Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Veronica Franco, the "Cortigiana onesta" (the "honored courtesan")

Veronica Franco (letter to Cardinal Luigi d'Este, 2 August 1580)


Born in Venice in 1546, Veronica Franco was the daughter of Paola Fracassa, who was a cortigiana onesta, an "honored courtesan," and Francesco Franco. 

Veronica Franco, c. 1575,
portrait by Tintoretto,
whom she thanks in a letter
About the problematic designation "courtesan," Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret Rosenthal distinguish between the prostitute, or meretrice, the whore, or puttana, "the poorest class and most morally condemned category of sex worker," and the cortigiana:
Cortigiana--"courtesan"--had a different meaning. It was derived from cortigiano, meaning a man who served at court, so it had connotations of splendor and technical or at least bureaucratic expertise. The addition of onesta meant "honored" rather than "honest," that is, privileged, wealthy, recognized. . . . [I]t was in the interest of a woman aiming for the heights of this profession to insist on the high-cultural accomplishments that separated her from poorer, less educated, more vulnerable women in the sex trade. The cortigiana lived splendidly, she had an intellectual life, she played music and knew the literature of Greece and Rome as well as of the present, she mingled with thinkers, writers, and artists.
Franco's education was begun in childhood, when she shared her brothers' tutors; she was also trained to follow the profession of her mother.

Franco began her career in the 1560s as a cortigiana onesta, but she married a doctor, Paolo Panizza, in what seems to have been a a short-lived union; in a will written in 1564, when she was pregnant with her first child, Franco asks her mother to demand restitution of her dowry from Panizza if she dies in childbirth. The father of her child, however, is a wealthy merchant, Jacomo di Baballi, whom she asks to assume responsibility for the child if she dies. (In all, Franco gives birth to six children, but only three survive.)

By the 1570s, Franco furthered her education by means of the literary salons frequented by artists, writers, and learned men. In 1575, Franco published a volume of poetry, the Terze rime (Poems in Terza Rima). This anthology contains eighteen verse epistles, in three-line terza rima, written by Franco and seven by various admirers in praise of her. You can read English translations of these poems by clicking here

In 1580, she published Lettere familiari a diversi (Familiar Letters to Various People)--I've used the date on one of the dedicatory letters, to Cardinal Luigi d'Este, as the date of this post. A second dedicatory letter is to Henry III, king of France (one of Catherine de' Medici's sons). In this collection of fifty letters, as Rosenthal notes, we see Franco engaged in a number of activities: playing music, sitting for a portrait, cooking meals, and writing.
A sonnet to Henry III,
from Familiar Letters

In others, Rosenthal observes, Franco "portrays herself as a moralist, giving advice to patrician male friends and to a mother thinking of making her daughter into a courtesan. Her familiar letters, intended for publication, allow Franco to shift her private life into the public sphere; they permitted her to comment in print on the behavior of men and to insist on the courtesan's virtue, reason, wisdom and fairness."

In her poems and letters Franco takes a number of feminist positions. In Capitolo 16 (Poems in Terza Rima), for example, she offers "A Challenge to a Poet Who Has Defamed Her: 

   When we women, too, have weapons and training,
we will be able to prove to all men
that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours;
   and though we may be tender and delicate,
some men who are delicate are also strong,
and some, though coarse and rough, are cowards.
   Women so far haven't seen this is true;
for if they'd ever resolved to do it,
they'd have been able to fight you to the death.
   And to prove to you that I speak the truth,
among so many women I will act first,
setting an example for them to follow. . . .
   And I undertake to defend all women
against you, who despise them so
that rightly I'm not alone to protest.
Franco was brought before the Inquisition in 1580, under suspicion of having performed acts of magic (her son's tutor denounced her). She was freed, but she had already lost many of her possessions during a plague in 1575-77 (her home was looted), and she lost a long-time patron who died in 1582 (Domenico Venier, who had defended her in the Inquisition courts). She died at the age of forty-five in 1591--although much is unknown about the last years of her life, a 1582 tax record gives her place of residence as a district where many destitute prostitutes lived at the end of their lives.

For a brief biographical essay, see the one posted by Margaret Rosenthal at Italian Women Writers, from which I have quoted here. For something more substantial, see Rosenthal's excellent full-length biography, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice.

Jones and Rosenthal's edition of Franco's work, from which I have also quoted, is Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters.