Florence: Caught in the tavern

This third blog on tavern culture in 16th-century Florence looks at regulation. Previously I suggested that towards the end of the century the tavern became a battleground in the struggle to reshape urban identities. What was required – and the pressure came both from the government and from the mainly clerical agents of Catholic Reform – were sober, sexually continent, doctrinally correct, economically productive Christians. Taverns, on the other hand, apparently produced nothing but lustful, blasphemous, lazy drunks. It’s by no means a new idea that early modern Italy (and indeed Europe) saw plenty of initiatives to reform social behaviour. Nor is there much doubt that taverns played an important role in that drama. Yet I think there’s still something to tease out about the social dynamics of “discipline”. Particularly how it was gendered, how what took place was a bid to reform male culture, to produce good men, good masculinities.

Florence’s most significant ‘anti-taverns’ moment came in 1588. That spring the word in the city was that the new grand duke, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, wanted his subjects to stop going to the tavern, and that this was why, after a poor harvest,  he had opened up the city’s grain warehouses to the poor at well below the market rate. So in May, in the wake of a preaching campaign over Easter, the big textile-industry confraternities – at least a couple of thousand men – voted almost unanimously to strip their members of “all the offices and honours they love” (their words) if they were caught in the tavern, with expulsion for repeat offences. The confraternity of the cloth dyers, seeking ducal ratification for their new anti-taverns statute, wrote that “they were moved to do this for their own universal benefit, and in order to do something pleasing to Your Most Serene Highness and to honour God and [their patron saint] San Onofrio”. A few days later the confraternities staged pious processions to the Marian shrine at the church of the Santissima Annunziata in order to seal this pact of abstinence – with each other, with God, and with the Grand Duke.

This was the public face of the new anti-taverns contract, and it was incorporated into the government’s general reform of Wool Guild regulations the following year. But could the ban be made to stick? In order to enforce it, the confraternities set up a regime of surveillance whereby police officials or anyone else of “good reputation” could claim a small reward for shopping “transgressors”. In one of the first, and few, surviving denunciations, from September 1588, seven brothers of the city’s main confraternity of silk-weavers claimed to have caught another four, including a serving confraternal captain, drinking in the Trave Torta, a watering hole at the southern foot of the Ponte alla Carraia bridge. However the denunciation system soon began to crumble. Not only was it open to opportunistic abuse, more fundamentally it was unsustainable for elective and participatory bodies whose sacred bedrock was unity and peace. In 1591, the silk-weavers faced that reality and flip-flopped, now prohibiting brothers from testifying against each other. In effect this was an admission that the taverns ban was too divisive, unenforceable, and that support for it had never been as universal as the original votes suggested.

Failure or not, the attempt to outlaw taverns in 1588 tells us a lot about the regulatory currents rippling through urban culture in the late 16th century. For religious reformers, the essential impulse was to harden the boundary between the world of the sacred and the world of the profane. For them, the tavern was in space what Carnival festivity was in time – a prime opportunity for sin. Following the Council of Trent,  Florentine synodal law, backed up by parish visitations, looked to purify confraternal piety by banning meals and “drinking parties” in the oratories of these devotional and charitable societies. At the same time, confraternal statutes, ecclesiastically approved, became more shrill in their prohibitions on tavern-going (even the Tavernkeepers confraternity officially frowned on lock-ins). And in these documents taverns were typically linked to a smorgasbord of wrongdoing that could cost brothers their membership, in particular illicit sex and gambling.

