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Household economies in late medieval and early modern Italy

Dowries, last wills and evidence through orality

For a material culture of life and death in 16th-century Venice
Anna Bellavitis
p. 95-102


In documents concerning monetary transactions and economic relations, such as restitution of dowries to widows and last wills, procedures were based on written documentation. Venetian documentation from medieval and modern times on dowries and their restitution, as well as on wills and the magistracies that intervened in the event of conflicts or the absence of a last will, is very rich and has been partly studied. However, one aspect of this type of transaction still remains in the shadows: when no dowry contract or inventory of the assets brought by the spouse had been dressed at the moment of marriage or when the deceased had not had the time to write or dictate a last will, but he or she appears to have expressed his or her wishes orally, there was the possibility to reconstitute the amount of the dowry or identify heirs only through oral testimonies. In those testimonies, given to the Venetian courts of the Giudici del Proprio, for dowry restitution, and to the Giudici dell’Esaminador, for oral testaments, networks of relationships emerge, but also many elements of material life: the valuation of trousseau items, or the ways in which the dying were cared for.

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1Medieval and early-modern historians have no ‘oral’ documentation at their disposal: any testimony, discourse and dialogue has come down to us transcribed and transformed in its transition to a written text. Historians using notarial or judicial sources constantly come up against the problem of the veracity and validity of testimonies and depositions given orally and often in dialect and transformed by clerks, scribes and notaries into written and possibly translated texts. Therefore, it is not the fact that the sources we will be dealing with in this paper were originally oral sources which constitutes a fact worthy of interest in itself, but that they may have been evidence presented in procedures that ‘normally’ had to be based on written documentation, namely: marriage contracts and last wills.

2Marriage contracts and last wills are some of the most important sources for the study of inheritance procedures and family relationships of economic but also emotional nature. In the case of early modern Venice, these sources are quite numerous and have been the object of many studies. In principle, a dowry contract was necessary to a woman in order to prove the amount of her dowry in the event of widowhood and should she have to ask for its restitution by her husband’s family. However, it was also possible to have the size and value of a dowry estimated by oral testimonies only. Similarly, although a written will was the supreme act expressing choices regarding the destination of one’s property, it was possible to claim an inheritance on the basis of a will that had never been drawn up on paper, either by the testator or by a notary: an oral will only, defined by Venetian laws as per breviario, i.e. by short formula.

  • 1 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber VI, chap. 7, fol. 87.
  • 2 Guzzetti 2010.

3These procedures were regulated in detail in Venetian Statutes, according to norms that show to what extent female witnesses were considered reliable. Whether women were allowed to be witnesses was not established once and for all, but depended on the context and the particular case. According to the Statutes of 1242, in order to prove the value of a dowry in a request for restitution, if the marriage contract had not been written down, it was necessary to present to the Giudici del Proprio a witness “idoneum, vel masculum, vel foeminam”.1 Female witnesses were therefore deemed to suffice in dowry restitution proceedings, and also to give validity to an oral will and to confirm legacies. In all other legal proceedings, the testimony of a woman had to be confirmed by that of a man, and a 14th-century gloss to the Statutes stated that women, as well as slaves, minors, those sentenced to infamy and relatives of the parties, were among the legal subjects whose testimony could not be received in court. To what extent this law was enforced is a real question, as historical research has shown that in 14th-century Venice, women could not only appear in court as witnesses, but also as representatives of other people, be they women or men.2

  • 3 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber VI, chap. 44, fol. 103, consulto 44, fol. 1 (...)
  • 4 Ibid., Correzione Gritti, chap. 6, fol. 172v.
  • 5 See Bellavitis 2012 and for the general evolution towards a smaller presence of women in justice, s (...)

