The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice
The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

by Margaret F. Rosenthal


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The Venetian courtesan has long captured the imagination as a female symbol of sexual license, elegance, beauty, and unruliness. What then to make of the cortigiana onesta--the honest courtesan who recast virtue as intellectual integrity and offered wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life? Veronica Franco (1546-1591) was such a woman, a writer and citizen of Venice, whose published poems and familiar letters offer rich testimony to the complexity of the honest courtesan's position.

Margaret F. Rosenthal draws a compelling portrait of Veronica Franco in her cultural social, and economic world. Rosenthal reveals in Franco's writing a passionate support of defenseless women, strong convictions about inequality, and, in the eroticized language of her epistolary verses, the seductive political nature of all poetic contests. It is Veronica Franco's insight into the power conflicts between men and women--and her awareness of the threat she posed to her male contemporaries--that makes her literary works and her dealings with Venetian intellectuals so pertinent today. Combining the resources of biography, history, literary theory, and cultural criticism, this sophisticated interdisciplinary work presents an eloquent and often moving account of one woman's life as an act of self-creation and as a complex response to social forces and cultural conditions.

The Honest Courtesan is the basis for the film Dangerous Beauty (1998) directed by Marshall Herskovitz.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226728117
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/01/1992
Series: Women in Culture and Society Series
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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The Honest Courtesan

Veronica Franco Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

By Margaret F. Rosenthal

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-72812-4



La nutrice de l'altre città {Venice} e la madre eletta da Dio per fare più famoso il mondo, per raddolcire le consuetudini per dare umanità a l'uomo e per umiliare i superbi, perdonando a gli erranti.

Pietro Aretino, Il primo libro delle lettere (1537)

Più minacciosa della folgore, più orrenda del terremoto, più velenoso del serpe ... perché è cosa troppo chiara e manifesta che l'amor delle cortigiane non cagiona altro che miseria e infelicità per fine de' suoi piaceri. Vadino dunque tutte le cortigiane in chiasso, e gli huomini saggi e prudenti attendono ad altri studi.

Tomaso Garzoni, La Piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (1585)

When foreign travelers visited Venice throughout the early modern period, few failed to marvel at the large numbers of courtesans in the city. The eccentric Englishman, Thomas Coryat, exclaimed with astonishment that there were as many as twenty thousand courtesans in Venice in 1608: "As for the number of these Venetian Cortezans it is very great. For it is thought there are of them in the whole City and other adiacent places, as Murano, Malomocco, &c. at the least twenty thousand, whereof many are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow." Already in the early sixteenth century, Marin Sanuto, a Venetian patrician and famed Venetian diarist, recorded with alarm that there were 11,654 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people. And yet hearing of the large number of prostitutes in Venice will not surprise anyone familiar with the city's long-lived image as a haven of loose morals and beautiful women. Contributing to this image, perhaps by exaggerating the numbers of prostitutes and courtesans in their reports, early modern travelers' diaries, letters, and travel accounts feature the courtesan as one of the republic's obligatory, although suspect, tourist attractions. Propelled by an insatiable curiosity, male tourists allegedly traveled great distances just to verify for themselves whether the courtesans' reputed beauty was fiction or fact. Coryat remarked that "so infinite are the allurements of these amorous Calypsoes, that the fame of them hath drawen many to Venice from some of the remotest parts of Christendome, to contemplate their beauties, and enjoy their pleasing dalliances."

