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The most Revered Courtesans of Europe lived in Venice

The most Revered Courtesans of Europe lived in Venice
07 November 2016 0 Comment

For hundreds of years Venice, while dominated by trade and the Council of Ten, was a remarkably libertine society where the unwritten social norms of the day were enjoyed by women of all ranks within Venetian society.

We are told that Venetian women lived in something like oriental seclusion until the 18th century but the truth was something else entirely. When William Beckford wrote, “Their nerves unstrung by disease and the consequence of early debaucheries, allow no natural flow of lively spirits; they pass their lives in one perpetual doze” he was referring to both men and women.

Prostitute or a Courtesan?

Venice was known throughout Europe, and Russia, for its beautiful and exotic prostitutes; Napoleon called Venice Europe’s drawing room and was one of many illustrious visitors to the drawing rooms of this most sensual of cities. The working women of Venice were celebrated for their wit, education and sophistication and were much sought after in the Renaissance. The courtesan culture in Venice has been likened to ancient Greece and medieval Japan. With the arrival of tourism in the 16th century men were well catered for with 11,654 registered tax-paying prostitutes in Venice, conveniently dressed in red and yellow ‘like tulips’ with a guide book listing addresses and prices!

It would be incorrect to describe a courtesan simply as a prostitute. A courtesan was originally a courtier; a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person. In Renaissance Europe, courtiers played an extremely important role in upper-class society. It was customary for royal couples who often married simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances, to lead separate lives . Men and women would often seek gratification and companionship from people living at court. In fact, the verb to court originally meant “to be or reside at court”, and later came to mean “to behave as a courtier” and then courtship, or “to pay amorous attention to somebody”. In Renaissance usage, the Italian word cortigiana, feminine of cortigiano (“courtier”) came to refer to a person who attends the court, and then to a well-educated and independent woman, eventually a trained artist or artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class society who provided luxuries and status in exchange for entertainment and companionship; including exotic sexual pleasures.

Famous Courtesans of Venice

Renaissance Venetian society recognized two different classes of courtesans: the cortigiana onesta, the intellectual courtesan, and the cortigiana di lume, lower-class prostitutes who tended to live and practise their trade near the Rialto Bridge. Veronica Franco (1546-91) was perhaps the most celebrated member of the former category, although she was hardly the only onesta in 16th-century Venice who could boast of a fine education and considerable literary and artistic accomplishments. Judging by her portrait, painted by the great Tintoretto in 1575, Veronica was more than capable and willing to use her beauty and physical charms to their best advantage!

Gaspara Stampa (1523-54) is considered to have been the greatest woman poet of the Italian Renaissance, and she is regarded by many as the greatest Italian woman poet of any age. Independent and unmarried Stampa moved graciously around Venetian society. She was much admired by women and was rightly acclaimed for her rhetorical powers to stir the feelings of a largely male audience at her much sort out poetry recitals. She was pursued by many powerful and wealthy men and it is known she enjoyed a passionate love affair with Count Collaltino di Collalto which ended badly for her. A full but short life with much emotional turmoil came to an end when she became ill with a high fever, and after fifteen days she died on April 23, 1554. In October 1554, Pietrasanta published the first edition of Stampa’s poetry, edited by her sister Cassandra. Her poems were published posthumously in the collection, Rime.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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