4In the procedure per breviario, overseen by the Giudici dell’Esaminador, according to a law of 1476 which modified the Statutes: “no oral will can be validated if the testator […] has not called at least two male witnesses or, for each man, two women […]. For sums exceeding one hundred ducats, at least three male witnesses must be called, or two women for each man”.3 A woman was then valued as much as half a man. From the 16th century onwards, male-female parity in testimony disappeared from other areas, too. In 1535, Doge Andrea Gritti introduced a statutory amendment, based on a law issued by the Great Council in 1501, which had established that “in causes exceeding ten ducats […] the testimony of two male witnesses or at least three female witnesses is required”. The new law of 1535 reads: “Since this order is no less necessary in the restitutions of women’s dowries, which today are validated by a single testimony, and often involve large sums of money, it is established that the so-called order of two male or female witnesses, must henceforth be observed in all and by all, and also in the validation of the restitution of dowries.”4 In specific procedures, a man was worth one and a half women, while for oral last wills, a man was worth two women.5

  • 6 Shaw 2006, p. 165-166.
  • 7 For women as legal guardians of their children, see Bellavitis 2008.
  • 8 See Bellavitis 2008; Fusaro 2014; Buono 2015; Chauvard 2018; Passarella 2018; Malherbe 2020.

5Again, despite sources suggesting that a female testimony was worth less than a male one, it is difficult to find this principle being applied in practice as, in addition to appearing as litigants in their own right, women could also act as sureties for adult males. This was the case in the 16th and 17th centuries, as much as in the 14th century.6 Women also appeared as the legal guardians of their children and, according to the Statutes, could nominate their guardians in their last wills, but their choice had to be approved by the Giudici del Mobile.7 We have already mentioned three different courts which regulated procedures of inheritance and succession, but these were not the only ones. The complexity of the Venetian civil courts dealing with those matters had for a long time discouraged historians from investigating them, but in the last decades historians have started to clarify the procedures and competences of each court.8


6As mentioned before, in dowry restitution proceedings, the evidence was supposed to be a written document such as a dowry charter or the last will of a deceased husband but, in the absence of documentary evidence, the procedure could be entirely ‘oral’ and relatives, friends and neighbours were called as witnesses to testify as to the value of the dowry. This was especially true in the working classes, and testimonies focused in particular on material aspects, such as the objects and trousseau which made up a dowry.

  • 9 See Bellavitis 2013, p. 35-48.

7We will give some examples, as part of an ongoing research project.9 It is noteworthy that rather than the accuracy of monetary estimates, what emerges from the testimonies is an appreciation of what is ‘needed’ and in fact of the boundary between being or not being in poverty.

8On 10 October 1591, at the request of Giacomo, a blacksmith, son of the late Perina and of the late Christopholo, a tub maker, the judges in the court of the Proprio opened proceedings to establish the amount of Perina’s dowry, which her son was asking it be returned by his father’s family. The first witness, a dyer, was Perina’s sister’s husband: “I can say that this lady Perina took this Christofolo and became his wife and had as a dowry in cash 20 or 25 ducats, but I do not remember precisely. She had a bed provided, three or four pairs of sheets, three men’s and women’s shirts and I think twenty-four or twenty-eight towels, handkerchiefs, and wall cloths to furnish a room, walnut boxes, buckets, pots, candlesticks, earthen and pewter dishes, thirty or forty pieces. She had a gold chain, four rings and her wedding ring, and everything else needed in a house.”

  • 10 ASVe, Giudici del Proprio, Testimoni, b. 55, fol. 1r-2r.

9To the question, “How much do you estimate the value of all this to be?”, he replied: “About three hundred ducats, and she also had three or four woollen dresses.” And to the question, “Do you know whether this woman had a dowry charter?”, he answered: “Sir, no.” Three other witnesses, two of them blacksmiths, confirmed and clarified this first testimony. One added that the marriage had taken place before the plague, eighteen or nineteen years earlier, another that the value of the dowry could be about 250 ducats, and the third that Perina was a widow from a first marriage to Master Antonio, window-maker and that “as to being poor, she was well provided for”.10

  • 11 Ibid., fol. 2v-3r.