Paradoxically, foreign travelers' descriptions of the scenes of Venetian daily life, in which the courtesan assumes a prominent place, often follow their praises of Venice as an exemplum of civic and social concord. Organized as a multitude of magistracies and councils, the republic was ruled by a doge, elected for life by a closed corporation who formed the membership of the Maggior Consiglio (Great Council)—the patricians' corporate body—and other lesser offices. The Collegio was the most authoritative body, including twenty-six members by the sixteenth century. It acted as the steering committee of the Senate and was made up of the doge, six councillors from each district in Venice, three heads of the Quarantia (the fortyman appeals court for criminal and civil cases), sixteen savi, the Council of Ten (the most prestigious of Venetian magistracies), which by the sixteenth century dealt not only with state security but also foreign policy and finance, and the Pregadi, or the Senate. The Venetian Senate (from 150 to 200 members), with its "College of Sages," included five savi grandi (great sages), five savi agli ordini for maritime affairs, and five responsible for military affairs on the mainland or terraferma. In theory all political decisions were made in the name of a government agency or a council, with the authority of the entire government supporting them. Individual opinion was subordinated to a collective will, thereby giving the impression of unity and common will. While the "unruly" presence of courtesans in Venice might appear to be at odds with the view that the republic epitomized a well-governed state, many English Commonwealth visitors over the centuries regarded the city as a model of wise leadership, constitutional excellence, and careful law enforcement. Indeed this paradoxical combination of social and political fictions endured until the time of Casanova.

Both the social myth of Venetian pleasure seeking and the civic myth of Venice's unmatched political harmony place a symbolic female figure in central position. In the sixteenth century, the female icon of Venice, depicting the republic's unmatched social and political concord, joined in one civic figure a representation of Justice or Dea Roma with the Virgin Mary and Venus Anadyomene. Prominently displayed in all public forms of Venetian life—the visual arts (painting, sculpture, and public buildings), musical settings, ritual and pageantry, occasional and patriotic poetry—this icon was designed to remind all visitors and citizens that Venice was founded miraculously, according to legend, on the day of the Annunciation to the Virgin (25 March), and born like a Venus Anadyomene from the sea, pure and inviolate. Further, the myth asserts that the city was divinely chosen as Christian successor to ancient Rome for having successfully combined three forms of government (democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy) into one well-balanced state.

The artistic decorations adorning Venice's government and religious buildings in Piazza San Marco celebrate this transcendent female icon and the singular properties of the Venetian republic. Located at the heart of Venetian public, ceremonial, and political life—a domain restricted to men—representing the Christological and secular components of the civic myth, this polyvalent icon appears on the facades and in the interiors of the Basilica of San Marco, the adjacent Ducal Palace, the Loggetta, and the Libreria Sansoviniana. Commemorating the Serenissima's divine origins, this icon also celebrates Venus, the secular goddess of love. In Paolo Veronese's ceiling allegory, The Apotheosis of Venice, painted in 1579 for the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Ducal Palace, the room where the doge welcomed foreign dignitaries, the female personification of the republic assumes her secular powers; she sits majestically on an elevated throne surrounded by her loyal and adoring citizens and flanked by flying Victories. Exalted to the status of virginal ruler, and crowned with a laurel wreath by a figure representing victory, "Venetia" triumphantly wields power, with staff in hand, over the cities and provinces (represented directly below her) that she oversees and protects. As a conflation of sacred and secular icons, this secularized Venus occupies the sacred role of Virgin intercessor. Indeed she shields her citizens from the irruption of foreign invasions and guards them from potential corruption from outside and alien forces. Created by Venetian patricians in support of their claim to natural heredity, but "championed as well by adopted foreigners, conquered subjects and parvenu citizens," the Venetian civic myth during the Renaissance took hold over contemporary imaginations.

This idealized female icon portraying the founding myth of Venice welcomed Thomas Coryat on his architectural, artistic tour through the island republic. Immediately upon his return to England, he published a tantalizing account of his five-week Venetian sojourn as: "My observations of the most glorious, peerlesse, and mayden citie of Venice: I call it mayden because it was never conquered." Also distracted, however, by certain of the republic's more profane citizens, who infiltrated the public spaces restricted to upper-class male use, Coryat offers, in addition, more than ten pages in his Crudities to, as he calls it, "a deciphered and as it were anatomized description" of the Venetian courtesan's profession. Perhaps because he exhibits such an inordinate fascination with the courtesan's activities, he ensures that he excuses himself in his closing remarks so as to ward off "scandalous imputations of many carping Criticks," who "will taxe me for luxury and wantonnesse." After his foray onto illicit ground, Coryat returns obediently to his initial purpose of summarizing, at the end of the section devoted to Venice, the city's most prized characteristics. His summary includes all of the civic myth's most traditionally acclaimed virginal attributes: "and so at length I finish the treatise of this incomparable city, this most beautifull Queene, this untainted virgine, this Paradise, this Tempe, this rich Diademe and most flourishing garland of Christendome." If the presence of women at the symbolic center of Venetian patriarchal life appeared to be a sign of their increased presence in Venetian society, it was only a mythical presence. Indeed as late as 1651 an English visitor "recapitulated the mythical attributes," this time calling attention, however, to the republic's unparalleled beauty, its profane Venus. James Howell's vision of Venice ("Upon the Citty and Signorie of Venice") in his S.P.Q.V., a Survey of the Signorie of Venice, of Her Admired Policy, and Method of Government ... places comic emphasis on Venice as impregnable sovereign and sexualized Venus, playing as well with allusions to the Roman Republic's motto SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanum):

