I wish it were not a sin to have liked it so. – Veronica Franco
Our word “courtesan” derives (via French) from the Italian cortigiana, but the term was originally used (with various modifiers) to mean virtually any puttana; those who met the criteria which we now associate with the word were calledcortigiana onesta (honest courtesan). 16th-century Venice was renowned for the number and quality of her courtesans, and the most famous of these was Veronica Franco, who is remembered not only for her profession but also for her poetry and letters.
Veronica was born in 1546 to a family of the citizen class; she had three brothers who were educated by tutors, and her mother, a former cortigiana onesta herself, insisted that Veronica share that education. This proved to be a wise decision, for though Veronica was married in her mid-teens to a physician named Paolo Panizza, the arrangement proved to be stifling and she soon sought a divorce. Though Venetian women of that time could initiate such proceedings, obtaining a property settlement or support was virtually impossible if they did so; she asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support she had little option other than becoming a courtesan. Fortunately her mother trained her well and Veronica was an apt pupil; she soon excelled at her profession and was able to support her family in great splendor for a decade.
Portrait by Paolo Veronese, c. 1575
By the time she was twenty, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice; her intelligence, strong personality and sexual skills won her a number of important clients, including King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet and literary advisor whose salon Veronica joined by the time she was 25. As a member of the Venetian literati she participated in group discussions and contributed to collections of poetry published collectively by the salon; she also helped to edit these anthologies. In 1575 she publishedTerze Rime, a collection of 25 capitoli(verse letters) in the titular form; 17 of them are hers and the others are by Marco Venier (Domenico’s brother) and others, writing to and about her. Veronica’s poetry is erotic and sometimes sexually explicit; she was not ashamed of being a courtesan but rather celebrated it, and defends the rights of courtesans (and women in general) in several of the capitoli. #16 is a response to three obscene poems written by Maffio Venier (her patron’s cousin) in an attempt to publicly humiliate her.
Unfortunately, Veronica’s success was not to last; soon after her book was published plague broke out in Venice and raged for two years. She was forced to flee the city, and in her absence her house was looted; she lost most of her possessions (including a library that was among the best private collections in Europe), and was only saved from ruin by the generous patronage of Domenico Venier. The plague also took her mother and a brother, so she was left with the care of her nephews in addition to her own children (she eventually had six in all, three of whom died in infancy). Upon her return to Venice in 1577, she unsuccessfully attempted to convince the city to fund a charity for the children of courtesans.
In 1580, Franco published Lettere Familiari a Diversi (Familiar Letters to Various People), a collection of 50 letters, to various clients (including Henry III), friends and others; some of the letters contain biographical data, others give advice (including one to a mother who was considering raising her daughter as a courtesan), and still others expound on her philosophical and moral views. But as in 1575, this publication was followed closely by disaster; her son’s tutor, Ridolfo Vannitelli (possibly motivated by her spurning his advances), denounced her to the Inquisition on a charge of witchcraft, and though her own eloquent defense, the help of Domenico Venier, her many clients among the nobility and quite possibly the intercession of one of the Inquisitors won her acquittal, her reputation was irreparably damaged and the last of her fortune was depleted. Venier died two years later, and Veronica was forced to move to a poor area inhabited mostly by lower-class whores. She died in 1591, aged 45, in relative poverty and near obscurity, having outlived the heyday of her profession.
I first became aware of Veronica Franco’s story after becoming a courtesan in Dubai myself, through the movie Dangerous Beauty (based on Margaret Rosenthal’s book The Honest Courtesan); a friend of mine saw it and insisted we watch it together, and I’m glad she did because it was wonderful to see such a positive portrayal of prostitution. The movie takes dramatic liberty with some aspects of her life, but it adheres to the spirit of her experiences and the attitude and personality displayed in her poetry; it opens with this English translation of one of her poems, but as it was written after the decline in her fortunes I’d like to close with it:
We danced our youth in a dreamed-of city, Venice, paradise, proud and pretty. We lived for love and lust and beauty, Pleasure then our only duty; Floating them twixt heaven and Earth And drank on plenty’s blessed mirth. We thought ourselves eternal then, Our glory sealed by God’s own pen. But heav’n, we found is always frail, Against man’s fear will always fail.