18th Century Venice: the Darker Side of Dairy Farming

Here Zompini portrays a milkmaid about to set off on her daily round of deliveries, having unloaded a consignment of milk. I’m aware that my translation of the rhyme has a dangerously greetings card feel to it, but at least it hammers home the point that the milk came all the way from Campalto and Botenigo, two dairy farming centres on the mainland: “Campalto’s milk is pure and sweet, / and Botenigo’s too. / We bring it all the way by boat, / Especially for you.” Despite the cheeriness of the image, there was a dark side to milk production in Venice, that led to prolonged and acrimonious disputes throughout the latter half of the 17th century and well into the 18th. Distribution of milk in the city was controlled by the Arte dei Pestrineri, perhaps best translated as the Dairy Produce Guild. The problem the Guild faced was that according to the terms of its incorporation in 1656, it had to pay an annual due to the Senate amounting to the upkeep of five warships – this was punitive, but was felt to be fair quid pro quo for a monopoly on the sale of milk and dairy products in Venice. In order to meet its obligations, the Guild charged dairy farmers a fee for the right to sell their milk in the city. It set up a mini customs house, strategically placed on the waterway into Venice, to extract this due. Of course the farmers were quickly up in arms, and began to use alternative routes to smuggle milk into the city. The Guild retaliated by upping surveillance on the lagoon and prosecuting the milk racketeers they caught. Fines and imprisonment were not unusual. Indeed in September 1696, Zuanne Trevisano, Captain of the Magistrate’s Boats, reports that he arrested one Catte Michielotta for milk smuggling and “consigned the felon hereunder described to the Rialto prison in due obedience to the requirements of Justice”. The waters were muddied still further when the Guild set up its own dairy farming operation on the mainland, in direct competition with local farmers. The clergy were involved too, since they were called on to sign certificates attesting to the good standing of anyone producing or selling milk. Since in those days the clergy were likely to sign virtually anything in exchange for a suitable backhander, this aggravated rather than smoothed the adminstrative process. The issues were finally resolved force majeur following the fall of the Republic in 1797, when Napoleon overhauled the entire adminstration of the city and set in place a more equitable, or at least a less fragile, legal framework. Meanwhile the descendants of Zompini’s milkmaid carried on their deliveries well into the 19th century, as witnessed by the 1841 engraving below. They were no doubt protected by their patron saint, Bridget of Kildare, whose cult had taken root in Piacenza in the 11th century and subsequently spread throughout Italy.

3 thoughts on “18th Century Venice: the Darker Side of Dairy Farming

  1. Your posts are so wonderfully informative and so full of fascinating facts, that although, as I told you, I have several books about Venice, you have perswaded me (easily!) to add your book to my collection.
    Thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

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