Storia di Signora Giada Alberti di Firenze
Kingdom A&S Faire 2014
(To learn about the references or figures contact Giata on Facebook)
Purpose and Introduction
The purpose of this piece is to provide my persona story as a model for other inclined reenactors who wonder what sort of research can inform their efforts. Persona development based on historical research can enhance the Arts & Sciences endeavors of participants in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Over the past five years I have conducted research on the lives of Renaissance women in order to develop the persona of Giata Alberti, a Florentine women living in Venice during the turn of the 15th Century. I have gathered all manner of information on what Giata would have worn, eaten, played, sewn, owned, pondered, and disdained. In this creative writing piece I use imagination and fact to tell a persona story in a way to showcase, for the judges, the depth and breadth of the research that has gone into creating this persona.
Women of Venice and Florence during the Renaissance (1400-1600) communicated through letters, many of which have survived to this day. Through these letters we hear their “voice” and learn their stories. Modern reenactors can use these letters as a model for their own persona stories.
During my research I have learned that historical women were as complex as modern women. It takes time to get to know them, learn their struggles, or read between their lines. This one letter (excerpt below), for instance, cannot be used to “type” Isabella d’Este. Using only one letter from anyone would not be an entirely fair representation. Isabella was capable of threats, cajolery, and flattery to advance her collecting ambitions, and her collections have come down to us as beacons of the Renaissance. She was also a highly intelligent consort who ruled an important city-state with her husband.
“We are glad to hear that you are doing your utmost to finish our studiolo, so as not be sent to prison . . . you can paint whatever you like inside the cupboards, as long as it is not anything ugly, because if it is, you will have to paint it all over again at your own expense.” – Isabella d’Este to a Mantuan artist
Isabella had been married at age seventeen to Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua. While her husband devoted his energies to military endeavors, she deployed culture and the arts as a way to expand the prestige of their small state. Isabella became one of the most energetic, knowledgeable, and committed of all Renaissance patrons. We know a lot about her collecting because she left an extensive record of her dealings with agents and artists in her correspondence. More than 12,000 of her letters survive. She archived them, as if she knew they would one day bring her to life for modern historians.
Noble women of the Renaissance were often educated and expressed themselves publically in the form of letters. Laura Cereta was one of these women and her disdain for misogyny can be evidenced from the following (King 1983):
“You [Bibulus] brashly and publicly not merely wonder but indeed lament that I am said to possess as fine a mind as nature ever bestowed upon the most learned man. You seem to think so learned a woman has scarcely before been seen in the world. You are wrong …. for you have ceased to be a living man, but become animated stone; having rejected the studies which make men wise, you rot in torpid leisure. The explanation is clear: women have been able by nature to be exceptional, but have chosen lesser goals. For some women are concerned with parting their hair correctly, adorning themselves with lovely dresses, … or standing at mirrors to smear their lovely faces. But those in whom a deeper integrity yearns for virtue, restrain from the start their youthful souls, reflect on higher things, harden the body with sobriety and trials, and curb their tongues, open their ears, compose their thoughts in wakeful hours, their minds in contemplation to letters bonded to righteousness. For knowledge is not given as a gift, but [is gained] with diligence. Nature has generously lavished its gifts upon all people, opening to all the doors of choice through which reason sends envoys to the will …. You pretend that I alone am admirable because of the good fortune of my intellect. But I, compared to other women who have won splendid renown, am but a little mousling. You stumbled half-blind with envy on a wrongful path that leads you from your manhood, from your duty, from God.” – Laura Cereta, “Letter to Bibulus Sempronius, 13 January 1488
Letters of the Renaissance were written in a certain style. There were five parts of a letter, as described in Principles of Letter Writing (Rationes Dictandi) by Anonymous of Bologna in 1135 A.D. (Murphy 1985):
“There are, in fact, five parts of a letter: the Salutation (salutation), the Securing of Good-will (capitation benevolientiae), the Narrative (narratio), the Petition (petitio), and the Conclusion (conclusion).”
