From whence Gastaldo?

The family name, Gastaldo, is not common in Italy nor is it found throughout the country.  Merriam-Webster’s definition is that of  the representative of a Medieval Italian king particularly in Lombardi, northern Italy.  The gastald, a paid official,  was in charge of some part of the royal domain having civil, martial, and judicial powers. A 643 CE edict (Edictum Rothari) gave the gastalds civil authority in the cities and were held as “secular lords”  in the countryside (if one can trust Wikipedia and there isn’t very much here or elsewhere online). By the 9th Century, the official’s role became administrative and this function remained into the 13th Century where the gastaldo was used to designate one who assumed a leading position in a guild. And, in Milan, the institution of gastaldi remained a part of the cathedral chapter until the middle of the 15th Century, the end of the Middle Ages.

In the Venetian Republic, the name is associated with the guilds of ferry men and gondoliers as early as the 14th Century. As early as 1407, the Grand Master of the Lodge was called, as in the ancient Lombard Lodges, Gastaldo (Scott, Leader, 1899, The Cathedral Builders: The Story of a Great Masonic Guild, Charles Scribner’s Sons). The following is a synthesis from Horatio F. Brown’s (1904) book entitled Life on the Lagoons: La Traghetti“.

Transportation in Venice was, and continues to be, by boat. The most recognizable water transport being the gondolas but the ferries, known as traghetti, cross the Grand Canal and the Giudecca. There were as many as sixteen traghetti operating in the city.

Each traghetto is a guild, or corporation, with its own set of rules and structure. The oldest of these remaining mariegole dates from 1344 CE, but the same officers under the same titles continued into the 20th Century. Each religious guild of ferry men or gondoliers, called a scuola, was protected by a patron saint associated with the church on their island or location. Not only did a scuola provide financial donations to their church, they helped the poor and sick, and assisted in burial of the dead, as part of their duties. The last duty of the scuola was to keep order among its members and guarantee their good conduct, while protecting the organization’s interests. Oversight of these responsibilities was the responsibility of the Gastaldo.

Each school followed the same structure as the traghetti and elected their officers on a yearly basis. The chief officer, the gastaldo, was the official representative of the school and held responsible by the Government for member behavior and finances. The gastaldo presided at meetings, kept the organization’s accounts (along with two compagni [councillors] and the scrivano [secretary]), and disbursed funds. Each year a new gastaldo was elected and a gondolier could be re-elected after a three-year hiatus. In the 16th Century, expanded duties of the office included responsible for payment of all of the taxes owed by his traghetto and, thereafter, the position became “onerous.” These conditions changed the administrative structure of the guild.

A five member bancali (executive committee) became the norm, with the gastaldo assisted by two compagni and two sindici. Expanded duties were delegated to six deacons and deaconeses, under whom non-official members of the school were placed. Their responsibilities included attending to the sick, making funeral arrangements, and answering for the subscriptions and taxes of their respective companies to the gastaldo. As gondolier’s ribald-and-scandalous disorder erupted in the traghetti during the 16th Century, known as the age of the bravi, the gastaldi were caught not being able to control their membership and balancing the demands placed upon them from the Venetian government to maintain fraternal order. The gastaldi were held responsible for the conduct of their members, fined and punished. Nevertheless, these officers were incapable of restoring order to their respective traghetti. By the beginning of the 17th Century, the Venetian government stepped in to revolutionize the character of the traghetti, including the loss of property and the guild’s “liberties.” No longer were the granting of gondolier licenses the right of the traghetti, but now these rights were transferred to the Venetian state.

Thereafter, the corporate life of the traghetti was closed by the Venetian government. The scuola survived until the end of the Republic in 1797 but no longer serves the same functions as it did hundreds of years previously. And as of the early 20th Century, the traghetti was still governed by its gastaldo and bancali. City administrative correspondence and functions handled by the gastaldo appear to have remained undiminished since the 14th Century.

A very few other references to the family name, besides obituaries, include:

  • The function of the Gastaldo in Venice took on another role in the 15th Century. Here, the Grand Master, or Gastaldo, oversaw the construction of the Venetian Lodge (Scott, L., 2013, The Cathedral Builders: The Gastaldo also served as the guild’s accountant.
  • In 2013 while studying the charters of several guilds of ferryman, Kate Lowe discovered that several Black Africans were members of Venetian gondola guilds included, and several held the highest rank, the “Gastaldo.” “Ser Giovanni ethiops” (“Mr. John from Ethiopia”) held this position of one guilds in 1514. Giovanni was an African who had been enslaved and employed by the patrician Cappello household. He rose from domestic slave to freed gondolier, and held this position of authority over his peers in the Guild.
  • In Umbria, near Gubbio (the famous site where the bolide impact triggering the end-Cretaceous extinction was first identified), is the Palazzo del Gastaldo in Montegna, known as the Gastaldo Valley.  Today, the Palazzo is a hotel and restaurant.
  • The Longobard Temple, in Cividale del Friuli, Udine, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, is a Unesco World Heritage site and considered the best preserved architectural evidence of the Longobard age. It exhibits an architectural style that blends Roman art with Lombardian, Carolingian and Ottonian motifs. Construction was completed near the middle of the VIII century in the location where the gastaldia (or gastaldaga, or gastalderia), or the Palace of gastaldo, lord of the city, once stood. In addition to the palace was the seat of government longobardo, the residence of the duke, and the Chapel of the Court. Subsequently, the gastaldia was transformed in the Ursuline monastery of Santa Maria in Valle.