10On 31 October 1591, the heirs of Eufemia, widowed from her second marriage to a worker in the Venetian Arsenal, asked for her dowry back. The witnesses, a merchant and his wife and a matchmaker from Brescia, declared that she was the widow of a spinner from her first marriage and that she had given her second husband “all that she had given the first”, to the value of 350 ducats, including a spinner’s workshop, worth 64 ducats.11

  • 12 Ibid., fol. 5r.

11On 9 January 1592, Florina, a widow from her first marriage to Zorzi Grego and from her second to Joannis a Caseo, a galley helmsman, presented as witnesses the wife of a boat maker and a painter, who declared that she “had a house furnished with sheets, boxes, buckets, shirts, rings and a wedding ring”. A barber and a barrel maker added that she had brought her second husband 100 ducats in goods inherited from her first.12

  • 13 Ibid., fol. 27v.
  • 14 Ibid., fol. 17r-18v.

12Rarely did dowries which were the object of restitution proceedings based on oral testimonies reach high values: most of them were the dowries of artisans’ widows or servants, which did not exceed a few dozen ducats. This is for example the case with Cecilia, a servant of the nobleman Marco Contarini, and widow of Nicolò, a native of the Cadore mountains, who was also a servant in the same household. The first witness, also a servant in the Contarini household, provided a precise inventory of the items that made up Cecilia’s dowry at the time of her marriage, which had taken place sixteen years earlier, but no witness gave a precise estimate of the value of the dowry: the only amount appearing in the testimonies were 10 ducats that the master had given to his servant. Another house servant declared that “when she went out with the clarissima [her mistress] she was dressed according to her condition”.13 On the whole, these testimonies were often rather vague about the monetary value of the dowries, the estimate of the goods that made up the dowries and sometimes even about the time of marriages. On the other hand, they were much more precise about the quantity of objects that made up the dowry, the number of shirts, sheets or handkerchiefs, the quality of the dresses or the kitchen utensils. Sometimes the reason for this is clear: witnesses were the very women who had actually made the objects of which they spoke. “These linen sheets, about which I have told you, it was I who made them”, said the widow of a carpenter from the Arsenal, about the dowry of Seraphina, also the widow of a carpenter from Venice’s Arsenal.14

  • 15 Ibid., fol. 31v.

13In some cases, the oral procedure could also concern dowries of greater value and the testimonies highlight relationships of various kinds, showing how the dowries were the result of a group effort that went beyond the limits of the family nucleus. In the case of Cecilia, widow of Francesco Ruffi, a silk weaver, the dowry consisted of her uncle’s inheritance. According to a witness, he “had promised to give 400-500 ducats”. A weaver said that he recognised in the couple’s house some objects he had seen in Cecilia’s uncle’s house, including a loom that the uncle had given to him before taking it back and giving it to his niece. A damask weaver, who had been apprenticed to Cecilia’s husband “before he took the bride home”, said: “I know he had nothing and everything he had came from the house of messer Agustin, the bride’s uncle” and gave a detailed inventory of sheets, various tools, clothes, a silk dress, a gold chain, two rings and a wedding ring and, above all, “the shop supplied with everything, with three looms for damask”.15

  • 16 Ibid., fol. 6v-10r.
  • 17 Ibid., fol. 10r.

14In the case of Franceschina Lionella, widow of Francesco Bottelli, the dowry consisted of the bequests of goldsmith Marco de Giacomo. She stated that she had received 600 ducats in gold objects and 100 in cash and added that she had a house “well appointed with furniture, sheets, carpets, iron beds, boxes, cupboards, tables, pictures, with a kitchen furnished with copper and pewter pots […], in short, a full and well-furnished house”. In addition to giving their opinions on the value of the goods brought as a dowry, estimated at “2,000 ducats and more”, the ten witnesses had to confirm the widow’s statement: “All the furniture, gold and silver went into the hands of the late messer Francesco, my husband.” It was the very management of the dowry that was called into question in this case. All the witnesses stated that Franceschina had received a good inheritance, but few gave details: “The whole parish of San Stae said that she had inherited from messer Marco, the goldsmith, but what and how much I do not know”, said a printer from the parish of San Zulian. One of his colleagues, who had wanted to buy a ring from Francesco Bottelli, said that he had heard him say that his wife had received an inheritance of 2,000 ducats. Two of the three women who stood as witnesses, both neighbours from the parish of San Stae, declared: “Messer Francesco was the master of everything.” The third one, the wife of a greengrocer in the Rialto market, added: “I heard from messer Francesco that the dowry was worth 2,000 ducats, but that when it was assessed it was worth 1,200.” Three other witnesses, a haberdasher and two goldsmiths, stated that they had bought jewellery from Francesco Bottelli and another goldsmith, who also lived in San Stae, added: “When he needed money or anything else, she provided it if she wanted to, because she was in control of her own and had the key to the safe.”16 In this case, the question was whether the sale of part of the dowry had been decided by the husband alone or with the agreement of his wife since the amount of the dowry did not seem to correspond to the announced estimate. In the end, the judges concluded that only 1,200 ducats had to be reimbursed.17


