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By Professor Raymond Lifchez (University of California, Berkeley) and Luca Trolese (Museo Archeologico Nazionale Venezia).

UBI CARITAS ET AMOR IBI DEUS EST: Where charity and love are, God is there

From the twelfth century until the occupation of the Venetian Republic by the French in 1797, and subsequently by the Austrians until 1866, charity and public assistance were offered to those in need by the state, by synagogues, and Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and other churches, by private patrons, and by confraternities. The confraternities were associations of laypeople, Venetian citizens, and resident foreign populations in trades or crafts, formed for secular and spiritual purposes. By the sixteenth century, the buildings of the numerous confraternities were found in the six main neighborhoods (sestieri) of Venice, Cannaregio, Castello, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, San Marco, and San Polo, and on the island of Giudecca. Tragically, in the decades that followed the suppression by the French of all but a special group of confraternities in 1806, the social role of the confraternities in the life of the Republic, and especially their personalized charitable endeavors, could not be duplicated by the new institutional forms of centralized social welfare.

In the Republic, depending upon the benefactor and the needs of the petitioner, charity took different forms: providing a poor family with a maiden's dowry or with a burial and the Masses said and candles burned for the deceased's salvation; giving a license to an individual to beg at the doorway of a certain premise; or providing an individual or a family with a place to live. The population perhaps best cared for were deserving members of a confraternity, those who inspired the largess of a patron, and those who had served the state, such as retired sailors and their families. However, a large population of the unemployable, the poor, the elderly, the chronically ill, female children and women at risk, prostitutes, orphans, youths, widows and widows with children, travelers, and pilgrims en route to the Holy Land were also in need of shelter, food, and protection from abuse. Some of these unfortunates were served by confraternities or private patrons, but it was essentially the state that attempted to meet their needs, partly out of Christian charity but also to maintain social order.

The Doctrine of Charity

Christian scuole placed themselves under the patronage of religious figures, such as Christ, the Virgin, or a saint and the doctrine of charity was basic to their function. The incentive to undertake good works came from an awareness of the need for practical help and from theoretical ideas concerning the salvation of donor and recipient. As noted previously, good works and charity (elemosina) could mean physical and monetary assistance, but also prayer, frequent confession and communion, and spiritual help. A scuola's commitment to charity was summed up in two phrases: amor proximi and amor dei. That is, to do good work that will benefit others in their daily lives and, through prayer, to serve God.

Both amor proximi and amor dei had a singular objective: that through charity and love the scuola and its individual members would invoke God's blessings in this life and their Salvation in the hereafter. Thus, each scuola had a formal relationship with its patron church, for it was there that the observances and rituals, the offices of the Mass and sacraments, gave a scuola its raison-d'etre and bonded its members as confratelli or consorelle. If a scuola did not posses its own building, it rented space before the altar of its patron saint in an accommodating church. When a scuola occupied a separate building, this building was the architectural centerpiece of the scuola's properties. Wealthy scuole often erected lavish buildings embellished with paintings and other works of art meant to inspire members with their teachings, charity being paramount.

Architecture of the Scuola Grandi

The largest number of images in the exhibit is of those buildings established by the major and minor confraternities known as Scuole Grandi and scuole piccole. These images are of each confraternity's principal building, or sede, known as the scuola, and their ancillary properties. Wherever a scuola and its patron church are adjacent, such as are the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the Church of San Rocco (fig. 1) and the Scuola dei Tiraoro e Battioro and the Church of San Stae (fig. 2), this relationship is also shown.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, San Polo

Fig. 1. San Polo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Scuola dei Tiraoro e Battioro, Santa Croce

Fig. 2. Santa Croce, Scuola dei Tiraoro e Battioro

The six Scuole Grandi, as named by Francesco Sansovino and established between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, became the wealthiest of all scuole and officially, as the major confraternities of the Republic, contributed to its social and political structure. The sede of the Scuole Grandi are major, world-class architectural monuments, which fortunately, have come down to us unscathed. Similarly, their multistoried housing blocks built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are magnificent works. Still inhabited, they are now public social housing, their interiors having been reconfigured for contemporary living.

Three Scuole Grandi have been given contemporary uses: Santa Maria della Carità (03-257-112), now the Gallerie dell’Accademia, is a national art museum; San Marco (03-277-002) is the city’s principal hospital; and the interior of Santa Maria della Misericordia (03-257-070) is under reconstruction as a community social center. Santa Maria dei Carmini (03-291-020), San Rocco (03-291-010), San Teodoro (03-257-002), designated as a Scuola Grande in the seventeenth century, and San Giovanni Evangelista (03-291-001) have retained their fraternal orders, who maintain their buildings by remaining open to visitors and renting for other uses, such as concerts, lectures, and plays. Another scuola, San Fantin (03-291-047), given the title of Scuola Grande because of its distinguished architecture and setting, is now a civic association of the arts; originally, its members were devoted to accompanying the condemned to the gallows. Brian Pullan's Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice (1971) concentrates on the Scuole Grandi, and remains the classic work among the vast literature devoted to the subject.

