In the late Middle Ages in central and northern Italy arose a rapid development of religious confraternities. The formation of the system of the confraternities - or brotherhoods - began in the second half of the 13th Century and, in Venice, continued with diverse characteristics compared to other Italian cities, for the entire successive century and beyond.
A variety of terms were used to define the confraternity: brotherhood, company, society, consortium, congregation and so on, but in Venice the choice fell on the term "scuola" (School) (from the Latin word 'scola' meaning corporation). Initially the word denoted a meeting room usually annexed to a church, but soon became an indication of the brotherhood as a legal entity.
Each Venetian brotherhood had a Patron Saint; they regularly participated in religious services and collective prayers, they entombed their deceased, took part in commemorative masses, gave material and spiritual assistance to sick members or those in need, and defended the interests of their community. In essence, each Scuola was an association with religious aims governed by elected lay officials.
In Venice, at the beginning of the 15th Century there were three fundamental types of confraternity: (1) the Common Schools ("Scuole Comuni" or "Scuole di Devozione"), (2) the Artisan Schools ("Scuole Artigiane") which were fellowships associated with an artisan or commercial corporation, and (3) the School of the Beaten Ones ("Scuole dei Battuti"). The last type of School was established under the influence of the movement of "I Flagellanti" (The Flagellants - also called 'disciplined' or 'beaten') founded in Perugia in 1260. The movement saw widespread public self-flagellation as an act of penitence for the redemption of, not only the individual but also the entire community.
In 1467, the Schools were officially subdivided and redefined: the Scuole Comuni and the Scuole Artigiane came to form a large substrata of the "Scuole Piccole" (Small Schools), meanwhile, I Battuti assumed a dominant role until they became the "Scuole Grandi" (Great Schools or Scolae Magnae in Latin), a peculiar Venetian creation under the control of the 'Council of Ten' ("Consiglio dei Dieci").
A unique aspect of the Common Schools was the "Scuola Nazionale" (National School): formed by a group of immigrants, it offered foreigners a sense of affiliation, functioning as a means of integration with civic life for foreign merchants who visited Venice on business.
There were schools for the citizens of many nationalities: the inhabitants of Lucca, Milano, and Bergamo; the Florentines; Albanians; the "Schiavoni" (i.e. the Dalmatians), a School still in existence today; Greeks; Germans, and in the first years of the 16th Century, also for the Jews but others could have stayed there as well.
The Scuole Artigiane or "Scuole dell'Arte" provided a way for Venetians to integrate their working life with the social and religious relations of a God-fearing life. Historically and legally L'Arte formed a separate identity from the School, even if the associated group could have been identical. All the members of L'Arte -from the masters to the apprentices - governed the activities of the School, its commerce, rules and its regulations. The School served to meet the religious, social and charitable needs of its followers.
In the 1400s the Republic of Venice had around one hundred schools of art. In 1501, Marin Sanudo – a great historiographer – recorded that Venice had approximately 210 Schools, both small and large. Some buildings of Artisan Schools constructed in that period still exist although they have now been adapted for other uses.
Those which were to become the Scuole Grandi were founded: Santa Maria dell Carita and San Marco in 1260, San Giovanni Evangelista in 1261, Santa Maria della Misericordia or della Valverde in 1308 ( probably the derivation of a pre-existent School founded in 1261 and dedicated to San Francesco and the Virgin Mary). Originally there were only the four Scuole Grandi, in virtue of their prestigious origins as Scuole di Battuti.
To these were added the Scuola di San Rocco in 1478 and later, in 1552, the Scuola di San Teodoro for a total of six Scuole Grandi.
In 1410 the Council of Ten stated that in each School of Battuti the most important four offices were to be reserved for 'original' (also called 'with privilege') citizens, and only if they were members of the School for at least twenty years. Such members were understood to be the 'guardian grande', the 'guardian vicario' the 'scrivan' i.e. the administrator, (whose counterparts were also in the 'Scuole Piccole'), and the 'guardian da matin' (' guardian grande' is comparable to the chairman of a board, 'guardian vicario' is the vice-chairman, the 'guardian da matin' is a member of the board that, in the past, was a direct collaborator of 'guardian grande'). The noblemen therefore, despite being permitted to be members of the School, were precluded the possibility of entering the government offices of the School.
As time passed, the most important Schools built palaces for their residents designed by famous architects, and adorned them with paintings by the best artists of the era.
Inside the buildings were banners, crosses, gold and silver relics, candelabras, lanterns, canopies and other objects that were displayed and carried at procession on the Patron Saint's day and at religious and civil festivals. Each brother went annually to make their contribution: with the money so acquired, along with regular offerings, every School was able to build its own property used for charitable works; they also built houses for rental and hospitals and hospices for those in need.
Of great importance was the construction and decoration of the Scuole Grandi which produced some of the best artistic expressions of the period: the splendid marble facia of the Scuola di San Marco (today a general hospital) designed by Mauro Cadussi; the Marble Septum at the entrance of the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista by Pietro Lombardo, the two-flight staircase designed by Codussi for the Scuola di San Marco and for the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista; the panelled ceiling of gilt wood in the "Albergo" (hall) of the Scuola della Carità (today called Galleria dell'Accademia), and the monumental works of I Miracoli della Croce (the Miracles of the Cross) and La Vita di San Marco (the Life of Saint Mark) , displayed at the Gallerie dell'Accademia by Carpaccio, Gentile Bellini and others. For la Misericordia things did not go well, the School commissioned the architect Jacopo Sansovino to build a grandiose and ambitious structure but unfortunately, it was never completed. San Rocco, on the other hand, was more fortunate: the construction, designed by Bon and Scarpignino - two talented architects - was adorned with a cycle of paintings by the genius Jacopo Tintoretto which covered the magnificent hall, transforming it into an incomparable gallery of masterpieces. The last was San Teodoro, designed by the architect Tomaso Contin; his artistic legacy however, has since gone missing.
It appears that in 1675, among the Great Schools, was included the Scuola di San Maria del Rosario that had its main residence near the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo in the chapel known until this day as the Cappella del Rosario (Chapel of the Rosary). The School was founded in 1571 in honour of the Madonna of the Rosary, in memory of the day on which the Christian army won the battle of Lepanto (7th October 1571). Again in 1689, it was classified among the Great Schools, the Scuola di Santa Maria della Giustizia or dei 'Picai' at San Fantin (built in the 15th Century). The School took responsibility to help and comfort the prisoners and the condemned. It was a unique organisation that occupied a position between i Battuti and the Scuole Comuni.
The following century, in 1767 exactly - only thirty years before the fall of the Republic of Venice – the Scuola dei Carmini (Santa Maria del Carmelo) was included among the Scuole Grandi: Founded in 1593, under the initiative of the Carmelite Friars who had sought permission to form a confraternity devoted to the Virgin of Carmelo, and was originally located near the church of Carmini. Subsequently, in the second half of the 1600s; with the acquisition of buildings near the church, the School designed by Baldassare Longhena, hosted a considerable number of beautiful paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Among the beautiful aspects of all the Schools one must not neglect the "Mariegola", the 'statute' of the brotherhood. The writing and design of the Mariegola gained great importance in the 15th Century, when it was copied on precious decorated parchment.
After the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, the Schools were suppressed by a Napoleonic edict (1806 -1807), however, during the nineteenth century some were re-constituted, among them being the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista.
There are five schools still in existence, four great (Carmini, San Giovanni, San Rocco, San Teodoro) and one "national" (The Dalmatians). The School of San Giovanni Evangelista is the oldest.