  • 18 See Bellavitis 2021.
  • 19 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber I, chap. 24, fol. 14v-15r.
  • 20 Ibid., liber IV, chap. 1, fol. 59v-60r.
  • 21 Ibid., liber VI, chap. 44, fol. 102v-103r.

15The role of oral testimony was decisive in another type of procedure: a testament per breviario.18 The Giudici dell’Esaminador had to examine the witnesses “in good faith and without fraud” and could accept the testimony if it seemed to them that the witnesses were “suitable and told the truth”, having “removed love or hatred”.19 The breviario had no value if there was a written will and,20 in order to avoid fraud and abuse, the judges were required to have the name of the deceased and those of the witnesses summoned announced for two Sundays in the parish church of the deceased, so that anyone wishing to object might do so within fifteen days. The procedure had to be initiated within one year from the death or, if the person had died outside Venice, within two years.21 A procedure per breviario had nothing to do with the succession ab intestato, i.e. in the absence of a will, which depended on the Giudici del Proprio, since in this case the will was considered to exist, but to have been expressed orally only. This was quite an unusual situation as anyone could claim to be the heir of a deceased person, and the judges could only decide on the basis of testimonies from witnesses summoned by the litigants. The litigants might have been individuals related in various ways to the deceased – or claiming to be so – but could also be the magistracies responsible for collecting inheritances for the benefit of the state when there were no designated heirs.

  • 22 ASVe, Giudici dell’Esaminador, Esami e testamenti rilevati per breviario, b. 8, fasc. 3, fol. 26v-2 (...)
  • 23 Ibid.

16When Andrea Navagero di Bernardo, a well-known humanist, whose portrait Raphael painted in 1516, was called as a witness in a case of disputed inheritance between two patrician families, he cited the sonnet “Come ‘l candido pie’ per l’erba fresca”, from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, to corroborate the testimony of Raymondo, a servant, whose witness against had said that he had gone mad because of a woman. On the contrary, according to the humanist, falling in love was a sign of “kindness of heart” and indeed he declared that he was constantly in love to the point that, if falling in love was a sign of madness at that precise moment he himself was to be considered “mad”, since he felt “most in love”.22 Shortly afterwards, the sentimental Navagero used a misogynistic argument – to say the least – to corroborate the testimony of a maid. In fact, to the objection from the opposing party that the servant Susanna had “little brain”, he replied that if having little brain invalidated a woman’s testimony, then no woman could ever be trusted since they all have very little brain and, from the wisest to the maddest, “there are not two degrees of difference”.23 No one had bothered in this case to investigate the credibility – in the moral but also material sense of ‘having credit’, i.e. not being indebted to anyone – of Andrea Navagero, but his testimony somehow gave a judgement on the statements of witnesses with much less credibility, i.e. servants, corroborating a man’s and discrediting a woman’s. The case being examined concerned a conflict between patrician families over the inheritance of the noblewoman Isabetta Valier, to which her two sisters, Valeria, wife of Giovanni Marcello, and Madaluzza, wife of Vincenzo Barbo, claimed they were entitled. The strategy of Valeria, represented by her husband, was to say that Isabetta, who had no children and was not married, had expressed on her deathbed the wish to bequeath her property to her. According to the reconstruction of facts presented to the judges, Isabetta had not been able to dictate her will because, when the doctor had announced that she was ill with the plague, everyone had fled. One of the questions put to the witnesses was in fact “whether Isabetta had been abandoned by the whole family for fear of this dangerous disease and whether the whole family had fled and the house turned upside down”. The decisive argument that finally allowed Valeria to obtain her sister’s inheritance, but only after a ruling by the Court of Appeal of the Quarantia, was that Madaluzza had received a greater dowry than Valeria and that it was for this reason that Isabetta had wanted to leave her property to her. In this particular case, at least apparently, logic other than the bonds between people and the ability to mobilise networks came into play, namely the need to redress an injustice and restore a form of equality between sisters.

