Magdalena Lucia Ramberti
I. What is a Courtesan?
Courtesans were not looked at as women nor were they as valued as men, instead they found
themselves in a grouping of their own. Within the male dominated society of 16th century Venice
courtesans were able to move outside the confines of the believed place reserved for women. “The
use of the term cortigiana (courtesan) confirms the recognition of a new category of public women.
Strictly speaking, of course, it simply means court lady- the female counterpart of cortigiano or
courtier.” (Brown, 2004)
Courtesans, came into being because of many social, political and religious influences. Italy proved to be the perfect breeding ground for their creation. The separate governing bodies, the lack of an overall monarch and the melting pot of cultures caused by trade opened the doors for this new class of women. Venice, being my main focus of study, had all of these factors and more. The dowry wars had grown to such an extreme that the price to be married became outrageous and out of reach for many middle and lower middle class women. Without marriage, income was limited, status difficult to come by and some women learned to use their minds and bodies for financial gain.
Yes, this sounds exactly like prostitution “the act or practice of engaging in sexual intercourse for money.” (Prostitution, 2012) Yet it was more then just sex, while it might be a tool in their toolbox it wasn't always a part of a working relationship. Courtesans offered social and intellectual refinement in return for patronage, very much in the same manner as the geisha before World War II in Japan. The
courtesan fulfilled societies need for a refined yet sexualized version of the noblewoman. Like her male counterpart the courtier, a courtesan had to be educated in playing music, singing, writing poetry, all the courtly graces, dancing, chess playing, current events, the classics and witty banter. This education and the fact she was also paid for these skills separate her from the lower classes of prostitutes. From the lowest class, the meretrice, picture a streetwalker type, to the cortigiana di lume (courtesan of the lamp) who worked in inn houses and brothels. Both solely dependent on selling sexual favors for their income. The cortigiana onesta (honest courtesan or honored courtesan) sold her intellectual and literary skills thus earned her income “honestly”. Cortigiana onesta never really dismiss the sexual aspects of their profession but it is far from the focus of it.
In same vein they were not classified as noblewomen, it was rare for a noblewoman to be educated beyond the basics. Rosenthal (1992) says of noblewomen, “Their education consisted of elementary reading and writing in the vernacular, rudimentary arithmetic, and also handiwork, such as embroidery and weaving.” For noblewomen it was also believed that “Woman’s voice lead to sexual temptation; eloquence in a woman lead to promiscuity.” (Masson, 1975) This belief most likely had ties to the first temptation of Adam in Eden, thus creating a society that felt the need to protect it's noblewomen from further education and sheltering them from perceived threats of corruption from outsiders. Libraries were closed to women as a whole but courtesans were seen as intellects and were granted access. Courtesans were able to afford many luxuries and dressed accordingly.
- Identifying a Courtesan.
Imagine you are a male tourist in 16th century Venice; you have traveled here for business or a
pilgrimage, and you have high hopes of seeing one of the honest courtesans Venice is so well known
for. As you walk the canals you come upon a woman; she is lavishly dressed , obviously a woman of
money. Since courtesans dressed in a similar manner to a noblewoman, how would you know if this
woman was a courtesan or the doge's wife? The difference between the noblewoman and courtesan
of the 16th century were not often easy to spot with the eyes. Unless the courtesan was openly
advertising her presence, which could be very dangerous as they were often a target of violence,
she would often dress like a noblewoman. This caused many issues, making a senator in 1564 state:
“The prostitutes in this city of ours have so excessively increased in number, and having cast aside all modesty and shame, they publicly frequent the streets, churches, and other places, adorned and dressed so handsomely that often our noblewomen and our citizens are dressed in much the same way, so that not only foreigners but local people as well are unable to tell the good from the bad, thus setting a bad and most pernicious example for those who cross their paths and see them, in view of the many advantages enjoyed by such persons of a low and abject standing.” (Barzaghi, 1980)
This lead to the passing of sumptuary laws which were difficult to enforce and easily side stepped by bribery or paying a fine on the off chance they were caught. These laws tried to prevent prostitutes and courtesans alike from wearing silk, gold, silver, pearls, jewels- real or fake, and earrings. Sometimes the laws were written in such a way that they only referred to prostitutes giving courtesans a loophole as their profession was considered much more dignified. When the laws restricting what a could wear failed there was an “attempt to have courtesans identify themselves by require the wearing of a yellow veil.”(Robin, Lawson & Levin, 2007) Again this was easily side stepped by paying a fine.
