Veronica Franco: The Life of a Courtesan in Renaissance Venice and Her Influence on the Analysis of Female Portraiture
Notorious for their allure and beauty, it is no wonder that men travelled from all over Europe to marvel at the Venetian courtesans. These women were the epitome of lust and sensuality. They made their presence known throughout Venice with their extravagant and expensive clothing, layers of jewelry, and colorful makeup. Records show that during the early sixteenth century, there was an approximate number of 11,654 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people.[i] The Venetian commercial sex trade was actually run by older women, not men, and prostitutes wore brightly colored clothing while still exposing their breasts in order to attract customers. Judith C. Brown, and Robert C. Davis note in their book, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy that courtesans commonly stood at balconies, windows, and wore an array of ribbons[ii]. In order to regulate these women on the street and for there to still be a sense of control throughout the city, the government designated a specific area for courtesans to roam and they were to remain only in that area. Eventually, some courtesans began to escape their confined boundaries by making their way into the Piazza of San Marco in search of clientele. The consequence for breaking such a rule in a male-dominated city was the government threatening to shave the heads of these women and have a part of their female identity taken away. However, this seemed to have little effect on the women and they would proceed with their chosen way of life despite the obstacles that men instilled upon them.[iii] Many famous artists depicted the lives and beauty of the courtesans including Carpaccio, Giacomo Franco, Titian, Giorgione, and Bordone. However, because of what we know about Franco’s life, it is possible that scholars are merely assuming that the unknown sitters in the works of the above artists are courtesans. I will discuss what it is that was written about Franco and why that has led scholars to label most of the Venetian female portraiture as depicting courtesans.
As the number of courtesans within the city became higher, their number of enemies slowly increased as well. Curiously, it was aristocratic men who loathed them the most. Not only did their reasons include the breaking of boundaries and invasion of space that the courtesans shamelessly took over, but it was the fact that these women were becoming more popular than the aristocrats themselves.[iv] It was a fight for social status that eventually led to the satirical and outlandish sonnets, verses, and prose composed by these men attacking the courtesans. The Venetian aristocratic men were not the only ones who despised the courtesans; some foreign visitors feared and were even repulsed by the sight of these women. Some of the well to-do men, whose concern was for the morals of the citizens, saw the courtesans as sinful, wicked, and dirty women who lured men into participating in ungodly acts before they proceeded in depleting them of their money. When speaking of his travels to Italy, Thomas Coryat warned the future traveler,
As for thine eyes, shut them and turne them aside from these venerous Venetian objects. For they are double windowes that conveigh them to thy heart. Also thou must fortifie thine eares against the attractive inchauntments of their plausible speeches…so doe thou only breath a few words upon them and presently be gone from them: for if thou dost linger with them thou wilt finde their poison to be more pernicious than that of the scorpion, aspe, or cocatrice.[v]
Likewise, a Milanese pilgrim traveling to the Holy Land paid a visit in Venice and commented accordingly,
They paint their faces a great deal, and also the other parts they show, in order to appear more beautiful…above all, -at least indoors. These Venetian women, both high and low, have pleasure in being seen and looked at; they are not afraid of the flies biting them, and therefore they are in no great hurry to cover themselves if a man comes upon them unexpectedly…perhaps this custom pleases others; it does not please me. I am a priest in the way of the saints, and I had no wish to inquire further into their lives.[vi]
The previous quotes show that the courtesans went against some of society’s religious and moral beliefs, while some men feared that they would be given into temptation by these seductive women and thus commit acts that they would never forgive themselves for; avoiding them was a way of saving their own soul.[vii]
Not to be considered an enemy, the government was still clearly a threat to the profession of a courtesan. It was the government that designated appropriate spaces for men and women in the city, thus decreasing the possibilities for courtesans to come across clientele. It is crucial to note that courtesans alone were not restricted or confined to particular spaces within their homes or geographies within the city, but women of aristocratic families were confined as well, perhaps even to a higher degree than the courtesans. Dennis Romano describes the intricacy of these spaces in his article, Gender and the Urban Geography of Renaissance Venice. Romano examines the gender spaces within the city of Renaissance Venice by defining the roles and responsibilities that were expected of each gender. The author begins by describing what was thought to be a “male’s space” by explaining that men were typically found around the public areas such as the Piazza San Marco and Rialto because that’s where they maintained their business and commerce. It was frowned upon for women to be seen in these areas because they were at risk of physical harm and because it was seen as “immoral” unless the woman was helping her merchant husband. Occasionally, special permission was given to a widow to continue running her husband’s business if it was doing exceptionally well. Women were expected to remain in respectable areas such as houses, parish-neighborhoods, and convents. Romano further explains that some areas of the house itself were according to gender. Men usually remained on the ground floor where they tended their business and livestock while women spent most of their time in the bedrooms and kitchens since these were considered more private spaces. If a woman wanted to go out in public, she had the option to walk within the immediate vicinity around the house where she was well known by neighbors or she could visit the local church and visit friends. Along with confining the well-to-do women, the government found it necessary to keep the prostitutes confined as well, which led to the construction of brothels. Romano makes it clear that it was a woman’s sexuality that concerned Venetian men and confining them made it easier to reassure modest behavior.[viii]
