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 form 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.