Giovanni’s world was a very masculine one, at least outside the home – a world of workshop, tavern, confraternity, and streetcorner “kingdom”. So where were all the women when it came to public space? If the directions of men such as Antonino, the reforming fifteenth-century archbishop, had been followed to the letter, the answer is almost nowhere. For Antonino, “a wife should rarely wander around outside the home, and she should not go leaping around the piazza, nor stand telling stories and murmuring in doorways, nor talk at the window, and she should go outside the house only to church and then not by herself”.
The reality was more complicated. For young patrician women – precious objects of exchange in a highly politicised marriage market – their presence in the streets was indeed quite limited; for older women there was fewer constraints. However, for lower-class women it was a different story altogether. They sometimes worked in shops, and all went shopping for their households. In the neighbourhoods there is evidence of informal female networks, and even of local women forming devotional consororites, an implicit rejection of their marginal role in confraternities. One of the few lay artisan consororities we know about was founded in Giovanni’s home neighbourhood of Sant’ Ambrogio in the early sixteenth century, dedicated to the cult of the Miracle relic (see Relics on Parade).
The Mercato Vecchio underscores the presence of artisan women in public space. It was packed with female streetsellers. The poem about the Mercato that Giovanni refers to, by Antonio Pucci, a fourteenth-century town crier, talks about treccole like the one whom Giovanni seeks out, “their baskets full of fruit always overflowing”. And, as Giovanni says, the public brothel was next door, which made the Mercato a risky and for many a disreputable space. Sexual honour was an issue for all classes in this society.
Apart from the column of the Dovizia, a copy of Donatello’s lost original, the vibrant, noisy Mercato that Giovanni describes has completely vanished. It was in the south part of today’s Piazza della Repubblica, a late nineteenth-century urban regeneration project. To the north towards the Baptistry were houses, shops and later, in 1571, the Ghetto (visible on the 1584 Bonsignori map). For some the demolition of the Mercato was a rescue mission, for others the tragic destruction of the city’s heritage. Fragments of the old Mercato have been saved in the Museum of San Marco. The Loggia del pesce, the fish market (also on Bonsignori), was dismantled and reconstructed in Piazza dei Ciompi.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Women in the streets’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/politics-and-people/8-women-in-the-streets/
Elizabeth Cohen, ‘To Pray, To Work, To Hear, To Speak: Women in Roman Streets c. 1600’, Journal of Early Modern History, 12 (2008), 289-311.
Sharon Strocchia, ‘Sisters in Spirit: The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio and their Consorority in Early Sixteenth-century Florence’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 33 (2002), 735-767
Natalie Tomas, ‘Did Women Have a Space?’, in Renaissance Florence: A Social History, eds. Roger Crum and John T. Paoletti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 11-30
Evelyn Welch, Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)