In the salutation you establish the relative position of yourself and the recipient according to the social scale. To secure the good-will you would show humility and ask for the goodwill of another, or briefly point out your own goodwill towards another. In the body, you include the narrative and petition, where the important subject matter is stated straightforwardly and any requests made with humility. In the conclusion, or closing, you give wishes for the health and well being of the recipient using a religious or political overture if appropriate. This example of a closing from Dante Alighieri in the 14th Century shows his awareness of the movements of the Emperor (Murphy 2012):
“Dante Alighieri, a Florentine undeservedly in exile, to the most iniquitous Florentines within the city. …
Written on the thirty-first day of March on the confines of Tuscany from beneath the springs of Arno, in the first year of the most auspicious passage of the Emperor Henry into Italy.” – Dante Alighieri
Among the letters I have reviewed are letters of condolence, letters of congratulations, letters to ask a favor, and letters to express friendship. Letters were also written to tell stories, as this one from Amerigo Vespucci to Pier Soderini in 15th Century Florence does (M.K. 1885, Appendix A):
“To Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence
Magnificent Lord. After humble reverence and due commendations, etc, It may be that your Magnificence will be surprised by my rashness and your customary wisdom, in that I should so absurdly bestir myself to write your Magnificence the present letter; knowing as I do that your Magnificence is continually employed in high councils and affairs concerning the good government of this sublime Republic. And will hold me not only presumptuous, but also idlymeddlesome in setting myself to write things, neither suitable to your station, nor entertaining, and written in barbarous style, and outside of every canon of polite literature: but my confidence which I have in your virtues and in the truth of my writing, which are things that are not found written neither by the ancients nor by modern writers, as your Magnificence will in the sequel perceive, makes me bold. … such is what befell me, most noteworthy, in this my first voyage.” – Amerigo Vespucci
The renaissance letter-writers were long winded by modern standards. The above excerpt from the letter Amerigo Vespucci wrote to Pier Sodeini was transcribed into English in size 10 font in single-space format and takes up seven standard 8.5 x 11 pages.
So, in following this theme I have written a letter to tell my persona story. This letter is similar to the one Laura Cereta wrote to her friend and mentor Nazaria Olympica (Figure 7, Appendix A). In a preceding letter Nazaria asked Laura for the story of her life. The narrative she writes in response is conversational and autobiographical in nature (Robin/Cereta 20). I have included the references for the information contained in my letter to show the marriage of creativity and researched fact. I follow the aforementioned style from Rationes Dictandi of :
- Securing of Good-will
I hope you enjoy reading about the persona I have created in order to enhance my participation in the SCA and improve the atmosphere of my classes on beauty, games, dress, and sociology of Renaissance Italy. You will find that my language is perhaps still more modern than the example from Vespucci and renaissance letters were not written in paragraph form, but for readability I felt it best to use the chosen tone and format. The details I give, such as the color of the dresses in the counter-dowry, are appropriate details found in these types of letters and are described in detail in my reference materials. The lifestyle I describe is one of an upper class merchant-banking family of the 15th and 16th Century, similar to the Medici before they became the rulers of Florence.
To My Lady, The Most Reverend and Divinely Favored Duchess of Imola, I Send Greeting In the Lord.
You have requested to know all about me, as I may be given leave to accompany your party in travels to Mantua. Here is my story, and my promise that, if it so please you, that I shall keep up correspondence to you until you deem it no longer pleasurable.
My name is Giada Magdalena Alberti, and I am a cittadina of the Serinissima Repubblica di Venezia. I am Florentine by birth, but no longer in manner. In this year of our Lord, 1501 I, Giada, widow of Matteo Barbaro shall tell you of my life and family as it so pleases you. If I am to tell you my story, I should start at the beginning.
I was born into the Alberti family of Florence on July 22, 1481. My older brother, my beloved Marcantonio, and I were both born in that fair city. We lived there with our mother until I reached the age of 13, when my father brought us to Venice. My two other brothers, Giovanni and Giulio were already working in the family business in Rome and the Veneto. Our father, the honorable Giacomo Alberti, is a merchant and banker who profited from our forbearers exile from Florence in 1401. They spent their time in exile well, developing textile trade in the port cities of the Venetian Republic. After some lucrative years, they were able to become financiers for other merchants. When the time came for my family to decide how my marriage would best benefit them, several noble families in Venice had need to ally themselves to such a banker. Our move was in time to give my father three years to prepare me for the biggest change in the life of a woman, marriage. In my case, it was not only marriage, but marriage in a foreign city having a foreign tongue.
I had heard that Venezia was the most splendid city in the world. The republic had expanded until all of the Mediterranean was effected or dependent on trading with the Venetians and their colonies. I knew of Venezia as a place where all sorts of people came together for the purpose of trade. I had read accounts written by foreigners of the many well-furnished shops as large as warehouses with cloths of every make – tapestry, brocades, and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort, fabric of every color and texture, and silks of every kind.
