Immigrants, Cunning Women, and the Othering of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Dr. Anna Bennett specializes in the history of material culture, gender, magic, and society in premodern Europe. Her first peer-reviewed article, “Bagatelle or Stregamenti: The Spiritual Potential of Material Objects and Spaces in Late Rinascimento Venice, 1580-1630,” received the 2017 Journal of Women’s History Graduate Student Article Prize, the 2018 University of Miami Center for the Humanities Early Modern Essay Prize, and appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the JWH.


In 1690 the Venetian Holy Office, the city’s local branch of the renewed Roman inquisition, sentenced the seventy-five-year-old Greek immigrant Samaritana Rossi to eighteen months in prison. After hearing testimony from seventeen witnesses claiming Samaritana had sold them magical materials or performed spells on their behalf, the tribunal found her guilty of sortilegii, a term that meant divination but was invoked to cover an array of subversive magical pursuits in seventeenth-century Venice.[1] How can we explain the unusual severity of this sentence meted out on an elderly woman? The answer lies in the agency that Samaritana’s foreignness gave her as an alluring practitioner of magic, and as a result, the threat that religious authorities believed she posed within her community.

Samaritana came from the Venetian colony of Corfu. After immigrating to Venice in the 1660s she settled in Castello, a diverse urban district where the streets echoed with Venetian dialect, Greek, and Slavic languages. Intermingling immigrant groups also brought distinct religious practices. Studying women like Samaritana takes us to the front lines of cultural tensions and interactions between “native” Venetians and their marginalized neighbors, and between authorities seeking to maintain religious orthodoxy and women carrying out syncretic spiritual practices in attempts to solve daily challenges that accepted religious devotions seemed unable to overcome.

Figure 1: View of residential buildings along the Rio della Tana in Castello, Venice. Author’s photo.

Cunning folk—informal brokers of spiritual knowledge and power—exercised influence in their neighborhoods for their perceived abilities to resolve everyday problems with magic. Inquisition records reveal that while denouncing witnesses were quick to point to an accused witch’s outsider status, immigrant cunning women used the same markers of ethnic, linguistic, and religious difference with which “native” Venetians othered them as instruments of esoteric spiritual knowledge and sources of agency.[2] Albanian immigrant Segonda Tempon marketed herself as a spiritual interpreter who could commune with spirits of deceased Albanians.[3] Samaritana Rossi wrote prayers in Greek on slips of paper—called orationi—that she sold as elements of spells or talismans. One witness complained she did not understand the words on the card Samaritana gave her, suggesting that because she could not read Greek, she thought the prayer was really a sinister incantation.[4] Folk healer Marietta Greca was accused of witchcraft by her former patient Laura because, among other things, she had made the sign of the cross over Laura’s body while muttering “certain words softly, which seemed to be in Greek,” insinuating Marietta had performed Greek Orthodox rites on a Catholic, or worse, chanted a spell over her.[5] By centering their native language and religious tradition in healing and magical practices, these women blended diverse beliefs into local spiritual culture and attracted a paying clientele.

Figure 2: Artist: Anonymous, Dutch, 17th century, Publisher: Clement de Jonghe (Dutch, Brunsbüttel (Landkreis Dithmarschen) 1624/1625-1677 Amsterdam), Poet: Arnoldus Montanus (Dutch, ca. 1625-83). mid-17th century. View of Venice. Print. Place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Members of Venice’s Jewish community, long othered by the majority Catholic population, also gained tenuous agency by crossing the city’s cultural and spatial boundaries through the practice of magic.[6] Rachel Giovine, for example, allegedly helped Catterina Barrozzi to perform a ritual to make Catterina’s wayward lover return to her. Catterina testified that because she did not know “how to make him come running to my house, I have a Jewish woman named Rachel Giovine… who is in the Ghetto here in Venice” who helped her regain his love.[7] On 18th October, 1639, the feast of San Luca, Catterina, Rachel, and a woman from Padova named Adriana “threw rock salt over the fire and whoever I would see would be my lover…”[8] Rachel’s participation in this love magic, involving the invocation of a saint, reveals a cross-cultural discourse between the city’s Christian and Jewish communities about spiritual power and how to harness it in everyday life. Catterina perhaps wanted to distance herself from subversive spiritual acts by enlisting Rachel to help her, but why did Rachel participate? Did she feel less fear about attempting to manipulate a Christian saint? Did she believe in Saint Luke’s ability to summon Catterina’s lover, or was she only trying to humor her, possibly in return for payment? Whether they shared ideas about spiritual influences on daily life with Catholic Venetians like Catterina or simply a more practical desire to gain income and influence by practicing magic that appealed to them, female practitioners of magic from Venice’s immigrant and marginalized communities helped to shape the city’s spiritual culture in their pursuit of economic freedom and greater control over their daily lives.

