Late 16th century Venice, where a woman is a nun, a wife or a courtesan. For Veronica Franco, the free spirited girl, scorned because of her status, the choice is not an obvious one…
I came across this accidentally looking for something to watch and once again, my interest in all things Italian prevailed. I decided to see what 16th century Venice had in store for me and I was not disappointed! This little tale is a hidden gem. It’s a decent (albeit slow in places) film, based on the the book, The Honest Courtesan, by Margaret F. Rosenthal, depicting the story of Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco (1546-1591).
Veronica, played by Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, 28 Weeks Later), is a sweet, naive girl who falls in love with the Senator’s son, Marco Venier, played by Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, Hercules). Even though her family are fairly well-to-do citizens, they can’t afford the dowry required to marry into a family of his social station. Marco is told he cannot marry Veronica and that he must marry someone of his own class. Naturally, Veronica is heartbroken.
Veronica’s mother attempts to console her and then drops a bit of a bombshell: become a courtesan. It’s a kind of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ offer. She also admits that she was once a courtesan, as was Veronica’s grandmother. She knows Veronica can elevate her position, be well educated, have access to literature and music, travel, meet important people and expand her social circle, gaining the freedom to move through society in ways she couldn’t if she were a wife or a nun. In spite of all these perks, Veronica is mortified and asks to be sent to a nunnery but quickly realizes that convent life isn’t for her and decides to take up her mother’s offer. She undergoes intensive training and after blundering a bit, manages to excel at the life of a courtesan. This life affords her time to write poetry, and she becomes an gifted poet, drawing the attention and ire of Marco’s cousin, Maffio, played by Oliver Platt (Please Give, Frost/Nixon) who fancies himself an accomplished bard. He also desires Veronica but sees that she still harbours feelings for Marco, so she rejects him.
Veronica ends up becoming one of the most popular courtesans in Venice, and has many lovers and admirers. Marco, meanwhile, is stuck in a miserable marriage to a wealthy noblewoman, Giulia de Lezze, played by Naomi Watts (The Ring, Eastern Promises). He manages to coax Veronica back, and the 2 begin an affair. Things are going swimmingly for her; she is reunited with Marco, she is the most sought after courtesan in Venice, and she is a respected poet…that is, until a plague hits Venice. The Church believes that the plague has been brought upon the city as punishment for its excess, sin and vice. Veronica is rounded up and must face the Inquisition on trumped up charges of witchcraft. The witch hunt is being lead by none other than Maffio, who has done a 180 and made a career for himself in the Church as an Inquisitor. He capitalizes on this opportunity to punish Veronica for her past rejection of his advances. Fortunately, Veronica manages to get the charges dropped (in what are some very interesting court scenes!) and save herself from the flames.
Film Fact or Fiction?
What was the real role of the Venetian courtesan? Did this life really afford them all the freedom implied in the film? Was this an accurate portrayal of Veronica Franco’s life?
Courtesans originally started out as courtiers. They did indeed play important roles in the Renaissance as messengers. There were two levels of courtesan in Venice, the common prostitute, and the Onesta, the worldly and well educated courtesan. Veronica rose through the ranks of the nobility as an Onesta. They did indeed move about in high social circles and could become very wealthy depending on who they procured as patrons. They had access to books, music, and riches; so these things aspects were fairly accurate.
As always, Hollywood takes artistic liberties and doesn’t always show you the details. This is most seen in the portrayal of Veronica Franco’s life. She was not the sweet, virginal girl depicted in this film. She was married at the age of 13 to a physician before meeting Marco and had one child. Her marriage ended in a nasty divorce and she wasn’t able to obtain her dowry after her marriage ended. What was true? She was an extremely popular courtesan and moved in the highest literary circles of Venetian society, including that of the King of France, who took a shine to Veronica and had a tryst with her. The movie failed to mention that she had 6 children by different men but only 3 survived infancy. She was able to support herself and her children through her work as a courtesan. She published 2 volumes of poetry, Terze Rime (1575) and Lettere Familiari a Diversi (1580). The part where Veronica was charged with witchcraft was true, she was brought to trial in 1580 but did have the charges dropped with some intervention through her noble connections. Sadly, her life was far from rosy after the trial. Prior to being arrested, she had lost a lot during the plague that swept Venice from 1575-1577. In addition to that, Veronica’s reputation suffered greatly after her accusation and it appears she never regained her former glory; her greatest protector and patron, Domenico Vernier, died in 1582 leaving Veronica struggling financially. Sources indicate she died at the age of 45 in relative poverty.
Catherine McCormack is fabulous in the role of Veronica. She does the role justice and is a delight to watch. She also has good chemistry with Rufus Sewell (who was in last week’s movie review, Tristan and Isolde). Sewell does a great job as her wealthy and life long lover, Marco Venier. Oliver Platt is fun to watch as the humorous and jealous Maffio. Unfortunately, Naomi Watts isn’t a main character in the film, but what little screen time she does get isn’t wasted. I enjoyed watching her get into the role of the jilted, prudish and scorned wife. The costumes and scenery are lovely, and the acting is decent. After being subjected to so many bad period films, it was nice to watch something that was well done and had substance. I can safely recommend this if you’re planning on having a night in and have a period movie itch to scratch.