Not only did the government have the power to control the areas allotted to the courtesans, but they felt it necessary to have a say in their wardrobe as well. Although the courtesans were known for their elaborate costumes that consisted of pricey gowns, layers of colorful jewels, and heavy makeup, it is surprising to note that courtesans were strictly forbidden to wear pearls. This is because the courtesans resembled the aristocratic women with such accuracy, that they needed something that would distinguish them as prostitutes. The lack of pearls would surely indicate that they are not of the elite class since such a luxury was reserved for the bourgeoisie. If it were not for the courtesans striving to maintain their high fashion sense, it is possible that they would not be the infamous women they are seen as in the modern era. Most of the Venetian courtesans were rather short in height, and so to make themselves appear taller, they would wear clogs. Not only were the clogs worn to give the illusion that these women were tall, they were also worn to keep the wearer from stepping on their long gowns. However, this fashion trend did not appeal to the government either because many women would fall on the cobblestone streets causing them not only to injure themselves, but to miscarry if they were pregnant. It is important to note, however, that these clogs were not reserved for only the courtesans. On the contrary, women of the nobility wore them as well as they were considered to be fashionable at the time. In art, when one views a Venetian woman wearing the clogs, one can tell whether or not they are a courtesan by noting the people that surround her. If the woman is accompanied only by a male, she is a woman of nobility because she needs her husband to support and ensure that she does not fall while she walks with the clogs on the cobblestones. If the woman depicted is with two other women, one on each side, she is a courtesan because she needs one to hold up her dress so that she does not step on it, and the other to help keep her balance so as not to trip on the pavement.[ix] A specific example of a courtesan shown wearing clogs with the aide of two other girls is shown in the piece entitled, A Venetian Courtesan Assisted by Two Maidservants, by an anonymous artist.[x]
With such restrictions, continual harassment, and threat of violence and disease, it is natural to raise the issue why would women choose the profession of prostitute or courtesan. Most of these women were in fact born into the profession with their mothers having been courtesans as well. They were forced into solicitation because they were not satisfied with their financial situation and thus resorted to prostitution often just to survive. Unfortunately, being born into the lower social class meant that a woman had only three options in life: if she was lucky enough, she would marry and be provided for by her husband. However, if the girl came from a family of extreme poverty and thus could not pay for the dowry, she was either sent into the convent or resorted to prostitution. Stanley Chojnacki describes this situation further in his book, Women and Men in Renaissance Venice. He notes that contrary to popular belief, most girls who entered the convent did not do so because of a spiritual calling. These young girls were put in the convent by their parents because they could not afford the marriage dowry for each of their daughters. This led parents to save up enough money for a few of their youngest daughters who could be easily married and send their oldest ones to a convent. Because most of these girls were in the convent forcefully and not because of a spiritual calling, they did not feel the obliging need to follow the rules.[xi] Curiously, Chojnacki notes that the sexual activities that took place within the convents does not come off as surprising seeing that most of these girls wanted nothing to do with the convent and longed for marriage, thus rebelling by misbehaving in a sexual manner.[xii] The dilemma of costly dowries was not only a problem dealt with by the lower class, it took its toll on the aristocracy as well. Because of the expense of dowries in Venice, three-fifths of all patrician women became nuns in 1581 and a total of 31 convents were built. Seeing this is the case, the Venetian government decided that they should make it easier for parents to marry off more of their daughters and so determined to drastically lower the dowry price.[xiii]
Although the government did in fact have its oppositions to the courtesans exceeding their territory and donning what they thought were inappropriate fashion choices, that is, the clothing of aristocratic women, government could not deny that prostitution was indeed necessary for the city. This was because the commercial sex trade served as an outlet for men and their sexual needs while it prevented the respectable, well to-do women from being sexually attacked. Similarly, sodomy was considered a major problem at the time in Venice and it was seen as ungodly, sinful, and against the nature of the reproductive male heterosexuality. In order to solve this problem, Venice permitted brothels which the government hoped would become an outlet for men to fulfill their sexual desires instead of committing sodomy. Scholars have suggested that the main reason why men were committing sodomy was because they were young men who for some reason were not yet given a wife or their marriage was delayed and either situation caused single men to satisfy their urges in “sinful” ways. In Venice, however, sodomy, viewed as an extremely vicious crime, was an act more feared than syphilis and those found guilty were beheaded and burned to death.[xiv]
Perhaps the most famous Venetian courtesan in the sixteenth-century, Veronica Franco earned the title of cortigiana onesta (honest courtesan) because she took the time to educate herself and dove into the literary world by writing poems and sonnets besides being a courtesan. Born in 1546, Franco learned how to live the life of a courtesan at an early age from her mother who had been one. While her mother, Paola, was indeed married to Veronica’s father Francesco, he produced too little of an income to support his daughter and three sons. Paola took the matter of her family’s income upon herself and become a courtesan to keep her family healthy and alive.
