Periodically I imagine quitting my job and becoming a high class prostitute. Like everybody, right?

Basically, in these fantasies I have great sex with a group of very dignified, grey haired, impeccably dressed and well read men, and they all send me gifts. There are just barges of gifts showing up at my home. Every day I open the door and – bam! – more gifts. Not dumb stuff like jewels, either. Medieval illuminated manuscripts instead, sometimes. I also wear a lot of dresses with bell sleeves. And ball gowns! Never mind that some mornings I forget to brush my hair! It is like I am in my prom picture, forever.

Hair really brushed!

Then I remember, “Wait. Here at TheGloss we run a weekly column about being a sex worker. It is actually nothing like I am imagining.” And that is when I realize that what I am thinking of is not actually being a sex worker. What I am thinking of is the plot of the movie Dangerous Beauty, which is about the 16th century courtesan Veronica Franco. This is confusing, because she has similar hair and contemptuous looks:

dangerous beautySo, it seems like we could be sisters (hahahaahaha, no, Catherine McCormack is the most beautiful ever), except that Veronica Franco, the courtesan upon whom Dangerous Beauty is based, lived in 16th century Venice. And apparently, her life was not exactly like the movie. Which I am kind of upset about.

To be fair, a good half of Dangerous Beauty is a makeover montage. It’s all just the actress Jacqueline Bisset transforming her daughter Veronica Franco,, played by Catherine McCormack, into a courtesan so that their family will not be destitute, and will instead be incredibly wealthy and living in palazzos filled with gifted illuminated manuscripts and – dude – we have to become courtesans tomorrow. Anyhow. What I remember from this movie is that being a courtesan entailed three things:

1) Wearing high heels

2) Soaking your skin in lemon juice? Or maybe your hair? Maybe just squeezing lemons into a bathtub and bathing in them? Lemons. Massive citrus purchases.

3) Being able to eat asparagus intensely erotically.

dangerous beauty eating

Grapes, also, apparently an option

However, I think life was slightly more difficult for the actual Veronica Franco.

Though! She was born to circumstances not unlike the ones detailed in Dangerous Beauty. That is to say, her mother was a courtesan, though not one who looked exactly like Jacqueline Bisset. It’s interesting to note that during the 15th century in Venice there were two kinds of courtesans – the cortigiana onesta and the cortigiana di lume (which translate to “honest courtesans” and “courtesans light” which is like Coca Cola and Diet Coke, really).  Interestingly, the word cortigiana is the female version of “courtier” and was originally supposed to mean “the ruler’s mistress.”While cortigiana di lume were still viewed as a class above the average prostitute, the cortigiana onesta were considered essentially on par with noblewomen of the period.

Cortigiana onesta were generally treated very well – there wasn’t any OMG SHUNNING, maybe because Venice wasn’t a place founded by puritans. I mean, people were not attempting to cover up their lust with zumba classes. Many courtesans were even married, though often to men less well off than their patrons. This was considered to be professionally advantageous to some of those husbands (again, it was not like Madame Pompadour’s husband who despaired of having to divorce her when she went off with Louis. Being a courtesan was an okay thing to be).

Rather than living on the fringes of society because of her wild ways, Veronica’s mother, Paola, was married to a well-to-do citizen of Venice. Being a citizen was a favored class which was important at a time when the class you belonged to dictated the parts of the city you could visit, or the area of a church that you were allowed to sit in. So – Veronica and her family were doing okay. Veronica had three brothers and, perhaps because she had been an educated courtesan herself, Veronica’s mother insisted that Veronica be taught alongside them.

And then, at 18, Veronica got married.

This seems to be a part the movie overlooked. Maybe because they had to shoe-horn in a love story. Kind of like The Social Network! The producers needed to imply that all of her career decisions were made because of love and romantic ideals.

Basically, in Dangerous Beauty, Veronica becomes a courtesan because her patrician lover (Marco Venier) marries another woman, and she determines this is the only way she can have him. In reality, Veronica married to a physician named Paolo Panizza. It was certainly a “good” marriage to a respectable man (again, she was not becoming a courtesan because her family was completely destitute). The couple had a daughter, but Veronica found life as a wife and mother stifling. She asked that her dowry be returned to her own use and, when her husband refused, she initiated divorce proceedings.

At least, this is suggested in her will. There are other rumors that her husband may have been abusive.

Either way, as a single mother with a young child, Veronica decided she was going to follow her mother’s path and become a courtesan. And she spent years after the divorce fighting to get her dowry back.

This wasn’t unusual. I mean, opting to divorce your husband was uncommon, but young women choosing to become courtesans wasn’t. According to Patricia Brown, author of Private Lives of Renaissance Venice:

“For a young woman without a dowry, a courtesan’s life might well seem more appealing than a life of drudgery as a servant or as an unhappy bride married to someone she did not love and perhaps was required to work for as well.”

So it was pretty common.

Though Veronica was uncommonly great at it.

In 1570, she began to associate with Domenico Venier – Marco Venier’s uncle – who ran a prominent literary salon. Domenico had once been a senator, so he was an extremely powerful friend. And it was through him that she met other influential figures, like Tinoretto. He painted a picture of Veronica Franco, which you can see, here:

tintoretto veronica francoVeronica and he had an excellent rapport; she wrote, thanking him for the portrait and saying, “You concentrate entirely on methods of imitating – no, rather of outdoing – nature, not only in what can be imitated by modeling the human figure, nude or clothed, adding color, shading contour, features, muscles movements, actions, postures. . . but by expressing emotional states as well.”

