In his wonderful book “Venice – The City and Its Architecture” (Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1997, pp.214+ff), Richard Goy sets forth an informative history of the guilds of Venice.
Most of the Venetian guilds supported specific trades, crafts and arts, providing training to neophytes, continuing education to those becoming more proficient at their work, setting performance standards for that work, and representing the specialty to the City and to patrons. Many of them also had a philanthropic side, related to the Church or to public welfare and education in various ways.
The largest of the guilds, or scuoli, were confraternities that existed to support schools, hospitals, orphanages, poorhouses, and the like. Members were primarily from the merchant and trader section of society, often wealthy. Many of their charitable public operations were taken over by government after the Napoleonic conquest whose policy was that dispensing many of those services would best be publicly controlled.
Other guilds were church oriented, not for trades or professions, lay-member groups supporting a specific Order, church, charity, monasteries or monache in Venice and abroad.
Over time, only a handful of Scuoli Grande were authorized, standing out above the 920 piccolo scuoli (small ones – not all at one time), and sometimes several around the city representing the same trade – but over the life of the Republic of Venice.
Two of the “piccolo” were elevated to “grande“, one very late in the life of the Republic, and therefore “rose above” being “mere” trade or welfare guilds.
- San Todaro: The guild of mercers and allied crafts including makers of gloves, hats, mirrors, stationary, luxury goods and the source of the name “Merceria” for a major commercial calle in Sestiere San Marco. Their building is located on Campo San Salvador near the Rialto in Sestiere San Marco. The easiest access is during (paid) performances of musical groups, particularly a Vivaldi group.
- Santa Maria del Carmine: Founded in 1594 and elevated to Grande in 1767, located near the Carmine church and monastery in a fascinating free-standing building. The elaborate, art-filled building – second only to Scuola Grande di San Rocco in grandeur – can be visited for a small fee.
One piccolo ranked with those two at the top of the group in influence, but was never elevated – San Girolamo e San Fantin.
Most of the scuoli did not have the wealth, size or desire to construct dedicated buildings. Many did endow altars or other works within churches.
The Arsenalotti crafts had a number of guilds based upon ship-building and outfitting specialites, including Ropemakers (1233), Sawyers (1262), Stonemasons (1307), and Carpenters/Builders (1271).
Again, guilds were located all over the City: The mercers and cabinet-makers between the Rialto and Piazza San Marco; goldsmiths and spice-dealers close to the Rialto in Sestiere San Polo, for example. Many had people scattered all over and picked a spot that suited them for a period of time and then moved on: building trades, boatbuilders, vintners, bakers included. The Calzolai (calegheri/shoemakers) at San Toma (with the German branch later housed on Calle de la Botteghe near Campo Santo Stefano); the Varotari (tanners) at Campo Santa Margherita after being persuaded to relocate a short distance to allow the expansion of the Carmine complex; more Battjoro (goldbeaters) at San Stae, woolworkers at Santo Stefano, builders at San Samuele, painters at Santa Sofia. The list is endless, and individual locations often moved numerous times!
We have, to date been able to visit the interior of most of the Scuoli Grande: San Rocco (behind the Frari), San Marco (now the Hospital entrance at Campo San Zanipolo), Carmini, and Nuovo Scuolo Grande Dei Misericordia (across the rio from Santa Maria in Valverde, Cannaregio, where the older scuole building still stands, and Carita (now the entrance hall and first gallery of the Accademia). Although we have poked and prodded around the sixth, San Giovanni Evangelista in western Sestiere San Polo at the site of the extremely old Ospizio Badoer, we have yet to get beyond the fabulous gated courtyard. We have also been into the Scuolo dell’Angelo Custode on Campo Ss. Apostoli.
Richard Goy shared a pointed condemnation of the over-the-top building and art programs of the Scuoli Grande, written by Alessandro Caravia in his 1541 rant Il Sogno di Caravia (Caravia’s Dream):
“Four-score thousand ducats they happily spend
When no more than six would achieve the same end.”
“What’s due to the poor is splashed out in vast Oceans
On building, but certainly not on Devotions.”
There is no “expire” date stamped on over-the-top expenditure – even when the largess precedes the 16th Century – and many of the results are still on display to feast our eyes today – outside and inside with the extraordinary work of great masters of painting and scuptor. Visit the open Scuoli Grande and…
Enjoy the dolci!