The term ‘‘courtesan’’ refers to a woman in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who achieved the status of a professional in the business of pleasure. A small number of courtesans also acquired fame as writers, solo singers, and musicians. In their published works courtesans spoke openly about the difficulties women faced in a society that discouraged them from exchanging views on intellectual matters in a public forum, principally because women in general during the Renaissance* were kept in seclusion and because a woman’s voice was seen as lacking virtue. If a courtesan’s inherited social position did not provide her with economic stability and the social cachet derived from wealth,
education, and the strong support of a male figure, the cortigiana di lume, as she was known, lived and worked in a brothel. This kind of courtesan was entirely dependent upon the economic support of male clients in exchange for sexual favors. Courtesans rarely chose prostitution over other professions,
But were forced into it by their aging mothers (many of whom had been courtesans) 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, many young girls were introduced to this form of prostitution at a very young age.
Standing outside the conventional, patriarchal family structure, the ‘‘honest courtesan,’’ who belonged to the elite of courtesans, promoted herself in Renaissance society by means of her beauty, elegance, grace, rhetorical expertise, and wit—qualities that set her apart from other courtesans. The honest courtesan descended from the middle registers of society and forged a place for herself in male-dominated circles as a writer, musician, artist, and skilled conversationalist. A strategy of the honest courtesan was to take on the courtly graces of cultivated women by mimicking their dress, demeanor, and graces. The attribution of ‘‘honest’’ or ‘‘honored’’ referred to a courtesan’s superior social standing, respectability, and wealth rather than to ethical or moral qualifications. For the honest courtesan’s exceptional grace, rhetorical polish, entrepreneurship, and literary talent, she received male patronage from the political and literary elite. She also enjoyed a measure of social and economic independence when compared to aristocratic women, who were prevented by their husbands and fathers from participating in public life. Owing to a belief in the early modern period that women’s speech led to sexual temptation, or that women’s eloquence was tantamount to promiscuity, the honest courtesan’s verbal expertise often engendered contempt from upwardly mobile male courtiers, with whom she competed for acclaim. They sought to expose the courtesan’s misdeeds by denouncing her in legal arenas or defaming her in print.
The honest courtesan’s search for male patronage resembled the ambitious upward mobility, verbal expertise, and sophisticated social demeanor of the male courtier who sought political, social, and cultural advancement. Although the term ‘‘courtesan’’ is akin to ‘‘courtier,’’ the courtesan did not depend on the court structure of Renaissance Italy to build her reputation or to succeed in her profession. She did have to enlist the protection of male patrons willing to defend her reputation as founded not only on sexual labor but also on honorable activities. An urban rather than court environment was crucial in order for the courtesan to build a career in male literary coteries and to be able to publish her works. Often courtesans were accomplished singers and musicians and— like Gaspara Stampa*, who accompanied herself on the lute or spinet while improvising recitations of poetry—held literary salons in their private homes. In Venice and Rome respectively, two of the most famous honest courtesans— Veronica Franco* and Tullia d’Aragona*—participated in intellectual milieus by exchanging their poems and letters with male contemporaries, collaborating in poetic anthologies, and publishing their own literary works. D’Aragona published her Rime in Venice in 1547. Franco, a member of the middle register of Venetian society and the daughter of a procuress, was a major
poet and a member of the prestigious literary salon of Domenico Venier (1517–1582). In her
Volume of poems, the Terze rime (1575), she skillfully defended herself and other courtesans against malevolent slander and spoke in defense of women silenced by powerful men. She accepted the terms of literary contest as a challenge with bravura and courage. In her familiar letters, the Lettere familiari a diversi (1580), she wrote as a moral and social counselor to a male elite and as a critic of mercenary and cruel love; she wrote to women as an ally in support of their
freedom and spoke up for courtesans who were unjustly victimized by male aggression. As a courtesan secretary to male patricians, Franco reclaims for women an epistolary discourse that is critical of unequal relations between men and women. The literary works of honest courtesans refashioned literary conventions to serve the concerns of women who had been silenced by male authority.
See also: Petrarchism: Women Poets; Renaissance: Letters; Renaissance: Women’s Publishing.
Bibliography: Masson, Giorgina. The Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance. Milan: Rizzoli, 1975; Lawner, Lynne. Lives of the Courtesans. Milan: Rizzoli, 1987; Bassanese, Fiora A. ‘‘Private Lives and Public Lies: Texts by Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance.’’ Texas Studies in Language and
Literature 30, 3 (1988): 295–319; Jones, Ann R. The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe, 1540–1620. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990; Rosenthal, Margaret F. The Honest Courtesan. Veronica Franco: Citizen and Writers in Sixteenth-Century Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
MARGARET F. ROSENTHAL
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Franco, Veronica (1546–1591) In reexamining Veronica Franco and her work from a feminist perspective, readers have appreciated not only the Venetian courtesan that traditional readers have highlighted, but also the writer, the citizen, and the public intellectual. Franco has won particular admiration among feminist readers today because, among the Italian women writers of the Renaissance,* she was perhaps Renaissance: Letters With the expansion of educational opportunities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the growing importance of the vernacular as a written language, more women were literate in the Renaissance* than in the Middle Ages.* As a result, there was a visible female presence in the cultural arena, although women’s writing was generally limited to Aragona, Tullia D’ (ca.1510–1556) Nineteenth-century literary historians have portrayed Tullia d’Aragona as a courtesan who in her writing made use of Platonic theories in an attempt to camouflage her profession and a disreputable conduct. Some critics, with no documentary proofs to support their contentions, went as far as to deny her authorship of the work she published. In general, Pornography The evolution of the visual and literary practices of modern pornography—from the Greek porne (prostitute) and graphos (writing)—has been traced to sixteenth-century Italy and connected to the advent of printing, which singlehandedly carved a new marketplace for pornography by inexpensively multiplying its dissemination. Feminist critics have regarded pornography as a useful subject of inquiry: from Dress From the thirteenth century onward, in Italy women’s dress has been intimately associated with the law. Indeed, during the medieval and early modern periods, sumptuary laws aimed at curbing excess in general, and women’s finery in particular, mark an ongoing legislative obsession with dressing and undressing the female form. At the center of these laws—which