While she was still very young, Veronica married Paolo Paniza, a well to-do physician, but the marriage was quickly ended. She continued to support herself by pursuing the profession of courtesan when she had her first child at the age of twenty by her lover Jacobo Babelli. Because she struggled with her pregnancy, Franco decided to write her will a few weeks before the birth of her child. Luckily, Franco gave birth with few complications and resumed her career. She was able to follow in her mother’s footsteps so accurately and became so successful, that she and her mother were put on the list of best courtesans in Venice. She became so famous, that King Henry III of France himself visited her and they ensued an amorous relationship with Veronica dedicating to him some of the love poems she wrote as well as giving him her portrait to take back to France.[xv]
The life of Veronica Franco was a tough, yet fascinating one. She had a total of six children, three of which died upon birth. In 1572, Franco was summoned to trial by the Inquisition on the charge of witchcraft. The story goes that Veronica had lost a pair of silver scissors in her own home and was determined to find them by using witchcraft. This story is what her charges were based on, but Franco was able to elaborate on it and clear her side by adding the following: she states that she did indeed lose the pair of scissors and her neighbor’s children happened to be at her house at the time. When she told them what had happened, they begged her to use a magical spell to find them such as pouring water in a tub, saying some incantations, and finding the location of the scissors within the water. She told the children that such a thing was nonsense but they begged her so she finally gave in while they proceeded to participate in such ungodly things while she left the room. She came back to tell them to go home and proceeded to giving each of them some food. They then accused her of the witchcraft and of not respecting the holy days for fasting. Franco then defended herself by saying that she had been very ill for the past four months and was given bed rest which was why she could not fast in order to recover from her illness. The court proceeded to dismiss her case.[xvi]
Just as Veronica was able to defend herself in court, she was also able to defend herself against her enemies that wrote satirical poems about her. As previously mentioned, Franco educated herself with the help of her aristocratic friends and thus dedicated herself to writing her Terze Rime which included her sonnets, poems, verses, and epistles from which scholars were able to better her life. Through her works, she describes the hardships she had to endure in a male-dominated society and how she was strongly against mothers raising their own daughters as courtesans.[xvii] Because of her wit and sharp tongue, she gained the respect and recognition that she deserved by not only her peers, but by those who had initially mocked her.
Although she is indeed the best-known courtesan of Venice, surprisingly, it is quite difficult to come across portraits of her. When it comes to depictions of Franco, A Portrait of Veronica Franco, by either Tintoretto or one of his followers, is the painting that most scholars agree is actually of her. Other than this one, there is no other official painting that has the name Veronica Franco written on it except for two other sketches that do have her name clearly beneath them. However, both of these sketches are anonymous and thus do not provide any clues of any of the artists who had wished to paint her. Additionally, there is the engraved frontispiece that appears at the beginning of her Terze Rime that does indeed show her and scholars are confident of this because Franco herself mentions within her book that she is depicted on the cover although she is shown looking ten years younger.
[i] Margaret F. Rosenthal. The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth- Century Venice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 11.
[ii] Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, eds. Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 31
[iii] Ibid, 19.
[iv] Rosenthal, 20.
[v] Thomas Coryat. Coryat’s Crudities. London, 1611. Edited by James Maclehouse. 2 vols. Re-print, Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1905.
[vi] Margaret Newett, ed. Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494. Manchester: University Press of Manchester, 1907.
[vii] Rosenthal, 19-20.
[viii] Dennis Romano. “Gender and the Urban Geography of Renaissance Venice.” Journal of Social History 23, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 339-348.
[ix] Lynne Lawner. Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance (New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 1987), 20.
[x] Ibid, 24.
[xi] Stanley Chojnacki. Women and Men in Renaissance Venice (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 37, 39-43.
[xii] Ibid, 38.
[xiii] Ibid, 44.
[xiv] Lawner, 16-17.
[xv] Georgina Masson. Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance (London: Secker and Warburg Limited, 1975), 152-156.
[xvi] Rosenthal, 153-175.
[xvii] Masson, 165.