In a time when prostitution and female education were both considered unwholesome, professional courtesan Veronica Franco established herself a leader in the 16th Century literary arts. Although initially known among the Venetian literati for her iconic beauty and razor-sharp wit, Franco busted through the Venetian glass ceiling with her success in erotic love poems.
In 1565, Franco was publicly listed as a prominent prostitute in the Il Catalogo di tutte le principale e più honorate cortigiane di Venezia (a public document that recorded the names of prostitutes in the district) and in 1575 she published her most famous book of erotic poems, Terza Rime. Clearly, she’s a star worth remembering.
It’s hard to to imagine when Franco found energy to devote to her writing amidst her daily and nightly engagements. To be a courtesan in 16th Century Italy meant you were as charming and intelligent as you were beautiful. A true Renaissance woman, Franco, like other courtesans, attracted suitors through the art of conversation, music, dance, and painting. It was, in fact, this distinction that made Franco a Cortigiana Honesta, or “Honest Courtesan.”
Venice was very careful to make class distinctions when it came to profession of prostitution. Just as there was a distinction between the merchant and the peddler, so was there a distinction between the Courtesan and the prostitute. A prostitute was considered a woman of low class, unsuitable for the company of the aristocratic families. However, a Courtesan was considered an escort—the intellectual and sexual counterparts of the aristocratic men. A prostitute was found roaming the thoroughfare, while the Courtesan lounged in the foyer of Venetian palaces. Franco herself was rumored to have many talents, including but not limited to playing the lute, playing the spinet, reciting poetry, writing her own poetry, and painting.
Typically held at arms length from participating in the Renaissance arts, very few women were privy to education, reading, and writing. However, as the only daughter in a family of three sons, Franco took advantage of her brothers’ tutors to become educated in Italian culture, Greek literature and Roman history. Weaving iconic Greek images, Italian parables, and classic literary tropes, Terza Rima is an incredibly complex delivery of high education unseen among women and men of her status and time.
In addition to anecdotal glimpses, aphoristic splendors, and rich and lyrical language, her reader will witness recurring references to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Greek philosophy and Christian Renaissance philosophy. Franco’s poetry sweeps a range of topics, but the most predominant is female eroticism. Benefiting from an education in the classical and liberal arts, this literary starlette explored, in her writing, notions of Eros and the Erotic in a way far more complex than other women of her professional circle. In other words, Franco’s profession heightened an interest in the erotic by necessity, while her education allowed her to see its significance in unique ways. Her poetry boasts about her sexual talents, laments lost love, indicts male brutality and scorns sexual repression. Nurtured by a civilization whose pride rested in classical arts, Terza Rima offers a compelling insight into the influences of 16th century thought.
In addition to her fearless expression of female sexuality, this Honest Courtesan used her financial and intellectual resources to educate other women of her station. Despite her complex admixture of altruism and egotism, Franco’s success did not last more than a decade when she was forced to flee from the city to escape the plague outbreak.
Upon return to her native city in 1577, Franco was forced to publicly defend herself against an “Inquisition of Witchcraft.”
Although she was exonerated, she lost her fortune and died in relative poverty.