  • 24 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 2, 1511.

17Another case involving members of the patriciate was that of Isabetta, widow of Alessandro Trevisan and second wife of Alvise Contarini, who had died after giving birth to a stillborn child.24 Conflict broke out between Alvise Contarini, Isabetta’s second husband, and Angelo Trevisan, Isabetta’s former father-in-law and guardian of the six children she had had from her first husband, Alessandro Trevisan. The questions put to the witnesses aimed at determining the exact circumstances in which Isabetta would have designated her husband as her heir: whether she was able to understand, whether she had manifested her intention to dictate her last will, whether she had called any witnesses, whether her husband was present and whether other members of the Contarini family were at home. According to the Servite friar who had confessed her on her deathbed, Isabetta had said that she wished to leave her dowry to her husband whilst he lived and then to her children. The last, stillborn, was in her midwife’s arms. Doctors had also been called, but they could do nothing to alleviate Isabetta’s suffering. Two midwives, two wetnurses, two friars and various members of the Contarini family were also in the room. The room was very crowded and one witness stated that there were “many other people whom she does not remember”, to the point that the friar ordered those who were not “of the house” to leave, such as certain “foreign men”. There were also some maids, who were asked about their economic relations with the family, and who described themselves as “salaried” but neither debtors nor creditors to Isabetta’s husband, Alvise Contarini. Many questions concerned the presence of Alvise by his wife’s deathbed, as Venetian laws forbade husbands to be present as their wives’ last wills were taken. Some said he was by the door, but that she could not see him.

18One witness provided an explanation for the presence of so many people: the friar confessor had gone out into the portico and told Alvise to send for witnesses because his wife wanted to “show the love she bears you” and, in the presence of these witnesses, the friar had told Isabetta to repeat what she had just told him. Several testimonies reported that the witnesses had all entered at the same time, but many claim that they had not been “begged” by Isabetta, i.e. that she had not asked for the presence of witnesses, as was the case when a person was preparing to make a will.

19The opposing party rejected the testimonies of the members of the Contarini family, of Alvise’s employees (servants who received a salary from him) and of a tenant in debt to the Contarini family. The case went to the Quarantia, which, after two votes, decided not to accept Isabetta’s alleged oral testament.

20The rules of intestate succession were therefore applied to this case: the children from Isabetta’s first marriage inherited in equal shares, while her second husband, Alvise Contarini inherited nothing. If Isabetta and Alvise Contarini’s son had lived even for a few hours, he would have been heir to his mother and, on his death, his father would have inherited from him, since the inheritance of those who died intestate went to the male ascendants. Only in that case would Alvise have had a share of Isabetta’s inheritance as Venetian law did not provide for a husband to inherit from his wife in the absence of a will.

  • 25 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 2, 1529.

