Independent Women: Courtesans In The Italian Renaissance Essay, Research Paper
Prostitution is normally thought of as anyone who sells his or her body for money. In this century, no distinction is put on the class level of the prostitute or on how much or how little he or she earns, they are still considered just a common prostitute. This was not true of 16th century Italy, though. In this age, prostitution was a legal business and class lines were of great importance. At the top of this list were the honest courtesans; honest because they believed they acquired their capital through honest means. They redefined the male humanist category of virtue as a woman’s intellectual integrity and used this, their outstanding wit and intelligence, along with their bodies to earn their living. The courtesans of Italy, especially Venice and Rome, were the flowers of the city. Visited almost exclusively by the men of the upper class, the courtesans had to project an image of sophistication and nobility. They held their own with the male nobility and were often admired and considered intellectual equals by these men. Unlike the imprisoned and sheltered noble women of Italy, either enslaved in an arranged marriage or locked up in a convent, the courtesans were independent and free to do as they wished. Precursors to the modern women of today, the courtesans of 16th century Italy were intelligent and well read, they earned their living by their beauty and wit, and were mistresses of their own fate.
To completely understand the life of the courtesans, one must first realize what made these women choose the life of a prostitute. In Italy at this time, women had very few choices. The only virtuous and “honest” choices for girls entering their teens were to become married or to enter into a convent but, later in the century, even these choices were stolen from them. Owing either to class inferiority or to gender, many Italian women were placed in morally precarious positions that compromised their human dignity, personal freedom, and individual beliefs. Due to a major change in culture, the prospects of marriage for women of the upper classes were drastically reduced. To ensure concentration of inheritance on a single line and prevent dispersal of resources through the payment of dowries, many families among these classes tried to limit marriages to one or two in each generation. This did not leave the eldest daughters many options. Many of them were forced into convents, forced claustration, or they entered of their own free will because they felt that they had no other choice. This led to increased pressure on the convents and the cost of placing daughters in them grew so high that many families could not even afford that. Woman’s power and standing in the family depended crucially on the possession of a dowry and refusal of the option of marriage left these women dowerless and effectively disinherited. This left the “excess” daughters only two choices, life as secular spinster or life as a prostitute (Cox 532-534). Many other young women were introduced to the profession at a very early age by their mothers, courtesans themselves who were no longer young and beautiful and were unable to support their daughters any more. Some daughters even had their fees paid directly to their mothers (Rosenthal “Terze Rime”). This practice of selling off daughters to prostitution slowed down after 1570, though, due to a law passed in the Council of Ten in 1563. The ruling attempted to prevent mothers from prostituting their young daughters for the purpose of receiving economic support. The senate legislated to punish any person involved in violating the chastity of an unwed girl, or anyone who received favors from young women, especially if minors. Rather than punish the young girl, whom the senate regarded as the innocent victim, the ruling prescribes that the offenders, usually mothers, who prostitute their our daughters be severely punished. The punishment was public humiliation and then banishment from the city and surrounding area for 2 years (Rosenthal “Honest”).
The lifestyle of a Venetian courtesan was one of sophistication and a highly public image. They offered themselves to men not as a common prostitute whose favors were strictly sexual, but as an educated and skillful conversationalist. The courtesans not only charged a standard fee but a sum was required for conversation alone. The distinguished people who visited these women demanded from them a considerable degree of intelligence and instruction; they were treated with no slight respect and consideration. This is evident from the caliber of the men who visited these courtesans. Among the ranks of the their admirers were Lorenzo dei Medici, Montaigne, Raphael, Titian, many of the famed Venier family, cardinals, dukes, and even King Henri III of France. Even when relations with them were broken off, their good opinion was still desired. Playing music, singing, composing poetry and presenting a sophisticated figure were the courtesan’s necessary, marketable skills. Verbal expertise was essential to their social advancement. The most successful ones were learned in the humanities and a few even became published authors and poets. The honest courtesan offered social and intellectual refinement in return for patronage. Much like the courtier, their appeals were for social connections and public recognition (Masson 6).