While this analysis just scratches the surface of the recurring, dynamic presence that “othered” women had in Venetian Holy Office anti-magic cases, these examples demonstrate rich possibilities for further study into the circulation of spiritual beliefs and practices that flowed through seventeenth-century Venice with travelers and tidal waters. Women of marginalized immigrant groups and religious traditions carved out a place for themselves in seventeenth-century Venetian society by putting syncretistic spiritual beliefs to practical use. Witchcraft created space for women like Samaritana and Rachel to turn their “otherness” into instruments for tangible agency and influential elements of local spiritual culture.

[1] Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Sant’Ufficio, busta 125, Samaritana Rossi, sortilegii, 1687-1690. (Archive, collection, and busta hereafter referred to as ASV, SU, and b., respectively). For more on the prosecution of sortilegii cases by the Venetian inquisition, see Anna Bennett, “The Magic of Things: Matter, Spirit, and Power in Venice, 1580-1730,” (PhD Diss., University of Miami, 2021).

[2] Religious rituals were an important agent in cultural negotiations between the Venetian metropole and its colonies. For more see Milena Grabačić, “Multiple and Fluid: Religious and Diasporic Belonging in Venice’s Maritime State in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period,” Diaspora 19, 1 (2010): 74-96.

[3] ASV, SU, b. 107, Segonda Tempon, sortilegii, 1654; denunciation given by Stefano de Carnia, 7 May 1654.

[4] ASV, SU, b. 125, Samaritana Rossi, sortilegii, 1687-1690; testimony of Elisabetta Sartori given 8 September 1688.

[5] ASV, SU, b. 75, Marietta Greca, stregheria (witchcraft), 1620-1622; testimony of Laura Cimatoni, 12 May 1620.

[6] While construction of the ghetto physically walled off Jewish Venetians from the rest of the city in beginning in the early sixteenth century, scholars now tend to think of these institutions as porous to cultural and social interactions with the larger population. See Giorgios Plakotos, “Diasporas, Space, and Imperial Subjecthood in Early Modern Venice: A Comparative Perspective,” Diasporas 28 (2016): 37-54.

[7] ASV, SU, b. 95, Catterina Barozzi et. al., sortilegii con invocazione de demoni, 1639; confession/denunciation given by Catterina on 27 August 1639.

[8] Ibid.


Bibliography

Archival Sources

Archivio di Stato di Venezia

Collection: Sant’Ufficio (Holy Office)

ASV, SU, b. 75, Marietta Greca, stregheria (witchcraft), 1620-1622.

ASV, SU, b. 95, Catterina Barozzi et. al., sortilegii con invocazione de demoni, 1639.

ASV, SU, b. 107, Segonda Tempon, sortilegii, 1654.

ASV, SU, b. 125, Samaritana Rossi, sortilegii, 1687-1690.

Secondary Sources

Bennett, Anna. “The Magic of Things: Matter, Spirit, and Power in Venice, 1580-1730.” PhD Dissertation, University of Miami, 2021.

Grabačić, Milena. “Multiple and Fluid: Religious and Diasporic Belonging in Venice’s Maritime State in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period.” Diaspora 19, 1 (2010): 74-96.

Plakotos, Giorgios. “Diasporas, Space, and Imperial Subjecthood in Early Modern Venice: A Comparative Perspective.” Diasporas 28 (2016): 37-54.

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