So how would a courtesan advertise themselves? Often it came down to subtle signals and word of mouth. While it would be logical to think they would wear taller chopines, have longer trains or more lavish dress, this was not always reliable as Noblewomen tried to draw the eye in the same manner. The only sign I can trace is a move I have coined as the “courtesan peak”. Women when outdoors often wore veils that covered their faces, thus giving them protection not only from the sun but also gave them anonymity thus protecting them from them tempting influences. Yet we see time and time again drawings showing some women lifting and peaking out from under their veils. How provocative this might have been for a gentleman on the street, a touch forbidden, all the while revealing herself to be a courtesan in a subtle manner.
- The drawbacks
While it may seem that courtesans led a charmed life, it was not without it's drawbacks. Courtesans like the male counterpart the courtier sought political and social advancement within the feudal system during the renaissance, thus facing them off to battle for the attentions of the same patrons. This made courtesans a target to their male counterpart, who wrote nasty satire about courtesans, endangering their reputations and thus their livelihoods.
Violence against courtesans could come in many forms, a jealous lover, a refused man, those who believed she was immoral and need to be punished just to name a few. One of the most shocking and distasteful violent acts dolled out upon a courtesan would be a tentuno (thirty-one) a gang rape that would then have the details of the attack spread around the court. Besides the physical nature of the attack, it also served to humiliate and increase the chance to contract a venereal disease
The noblewoman had no power over her own social advancement, whereas the courtesan had more freedom. Before a noblewoman married, her life and money were governed by her father or
brothers. Once married, all her property transferred to her husband. “From about 1100, the position
of property-holding males was enhanced further. Inheritance was confined to the male, or agnate line- with depressing consequences for women.” (Jones & Rosenthal, 1998) During the renaissance, a person was born and died in the same social class, there was very little movement nor was such movement expected. Courtesans were able to rise from the lower middle classes up into the aristocracy. The Courtesan made enough money to advance her class status and because she was outside of the bonds of
marriage she could manage her own money. In response sumptuary laws were passed in attempts
to recreate the social boundaries. Such laws were easily overcome as they were often not enforced.
In order to move into such circles an up and comer needed to be able to participate in social
networking. The women of respectful families found themselves shut away from the world around
them. Women found themselves to be “assigned to subordinate positions in the household and the
church, they were barred from significant participation in public life.” (Jones & Rosenthal, 1998) If you look at the design of homes in Venice you will discover often they contained amazing gardens that could only be entered by going through the house. This way the women and daughters of noble families could enjoy the outdoors without exposing them to the corrupting forces of the outside world.
Courtesans, on the other hand, depended on social networking. One of their key roles was to set up social exchanges for their clients to not only advance the clients standings but also themselves.
Courtesans were able to exert a significant amount of control over their own person. “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 towards women” (Rosenthal, 1992). Whereas a woman had no control over whom they would marry, courtesans could pick and choose their clientele. If a courtesan wished she could use the wealth she had amassed and had control over to choose her own husband. If marriage was not something she
wished to invest her time into she could invest her own money and live quite happily on her own
wealth. As a true mistress of her own house a courtesan made all the decisions of her own home
and she was subject to no man's whim unless that of her own choosing.
While the noblewoman did lead the rich life of the upper crust, it is the ability to be so educated and
being able to move within the class structure which makes the courtesan a fascinating
subject. There is much a modern woman can learn from the women of the past. Whereas the
noblewoman was the glue that held her household together; the courtesan was truly the first
feminist voice in a male dominated society. New documents are being found every day and as
scholars and translators decipher these documents our knowledge of these enigmatic women can
Brown, P.F. (2004). Private Lives in Renaissance Venice. New Haven:Yale University Press
Barzaghi, A.(1980) Donne o courtigiane?. Verona: Bertani
de Heere, L. (Artist). (1584). Théâtre de tous les peuples nations et de la terre et avec leurs ornemens diverse habits: Venetian courtesan. [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/000/794/288/BHSL-HS-2466_2009_0001_AC.pdf
Jones, A.R. & Rosenthal, M.F. (1998). Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Masson, G. (1975). Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited
prostitution. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law. Retrieved May 09, 2012, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prostitution
Robin, D.M., Larsen, A., & Levin, C.(2007). Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, and England. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Rosenthal, M.(1992). The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Rosenthal, M, & Jones, A.R. (2008). The Clothing of the Renaissance World: Europe,
Asia, Africa, The Americas; Cesare Vecellio's Habiti Antichi et Moderni. London: Thames & Hudson.
unknown. (Artist). (1575). Mores italiae: A venetian courtesan (dressed as a widow) [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/wardrobe/MoresItaliae1.jpg
unknown. (Artist). (1595). Album amicorum of a german soldier: Venetian courtesan. [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/wardrobe/ManuVen5.JPG
Vecellio, C. (Artist). (1585). De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo: Venetian courtesan outdoors. [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/wardrobe/Vecellio15.jpg