Unlike the typical noble woman, the courtesans were mainly free to do or speak as they pleased while the upper class women were restricted to the confines of their family structure. “Venetian ladies never appeared in the street…Generally speaking, none but the courtesans showed themselves in public, real ladies being visible only at their windows or on the balconies of their palace…(Boehn 176)” They were allowed to participate in the workings of public society only from the safe distances of their palazzo windows. In general, they possessed very little power to counter their husbands’ desires and to directly enter public life. They were victims of an “oligarchy dominated by men, and the laws passed by men reveal not only a class bias but a special arrogance toward women” (Rosenthal “Honest”). On the other hand, the courtesans were able to gain entry into the aristocratic circles of Italian life. Many spent their days in literary salons surrounded by the most prominent men in Italy. Any courtesan of high standing would only associate with the leading men of Italy therefore gaining her access to the innermost circles of Italian culture. They were also allowed much more education than the typical noble woman. Most of the women in the upper classes received some education to prepare her to raise her children honorably and wisely and to ward off the dangers of moral turpitude, but this is where most of their education stopped. In 1587 only 4 percent of the women in Venice attended formal schools, compared to the 26 percent of male children in that same year (Rosenthal “Honest”). Clearly, then, women were not allowed the kind of social mobility that more extensive education would have afforded (Rosenthal “Honest”). Early modern Venice was a world in which literary success depended for the most part on one’s social standing or on one’s ability to rise socially through interpersonal connections and intellectual allegiances. The courtesans, therefore, had to be increasingly more educated in order to succeed. While not receiving any real formal education, they taught themselves and sought promotion as writers and intellectuals within Venetian Renaissance society. They educated themselves in poetry, many writing and publishing their own, politics, and debate, in order to defend themselves against the common defamatory assaults that were to be directed at them throughout their career as a courtesan. Much of this education was gained through their day-to-day conversations with the great minds of Italy that they associated themselves with.
The courtesans were very like the noblewomen in their dress. Their costumes mimicked the splendor of the attire the noblewomen would wear, although the courtesans were able to model their glorious outfits in the streets and salons of Italy, unlike their noble counterparts who were only able to flaunt their clothes on their walks to church. Often, women of the upper class were confused with them and many foreigners who visited Venice confused courtesans with nobles. Cesare Vecellio’s noted costume book of the period warned unsuspecting visitors to Venice of this and to the fact that they very much resembled married women in their dress. Vecellio warns the men that many times, foreigners think that they are in the company of a “highborn lady” when they are really with a courtesan and, having slept with her, go about bragging about it, ruining the respectability of the true Venetian noblewomen (Rosenthal “Honest”). Because of this, many sumptuary laws came into effect. These laws forbid them to wear gold, silver, silk, necklaces, pearls, or rings anywhere on their body (Masson 152). Unfortunately, these laws were rarely followed. The sumptuary laws were directed specifically against meretrici (prostitutes), so cortigiana (courtesans) were often outside the reach of the law (Rosenthal “Honest”). Their outfits were extremely extravagant. They were made of brocade and silk and were often lined with gold or silver cloth. They wore incredible high-soled shoes, chopines, which not only allowed them to tower over any outsiders that came to visit the city, but also created the need for more fabric in their dress, thus making it even more costly. Many of them received expensive gifts of clothing and jewels from their many admirers. Their extensive spending on lavish dress was considered necessary, for it not only brought them visual attention to individual identity, but also demonstrated their immense possession of wealth (Griffin 98-101). It was still money, along with intellect, that distinguished a courtesan from a common whore.
Although becoming an honest courtesan meant gaining the only real freedom a woman could have in Italy, it could also mean putting their life in danger. Life was very treacherous for the women who decided to become a courtesan. They faced attack by jealous lovers, theft from their servants, disease, public humiliation, and destitution. Their greatest detractors were courtiers, who competed with them for the money bestowed by wealthy patrons. The fiercest attackers of the courtesans were Lorenzo and Maffio Venier and Pietro Aretino. They wrote many scathing poems and satirical verses against specific courtesans, sometimes severely damaging that girl’s career. While Pietro shows in his dialogues a certain compassion for his women characters, though, Lorenzo’s and Maffio’s verses are obscene, even revolting (Rosenthal “Honest”). Courtesans also ran the risk of being raped if they angered the wrong man. As revenge, an angry client or lover would kidnap a courtesan and subject her to a trentuno, where she would be raped by thirty-one men, or, even worse, a trentuno reale, by seventy-nine men. If nothing worse, the victim of this became on object of ridicule as a result and her clients and fees dwindled (Masson 25). Rejected lovers were also quite capable of slashing women’s faces for revenge, which would ruin their beauty and their livelihood (Ruggiero “Passions”). In periods of grave social and economic danger, such as when the plague reoccurred, the courtesans were conveniently available as symbols of disorder and vileness.
Although many people objected to prostitution, it was considered a necessary evil in Renaissance Italy. It educated young men through nonmarital sexuality and provided a safe place for them to experiment, saving many young women from being raped, which was a common occurrence in Italy at this time (Ruggiero “Eros”). Courtesans also created another source of revenue for the cities and were taxed heavily. When Pope Pius V took over in 1566, he attempted to rid Rome of all of the its prostitutes and passed a decree that stated that within six days, all prostitutes must leave Rome and in twelve days they must be outside the Papal States. This created quite an uproar in the city. Many courtesans lived largely on credit and the merchants and shopkeepers were faced with heavy losses if all the courtesans were driven out of the city at such a short notice. Moreover, the city fathers calculated that if all courtesans and their dependants were driven out of Rome, it would entail an exodus of almost a third of the population. This caused the farmers to grow alarmed because they collected the customs charges and if that many people left the city, it would produce a notable drop in revenue from the customs (Masson 141-143). Just this one example shows how the courtesans were a crucial part of the economy of the Italy cities. In Venice, they also bolstered the republic’s presentation of Venice as a city of social freedom and tolerance. The highly visible female icon of the courtesan announced to Venetian citizens and foreign travelers Venice’s unparalleled social and political freedoms (Rosenthal “Honest”).
