18th Century Venice: Roving Cobblers

Here Zompini depicts an itinerant cobbler with her distinctly down-at-heel client. “Col sacco in spalla ziro per la città./ Scarpe e zoccoli conzo à questo, à quella;/ E servo el poveretto a bon marcà.” My translation: “All good Venetians surely can depend / On me their soles and uppers well to mend, / And this poor fellow’s for a groat I’ll tend.” Underlying her exemplary willingness to mend the poor man’s shoes cheaply is a classic Venetian opera buffa of complex and often ineffective regulation. In theory, itinerant cobblers were supposed to apply to the Scuola dei Calegheri e degli Zavateri (the Guild of Boot and Clogmakers) for a license, for which there was a fee. In practice, many simply didn’t bother, either out of an endemic fear of authority or a cheerful willingness to work for cash in hand on the black market. The money they saved by flouting the regulations enabled them to undercut the licensed cobblers, and sell their services for as little as a groat. In 1726, in response to increasing complaints from its bona fide members, the Guild attempted to stamp out unlicensed cobblers by appointing officials to round them up and take them to court . It was an elaborate exercise, involving six special constables, one for each sestiere (district), and reams of further regulation. In 1773 the Guild made it obligatory for all licensed cobblers to stamp the shoes they had repaired – a further layer of bureaucracy that had little lasting effect on the black economy.

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