21Let us now look at the case of the inheritance of a pizzocchera (Franciscan tertiary), Anzola known as dal persego, disputed, in a thick file of forty-three papers recto-verso, between the apostolic prothonotary Orsato Giustinian and a shoemaker, Francesco calegher, who claimed to be a first cousin of the deceased.25 In this case, kinship was called into play, but it was not the decisive element, also because there was no definite proof of it. The witnesses for Francesco said that Anzola considered him to be her only relative but, above all, that he was always present, even at the time of her illness and death, and performed “many services” for her. Her relationship with Giustinian was more complex: some witnesses stated that she had lent him money, that she said he owed her everything, including the purchase of the ecclesiastical benefit he had in Friuli, and that in return he had committed himself to providing her with food but that in recent times he had no longer kept up this commitment. Among the witnesses on Francesco’s side, in addition to artisans and merchants, were Anzola’s slave and maid: the latter claimed to have been pressured by Giustinian to testify in his favour. On Giustinian’s side, there were a large number of witnesses, including the ferrymen who claimed to have transported provisions from his house to Anzola’s, many religious people, including the priest, deacons and sacristans of the church of St. Marziale, Anzola’s parish, who declared that her death had been registered as one of the plague victims from the parish and that Giustinian had paid for an “honourable” funeral, while “those at home”, namely Francesco calegher, were preparing to give her a pauper’s funeral. A notary had been called in, but he had refused to write down Angela’s last will, for the fear of contagion. In the face of his refusal, and according to the testimony of her confessor, the chaplain of the nuns of St. Alvise, who was already at her bedside, Anzola had called “many witnesses” and declared that her possessions were to be sold, the proceeds invested in state loans and, after making some bequests, the rest was to be given to the nuns of St. Alvise. In short, everyone tried to take advantage of the situation. At the end of an affair that lasted from August 1529 to April 1530, in which different worlds faced each other and in which servants and boatmen played a key role as they moved from house to house, listening, talking and observing, Giustinian gave up his claims. In this case, several testimonies had cast doubt on the credibility of the witnesses presented by Francesco calegher: the slave was accused of leading a libertine life and the maid of being a drunkard, but the object of the dispute was above all which of the two had behaved better towards the deceased, and perhaps because of this – or rather the debatable nature of the question – the case took a long time and produced a substantial set of documents.

  • 26 Ibid., b. 3, fasc. 12.

22In the dispute between Andrea, a furrier from Padua, and Giovanni Battista and Cristoforo dal Monte, brothers of Giovanni, Andrea’s father-in-law, it was essentially the reliability and honour of the witnesses that was called into question26 and all the witnesses were asked what age they were and what they lived on. The opposing witnesses did not so much insist on Giovanni’s intentions, but on the bad relations between son-in-law and father-in-law, and on the dubious reputation of the opposing witnesses (described as usurers, smugglers, thieves, murderers…). One of the questions was whether Maria was a “whore or an honest woman” and at least one of the witnesses stated that Giovanni did not want to see her and that she lived in the house of a blacksmith “who kept a bad life”. The dispute in this case arose not from the absence of relatives but from the fact that Maria was a natural daughter. In fact, the final ruling, favourable to Giovanni’s brothers, was delivered in less than a month, not from the Giudici dell’Esaminador nor from the Quarantia, but from the Giudici del Proprio, according to the intestate succession procedure, which therefore excluded illegitimate descendants.

  • 27 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 4, 1520.

23Coming down the social hierarchy, the family configurations are even less predictable. In 1520, the inheritance of Marina de Casanis, “a small and fat woman of about sixty years of age”, was the cause of a conflict between Antonia da Vicenza and the Giudici del Cattaver, a court that, as one of its many responsibilities, also had the task of recovering inheritances that no one claimed for the benefit of the state.27 Among the witnesses presented by Antonia were artisans, three patricians and three women who lived with the deceased, one of whom was her servant. Again, everything hinged on the credibility of the witnesses and it was easy for opponents to accuse a group of women living together of engaging in prostitution, especially since they were defended by members of the patriciate. In fact, the presence of the three patricians had to be justified and, in front of the lawyer of the Giudici del Cattaver who accused Bernardina and Franceschina of being public whores, the witnesses presented by Antonia declared that Marina de Casanis was “an honest and kind person who knew how to work cloth, who knew how to sew and mend, and that this is why decent people frequented her house”. It was perhaps the presence of those “decent people” that allowed Antonia da Vicenza to win her case and be declared Marina de Casanis’s legitimate heir.

