Throughout history a certain cadre of women, usually living on the fringe of society, earned their keep through the art of sensuality. In the west, the profession reached a pinnacle during the Renaissance with a bevy of Italian women known as cortesanae honestae, or honest courtesans. Created by, and responding to, the needs of the societies out of which they emerged, courtesans flourished first in Rome and later in Venice. Veronica Franco was one such woman using her beauty and wit to inspire the spirit of love. Intelligent and literary, she published letters and poetry, which offered an astute and unique perspective on women’s liberty in sixteenth century Venice.
Born in 1546 to Venetian citizens, Veronica had three brothers and participated, at least indirectly, in their education. Her parents, Francesco Federico and Paola Fracasa, arranged her marriage to a doctor and paid him the required dowry. After a short period, Veronica thought it better to be a courtesan than a wife and left the doctor. Her mother, Paola, had been a courtesan and began tutoring Veronica in the art―acting as her go-between (making arrangements and collecting fees). Self-confident and keen, Veronica loved making her own choices, pursing education, and speaking her mind.
Veronica immediately dedicated herself to the hard work of acquiring wealthy patrons within the adversarial arena of courtesans. She cultivated a sharpness in conversation and a fluidity in music. She saw that beauty could not be taken for granted and surrendered to its daily attention. Throughout her career, Veronica gave birth to six children (all with different fathers), lost three in their infancy, mothered the others, and menstruated as any young woman―all this she learned to manage with grace. Like every other woman in the trade, she developed skills to cope with perverse sexual appetites, privileged young men poisoned on liquor, and male egos ripe with jealousy.
From dwelling to dress, the wealthiest courtesans fashioned a beguiling ambiance. Their homes were warm with abundant light, gilded ceilings, and mosaic terrazzo floors. Ornate tables held volumes of the Classics and a skillfully carved lute. Kitchens emitted aromas of roasting meats and rich desserts. Central to the boudoir stood a large bed dressed in silk linens and a satin canopy. Gowns were sewn in rainbow hues from the finest velvets, brocades, and silks, with mounds of billowing petticoats beneath, and lacy low-cut bodices on top. High platform clogs elevated the wearer above the muddy streets and conferred prestige. For an evening out, a private boatman steered their decorated gondola with a curtained bedchamber.
When noble merchants or dignitaries visited the Republic of Venice―a city unique in the whole of Italy for political stability and a rich economy sustained by foreign trade―the canals shimmered with a pageant of elegant beauties expressing their welcome. And while the state profited from heavy taxation on the trade, it regularly debated what, if anything, should be done about its courtesan trafficking. The blatant immorality and opulence alarmed many but in a culture where patrician women were essentially confined to their homes, the purity of wives and daughters depended on “other women” providing an outlet for young men without wives, husbands who strayed, and those inclined to the vice of sodomy.
In 1574, Venice welcomed 23 year old Henri, King of Poland in its most extravagant state reception ever held. The young man visited Venice for ten days on his way to be crowned King Henri III of France. One evening, he discreetly slipped away to spend the night with Veronica―one of Venice’s most acclaimed. Clearly delighted, Veronica presented Henri with her portrait and composed two sonnets for him.
While Veronica learned to sublimate her own love attachments to assuage the egos of her aristocratic clientele, what she did not deny or try to conceal was her own intelligence and artistry as a poet. Throughout the 1570’s, she attended the prominent literary salons hosted by Domenico Venier, a patrician and retired senator. At their first meeting, Veronica so impressed Domenico that he thereafter became her loyal patron, advisor, and protector.
As her reputation grew, Veronica invited literary elites and artists into her own home, writing that, “. . . . if my fate allowed, I would happily spend my entire life and pass all my time in the academies of talented men.” With strong self-confidence, she assembled an anthology of known poets for publication and added several of her own sonnets. With the halo of fame surrounding her, Jacopo Tintoretto―one of Venice’s three giants among sixteenth century painters―asked Veronica to sit for him. Now included in his other famous works, Veronica praised his “divine hand.”
The poets within her circle were writing in the classic three-line stanza form perfected by Dante in The Divine Comedy. In 1575, Veronica published her own book of three-line stanzas, Terze rime. Popular among audiences was a type of call and response written between a man and a woman. Veronica utilized this fashionable mode as she lyricized the drama she experienced between two of Domenico’s nephews. The good nephew, Marco Venier, advanced as a high-ranking politician and became intimately involved with Veronica, although he married elsewhere per the dictates of his class. In Capitolo (Chapter) 1, Marco eulogized his love for her and asks why she offers him no relief, praising her as a “lady of true and unique beauty.” Veronica offers him, with an air of frivolity, that if he pleases her more with deeds and praises her less:
“So sweet and delicious do I become,
when I am in bed with a man
who, I sense, loves and enjoys me,
That the pleasure I bring excels all delight,. . . .
The other nephew, Maffio Venier, was a self-styled family outcast, contemptuous of Veronica’s class pretensions, and misogynistic. Parodying Marco’s word ‘unique’, he referred to Veronica as “a verily unique whore.” He accused her of being limited to monetary and prurient interests. Setting out to permanently damn her reputation, he claimed she bore syphilitic sores upon her body. In Capitolo 16, using great restraint, Veronica counters Maffio’s slander.
“And I undertake to defend all women
against you, who despise them so
that rightly I’m not alone to protest. . . .
‘Verily unique,’ among other things, you called me, . . . .
A woman whose fame makes her right to be proud,
who stands out for beauty or for courage,
and far exceeds all others in virtue―
Such a woman is rightly called ‘unique’;. . . .
