Architecture and History
In around 1558-1560 the first Provinciale of Lombardy, Jesuit priest Benedetto Palmio, held a series of sermons in Venice with which he urged his listeners to devote themselves to “founding a home for Cittelle (Unmarried Women) to free them from the danger of eternal damnation, the certain fate of virgins who, being beautiful and graceful, unhappily lost themselves due to the malevolence of those who should be solicitous about their health and bring them up in the holy fear of God.” Benedetto Palmio, Cittelle Constitution, 1738).
There was a follow-up to his words, and so much so that in 1599 the Venetian Istituto delle Zitelle (Home for Unmarried Women) was founded. It was administered by two congregations, one of men and one of women. There were about 200 unmarried women in the institution in 1583. Selection for admission was often very difficult. The examiners had to make an evaluation and then express their decision with a vote. Counting first of all was age (…they can not and must not be accepted… if they are not virgins between twelve and eighteen years of age…), followed by their state of health, physical appearance and demeanor (…they are to be healthy… pretty… showy and graceful…).
Lastly, their social and economic conditions were considered.
[…] in danger of being cast down with injury and loss of their eternal salvation, of leading a sad and wicked life due either to malevolence or to the wickedness of fathers and mothers or of other people […] because as they are very poor but very beautiful […] they are incited to evil with many deceptions and with many ways and forces […]
It became necessary to enlarge the institution toward the end of the 17th century. One may assume that it was during this period that the last floor of the complex was added and the two southern wings were built. These wings, surely completed in 1710 as a drawing by Paolo Rossi shows, surround the courtyard with the well bearing the coat of arms of the Loredan family dating to the early 14th century, when the Loredans reclaimed the site by concession of the Senate.
Two low rooms on the sides of the presbytery were also built during this period to allow the girls to hear Mass through grilled windows. The lovely fireplace found on the first floor of the left wing was also built.
Other works did not follow during the next century, except for repairs made to the parts damaged by a fire in 1764. A great change took place during the 19th century. Elderly guests mostly belonging to the patrician class took the place of the young, graceful unmarried women. In actual fact, they used the complex as if it were a monastery.
In 1880 another change of customs and cultural climate prompted the Congregation of Charity to partially reintroduce the original aims by taking in attractive girls in view of a refined and elitist upbringing.
Care for the girls was entrusted to the nuns of Casa Caburlotto in 1901.
The orphanage and other women’s institutions were gathered together in the building starting in 1922. They were then moved to the mainland and elsewhere during the 1970s.
The complex was left empty, and a slow deterioration has reduced it to architectural conditions increasingly in need of repairs.