  • 28 Ibid., b. 3, fasc. 6, 1519.

24Antonia, “a beautiful woman”, “big, fat”, aged around sixty, widow of Varisco Viviani, a carver, died during a trip to Ravenna, while visiting her sister.28 She had not travelled by sea for a long time because, as she had told one of the witnesses, she was afraid. The latter, Antonio cinturaio, a belt-maker, had laughed at her: “Those who are afraid make a will before leaving”, to which she had replied: “I would gladly do so, and if I don’t, everything will belong to Zuan Maria’s son.” A few days later she had left for Ravenna, from which she had not returned. The dispute in this case was between Antonia’s relatives, in particular her sister and her brother’s daughters, and, on the other side, Zuan Maria, the son of Varisco’s daughter from his first marriage. The witnesses on nieces’ side stated that Varisco “did many strange and bad things to Antonia” and “that it cannot be believed that she chose as heir the daughter of her husband who had not been raised by her, but by her husband’s first wife”. In addition, according to the witnesses, she had sent the marriage contract, the sentence of restitution of her dowry from her first marriage and the will of her first husband, to her nieces’ house, so that they would not end up in her husband’s hands. Opposing testimonies insisted instead on Antonia’s affection for her stepdaughter’s child. They were mostly artisans and humble people and therefore potentially suspected of corruption: they were asked to specify what they lived on and whether they would have liked to be richer, a question to which, for example, donna Marieta “uxor Sancti pictoris de confinio Sancti Heustachii”, answered that she was not rich and that if she were, she would not spin wool, and in fact it was on her way to fetch wool to spin in Cristofolo de Manfredo’s house that she had seen, in the room upstairs, Cristofolo, his wife Maria and son Zuan Maria “with one of her craftmistresses named Menega” together with Antonia. The strategy implemented by Antonia’s relatives was to discredit the witnesses: they were in debt to those claiming the inheritance; one kept a “house of whores”; another was a thief; they went out to eat and drink together; and the women: one was Zuan Maria’s wet nurse, the other was Cristofolo’s relative. A strategy that, in this case, did not have the desired effect, since the breviario was “elevated”, i.e. Antonia’s alleged oral testament in favour of Zuan Maria was approved by the Giudici dell’Esaminador.

25Testimonies with very realistic overtones offer a special insight into the material aspects of a dowry, so that, in these cases, it becomes difficult to distinguish a dowry made up almost entirely of objects from a trousseau which, according to Venetian law, did not have to be returned to the widow. They shine a light into the room where the death took place, from which a notary frightened by the plague fled, in which servants, priests, wet nurses and midwives scurried about, and in which glances were exchanged that should not have been exchanged. The most varied people were called upon to testify, patricians as well as artisans, and women who told of their work, that on their way to fetch wool to spin they had noticed something useful in the proceedings, or that those very fabrics were in the dowry, and that they knew this because they wove them, and so on. But these are just a few examples, quantitative research on these sources remains to be done, and will undoubtedly hold some surprises, not least because the multiple functions of the Venetian Corti di palazzo still remain largely unclear.

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ASVe = Archivio di Stato di Venezia

Primary Sources

Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, Venice, Typographia Pinelliana, 1729.

Secondary Sources

Bellavitis 2008 = A. Bellavitis, Famille, genre, transmission à Venise au XVIe siècle, Rome, 2008.

Bellavitis 2012 = A. Bellavitis, Dare credito, fiducia, responsabilità alle donne (Venezia, secolo XVI), in G. Petti Balbi, P. Guglielmotti (eds), Dare credito alle donne nell’Europa medievale e moderna, Asti, 2012, p. 239-248.

Bellavitis 2013 = A. Bellavitis, Mariage, témoins et contrats dans les milieux populaires vénitiens à l’époque moderne, in A. Bellavitis, L. Casella, D. Raines (eds), Construire les liens de famille dans l’Europe moderne, Mont-Saint-Aignan, 2013, p. 35-48.