Could any State on Earth Immortall be,
Venice by Her rare Government is she;
Venice Great Neptunes Minion, still a Mayd,
Though by the warrlikst Potentats assayed;
Yet She retaines Her Virgin-waters pure,
Nor any Forren mixtures can endure;
Though, Syren-like on Shore and Sea, Her Face
Enchants all those whom once She doth embrace,
Nor is ther any can Her beauty prize
But he who hath beheld Her with his Eyes:
Those following Leaves display, if well observed,
How she so long Her Maydenhead preserved,
How for sound prudence She still bore the Bell;
Whence may be drawn this high-fetched parallel,
Venus and Venice are Great Queens in their degree,
Venus is Queen of Love, Venice of Policie.

The power of the virginal queen depicted in Veronese's allegory at the one extreme of this mythic icon and the unruly licentiousness of Venus at the other contrast sharply with the highly regimented and restricted lives of most sixteenth-century Venetian women of all classes. Women possessed virtually no political power of their own, owing to an oligarchy dominated by men, and the laws passed by men reveal not only a class bias but a special arrogance toward women. Upper-class married womens' activities were carefully regulated by their husbands, and government officials, who feared political and social disturbance, repeatedly monitored courtesans' dress, expenditures, and public appearances, apparently not always with success. Indeed sixteenth-century women's lives were hardly immune to, or protected from, social and personal oppression. Contrary to the mythical image of the courtesan as irresponsible or wayward that was presented in European travelers' accounts, Venetian courtesans, whether of the cittadino or lower classes, did not choose prostitution over other professions but were forced into it principally out of economic necessity. In a society in which arranging a reputable marriage for a young woman had become increasingly, even prohibitively, expensive as a result of the inflation of dowries, not to mention politically problematic for the upper classes, many Venetian girls were introduced to prostitution at a very young age by their aging mothers, who were in need of financial assistance. Veronica Franco was herself the daughter of an impoverished courtesan.

While the highly visible female icon purportedly announced to Venetian citizens and foreign travelers Venice's unparalleled social and political freedoms, women themselves were far from free to participate in Venetian public and civic life. When it served the republic's civic needs, however, both the elegant aristocratic woman and the sophisticated honest courtesan were fêted as symbols of Venice's liberty, justice, and splendor. But courtesans were seldom championed by their fellow citizens as earthly Venuses worthy of praise. Frequently they were the victims of envious men who competed with them for public attention and in some cases literary acclaim. Unleashing their anger toward the upwardly mobile courtesan, Venetian men, especially those insecure in their own social standing, sought to expose the courtesan's "misdeeds" by denouncing her in legal arenas or defaming her in satirical invectives.