The anxieties of moralists had some basis in reality. Prostitution and sodomy had long been associated with taverns, especially those of the city centre. Indeed in the rich Florentine lexicon of erotic double-entendre, osteria signified the backside, while barfly (taverniere) was another way of saying sodomite. In the hypersexualised Carnival song literature, where double-entendre was everything, two well-known city-centre taverns appear together several times: the Fico (cunt) and the Buco (arse). In one, Alfonso de’ Pazzi’s Song of the Barflies, penned in the late 1540s, the barflies address “the ladies” – the standard format of the genre – to tell them that while they preferred sodomy to straight sex they’d go to the tavern of the Fico since the Buco was closed for non-payment of taxes. As an earlier blog pointed out, the Buco was indeed a well-known venue for sodomy. Gambling, meanwhile, was also intimately associated with taverns. In fact when it came to regulating tavern culture, the government didn’t have a lot to say about drinking, but it repeatedly banned “all kinds of games in any tavern of the city of Florence, either on the little walls outside or on the tables of those taverns”. Punishments for gambling became progressively harsher. In the 1560s you might have to endure the common torture of one or two drops on the rope (strappado) and a modest fine, but by 1585 this was coupled to a three strikes and you’re out policy. Literally out, sent off to the galleys at the grand duke’s pleasure.

Which brings the subject to gender, or rather the combination of class and gender. New imperatives to clean up public morals largely meant cleaning up the morals of the lower classes – with artisans coerced, exhorted and persuaded to become agents of their own redemption. The 1588 anti-taverns pact is a prime example. Almost all the men in the textile industry confraternities were non-citizens or “plebeians”. In the case of the cloth dyers, where the shop owners were sometimes men who belonged to “noble” families and who sat in the brotherhood as “masters”, tavern-going was only prohibited for “labourers”. When these same labourers formed their own sub-confraternity a few years later, in 1595, the dyers’ top official remarked that this “revealed a righteous zeal, in showing that they wanted to do a beneficial thing for their souls and remove themselves from gambling and the tavern”. Ducal legislation against gambling also reveals how the problem was often seen in terms of class. When the well-off (persone da bene) complained about gambling meets in public places, the government reacted by progressively adding to the list of gambling no-go areas. Apart from outlawing gambling in the tavern (considered a kind of quasi-public space where, as anti-gaming laws suggest, the boundary with the street outside was highly permeable), a law of 1566 banned it in any street or piazza, except along the city walls or where there were no houses. In 1579, the government said lower class men had perverted with dishonest and deceitful games the few places where gambling was still tolerated, so it extended the ban to loggias, gardens and shops. By 1585 gambling along the walls was out too, and also along the banks of the Arno.

At the same time, the 1588 campaign points up how the taverns problem was also framed explicitly as a problem of men, of lower-class male sociability. The cloth dyers wrote of how they wanted to promote “the universal peace and quiet of each person, so that they should have more chance of living in a Christian fashion, enjoying the fruits of their labour with their families”. The silk weavers said tavern-going was “damaging the souls of Christians, and destroying their houses, children and families”. If a brother was caught in the tavern and lost his benefits, or was expelled, this punishment specifically excluded the confraternal alms paid to his wife and the dowries for his daughters. A couple of years before the ban, the silk weavers found that officials charged with delivering alms to the “poor of the house” were going off with the recipients and drinking the money in the tavern. The cash was diverted to increase the payment made to members’ wives after childbirth. Again, legislation against gambling talked in similar terms. Artisan and poor men were causing “grave damage” to their wives and families; they should be out earning money, not wasting their time and limited resources with games of chance. In fact I think it’s fair to say that the entire economy of moral reform turned around replacing the sinful expenditure of men for “charity” that protected women and children, substituting male sin for female honour. The cash saved from banning confraternal feasts was overwhelmingly redirected to dowries, to an ideal of female and familial integrity – and indeed there was an explosion of confraternal dowry funds between the 1570s and early 1600s.

So … good Christians, good workers, good men. A rising urban population and the difficult economy of the late 16th century played a role in all of this. Pauperisation and unemployment created fertile terrain for the ideals of the religious reform movement and roughly aligned its agendas with those of the state. And it seems that a decent number of artisan men appropriated as their own the idea that the tavern represented nothing but a social evil, the venue for undesirable aspects of male culture. The bid to put a stop to tavern-going in Florence may have ended in failure, but 1588 was not a good year to head out for a drink after work.

David Rosenthal

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