One of the most famous courtesans of the 16th century was Veronica Franco. Veronica descended not from the lower classes, but from the cittadino class in Venice (Rosenthal “Terze Rime”). Her family was, however, neither rich nor powerful. Since they were economically vulnerable, Franco became a courtesan out of necessity, following in her mother’s footsteps. She had three brothers and gained most of her education indirectly through them and benefited from their private tutors and public schooling. She was married early to Paolo Paniza, a doctor, but this marriage did not last very long. She advanced very quickly through the ranks of the courtesans, mostly through her friendship with the celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, and soon became the most famous of all the Venetian courtesans (Lawner 87). She was championed as the most beautiful, cultivated, and honored courtesan in Venice. When King Henry III was celebrated in 1574, she was the one he chose to visit and she made such an impression that he took away with him two of her sonnets and an enameled portrait of her. She made a success of her profession and then invented herself as a literary figure as well. Between 1570 and 1580, she wrote poetry, public letters, and took on editorial projects and was a success, helped once again by her close friend Domenico Venier, whose literary salon she frequented. Her most famous works, the Terze rime, a collection her poetry, and the Lettere familiari a diversi, her familiar letters, were published in 1575. Read together, they give the reader in inside look into the life of a courtesan, specifically, Veronica’s life (Stortoni 12). She also compiled a commemorative edition of poems for Estore Martinengo, the slain brother of one of her lovers. Along with nine of her own sonnets, she completed the edition in 1575 with seventeen sonnets by members of Domenico Venier’s literary salon. This prosperity could not last forever, though. In 1580, Franco was accused of witchcraft by the male tutor of her children, Riedolfo Vannitelli. She was summoned by the Inquisition courts and demonstrated her assertiveness and her insistence on defending herself against sinister opponents and emerged victorious. This marked the end of her glorious reign, though, and by 1588 she was poverty-stricken. She had given birth to six children of her own and also had the added responsibility of her brother’s children after his death. This, along with the plague and the thefts of precious items from her dowry left her impoverished and she died in 1591 at the early age of forty-five (Rosenthal “Honest”). Veronica’s memory lives on, as she was not only the most famous of all the Venetian courtesans, she was also the modern ideal of an independent woman. She managed her own estate, earned her own capital, and, as her letters and poems reveal, had an independence of spirit that bowed before no man.
As every age has to come to an end, so too did the golden age of the courtesans. Many Popes had promised Italy reforms, but none had followed through on their word until 1566 with the accession of Pope Pius V. As stated above, he issued a decree ordering all prostitutes to leave Rome and all the Papal States. He would later agree to allow the prostitutes to remain, on the condition that they all lived in a quarter reserved for them (Masson 142-143). This marked the beginning of the end. Thanks to the Counter Reformation and the changed temper of the times, courtesans were no longer accepted by society; far less did they play any part in the intellectual life of the city. Only in the liberal city of Venice did the courtesans flourish. However, by 1591 the Renaissance world that had given birth to the courtesans was dying, and the new one had no place for them. After Veronica Franco’s death, courtesans continued to exist in Venice, but in reality, like those in Rome, they were mere prostitutes. Thus ended the age of the courtesan; muse, poet, and Venus of Renaissance Italy.
Forerunners of the modern-day independent women, the courtesans of 16th century Venice were almost the equals of the upper-class intellectual males of that century. Well-read, beautiful, and learned in the areas of poetry, politics, and debate, the courtesans were wanted by all the men and admired and envied by all of the women. While most of them did not actively choose the life of a prostitute, they decided to use that career to enjoy the freedom and liberty denied to the rest of the women of that time. Surviving on their beauty, wit, and intelligence alone, they strived for the only thing that they could truly call their own, their independence.
Boehn, Max Von. Modes and Manners. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1932.
Cox, Virginia. “The Single Self: Feminist Thought and the Marriage Market in Early
Modern Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly. 48.3 (1995): 513-581 pp. Oct 1995
Griffin, Susan. The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York:
Broadway Books, 2001.
Lawner, Lynne. Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance. New York:
Masson, Georgina. Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance. London: Secker & Warburg,
Rosenthal, Margaret. The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in
Sixteenth-Century Venice. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Rosenthal, Margaret F. “Veronica Franco’s Terze Rime: The Venetian Courtesan’s
Defense.” Renaissance Quarterly. 42.2 (1989): 227-257pp. Summer 1989
Ruggiero, Guido. Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of
the Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros: Sex, Crime, and Sexuality in Renaissance
Venice. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Stortoni, Laura Anna, ed. Women Poets and the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and
Courtesans. New York: Italica P, 1997.