Monday, July 1, 2013

Contrasting the Venetian Noblewoman to the Venetian Courtesan of the 16th century

THL Madgalena Lucia Ramberti (Christa Gordon © 2009)
August 24, 2009

            “The eccentric Englishman, Thomas Coryat, exclaimed with astonishment that there were as many as twenty thousand courtesans in Venice in 1608” (Rosenthal, 1992, p. 11). The word courtesan is taken from the term courtier; both the courtier and the courtesan sought political and social advancement within the feudal system during the renaissance.   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. “Sought after by certain foreign travelers to Venice for her cultivation and sensual elegance, she was one of the city's famous attractions” (Rosenthal, 1992, p. 73).

            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 look like a noblewoman. “ As a result, because of the way they dress, courtsans and donne di partito very much resemble married women; they wear rings on their fingers like married women and therefore anyone who is not more than aware can be deceived....The train of their dress is very long; indeed at times some of these courtesans dress like widows and look very much like Venetian noblewomen to those who are not familiar with their condition” (Rosenthal, 1992, p. 70). The differences between the noblewoman and courtesan could be very subtle, but were more clearly defined in the areas of education, and social advancement.

            Levels of education were vastly different between the noblewoman and the courtesan. In the 16th century it was rare for a noblewoman to be educated beyond the basics. “Their education consisted of elementary reading and writing in the vernacular, rudimentary arithmetic, and also  handiwork, such as embroidery and weaving” (Rosenthal, 1992, p. 84). It was believed that Woman’s voice lead to sexual temptation; eloquence in a woman lead to promiscuity.  This belief most likely had ties to the first temptation of Adam in Eden. Whereas 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. Libraries were closed to women as a whole but courtesans were seen as intellects and were granted access.

            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.  “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, p. 15). 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.
            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.
Rosenthal, M, (1992) The Honest Courtesan. Chicago: The University of Chicago.

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