Her response in Capitolo 24, to a different man who insulted a woman and even threatened to cut her face, reinforces her defensive stand on behalf of women:
“Look with the eyes of your good sense
and see for yourself how unworthy of you
it is to insult and injure women.
Unfortunate sex, always led about
by cruel fortune, because we are always
subjected and without freedom! . . . .
Acutely aware of the imbalance of power between genders, in her last chapter she advocated for social equality between men and women.
Beyond her writings Veronica took action to aid deprived women. After providing for her family in both her wills (the first at 18, responding to the risk of childbirth and the second at 24, anticipating Turkish war), she gifted the surplus of money as dowries for unprovided-for maidens and/or prostitutes who wanted to leave the life and marry or enter a convent. In 1577, she proposed that the Venetian government found a new home for women currently ineligible for existing shelters because they were married and/or had children. Such a house was actually established a few years later.
In 1580 she published her Familiar Letters, a series written over a period of several years. Few women had published in this genre and Veronica used it, in part, to challenge the public notion of courtesans as depraved. She gave the reader a glimpse into daily personal matters that could have been those of any woman. She asked Domenico to borrow one of his wheelchairs when she injured her knee; apologized to a friend for not responding more timely, due to the fact her two sons came down with smallpox; and congratulated a woman on the joyful occasion of the birth of her son.
One of the most notable letters is directed to a woman friend advising against turning her daughter into a courtesan―even offering financial help. While it throws a questionable light on Veronica’s own life as a courtesan, the letter also exposes the unrealistic Venetian social customs requiring indigent girls, without a male protector, to somehow pay for escalating marriage dowries. Without resources they often ended up doing what they would prefer not to and for which they faced ostracism.
By the time Veronica had published her Familiar Letters, she was facing overwhelming obstacles from external forces. The plague in Venice lasted from 1575 to 1577. For part of it she left the city to protect the health of herself and her sons―the eldest being no more than 11 at the time. While away and even after her return, she was robbed several times and unsuccessful in retrieving her expensive items, including money. She suspected some of her servants, but lacked proof so when new items went missing again in 1580, she threatened to withhold salaries.
Following upon the heels of her threats, in October 1580, she received a summons from the Inquisition courts to answer anonymous charges of performing magical incantations. While the accuser remained unidentified, she suspected her sons’ tutor of stealing from her and then making accusations against her to divert attention. Without any legal defense provided, Veronica adeptly employed her own power of presence and verbal skills to counter the charges. The Inquisitor decided she was innocent of heretical beliefs but guilty of allowing witchcraft to be performed by others in her house. Veronica’s case was dropped but the ordeal detrimentally affected her.
In spite of her increasing woes and diminishing funds, she took on the responsibility of her nephews when her brother died. In 1582, her faithful friend and supporter, Domenico, also died. That same year her tax report showed her lapsing into impoverishment and residing in a part of the city where needy prostitutes lived. She thereafter seemed to fade into obscurity, dying in 1591, at age 45 of unknown causes.
At her peak, she embodied the spirit of one of Venice’s icons, Venus Rising (Venus Anadyomene). Her name appeared in the Catalogue of All the Principal and Most Honored Courtesans of Venice in 1565. She published two books―a feat well beyond her station. She contributed to poetry anthologies and her sonnets appeared in a collection by noblewomen of the Republic. Unlikely to be recorded in history for engendering the love nature of others, her contribution all but disappeared for over three centuries until twentieth century feminist studies returned her perspective to our view once again.
Primary Non-Fiction Sources:
Jones, Ann Rosalind and Rosenthal, Margaret F., eds. and trans., Veronica Franco, Poems and Selected Letters, The University of Chicago Press (1998).
Rosenthal, Margaret F., The Honest Courtesan, Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice, The University of Chicago Press (1992).
Secondary Non-Fiction Sources:
Carney, Jo Eldridge, “Veronica Franco, Poet and Courtesan,” Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World, Greenwood Press (2000).
Lawner, Lynne, Lives of the Courtesans, Portraits of the Renaissance, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. (1987).
Dunant, Sarah, In the Company of the Courtesan, Randon House (2006).
Dangerous Beauty, Marshall Herskovitz, Dir., Rosenthal, Margaret, et al.,Screenwriter, Caplan, Sarah, Herskovitz, Marshall, et al., Prod., Warner Bros. (1998)
11 thoughts on “VERONICA FRANCO: VIRTUOUS COURTESAN AND POET (1546-1591)”
That was a wonderful read.
i suppose she was an unusual woman of the 16th C but women’s history is never well recorded, but women were present in all the arts and sciences ( not so many).
thank you for lifting up profile of Veronica Franco; she is both fascinating and accomplished.
Beautifully descriptive words painted such a vivid picture. Well done!
Thank you! Fabulous history of an amazing women I was not aware of before. I am much richer & appreciative for reading this!
I loved starting my day today reading about the life of this Venetian courtesan whom I knew nothing about until now. What a fascinating person you describe. I want to visit Venice again and when I do, I’ll think of Veronica.
A hero for all women! Anna Rheim
Another wonderfully written view into the past, a time and subject previously unknown to me. Such descriptive writing Justine. I enjoyed it immensely.
It has been challenging for women to construct an independent, meaningful life in a patriarchal society, especially the 16th century. We are fortunate that Jacopo Tintoretto painted Veronica Franco’s portrait, and that Justine Durrell wrote about her life with such integrity.
Thanks for bringing Veronica’s story to us Justine. What a strong, clever, fascinating woman. I especially enjoyed that she wanted to leave money in her will to “aid deprived women”, Looking forward to your next blog!
This time while reading I noticed your skill. The way you put words together and load up a sentence. I’m now not only inspired by your content but by your style
I loved reading this Justine and your previous stories. So well written and interesting. Keep it up, Steve
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