The Harrowingly True Life of a Venetian Courtesan
by Elizabeth Haigh
During the Renaissance the sex trade could be found throughout Europe, but the Venetian sex industry was particularly infamous. Although sex workers were abundant, the elite men of Venice were highly concerned with their status and could not be seen to be involved with lower-class women. The answer to this problem came in the form of courtesans.
For aristocratic men it was highly unusual for them to be married until they became of political age, which was usually around the age of 27. Given that Venice is a Catholic city, it was important for the elite to uphold the values of the Church and show the lower classes how to behave, including by remaining a virgin until they were married. However, many aristocratic men decided that 27 was just too long of a wait and were usually sexually active prior to marriage. Their title, however, was still a major concern, and many wealthy men struggled to find an appropriate sexual partner without dishonouring themselves or their family.
This conundrum was solved through hiring courtesans, or in other words, up-market sex workers. Courtesans were well-dressed, intelligent, talented in music and writing, and provided company as well as sexual gratification. They proved a convenient way for aristocratic men to experience sex without dishonouring a noblewoman or being involved with a woman of a lower class. Hence, courtesans were, in a way, a class of their own, although never accepted as a part of the aristocracy.
A courtesan usually begun her career by working as a regular sex worker, although there are some cases where women were trained to be a courtesan (usually by a family member). An example is the famous Veronica Franco, whose mother inducted her into the profession. Once they gained their courtesan status they were able to charge high prices for their services, which, along with their whereabouts, were advertised in the Catalogue of the Principal and Most Honourable Courtesans of Venice (Catalogo di tutte le Principal et più Honorate Cortigiane di Venetia). In this booklet the names, location and prices of the city’s courtesans were recorded so that travellers could know where to go if they wanted to hire a more elite sex worker. Since they could charge high prices, many courtesans could afford to live in great splendour, often owning or renting a large Palazzo where they could entertain clients. Their wealth also meant that they could afford expensive clothing, food and other luxuries. Wealth also allowed them more freedom than most Venetian women, as they did not have to obey a husband, a father, or the rules of a convent; they were free to be their own master.
Unfortunately, though, the free and rich life of a courtesan was a short lived one. Being sex workers, courtesans were at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. During the Renaissance, syphilis swept through Europe and is believed to have been the cause of over five million deaths. At the time, syphilis was incurable. It appeared as large pustules all over the body, with the victim dying within a few months of contracting the disease. For courtesans, this disease was a double burden as not only was it grotesque, but they could no longer practise their trade due to the physical effects that syphilis caused (such as loss of skin).
Becoming pregnant was another threat to a courtesan’s career. Given their work, it was almost always inevitable that a courtesan would become pregnant at least once – with many having multiple pregnancies. While a courtesan was pregnant she could not work, leaving her without income for months at a time. After several pregnancies it became increasingly hard to continue their work, and there was also the emotional and economic burden of providing for their children. Some courtesans kept their children, many babies were sent to orphanages, and it is also highly likely that many women aborted their babies. After multiple pregnancies, if the lady had not already died from giving birth, her career would shortly be over, for a body that has been through several pregnancies was not considered to be worth paying for.
Another often-overlooked danger to courtesans was being accused of practising witchcraft. Being a Catholic city, the knowledge of a woman’s reputation as seductresses was well-known. The Catholic concept comes from Genesis 3:6 where Eve is portrayed as seducing Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. From this the idea of the evil seductress was born, and many believed that sex workers and courtesans possessed the power to seduce innocent men, just as Eve had seduced Adam. Veronica Franco herself was accused of being a witch in 1580, after a man named Ridolfo Vannitelli accused her of practising heretical magical incantations in her house. Her trial was conducted in the inquisitorial style – meaning that there were no witnesses, just a series of interrogations by the Inquisitor. Franco acknowledged that she had chanted incantations but claimed to have been doing so because it was a fashionable superstition to practice, not because she was a witch. Due to there being neither evidence nor witnesses, the accusations against Franco were dismissed, but the fact that one man’s suspicion resulted in an interrogation shows how quick the government was to react to complaints about courtesans. Although it is unlikely that Franco would have been found guilty – considering that most women charged with using sorcery lived in remote areas of the Venetian Republic – she was still extremely lucky to have not been found guilty, as the punishment for sorcery was to be burned alive.
Although being a courtesan during the Renaissance allowed a woman relative independence – offering the opportunity to be financially autonomous and to have control of her own life, the long-term consequences of being a sex worker overshadowed these short-term benefits. If, despite the threats of syphilis, death during childbirth, or execution for practising witchcraft, a courtesan managed to live to an old age, her career would nonetheless have been short lived because their clients were only interested in youthful women. Hence, the wealthy lifestyle that courtesans are often associated with occupied only a short period of their lives, with the reality being that many courtesans died in impoverished circumstances, leaving them in an equally vulnerable state as other Venetian women.
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