Topography of Prostitution in Renaissance Ferrara
By Diane Yvonne Ghirardo
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60, No. 4 (2001)
Introduction: On any given morning in 1471, the prostitute Giovanna of Venice, then resident of a Ferrarese brothel on Via Malborghetto, might have contemplated with resignation the options open to her for a day on the town. Unless it was Saturday and she planned to go to the public market near the cathedral, legally she could not leave her chiuso (single room or small residence) at all. She was also prohibited from frequenting any of the city’s inns or hostelries on pain of immediate expulsion. Nor could she or the women living in the other twenty-two chiusi elect to rent a room elsewhere, even at another inn, because Ferrara’s laws flatly forbade private citizens to rent rooms or apartments to prostitutes. Even if Giovanna chose to ignore the laws and stroll through the city’s streets, statutes obliged her to don a yellow mantle so as to render her immediately recognizable as a woman living dishonorably (disonesta), hence less likely to be confused with an honorable woman (donna onesta). In the event that Giovanna flouted these regulations and was unlucky enough to be apprehended, Ferrara’s statutes, ducal proclamations, and the statutes of the office of Bollette confronted her with punishments as diverse as a fine, a public whipping, torture, being paraded partially nude through the streets and having people hit her while hurling insults and rotten food (la scopa), or being banished from the city.
Even in the unlikely circumstance that she scrupulously obeyed the rules, she might nonetheless be expelled without warning: whenever a spasm of moralizing seized city leaders, or when a newly appointed official zealously performed his duty, or when authorities sought to engage divine intervention to prevent the spread of the plague or to prevail in war, sinners of all sorts were summarily banished. Such scapegoating accelerated at the end of the fifteenth century, when Duke Ercole I came under the influence of the fiery reformer Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Even a poor harvest could prompt expulsions: prostitutes who fled food shortages in Bologna in 1476 were expelled from Ferrara four months later when that city, too, suffered grain shortages. Giovanna’s legal tenure as a prostitute in Ferrara was always under threat, then, her situation always precarious and vulnerable. The issue was not her immoral activities, which, after all, the city supervised and taxed; rather, it was the conjunction of space and sex that preoccupied civic authorities.
Giovanna’s situation differed in key respects from that of her pimp, Giovanni Cazano. Prostitution in itself was not illegal; a prostitute only violated the law if she evaded spatial controls or engaged in unruly behavior. On the other hand, pimping (lenocinio) was illegal for Ferrarese citizens, although not for foreigners, and here, too, spatial issues figured prominently. Space, time, and money were the standards by which city officials gauged which Ferrarese citizens were pimps: if a man slept in the room of a prostitute more than twice in one week, if he lived or talked with her for at least an hour more than three times a week, or if he lived off her earnings, then he could be declared a pimp. Eligible for two months in prison, a fine, and torture, a lenone might also be freely beaten by Ferrarese citizens if his occupation was detected. If he continued to pimp after a conviction, he risked having his nose, foot, or hand cut off. In any event, other than the ritual declarations in the statutes and occasional ducal proclamations, a foreign pimp such as Giovanni suffered no such assaults on his purse or dignity. As a man, even one living dishonorably by fifteenth-century standards, Giovanni could move throughout the city at will, unfettered by the dense network of spatial limitations and dress requirements that encumbered Giovanna.