Architecture of the Scuole Piccole

The many scuole piccole, about which there is also a vast literature, are characterized by Pullan as "lesser Confraternities." Many of their well-preserved buildings were at some point in time converted to new uses. The scuole piccole, known as scuole d'arti e mestieri, were essentially guilds of craftsmen, merchants, artists, doctors, women, and even the physically disabled for their social, spiritual, and political welfare. Foreign residents established scuole nazionali, which served its members as guilds and consulates, and as hospices for those from the community who were in need.

Other scuole piccole, known as scuole di devozione, were principally devoted to a cult, that of the Virgin, the Holy Sacraments, the Eucharist, or a particular saint. Scuole di devozione took an important role in the maintenance and rituals of their parish churches and were in a sense the ceremonial institution of their parish churches, a role parallel to that of the Scuole Grandi and their ceremonial functions as institutions of the Republic.

The urban presence and social role of all scuole was emphasized on the occasion of certain feasts, when they paraded, individually or collectively, through the city's pedestrian ways in ceremonies that led to venerated shrines, which might be at a distance. Their processionals enlivened the city, often with music, and if at night, with candlelight. For the feast of Corpus Christi, all of the scuole ceremoniously joined the city's other civic and religious institutions in the Piazza San Marco, marking their importance as a constituent part of the city's social and political order.

Several scuole piccole , but especially the Scuole Grandi, owned other properties that were acquired through legacies and gifts. Since the mid-thirteenth century, it became a common practice among the rich to bequeath (lasciti perpetui vincolati) money or properties that aimed to assure to the dead benefactors prayers and Masses from the people who received such benefits. Usually the donor delegated an institution such as the Procurators of San Marco (public), parishes (ecclesiastic) and scuole (lay confraternities) to oversee his bequest (called commissaria) [1]. These institutions either invested the money in properties for rental income, or provided the people in need with accommodations in hospices or small apartments; such accommodations could be free (amore Dei) or required a low rent [2]. Between the end of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, several hundreds of houses are estimated to be donated amore Dei [3].

The present research has documented blocks of apartments owned by the scuole for rentals, whose outstanding example is Castelforte di San Rocco (fig. 3), [4], and apartments for populations in need, that is, hospices and public housing, the edilizia minima [5].

Castelforte, Housing of Scuola di San Rocco, San Polo

Fig. 3. San Polo, Castelforte, Housing of Scuola di San Rocco

Ospedale dei Crociferi, Cannaregio

Fig. 4. Cannaregio, Ospedale dei Crociferi

Architecture of the Ospizi and Ospedali

Franca Semi's Gli "Ospizi" di Venezia (1983) catalogues 115 ospizi and ospedali built before 1797. The greater number of these was established by the Republic, religious creeds, and private patrons to whom the burden of the massive population of the unfortunates fell. Outstanding architectural examples are the Ospizio of the Scuola dei Sartori, Ca' di Dio (Roman Catholic), Ospitale dei Greci presso la Scuola di San Nicolò (Greek Orthodox), Ospedale di Santa Maria dei Derelitti (private donor), Ospedale di San Giacomo degli Incurabili (Republic and private donor), and the Ospizio di Prete Zuane (Republic). Of the many ospedali, the Ospedale dei Crociferi is a handsome example of a twelfth-century building (fig. 4).

In the sixteenth century, when the state began to assume a greater role in the city’s civic welfare, bigger ospedali were built in order to house those categories of population like beggars, chronically ill or incurables, considered outcast [6]. The Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti and the Ospedale degli Incurabili are the most impressive examples (fig. 5) [7].

Castello, Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti

Fig. 5. Castello, Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti

Hospice, Scuola dei Sartori, Cannaregio

Fig. 6. Cannaregio, Hospice, Scuola dei Sartori

Some scuole had their own hospice, like the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia [8] and the Scuola dei Sartori (fig. 6) [9]; others used their sede as hospice, like the Scuola di San Nicolò dei Greci (fig. 7) or the Scuola dei Lucchesi [10]. The Ospizio dei Trevisani [11] was a shelter founded probably by the city of Treviso for its citizens that happened to be in Venice, likewise a private donor helped to build a hospice for the Armenian pilgrims [12]. Public housing are documented from the sixteenth century and consisted in a sequence of small living units in one or two blocks or around a courtyard [13]. Interesting examples are the case della Marinarezza [14] (apartments for sailors donated by the state) and the houses in Corte San Marco, a legacy to the Scuola Grande di San Marco (fig. 8) [15].

Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci, Castello

Fig. 7. Castello, Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci

Housing of Scuola di San Marco, Corte San Marco, Dorsoduro

Fig. 8. Dorsoduro, Housing of Scuola di San Marco, Corte San Marco

Field Work

Scholarly, annotated, and sometimes illustrated catalogues of the scuole and their buildings and those buildings of other benefactors were our guides in finding the buildings and building sites photographed for the project. Semi's catalogue was one of the seven most useful publications. The other six are Cesare Augusto Levi, Notizie stoiche di alcune antiche scuole d'Arti e mestieri scomparse o esistenti ancora in Venezia (1895), Giovanni Scarabello, Scuole di arti, mestieri e devozione a Venezia (1981), Terisio Pignatti, Le Scuole di Venezia (1981), Richard Mackenney, Tradesmen and Traders: The World of the Guilds in Venice and Europe, c. 1250 – c. 1650 (1987), Franco Posocco, Scuola Grande di San Rocco: La vicenda urbanistica e lo spazio scenico (1997), Francesca Ortalli, “Per salute delle anime e delli corpi”: Scuole piccole a Venezia nel tardo Medioevo (2001), and Gastone Vio, Le Scuole Piccole nella Venezia dei Dogi: note d'archivio per la storia delle confraternite veneziane (2004). We have also consulted numerous journal articles and architectural monographs.

The catalogues vary in the numbers of scuole active between c. 1100 and 1787. Vio, using only documents, shows that 925 scuole existed in Venice during the Republic. Pullan mentions the number 357 active in the eighteenth century, and Mackenney lists 377 between 1247 and c. 1763. Scarabello lists eighty extant scuole, which we have found and photographed along with ospizi, ospedali, and low-income housing established by all benefactors, catalogued by Semi. Our images include the emblems and/or inscriptions of what may remain of a pre-existing building. We are careful to show each building or building site within its context to convey its presence as part of the rich architectural fabric of the city.


The authors are in the process of augmenting the Architecture of Charity image collection with new findings, especially with images of the interiors of the buildings already documented. This essay is also an invitation to others to contribute material to the archive, and contributions will be recognized as part of the catalogue entry.

[1] See B. Pullan, Abitazioni al servizio dei poveri nella Repubblica di Venezia, in G. Gianighian, Dietro i palazzi. Tre secoli di architettura minore a Venezia 1492-1803, Venezia 1984, pp. 39-43.

[2] About the wealth and the investments of the Scuole Grandi see B. Pullan, Rich and poor in Renaissance Venice: the social institutions of a catholic state to 1620, Oxford 1971, pp. 157-87.

[3] The Procurators of San Marco run 300-400 houses amore Dei. See E. R. Trincanato, Le forme dell’edilizia veneziana, in G. Gianighian, op. cit., p. 18. In 1582 the number of houses amore Dei are: 179 in Cannaregio, 173 in Castello, 194 in Dorsoduro, 72 in San Marco, 1 in San Polo and 36 in Santa Croce. See E. Concina, Venezia nell’età moderna. Struttura e funzioni, Venezia 1989, pp. 85-6.

[4] See G. Gianighian, op. cit., pp. 80-83; F. Posocco, La vicenda urbanistica e lo spazio scenico: Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, Cittadella 1997, pp. 53-7.

[5] See E. R. Trincanato, Venezia minore, Venezia 1948, p. 65.

[6] See B. Pullan, op. cit., pp. 197-236.

[7] See B. Aikema & D. Meijers, Nel regno dei poveri. Arte e storia dei grandi Ospedali veneziani in età moderna 1474-1797, Venezia 1989, pp.131-48; 249-271; F. Semi, Gli”Ospizi” di Venezia, Venezia 1983, pp. 131-4; 273-4.

[8] See F. Semi, op.cit., pp. 205-6.

[9] See F. Semi, op.cit., pp. 206-7.

[10] See F. Semi, op.cit., pp. 199-201.

[11] See F. Semi, op.cit., p. 187.

[12] F. Semi, op.cit., p. 158.

[13] See E. R. Trincanato, op. cit., pp. 65-68.

[14] See R. Gallo, Corte Colonna a Castello e case per la marinarezza veneziana, in Ateneo Veneto 123, 1938; E. R. Trincanato, op. cit., pp. 158-69; F. Semi, op. cit., pp. 135-6.

[15] See E. R. Trincanato, op. cit., pp. 65; 306-9; G. Gianighian, op.cit., pp. 110-13.