Veronica Franco (1546-1591) was a poet and courtesan in sixteenth-century Venice.
In Renaissance Venetian society, there existed a hierarchy even amongst courtesans: la cortigiana onesta, or the intellectual courtesan, and la cortigiana di lume, or the lower-class courtesans (modern day prostitutes).
Veronica Franco was one of the most celebrated and revered courtesans of her time. She spent her time, much like her Asian counterpart, the geisha, learning the art of seduction, while also receiving a first-class and multi-disciplinary education. This education was rare for a woman of this time, and usually restricted to women of the upper ranks of society. So becoming a courtesan would not only grant a woman sexual/gender freedom, but it would also permit her to gain the same insight into art, literature and culture as a male counterpart.
Veronica inherited her career of courtesan, as her mother before her had also practiced as cortigiana onesta. Thus, Veronica was trained and taught by not only the hands of her own mother, but also given the experience of entering the Court of Venice through her mother’s previous connections. Veronica wasted no time with this power and independence at her fingertips. She quickly rose through the ranks to consort with some of the leading notables of her day, even engaging in a liaison with Henry III, King of France (who was gay!).
Veronica Franco by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575
Veronica Franco wrote two volumes of beautiful poetry: Terze rime in 1575 and Lettere familiari a diversi in 1580. Franco was also the first woman to see the desperation and need for social and mental support for the Venetian courtesan. Aware of how lucky she was to have such a informative and supportive mother she saw the suffering of many other courtesans around her for survival. Beauty was convulsive, as it remains today and when a courtesan was old and past her time she was given very little regard for what she could now do with her life thereafter. Veronica founded a charity for courtesans and their children to attempt to help this cause.
While some don't admire Veronica's mother for placing her daughter into the lifestyle of sexual exploitation, at the time becoming a courtesan was the only way a woman from a middle-class family could have the freedom to receive an education and discover the world outside the domestic realm.
In 1575, the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city of Venice and cleaned out nearly half the population in neighbouring cities. At this most turbulent time, many projected the annihilation of life as a sign of God punishing the city for all their carnal sin; the courtesan being the centre of this saga. Veronica Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. On her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity in an Inquisition for witchcraft trial. The Church and the people needed someone to blame for all the intolerable death that surrounding each corner, thus the courtesan became the witch of her time.
The charges were dropped when she intelligently asked those who had fallen to her witchcraft at the trial to rise and sighted them as accomplices. Dozens of men in the courts stood up and showed their honesty in support for her carnal sin and their mutual enjoyment of this. The Church was silenced for once!!
If you are interested in seeing Veronica Franco’s life depicted quite tastefully, check out: “Dangerous Beauty,” starring Catherine McCormack as Veronica Franco.
I leave you with a couple quotes from Veronica Franco:
“Women have not yet realized the cowardice that resides, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”
[From Capitolo 8, to a man who loves her while she loves another, with equally little reward:]
Perhaps Love even laughs at these shared tears
and, to make the world weep even more,
divides and sunders yet another's desire;
and, while he makes merry over this,
the wide sea of all our tears
darkens and deepens further still:
for if man could love to his heart's content,
without confronting contrary desires,
the pleasure of love would have no equal.
And if destiny had laid down the law
that in supreme delight, earthly good
may not attain the bliss of heaven,
my woe is all the greater as my habit is
to fall in love, and to feel, through loving,
this beloved mismatch in love.
However much I reflect on myself,
I see that fortune leads me wherever
life follows an always troubled path;... [ll.76-93; p.103]