descrittione fatta l’ann[o …] tutte l’anime che si trovano nella citta di Venetia (The description made in the year … of all the souls to be found in the city of Venice). With the actual date missing, the figures ‘1536’ pencilled on the outside of the back cover may in fact give us the missing date, or a clue to it. A more minute study of the churches included might be helpful here.

Entry for San Marco

At the end is a list of religious houses of monks and nuns, first the friaries including ‘zuanepollo’ (SS. Giovani e Paolo). However it seems odd that the well-known Church of the Frari is simply designated ‘I fratti minori’. The booklet ends with a list of houses of monks and nuns. It is not clear why the census was made or for whom or by whom. It will yield interesting information on the population of Venice, its distribution and the size of families.

Now, if you have time for a spot of lunch, why not start from the campo San Provolo in Castello, then, at the Fondamenta del Osmarin, turn left over the ponte del osmarin then sempre diretto (give or take, or perhaps take a map) till you reach the trattoria Al Vecio Canton in Ruga Giuffa, or, if it is closed today, Al Jardinetto da Severino, just visible round the corner in the Salizada Zorzi …

Jayne Ringrose (Cambridge University Library)

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