Bellavitis 2021 = A. Bellavitis, Den letzten Willen kundtun – mündliche Testamente im frühneuzeitlichen Venedig, in  Historische Anthropologie, 29-3, 2021, p. 424-436.

Buono 2015 = A. Buono, La manutenzione dell’identità: il riconoscimento degli eredi legittimi nello Stato di Milano e nella Repubblica di Venezia (secoli XVII e XVIII), in  Quaderni storici, 148-1, 2015, p. 231-265.

Chauvard 2018 = J.-F. Chauvard, Lier et délier la propriété: tutelle publique et administration des fidéicommis à Venise aux derniers siècles de la République, Rome, 2018.

Fusaro 2014 = M. Fusaro, Politics of justice/Politics of trade: foreign merchants and the administration of justice from the records of Venice Giudici del Forestier, in MEFRIM, 126-1, 2014.

Guzzetti 2010 = L. Guzzetti, Women in court in early fourteenth-century Venice, in J. G. Sperling, S. Kelly Wray (eds), Across the religious divide: women, property and law in the wider Mediterranean (ca. 1300-1800), New York-Abingdon, 2010, p. 51-66.

Malherbe 2020 = M. Malherbe, Le jeu de la pourpre et du bâtard : les enfants illégitimes de patriciens face à l’aristocratie vénitienne à travers cinq procès en justice civile au dernier siècle de la République (1694-1780), PhD thesis, université de Rouen Normandie/università di Padova, 2020.

Passarella 2018 = C. Passarella, Interessi di parte e logiche del processo: la giustizia civile a Venezia in età moderna, Milan, 2018.

Shaw 2006 = J. E. Shaw, The justice of Venice: authorities and liberties in the urban economy, 1550-1700, Oxford, 2006.

Todeschini 2007 = G. Todeschini, Fiducia e potere: la cittadinanza difficile, in P. Prodi (ed.), La fiducia secondo i linguaggi del potere, Bologna, 2007, p. 15-26.

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1 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber VI, chap. 7, fol. 87.

2 Guzzetti 2010.

3 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber VI, chap. 44, fol. 103, consulto 44, fol. 151.

4 Ibid., Correzione Gritti, chap. 6, fol. 172v.

5 See Bellavitis 2012 and for the general evolution towards a smaller presence of women in justice, see Todeschini 2007.

6 Shaw 2006, p. 165-166.

7 For women as legal guardians of their children, see Bellavitis 2008.

8 See Bellavitis 2008; Fusaro 2014; Buono 2015; Chauvard 2018; Passarella 2018; Malherbe 2020.

9 See Bellavitis 2013, p. 35-48.

10 ASVe, Giudici del Proprio, Testimoni, b. 55, fol. 1r-2r.

11 Ibid., fol. 2v-3r.

12 Ibid., fol. 5r.

13 Ibid., fol. 27v.

14 Ibid., fol. 17r-18v.

15 Ibid., fol. 31v.

16 Ibid., fol. 6v-10r.

17 Ibid., fol. 10r.

18 See Bellavitis 2021.

19 Novissimum Statutorum ac Venetarum Legum Volumen, liber I, chap. 24, fol. 14v-15r.

20 Ibid., liber IV, chap. 1, fol. 59v-60r.

21 Ibid., liber VI, chap. 44, fol. 102v-103r.

22 ASVe, Giudici dell’Esaminador, Esami e testamenti rilevati per breviario, b. 8, fasc. 3, fol. 26v-27r.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 2, 1511.

25 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 2, 1529.

26 Ibid., b. 3, fasc. 12.

27 Ibid., b. 8, fasc. 4, 1520.

28 Ibid., b. 3, fasc. 6, 1519.

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Anna Bellavitis, « Dowries, last wills and evidence through orality »Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Moyen Âge, 135-1 | 2023, 95-102.

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Anna Bellavitis, « Dowries, last wills and evidence through orality »Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Moyen Âge [En ligne], 135-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2023, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna Bellavitis

Université Rouen Normandie –

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