Veronica Franco and the ‘Cortigiane Oneste’: Attaining Power through Prostitution in Sixteenth-Century Venice
By Arielle Sison
Herodotus, Vol.25 (2015)
Overview: Born in 1546 to a Venetian family of limited means, Veronica Franco ultimately followed the path her own mother had taken and became a ‘cortigiana onesta’ or “honest courtesan.” The name distinguished women such as Franco from a lower order of street-walking prostitutes; the cortigiane oneste displayed aristocratic manners, were highly educated and culturally accomplished, and attracted clients from the highest ranks of society. Franco was a published author, a poet, and counted the King of France among her lovers. This case study deftly uses Franco’s story to examine the limited yet complex social possibilities open to a 16th-century Venetian woman without means except for, to use an anachronistic term, “cultural capital.” Arielle Sison finds a fascinating, exceptional area of flexibility and blurred boundaries in an otherwise categorical early modern social world.
Introduction: Among the most educated women in society, among the only women to interact in the male-dominated public sphere, and yet arguably the most subjugated women in sixteenth-century Venice, the cortigiane oneste (“honest courtesans”) both upheld and transcended the female gender roles designated for them by the traditional, Catholic, patriarchal society in which they lived. Prostitution may be the oldest profession in human history, but the cortigiane oneste used their advanced education and higher social standing to elevate their status above that of the cortigiane di lume (“courtesan of light”), a lower class of courtesan who catered to the middle classes, and the meretrice (“harlots”) who sold their wares under the bridges of the lagoon city. The economic and cultural climate of 16th century Venice facilitated the cortigiane oneste’s emergence as relative power players among societal elites, and allowed these women to transcend the barrier between the female private sphere and the male public sphere, but did so at the sacrifice of their reputations in respectable society.
Perhaps the most famous member of this class of courtesans, Veronica Franco used her connections in the private sphere of the bedrooms of the Venetian elite to gain access to the public sphere of art, culture, and politics and to find success as a published poet. Born to a cittadino (“citizen”) family in 1546 in Venice, Veronica Franco, despite having the coveted legal status of a citizen of the republic, lacked both power and wealth. In the early 1560s, she had an arranged marriage to a local doctor, Paolo Panizza, but quickly separated from him due to undisclosed circumstances. Shortly thereafter, Franco’s own mother, who had herself turned to the life of a courtesan to support the family, “owing to financial necessity, introduced her daughter to the profession in order to support herself.” However, despite being forced to become a courtesan, Veronica Franco soon came to be one of the most successful in the class of the cortigiane oneste, catering to senators, cardinals, academics, and even kings.
Franco’s life reflects the larger cultural experience of the cortigiane oneste: she was a beautiful educated woman who turned to prostitution during a moment of financial distress; she gained access to intellectual circles and made connections with prominent figures in the Venetian court; and she used her position to gain a modicum of political, financial, and literary power. This expression of power in a female challenged the gender norms of early modern society, casting the cortigiane oneste into a paradoxical role of not quite female and definitely not male, despite having characteristics assigned to both: “A woman who attempted to rule in her own right was perceived as an anomaly, a monster, at once a deformed woman and an insufficient male, sexually confused and, consequently, unsafe.” It is this point of social ambiguity that makes the cortigiane oneste a fascinating case study through which to explore the relationships between knowledge, sex, and power in early modern Venetian society.