The Venetians were well known for the class distinctions made in that city. Venetian cittadini, the bourgeois citizen class, did not usually marry into the nobili , the patrician class. However, my father’s dealings with the Signoria  and his assistance to the ruling Doge had put our family in an unusual position. As I look back on that time I am certain this happens even less now. I have even heard talk of a push for registering noble marriages as well as noble births to ensure the scrutiny of bloodlines. Even an illegitimate daughter of a fully proven Venetian noble would be considered a much better match for a Venetian noble youth than the legitimate daughter of a wealthy or well-respected commoner.
I do not think I looked forward to becoming a wife, but I understood what was expected of me. I knew that the lessons I so looked forward to with my brother’s tutors would be replaced with time spent sharpening my domestic skills, as this is the way of a female’s life. I thought it was quite unfair that all the knowledge I had gained and the studies at which I excelled were for naught. I felt as if that indulgence by my family had been more of a punishment, to teach me about a world in which no respectable wife could take part. I knew tears or disobedience would only make the situation worse. So, I resigned myself to the path set before me.
My family arrived and set up residence in a rented palazzo along the Canalasso. From my 14th feast day to my 16th feast day I spent my time embroidering, playing the lute, and learning about Venetian households, Venetian language, and Venetian customs. Just as my father was a driving force in providing tutoring and educational lessons, he proved to be a dominant force in the preparation for my upcoming domestic role. He arranged for the newly married daughter of the ancient Barbaro family who lived in the neighboring palazzo to be my companion and provide a familiar face to make my introduction to the women of her world. Although different from me in ways that are explained only by her nationality, Marietta and I became good friends.
It turned out that her family would be the one I was to join. Her brother, Matteo, and I were officially matched by our parents and set to be married the month I turned 17. My dote  was put together and an offer of 1700 ducati  dowry was made (Figure 3). The usual items were put aside for my donora ; my mother’s book of hours, a string of red coral beads and a string of pearls with a cameo pendant for my neck, a pair of silver sewing knives, a gold needle case, an ivory comb, ribbons and scuffia  for my hair. My mother, even with failing health, oversaw the other items that needed to be ordered for my new life. She gifted me a small silvered jewel case with four rings (one with a large pearl, two with sapphires, and the last with an emerald).
My counter-donora from the Barbaro family consisted of a pearl embellished scuffia, a fur-lined mantello with a fringed and embroidered cowl, two velvet gowns embellished with silver and lined in taffeta, a wool cotta (dyed with kermes), a pearl necklace, and a brooch.
My father designed my cassone, a traditional Florentine wedding chest. It was carved out of poplar wood and decorated with figures of four seated women. They represent the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. The paintings were a reminder to me to behave virtuously.
My husband was in Venice for three months after our wedding before an uprising on the newly annexed island of Cyprus caused his departure. I was prepared for the life of a military commander’s wife, but did not expect our first separation to occur so soon. I was left to care for our household, which we shared with Marietta, her husband, Vincenzo, and their small son. Visitors to Venice from other parts of Italy refer to our homes as palazzi , but here we call our houses “case” or “ca’’” out of modesty.
We had three homes, the Ca’ Barbaro family house on the Canalasso, the neighboring Casa Dario which my father continued to rent, and a villa in the terraferma for an escape from the city during the summer months. Ca’ Barbaro was a typical fondaco style home with five floors. The first floor opened up to the Grand Canal on the front and to a small square on the street entrance. On the first floor there is a portico, storage rooms, and a sala on the second mezzanine level which served as an office and meeting place for Marietta’s husbands’ business dealings. The third floor has common spaces; kitchen, sala, scrittorio, dining hall, and a loggia from which we can view the canal with privacy. The fourth floor holds a private sala and bedrooms for Marietta’s family. The fifth floor is where the private apartment, bedrooms, and a solar for Matteo and I are located.
In Ca’ Barbaro we had dressers to proudly display silverware, porcelain, pewter, and brass. In their great sala there were racks of arms with the shields and standards of their ancestors who fought for Venice on land and at sea. In their casa aperta all the furniture was made of walnut, and green draperies hung above the terrazzo floors and carpets. Even the humble kitchen featured dishes and cooking pots arranged for display. In my bedroom I kept Matteo’s desco da parto with his father’s impresa and the silk banner he had made displaying his stemma as talisman for my prayers of his safe return and for the family we would start.
