23/03/2016 – Talk by Renzo Derosas

Title:  Modelling a Demographic Suicide: the Venetian Aristocracy, 1500 to 1800.
Time: 14:30
Location: Meeting room, building Zeta
Type: Research Result
Speaker: Renzo Derosas
BACKGROUND: Around 1500, the Republic of Venice was a leading European power, ruling over an empire that stretched from the current Swiss and Austrian borders on the north, all along the Adriatic coast, to the islands of Cyprus and Crete in the southeast. Although its political regime was celebrated as a mix a democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical features, political power was the monopoly of a limited number of aristocratic families who passed it on from generation to generation. Indeed, Venice was defined “a republic of families”, whose destinies were fully identified with the State they belonged to. On the one hand, the very survival of the Republic depended on the reproduction – demographic, economic, and cultural – of its ruling class; on the other hand, there was hardly a place for the Venetian nobility without the State that supported its privileged status.
The number of aristocratic families grew from ca. 600 in 1400 to a maximum of 900 in 1500, and then declined steadily to a low of 350 at the fall of the Republic (1797). Correspondingly, the noblemen grew from 900 in 1400 to 2,650 in 1500, to fall to 1,100 in 1797. Although contemporaries were aware of the problems deriving from such a trend, all efforts to invert it turned out ineffective. Historians agree that the decline originated in the peculiar marriage policy adopted by the aristocracy: once Venetian nobles converted from merchants into landowners, they allowed only one male per generation to marry. They were obsessed with keeping their assets undivided, since any branching out would jeopardize their social and political standing. Unfortunately, the outcome was disastrous under both the demographic and the economic standpoints. At the fall of the Republic, due to the hazards of reproduction, almost two thirds of the families extinguished, while most of the survivors were heavily impoverished.

OBJECTIVES: With this research project, we challenge the current interpretation of the demographic decline of the Venetian aristocracy. We argue that it is incomplete, inasmuch it does not consider that many noblemen rather remained single than marry, condemning their families to extinction. Such a behavior was deeply contrary to the ethics and the ideology of the aristocracy. How can we explain it? Our aim is to develop a theory that accounts for both the decision to marry or not to marry.

METHODS: Our starting point is the assumption that marital choices in the Venetian aristocracy were primarily a political option, undertaken to enhance a family’s position in the political arena through the acquisition of new kin. More specifically, we hypothesize that, when it came to establish a new and lasting alliance through the marriage of their members, families strove to maximize their relational capital they would acquire. Our related hypothesis is that when the advantage deriving from all potential matches was below a certain threshold, a family would rather abstain from joining the market.
Although the strategic importance of marital choices by the Venetian aristocracy is largely circulating in the literature, the evidence provided thus far was only anecdotal and rather loosely defined. To test our hypothesis, we proceed in a tentative and exploratory way. Since we have only a list of the marriages celebrated along time but not of the population at risk, we define a set of potential partners made up by all those who married in the same year. We then outline the potential ego-networks formed by each match, and compute a series of centrality measures associated to each ego-network. Finally, we run a logistic regression to test whether any of such measures affects the likelihood of a match.