Venetian Noblewomen and their Terrace Living

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This painting is Vittore Carpaccio’s Two Ladies on a Terrace, painted in 1500. When I first saw this painting, it immediately inspired the first chapter of my new novel. I envisioned a group of noble Venetian ladies from the Renaissance taking their ease on the roof of a palazzo along the Grand Canal, playing games, laughing. In today’s Venice, affluent or not, ladies go wherever they please, dressed how they please. But in Renaissance Venice, aristocratic women did things a little differently.

According to Patricia Fortini Brown’s Private Lives in Renaissance Venice, young noble ladies, should they be out on the street, would have been covered in a veil. They didn’t run around the city just for fun, face uncovered. And in their homes, general visitors likely wouldn’t bump into one of these ladies; they would have been kept away to more private chambers furthest from the front door. For the most part, male servants kept to men’s quarters and female servants to the ladies’ rooms. Now, as for married Venetian noblewomen, they were far more seen and far less veiled, though still would have remained modest in dress and behavior.

So where did all the aristocratic women, married or unwed, go for fresh air and fun? The altane above their houses and palazzos! An altana was a covered roof terrace, though many terraces were also uncovered. Eat, play games, get some sun, sing, dance, tend to plants and play with your pets. Girl party!

I love this painting because it gives us a little glimpse into this sort of Venetian setting, from 1500! The lady that is sitting tall is said to be a newlywed. How do we know? Young brides wore those strands of pearls. Don’t ask me how you’re supposed to differentiate the long-time wedded from the newlyweds…as didn’t all Venetian noblewomen drip in pearls? We’d have to ask a historian. Look at those slashed sleeves, look at those six-inch chopines (those red healed clog shoes at the left). Look at the pearls beaded around the necks of their dresses. I wonder what that missive laying on the ground says. I bet it is an intriguing letter filled with scandalous gossip! What are they doing with so many pets altogether? Wouldn’t that toothy dog take a bite out of that parrot? Love it!

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