Venetian Scuole

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The Republic of Venice lasted for almost one thousand years and its stability was due to its geographical position in the middle of a protective lagoon,  its effective political system, its social structure and the stabilizing presence of the scuole

The scuole were confraternities, like a  brotherhood. They strived to enrich devotional life, provided spiritual and material aid to it’s members and the communities, and played a crucial role in protecting individuals and families in need.

Their charitable works organized what amounted to a fully-fledged welfare system which was initially for members only, but was gradually extended to the whole population.


In most Italian cities, the clergy, usually of the mendicant orders, were the prime movers in the foundation of confraternities.  The situation in Venice was very different. Laymen, not the clergy, were the founders of most of the confronternities called scuole in Venice.

A wide range of citizens with different backgrounds and professions joined these confraternities.  Membership was limited to a maximum number and it was open to men and women. Vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, and other social outcasts were excluded. Patricians and clergy were excluded from full membership, but they often played an honorary role.

The smaller scuole would allow non citizens to become members. They joined in order to overcome the lack of protection by the State, and to strengthen their national or religious identity, founded several scuole.

Each scuola was governed by elected lay officials.  It was one of the few possibilities for non-noble Venetian citizens to control powerful institutions.

The government of the scuole involved four major officials:  the leader (guardian grande), his assistant (vicario), a record keeper (scrivano), and a master of the novices (guardian da matin). Two further deacons (degani) assisted with keeping contact with the brothers, who could be scattered all around Venice’s sestieri (neighborhoods)

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Early in the history of the development of scuole (in the 13th century) there were  3 different types:

protected the interests of different categories of workers and regulated their activity

 grouped the members of foreign community  


 One that would be important was the Scuole dei Battuti (Beaten Ones) 


In 1467, the scuole were officially organised by creating the Scuola Grande and the Scuola Piccola. They Scuole Piccole were created by merging the artisan and national scuole and the devotional scuole became known as  the Scuole Grande (Great Schools). The Scuole Grandi were taken over by the Scuole dei Battuti. They saw   ritual self-flagellation as an act of penitence for the redemption of the individual and the community.

The common element of the different Scuole was devotion to a particular saint who became the patron saint to whom they dedicated an altar in a church.

They were essentially charitable institutions providing something of a welfare system for poorer class members, widows and orphans. This included the provision of money, food, housing, clothing and burial of those would could not afford.  Their activities grew to encompass the organization of processions, sponsoring festivities, distribution of money, food and clothing to poorer members, provision of dowries to daughters, and the supervision of hospitals.

The scuole grande had meeting houses usually next to the church sponsering them.

The scuole piccoli were much smaller confraternities that had varying functions;some had primarily religious motivations, others acted as centres for colonies of foreign residents like Turkish or Slav merchants, the remainder acted as craft and trade guilds. Famous artists like Giovanni Bellini and Tintorettobelonged to a scuola piccolo.

Only some of the Scuole Piccoli had dedicated meeting spots. They often met in   parish churches. Some of the meeting places of these confraternities have been preserved.

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By 1552, there were six Scuole Grandi and in 1767, a seventh was added. Because they included individuals who had diverse occupations they to could afford spectacular meeting-houses. They erected monumental buildings designed by famous architects, close to the church of their patron saint and often with an affiliated hospital.

Looking to San Rocco, a typical meeting house, the main building on the ground floor consisted of an androne, or meeting hall for the provision of charity. It would have a nave with 2 aisles with the entrance from the campo.  The upper floor contained the salone used for meeting of the Capitolo and a smaller room, the albergo, used for meetings of the Banca and Zonta (confraternity’s supervistory boards). It might have an altar.  They often had an affiliated hospital and church. The Scuola often sheltered relics, commissioned famous works of art, or patronized musicians and composers.

The schools’ seats were palaces with decorated facades and rich in a remarkable artistic heritage. In addition to the works of art, they also contained furnishings, sacred images, and relics which, unfortunately, were dispersed among art and antique dealers from all over the world with the fall of the Republic of Venice and with the Napoleonic invasion of the early 1800s.

Scuola Piccole: From the 13th century; to the fall of the Republic; there were around 900 and they formed the backbone of everyday life in Venice.

Some Scuole Piccoli had dedicated meeting houses; many did not, and met in parish or conventual churches. Some of the meeting places of these confraternities have been preserved.

The Scuole as art Patrons: Teleri & Altarpieces

Eventually, the scuole superseded their charitable origins, investing masses of money into what were effectively vanity projects such as works of art and processional banners. This led to competition amongst the scuole for 
prestige, pomp and grandeur.

Students from WPI created a database cataloguing 170 altars commissioned by the scuole, and 181 public displays of art from the scuole.As far as we were able to determine, every one of the 900+ scuole had at least one piece of public art that identified the building. These altar pieces that the scuole commissioned were paintings and sculptures created by such celebrated Renaissance artists as Tintoretto, Bassano, Sansovino, and Palma il Vecchio, contributions that certainly constitute a large part of Venice’s identity and validate the role of the scuole as patrons of the arts



art from grande


The scuole piccole also served an important role in the patronage of Venetian art. They donated many altarpieces to churches and commissioned some artwork for their own meeting houses—though not on the scale of the Scuole Grandi.  They are known for the large narrative painting cycles they commissioned called (teleri). The subject matter of these teleri were religious but they also carried secular and civic connotations. The stories these paintings told provided a visual journey into understanding Renaissance Venice. 

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