Venice, Italy may be known for many things, including its streets of water and its gondolas, but centuries ago, it was also known for its venetian courtesans. These women -- some of whom fit the idea of a prostitute while others were cultured intellectuals -- made up about 10 percent of the number of Venice's population in the middle of the 16th century. The government and social structure of the city during that time was not immune to the influence of Venice courtesans. In fact, courtesans in politics, like Veronica Franco, were not uncommon; edicts from the city's government reflect how importantly these women were viewed by those in power, many of whom could be found on courtesans' rolls.
The history of courtesans in Venice was long-standing; even officials recognized their place within the city's society. This was recognized in an official document from the Italian republic that setting guidelines for women to be considered courtesans: "Any single woman who has intimate connection with one or more men and also any married woman who does not live with her husband but separately and who has intimate connection with one or more men is considered a prostitute."
For much of its existence, the city on the water was known for its independence; to an extent, this was true even from the Roman Catholic Church. It was said during the middle of the 15th century to the 16th century, the high period of Venetian courtesans' profession and the beginning of the church's inquisitions throughout Europe, that inquisitors were more likely to pacify church dignitaries, rather than follow their rules to the letter.
In fact, documents still exist showing that prostitution was believed to help prevent the spread of evil acts or mortal sins, rather than being one itself. One such document shows that prostitution was believed to combat the spread of homosexuality; acts of sodomy could be punishable through torture or death. At the turn of the 16th century, Venetian courtesans who lived in special quarters were ordered to sit at the windows with their legs outsides and breasts naked to be more attractive to men and combat homosexuality.
Additionally, the flow of money, particularly foreign, was viewed as a benefit to Venice's economy.
Some of the "honest" Venetian courtesans wore clothing that was made of such fine materials that they could sometimes be mistaken for upper class women. Tourists sometimes were confused why women in the city wore such fine but low cut clothing that revealed cleavage, sometimes even breasts, not realizing that despite the fine clothing these were courtesans in Venice. These women were not known to avoid attracting attention to themselves, and often encouraged it with their clothing or outlandish behavior.
Despite this, these women were known to be capable of intellectual discussion and had a knowledge of art and literature that could be lacking in many high society women of the time. Since social events were not always abundant, intellectuals in the city would seek an outlet for conversation. These young, educated people often gravitated to courtesans in Venice for this reason.
Veronica Franco (1546 - 1591) was one of the more famous Venetian courtesans. She was the daughter of a cortigiana onesta and was educated by her mother, who sought to see her daughter married well. Veronica Franco did marry a wealthy physician, but she chose to leave her husband when the relationship ended badly. To support herself financially, she began working as an "honest" courtesan to wealthy men.
Her story is not that different from a number of other cortigiana onesta during the 16th century. Many of them, married or single educated women, were seeking a form of financial security through prostitution.
Veronica Franco did not limit herself to being a courtesan, but pursued her own literary interests. She lived well for most of her life and by the 1570s, she was regularly participating in discussions as part of a prestigious literary circle in Venice and contributed to and edited poetry anthologies. She also wrote two volumes of poetry, herself.
Courtesans in Politics
A cortigiana onesta could easily have patrons who held positions in the city's government, essentially placing these courtesans in politics. In the case of Veronica Franco, they might even have a client who was a king. As a courtesan who catered to the upper class, Veronica Franco had a number of well-to-do clients, the most famous of which was Henry III, King of France. It was said that she presented the king with a portrait of herself. She also included two sonnets to King Henry III in her publication "Lettere familiari a diversi" ("Familiar Letters to Various People").
This did not mean that all courtesans in politics were successful in getting their way with public policy or governmental decisions. Even with the kind of powerful clients that Veronica Franco had, she was not entirely successful when she would make bids for political change. In 1577, she proposed to the city council to establish a home for poor women and that she become administrator of the home, but was unsuccessful in bringing it about.
Luxury, But Not Easy
Venetian courtesans were not immune to the same worries of others within their profession. Sexually transmitted diseases were still a threat, and during the mid-15th century to the mid-16th century, one of the most dangerous was syphilis. Courtesans were among the first victims and were the main spreaders of the disease. There was no predicting what type of clients would prove to be carriers of the disease. Courtesans in Venice could find themselves infected from a doctor or dignitary as easily as an unsavory character. If they became ill, they would almost certainly lose clients and lovers and descend further into poverty and illness.
Venetian courtesans did not only have to worry about the illnesses. The Roman Catholic Church, though it had less of an influence in the city than elsewhere in Italy, still had a presence there. Even Veronica Franco faced a trouble. Though she was cleared of all charges, she faced an inquisition for alleged witchcraft in 1577. This wasn't uncommon for women in the profession during this time.
When compared to their modern or poorer counterparts, it could be surprising to see the roles of courtesans in politics and in literature. These women were sometimes granted more freedom intellectually than their more "respectable" counterparts, which is one of the things that made them so unique for their time.
Biography: Sarah Moses has worked as a reporter and later as a copy editor at a newspaper in western Maryland for the last five years. A graduate of West Virginia University in both Journalism and English, she has always had a great interest and fascination for history.
Also check out Sarah's article 10 of the Most Notoriously Evil Medieval Torture Weapons @ FriendsRevolution
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