Travelers who visited in Venice in the 15th, 16th and 17th century never failed to marvel at the number of courtesans in the city. Thomas Coryat writing in 1608 was astonished to note that there were as many as twenty thousand courtesans operating in Venice and said that “many are esteemed so loose that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow.”
The courtesans often dressed in clothing that had revealing cleavage to point even where the breasts were completely exposed. Travelers on occasion mistakenly thought these were the ordinary female citizens of Venice. But just as much as they might condemn the numbers and their behavior, the travelers’ descriptions of Venetian daily life in which the courtesan featured prominently the city is praised as an example of civic and social harmony. Two myths lying side by side.
Venice in fact was a vibrant and complex city, filled with merchants profiting from expanded trade opportunities and proud of its republic standing. The government was organized around a multitude of magistracies and councils and ruled by a doge, elected by a closed patrician group, called the Great Council.
The people were generally a sober lot and the women of their class and the nobility were seldom seen in public. When they did, they too were somberly dressed, in dark colors. Venice was also crowded with people who worked at the shipyards, at the fisheries, the glassworks and other manufacturers in this blossoming commercial centre. Housing was difficult to find, even among the wealthier classes, and few had the luxury (at least in the 15th and 16th century) of owning their own palazzo. Most had apartments or rooms in buildings, some of the poorer classes shared rooms. These conditions among a booming commercial centre created intense rivalries among the young men of various trades. Such competition often gave rise to faction fighting- sometimes fought desperately over bridges like the Rialto. Enemies of any class could be despatched in a dark alley and tossed in the canal.
Poised between these two sides of Venice were the courtesans. There were two classes of courtesans that existed in Venice. The first, cortigna onesta, honest courtesan or intellectual courtesan and the cortigna lume, the lower class prostitutes who lived near and frequented the Rialto Bridge.
The women from the first class of courtesan, the honest courtesan, were often born into patrician or merchant family they were raised as educated and cultured women. But in a society that dictated exorbitant dowries that could often bankrupt a family, extra daughters were often given no opportunity to marry. They could go into a convent and become a nun, but that still required a dowry, though not as large. They could remain in the household an ageing spinster tending to family member, forever dependent and submissive perhaps to a new mistress of the household if it should pass to a brother and his wife. Or circumstances, like poverty from funding a dowry to an older sister, or failed commercial activities could encourage a young woman to consider the life of a courtesan. Often, in these situations, a courtesan could end up being the sole support of their family.
Among the Venetian men generally, courtesans were seen as cultured women who provided entertainment for wealthy noblemen and merchants. In Venice, a man wouldn’t be expected to marry until well into his thirties and courtesans could provide these young men pleasure and culture and hopefully disease free. An older man might take a courtesan as his mistress and enjoy a less inhibited sexual experience than he would from a wife who had most likely been raised in a convent-like atmosphere.
Successful courtesans could enjoy a luxurious life filled with parties and salons. They often moved in influential circles and had access to artists, poets, politicians and the thinkers of the day. In such circles a courtesan had the opportunity to wield influence if she was skilled enough to do so. Aside from the potential for power and influence the honest courtesan still faced the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, something that observed no class barriers.
One of the most celebrated and well known Venetian courtesans was Veronica Franco, born in 1546. Born to the courtesan, Paola Fracassa and the merchant, Francesco Franco she also had three brothers. Her intellectual life began with sharing her brothers' education by private tutors in the family home and while still in her teens she married the physician Paolo Panizza. Probably an arranged marriage, it ended badly shortly afterwards and Veronica was forced to support herself.
Franco became a cortigiana onesta (honest courtesan) in the mid to late 1560s and soon became famed for the intellectual and culture entertainments she provided. She continued her education by frequenting literary gatherings of writers and painters in Venice during the 1570s and 1580s and mingled with politicians, poets, artists and thinkers. She captured the interest of Domenico Venier (1517-1582), a Venetian poet and the head of the most renowned vernacular literary academy in Venice, who became her reader and protector. A frequent visitor to his private literary salon at Ca' Venier (the Venier palace), Franco composed sonnets and capitoli in terza rima for exchange with male poets.
By her mid-twenties, Franco was requesting sonnets for publication from male poets for anthologies that she assembled to commemorate men of the Venetian elite. One such volume, the Rime di diversi eccellentissimi autori nella morte dell'Illustre Sign. Estor Marteninengo Conte di Malapaga, in honor of the Count Martinengo, was published in 1575; she was not only the editor but also included nine sonnets she herself had written.
In 1575, during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city, Veronica Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. On her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity before the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft (a common complaint lodged against courtesans in those days). The charges were dropped. She died in 1591.
I weave courtesans into the novels, The Sea of Travail and The Quest of Hope, part of the Renaissance Sojourner Series.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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