The Venetian civic myth tells a powerful story about Venetian male patricians' image of themselves and others. The role that the myth played as an idealized and ideologically motivated cultural fiction that the Venetian republic adopted about itself, repeated and promoted in countless patriotic panegyrics and rhapsodic tourist accounts, is a subject that has received a great deal of scholarly attention. Although recent historical studies advocate skepticism toward the civic myth as a historical measure for Venetian practices and government politics in the early modern period, no studies to date have spoken about the symbolic resonance of the immaculate icon for a woman citizen and writer at that time. When we look at the civic myth from this point of view, many elements of the myth take on different meanings. Veronica Franco, a cittadina and a courtesan poet, adapts courtly encomiums to civic pride; she uses the immaculate female icon to overturn male satirical representations of the vulgar courtesan and to protect a public persona, while reminding her reader of the enormous difficulties a woman encounters when she seeks access to public arenas traditionally reserved for men. Because the honest courtesan attempted to position herself at Venice's public center, both in her literary activities as writer and editor and in her public interactions with celebrated visitors to the republic, she provoked negative responses from many male contemporaries. They denounced the courtesan's participation in Venetian public and intellectual life. And to do so, they drew their satirical arsenal from the polarized extremes of angel and whore embodied in the civic icon. As we shall see, in Franco's life and in her literary works, she seeks to counter negative representations of the courtesan's profession by questioning the ideological separation of woman into angel or whore and by instead investing each term with positive meaning. In her self-representation she insists on intellectual and social freedoms to satisfy emotional and economic needs—a right often denied Renaissance women.

To a considerable extent, however, the social myths announcing Venetian pleasure seeking did, on the face of it, mirror the general permissiveness of Venetian daily life that most certainly would have struck any visitor to the Serenissima. From the vantage point of foreign travelers, there were increasing numbers of Venetian prostitutes and courtesans in the city, a circumstance seemingly tolerated by Venetian officials. Despite this scene of "misrule," when compared to other Italian cities, Venice enjoyed relative peace, stability, and social cohesion in the sixteenth century—a period when the rest of Italy was divided by citizen uprisings, and when Europe was in violent battle for territorial expansion. But even when Venetian social and political fictions diverged from historical truth, they nonetheless sustained a tenacious grip on foreigners' and Venetians' ways of understanding the truth. The dualism of the Venetian civic icon in post-Tridentine Italy fostered either adulatory verses in praise of idealized, chaste women or punitive, defamatory charges directed against immoral ones.

Thus, rather than being championed by many male contemporaries, the courtesan was used repeatedly in late sixteenth-century Venice as a satirical outlet for male authors increasingly uneasy about their own relationship to Venetian authority and patronage. Further, Venetian male authors' satirical representations of the courtesan reveal a mistrust, even envy, of the courtesan's claim to public estimation and her desire for literary acclaim. Franco's interactions with the prestigious Venier academy and her affiliation with patrician intellectuals often engendered spiteful and injurious attacks.

The complexity of attitudes regarding the Venetian courtesan's public entrance into Venetian society is nowhere more evident than in the complicated web of interactions between members of the patrician Venier family triangle. At the summit of this hierarchical triangle was the patriarch, Domenico (1517–82), and at the two opposite points below him, his nephews Marco (1537–1602) and Maffio (1550–86). It is difficult to disentangle the complicated interactions between male family members, but it is certain that Veronica Franco was caught between Venier patriarchs in a struggle for power and authority. Perhaps because she captured the attention of the prominent literary patron Domenico Venier and profited from his tutelage, Maffio, the self-appointed outcast of the family, was bitterly envious and thus mercilessly sought revenge. One of the most powerful noble clans of Venice, the Venier family continually occupied important political and intellectual positions throughout the sixteenth century. After relinquishing his duty as senator in 1546 because of his physical infirmity, Domenico Venier became the central figure in an informal literary academy that met regularly at his private home, Ca' Venier. In many of Franco's letters, presumably to Domenico Venier, which she published in her Lettere familiari a diversi in 1580, she refers to "insulse" (insults) directed against her, and to legal "cause" (cases) for which Domenico presumably offered his "cortese protezzion" (courteous protection).


Excerpted from The Honest Courtesan by Margaret F. Rosenthal. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Catharine R. Stimpson
1: Satirizing the Courtesan: Franco's Enemies
2: Fashioning the Honest Courtesan: Franco's Patrons
Appendix: Two Testaments and a Tax Report
3: Addressing Venice: Franco's Familiar Letters
4: Denouncing the Courtesan: Franco's Inquisition Trial and Poetic Debate
Appendix: Documents of the Inquisition
5: The Courtesan in Exile: An Elegiac Future
Works Cited

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