We kept a small retinue of servants; just a maid, a cook, and a serving man who also piloted our gondolier. My most pleasant evenings were spent with Marietta and Vincenzo in the dining room with a simply laid out setting of Venetian glassware, porcelain dishes, and silver bowls eating a dessert course ripe with fresh fruit and sweet breads.
Casa Dario, where my family continued to live, was next door. I was able to see my mother regularly, which was fortunate because she was declining rapidly. My brother had finished university and had accepted an appointment as assistant physician to Doge Agostino Barbarigo. He and his wife lived in apartments at the Palazzo Ducale. He also attended my mother during her final days. My father and Marietta were a great comfort while I dealt with losing her and awaiting Matteo’s return.
My father, always one to promote humanist education, had taken to hosting a salone of scholars and artists who lived and visited Venice. Palazzo Dario was four floors, with a similar layout to Ca’ Barbaro. With so much room and both children gone I think the salone was his way of combating loneliness.
Matteo never returned from that trip to Cyprus. I waited for one year, not long in the span of a lifetime, but for a new wife with no children it seemed like forever. On the return trip to Venezia the vessel in which Matteo was being carried home to me was attacked by Ottomans and all aboard lost their life.
Marietta grieved heavily for her brother, and I for the life I could have had as his wife. We had our browns measured and sewn and comforted each other while wondering what the future had in store. I spent my period of mourning contemplating where I would go and what I would do. A woman with children would have to stay with her husband’s family, but I had no real obligation to do that in my situation. My father arranged to have my things moved back over to Casa Dario, where I would occupy the top floor apartments as a widow, and the mistress of the house.
Venetians have always been frugal in outward show, but are lavish in the decoration of their houses. At Casa Dario the ceilings of our bedchambers are decorated in gold and were painted by celebrated artists. The house was adorned with noble tapestries, silk drapes, gilded leather, lavishly painted spalliere, and rooms furnished with beautiful gilded bedsteads and painted chests.
I spent my 18th fall and winter preparing my father’s home for a grand event. I had thrown myself into overseeing the education of Marietta’s children and facilitating my father’s popular salone. Scholars and artisans from the surrounding terraferma and the nearby University of Ferrara paid regular visits to our home. We hosted guests from the court of Milan and the Duchy of Verona when they visited Venice.
The League of Venice, formed to oppose Charles VII invasion from France, had declared victory. The League was made up of Aragon, Milan, Sicily, England, and the Hapsburg Emperor in Austria. Representatives for this league would all be in Venice for Carnivale and my father was arranging for a large festa. He already planned to buy Casa Dario and make it our family home, so I busied myself arranging for chairs da donne, chests, and benches to be made to fill the portego and loggia for this occasion. We would also outfit a frontispiece on the Canal side with our decidedly Florentine arms supported by two of the cardinal virtues.
During that time I was aware of the great interest in having me married again. I still displayed a widow’s arms on my barca (consisting of my husband’s device and my family device on a lozenge instead of a heater), but had several lectures from family members on the importance of getting married again as soon as possible, for my own well being. I, however, was happy with the income from the dowry I recovered, the allowance my father dutifully allotted for me, and the freedom my status as a widow allowed. Seeing after Marietta’s children gave me pleasure, as did seeing my nieces and nephews growing. I knew that once I married and had my own, my freedom would be gone.
There was also the precarious situation in which Venezia found herself. The political climate was changing so quickly around her, and she was losing the territories which had helped bring wealth and stability to the Republic for centuries. I heard from my brother that Doge Barberigo would not be in power much longer unless the threat from the Ottomans in the east and the French from the west were both quelled. He made contingency plans to remain a physician to the Signoria and live near the Palazzo Ducale in a remodeled casa.
At that time, many Venetian families were nobili in blood but not in wealth. When the families could no longer support their lifestyles they sold off what they could and cut back where possible to stay in the family home as long as they were able. My sister-in-law’s family had been taxed by supporting the donora of their five daughters. In order to marry off the last girl, they made arrangements to sell their casa to my father for 15,000 ducati. He spent another 5,000 ducati remodeling it for my brothers and their growing families to assume. We Alberti were still considered only cittadini, but we were making a place for ourselves in La Serenissima.
