The true story of a Tuscan romance

Located in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany, Italy, is the town of Cortona, where Giovanni, son of Tommaso, the wealthiest citizen there in 1421, married his daughter Caterina to the lawyer, Mariotto with a dowry of 420 florins. Four years later his other daughter, Isabetta, was married to the merchant Lazzaro, with a dowry of 300 florins.

The discrepancy in dowry payment can be explained away by favouritism but Maristella Botticini’s study on the 15th century Tuscan marriage market reveals that parents often provided their daughters with larger dowries if they were marrying ‘down’ into less wealthy families. Mariotto’s wealth was valued at 270 florins, while Lazzaro being a merchant in the lucrative spice trade, had a wealth estimated at 1,547 florins.

Botticini uses the example of higher dowries for women marrying ‘down’ as evidence of paternal altruism. Although a dowry was administered by the groom in terms of everyday expenditure, technically it was the legal property of the bride’s, and sometimes regarded as a sort of living bequest from parent to daughter. However, dowries also functioned as a market price, although the goods it represented were ambiguous. A bride was evaluated according to her intrinsic worth – the value of her housework, the love and joy she brought to her husband, her child-rearing abilities – and the dowry she came with. A woman lacking in these qualities would have to be compensated by a larger dowry.

Florentine tax records from 1427 reveal that Tuscan women were scarce, yet curiously market conditions were more conducive to women marrying ‘down’, and the price of dowries soared throughout the following century. One explanation is that households had an incentive to marry their daughters as soon as possible while men tended to delay marriage (especially urban men), or not marry at all. Daughters were a potential liability to their paternal household if they never married, and any postponement would mean a higher dowry when they aged. Thus there was a necessity for daughters to marry young. This, coupled with a higher ratio of women to men of marriageable age (late teens and twenties respectively), meant brides faced high competition and had less bargaining power, leaving families vulnerable to paying a large dowry. Moreover, bride households were on average slightly richer than groom households and the desire for marriages to stay within the same residential area and the same type of profession often limited the pool of wealthy grooms. These circumstances made it difficult for a bride from a wealthy household to further improve her situation upon marriage.

The average dowry from 1415-1436 is estimated at 125.5 florins, roughly 20% of the bride’s household’s wealth, at a time when the average urban worker had an annual salary of 14 florins. By the second half of the 16th century, the price of dowries had risen so sharply that historians claim up to a half of all noblewomen in the great Italian towns and city-states became nuns instead for a much smaller dowry. In 1424, Florence introduced the Monte delle Doti, a communal fund whereby parents made a deposit that would accrue interest for 8 to 15 years and the Commune would pay the earned amount as dowry upon the girl’s marriage. If there was no marriage, then the investment reverted to the fund.

A system such as the Monte delle Doti requires a lot of public finance. Florentine merchant Benedetto Dei, celebrates the city’s profitable tax scheme when accounting for Florence’s unrivaled economic prosperity. Thanks to Florence’s tax revenue, the city was able to pay its citizens interest earned at the Monte, with enough left over to “finance a war or, when necessary, to purchase cities or villages.”