And then there was the philosopher Montaigne. He found her to be a charming conversationalist and very well read. Veronica soon began to compile a collection of verses herself.

She quickly became known for her talent as a poetess as well as for her . . . asparagus eating.

Her most famous exploit probably regards King Henri III of France. During the mid-1500’s Venice was isolated from Spain, and the Venetians hoped that King Henri’s visit would offer them a chance for friendship with France. When he arrived he was offered every hospitality. He visited Titian and Tintoretto, and saw a galley constructed for his benefit. The laws dictating attire were also relaxed, so women were allowed to wear all their jewels at once, not merely on their bodies but also in their hair. And, at the end of his visit he was asked to select one of Venice’s finest courtesans to visit, and he picked Veronica Franco.

Their time together was a huge success. He went away with a miniature portrait of her in hand, and he promised to publish her book of poems. She, in turn, dedicated the book to his “serene splendor.” We should, for a second, talk about her books.

In her poems, Veronica was able to assert her sensuality and use it as a tool with which to dominate men in a surprisingly forthright fashion. Consider this poem penned to one of her lovers, which is published in her Terze Rima:

“There’ll be no gap between merit and reward
if you’ll give me what, though in my opinion
it has great value, costs you not a thing;
your reward from me will be
not only to fly but to soar so high
that your hope will match your desires.
And my beauty, such as it is,
which you never tire of praising,
I’ll them employ for your contentment;
sweetly lying at your left side,
I will make you taste the delights of love
when they have been expertly learned;
And doing this, I could give you such pleasure
that you could say you were fully content,
and at once fall more deeply in love.
So sweet and delicious do I become,
when I am in bed with a man
who, I sense, loves and enjoys me.”

If this is complicated, I think this sentiment has been essentially rephrased 450 years later as follows:


About 1 minute and 50 seconds in sums it up.

veronica franco tintoretto

Another picture by Tintoretto. Also, breasts!

Like all courtesans Veronica expects compensation for her favors but I think she’s wildly different than most of the mistresses we’ve considered up until this point. Not only because I truly believe that Madame Pompadour loved King Louis XV (I think Madame du Barry at least felt a kind of gratitude that was probably very similar to love) but also because Veronica Franco was not reliant on one man. I mean, if kings left their mistresses, or somehow turned against them, the mistresses were doomed to a miserable life of poverty. You could rise very quickly by aligning yourself with a powerful man, but it could also be a very dramatic fall.

Veronica Franco is unique in terms of women we’ve looked at up to this point as, while she had to rely on men in general, she didn’t have to depend on one in particular. Even Henri III – whom she certainly liked. She did compare him to a God, though, writing in one poem that it was:

“”As from heaven down to a humble roof
Beneficent Jove descends to us here below

But she didn’t need him.

She could write letters about how she wanted to be compensated and the conditional nature of her affections that Madame Pompadour and du Barry really, really couldn’t.

In that way, she’s probably one of the earliest un-aristocratic (here I am, strangely, thinking of Elizabeth Bathory) who had any significant degree of independence.

And yet, a single man was able to take her down.

And it wasn’t even a cool man. It was Ridolfo Vannitelli, her son’s tutor.

He claimed that she practiced magic in her home, and turned her into the Inquisition. This was, of course, nonsense, but the 16th century was a very bad time to be accused of being a witch.

Though better to be accused of being one in Venice than almost anyplace else! The amount of torture inflicted on the accused was severely limited, and while in many places victims of the Inquisition were burnt at the stake, in Venice that punishment only applied to people unwilling to repent or those that had been previously accused and relapsed. The Italian Inquisition favored milder punishments, like fines or forcing those found guilty to wear a penitential garment.

The penitential garment would have really cramped Franco’s breast-exposing style.

Domenico Venier paid for Veronica Franco’s defense, and the charge was quickly found to be without merit. Again, it is pretty great that this happened in Italy. However, Veronica Franco quickly lost all of her patrons as a result of the scandal. And then the plague swept through Venice in 1577.

In her will, towards the end of her life, it is noted that she was living in one of the areas of Venice where many of the poorest courtesans ended their lives. She died at the age of 45.

It is speculated that she came to regret her decision to become a courtesan. She wrote to a friend that:

“You can do nothing worse in life than force the body into servitude, to give oneself in prey to so many, to risk being despoiled, robbed or killed . . . to move as someone else desires, and to risk the shipwreck of your faculties and your life – what fate could be worse?”

But. While this perhaps does not make being a courtesan today sound appealing (let’s not do it after all, probably), I can still not help but feel that it might be a decision that would be exceedingly sensible to make at that time – that is, if you wanted to spend a life writing poems and hanging out with artists and writers and not, say, dealing with a possibly abusive husband who wouldn’t let you use your dowry.

We probably do not want to be her, because you don’t want to have to worry about being rendered destitute when your beauty fades (or when people decide you are a witch, and, hell, people are always deciding that I am a witch.) But by the same token, it is because of women like Franco that we can pick alternate jobs where we can write and create and be respected for talents other than just having sex.

Which is all very good, even if  I would still like some illuminated manuscripts.


Additional Reading:

The Book of Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues by Susan Griffin

The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen, and Writer in 16th Century Venice

Veronica Franco Poems

Pictures via

Dangerous Beauty movie

Tintorette 1

Tintoretto 2