I am still un-remarried. I will see my 20th feast day at the end of this month, and plan to mark the occasion with a special dinner followed by entertainment in our salone. The Republic is still in turmoil. The Ottoman Turks want their territories back, and the Kingdom of Cyprus may not remain ours for long. My father is taking advantage of opportunities in the Veneto (Verona, Padua) as well as Dalmatia while there is still relative stability there.
Giovanni and Giulo have ensured our business interests in Verona and Mantua are secure. Their wives are Venetian and have lived here raising their families for all these years, many of them with long absences from their husbands. I hope that they will be here more often now that the threat from Charles VII is over. As always, my brothers are a large part of my connection to the world of men in which women are often not welcome. I get news from them in their letters when they are away and they visit our salone whenever they have chance to be in Venice for any amount of time.
I have turned my attention to financing the printing of manuscripts written by women. I am also learning as much as I can about a certain woman who is known as the Tiger of Forli – an enemy of Venice! I host a small circle of friends once every week and discuss with them everything I can find out about the educated and fearless women of our world. Among our circle, there are women who have met this “tiger” called Caterina Sforza, as well as Lucrezia Borgia of Rome, and Isabella d’Este of Mantua. I am able to learn about the goings on among the nobility and of these prima donne, and I pass along the things I learn at my father’s salone as we pass the time embroidering, singing, or playing games.
Even with my salone and my manuscripts, I am not content with being the widowed lady of Casa Dario. I have befriended the wife of the Venetian Ambassador to Mantua, and am endeavoring to have my father allow me to accompany her to court there for this season. If by God’s grace I am given leave to go I will write of the trip faithfully during my stay in Mantua and more upon my return.
Humbly, I shall continue to pray to God for the preservation of your most noble estate.
Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Women and Men in Renaissance Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Private Lives in Renaissance Venice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dressing Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Her Immacluate Hand (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. Binghampton: SUNY.
Translation for Vespucci’s Italian (published at Florence in 1505-6). London, UK: Quaritch’s Edition.
“Principles of Letter Writing”. Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
A Short History of Writing Instruction From Ancient Greece to Contemporary America. New York, NY: Routledge.
Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist: Laura Cereta. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
“Isabella d’Este and the Properties of Persuasion”. Women’s Letters Across Europe, 1400-1700. Jane Couchman, ed.
Figure 1. Venezia
Figure 2. Territories of the Republic of Venice: in dark red the territories conquered at the start of the 15th century, in red the territories at the start of 16th century, in pink the territories conquered temporarily, in yellow the sea dominated by Venetian fleet during the 15th century, in orange the main routes, purple squares are the main emporiums and commercial colonies.
Figure 3. Gold ducato (front and back) of Venice, featuring a Doge kneeling to St. Mark (Doge Venier 1382)
Figure 4. Cassone – http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_encyclopedia/00046961?lang=en
Figure 5. Left – Ca’ Barbaro and Casa Dario on the Grand Canal. Right – The street entrance to Casa Dario
Figure 6. Map of Venice by Zaltieri, 1565
APPENDIX A – Text of Renaissance Letters
From Laura Cereta to Nazaria Olympica (Robin 1997)
Figure 7. Excerpt – Letter from Laura Cereta to Nazaria Olympica (5 pages in total)
From Amerigo Vespucci to Pier Soderini (MK 1885)
 The Most Serene Republic of Venice
 Figure 1
 Figure 2
 Doge (Ruler of Venice) and Advisors
 Libri d’Oro
 Chojnak 2000 pp63
 “non nobilem sed plebeiam”, Chojnack 2000 p54
 Grand Canal
 Giada was born on July 22, the Saint Feast Day for Mary Magdalene (for whom she was named).
 Dowry (monetary)
 Ducats, the gold coins of the Venetians
 Netted cap, akin to a snood
 Mussachio 2009
 Figure 4, Mussachio
 Italian for “house”, shortened in Venetian to Ca’
 Grand Canal in Venetian
 Mainland (territories of Venice)
 Figure 5
 Arabic for “store-houses”
 Reception room or hall in Venetian homes
 Venetian home library/office
 Gallery with open air on one side, in Venice, usually along the Grand Canal
 Well appointed home
 Birth tray
 Pictoral motto or badge
 Bayer , Mussachio
 Doge’s Palace
 Another word for sala, also meaning a social gathering in your sala
 Painted panels on headboards and footboards
 Mardi Gras celebration
 Chairs with cushions, for the comfort of the women
 Hall/gallery with open air on one side, in Venice, usually along the Grand Canal
 Boat or gondola
 Figure 6
 Exceptional women