Feminist Courtesan of Venice

Courtesans are portrayed as beautiful, voluptuous, sensual women immersed in luxuries. They are the ‘other’ women with loose morals and great social etiquette. Society had set a different social and moral conduct for them hence they could enjoy little more sexual than the other society women.

The role of the courtesan ranged from singing, dancing, entertaining guests to provide intellectual companionship to the patronizing. These women were artistic and having sex was only one of the task. The stories and legends related to royal courtesans are famous be it Amrapali or be it, Japanese geisha. They are famous for their charm, beauty, and talents.

And they have always piqued my interest and curiosity!

Yesterday I picked up a wonderful book from my local library by Margaret F. Rosenthal. She has done a massive and detailed study on Veronica Franco, in her book, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen, and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice.

Through Margate’s biography, we get to know Veronica, who is a Venetian courtesan and wrote passionately in support of women and courtesans. Veronica wrote extensively on the political and cultural tensions regarding sex and gender in the European society. She powerfully expressed her voice as a courtesan, a privilege denied to other conventional women. She writes,”When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours.”

Rosenthal in her book has translated Veronica’s writings from Italian into English and given her analysis and perspectives.

Veronica dealt extensively with women’s issues, and in particular, criticized the negative image of the courtesan in literary writings. She blurred the boundary between public and private life by making her presence felt in public life through her strong writings. She wrote passionately regarding inequalities that courtesans have to face in public life. She argued about freely choosing one’s profession by the impoverished women. The predicament resembled her own life as she was into this profession because of her mother who was herself a courtesan and due to her failed marriage.

She advocated for social and economic assistance to women who were too weak to educate and take care of themselves. She wrote against the commercialization of female sexuality and cautioned mothers in pushing their daughters in sex slavery. She made a petition to Venetian government to set up a charitable home for married women and women with children who otherwise had nowhere to go. She also administered that institution. She also highlighted the poor condition of impoverished courtesans.

She writes against the horrors of the physical bondage and violence. She says, ‘It is a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason to subject one’s body and industriousness to a servitude ……What great misery…could there be greater doom and certainty of damnation.’

She made her connections with nobility and male patronage public and used it to advance her literary career. Though the men and the society have abused and exploited her.

Her public writing on the women’s equality made her victim of the male aggression. She was a victim of some robberies at her house where her books, silver, and jewels were taken away.

She was accused of performing witchcraft and sorcery by her rivals in order to silence her though she was acquitted of the charges later because of her sometimes frank and sometimes innocent responses.

In Capitolo 16, she writes, ‘among so many women I will act first, setting an example for them to follow. ’

She has published a number of poems and letters that throw light on her life as a courtesan and the way she looked at life.

The book provides a beautiful and positive insight into the Venetian society and its attitudes towards courtesans during the 16th century. The conflict between the two genders and the fissure between noble women and courtesan has been depicted very well.

My Sunday was well spent by reading about a beautiful and an intelligent woman who constantly argued against the injustices of the society.

Wish I could read more about women who irrespective of their own circumstances and social concerns raise issues regarding free interaction and exchanges between men and women.

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