One of the most famous people in Renaissance Venice was not an artist, duke, noble, doge, pope or even wealthy merchant. But she did know all of them.
Veronica Franco, a poet, publisher, and high society intellect was also known cortigiana onesta: an honored courtesan. The famed artist Tintoretto painted her multiple times, sometimes etching her name on the back and sometimes not. Her notoriety led to multiple books, movies, and even a musical about her. She was the toast of the town in 1565, the Kim Khardashian of her day. Except that the Khardashians haven’t been called before the Inquisition. Yet.
Honored Courtesan, no Mere Prostitute
Cortigiana meant, for women, a position parallel to a male courtier, a word with connotations of splendor and high cultural accomplishments. Onesta can translate as “honest,” and biographers of her have used that adjective. But used with the courtier, it meant privileged, wealthy, recognized.
She was respected for her poetry as much as for her beauty. Some poems were sonnets, love poems, but others were early expression of feminist ideas:
When we women, too, have weapons and training,Franco: A Challenge to a Poet Who Has Defamed Her, from monstrousregimentofwomen.com
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.
At age 20, she was listed in the catalog of courtesans, which listed their names and addresses, a process considered mundane rather than outrageous. Her mother was her point of contact. Even so, she had already been married but estranged. She also had had a child, perhaps not by her husband. She would eventually have six, though three would die in infancy as was quite common. She did have to support her children and options were limited. By 25, she was writing poetry and working her way into a profession that put her among the nobles, despite her beginning among the lower-ranked classes, the cittadini.
She was educated by her brother’s tutor, but this had dire consequences. At age 30, a wave of the Black Death swept through the city, and she was forced to leave without her possessions. Upon returning, the tutor sent a letter to the Inquisition, accusing her of witchcraft. (Note: Venice had its own “Holy Inquisition,” separate from the Spanish, so it is incorrect that she was accused by the Spanish Inquisition. Even if they are rarely expected…) Some historians say that she may have accused her brother’s tutor of theft, which prompted the response, a much more serious charge for her.
Yet she defended herself eloquently in front the tribunal, as only one of the brightest intellects in Venice could do. Perhaps her connections with the nobles helped. Perhaps she threatened to publish her little black book. Hard to say, but the charges were dropped. Still, her past, her reputation, or simply her age caught up with her. Her star was setting by age 35, and she is listed as dying without notoriety, perhaps in poverty.
Romantic History vs. Romantic Twaddle
But she did spawn a mini-cottage industry of Veronica Franco books, movies, and shows. In Venice, you can take Franco tours. In small regional playhouses, you can see the musical based on her lift and her biography, Honest Courtesan. The movie emphasizes her relationship with another poet, Marco Venier, even suggesting that she became a courtesan to be near him.
There is something inherently annoying about centering a story on a famed literati and beauty, then claiming her motivation is due to Some Guy. Who they do not devote tours to in Venice.
So romantic poetic license is one thing, but in blog posts that purport to be historical, let’s get it right, shall we? For those who have read a goodly bit of my A to Z Snackable Renaissance, see if you can spot the twaddle in the following blog excerpt:
Venice in the late 1500’s was a beautiful, but decadent city. It had a great deal of territory, and so it was known as the Venetian Empire. This empire was a meeting-place for intellectual exchanges between the Eastern world and the western one, and in it flourished great literary society (Honest Courtesan). And in being an empire it did ,of course, have its share of run-ins with other empires, mainly the Turkish. …
Franco loved her city dearly, so naturally when Venice needed aid she was one of the first to act. Venice needed a fleet of ships and the only one who could provide the necessary supplies was France, and who but the French King Henri III was the one who needed a little persuasion to give the ships? Veronica became the King’s mistress and in doing so, used her power and influence over him to give her nation what it needed to defend its’ borders from the imminent Turkish invasion.Excerpt from “The Hidden Treasure of Venizia.”
Where to start? Decadent is a little bit of a judgment call for an empire, yes? Venice had been powerful, considering what a tiny little island it is. This came about because they had money. Why? They had that powerful navy back in the 1200s, which managed to get an exclusive contract with the Byzantine Emperor, whom they had installed under the auspices of the Fourth Crusade. (Sack of Constantinople, brought back bronze horses &c.) Venice had control of the Black Sea which means most of the trading come through the Silk Road; they didn’t even have to pay taxes on it! Beaucoup dinero!
The Turks, who lived in Constantinople, finally got strong enough to take their city back from the Venetians, see O is for Ottoman. 150 years later, the Ottoman Emperor Selim II then decided to attack Cyprus, which was a Venetian property. Now, well you may ask why Cyprus–an island near Greece primarily populated by Greeks–was occupied by either the Venetians or the Ottomans.
Suffice it to say that Cyprus had cotton and sugar, extremely valuable commodities, so everyone was after it in the Renaissance. The Ottomans attacked Cyprus in 1570 and took it from the Venetians. That put a lot of Ottoman boats in the Mediterranean. Venice had a lot of boats, and a pretty strong navy, but they appealed for help to the pope. The French blew them off, being friendly with the Ottomans. Plus, the French didn’t have a serious navy! Veronica Franco had a dalliance with the French king Henri III, but it had nothing to do with the Cyprus War.
The Spanish, though, picked up the challenge, and with the help of armies of the pope and the navies of Venice, the”Holy League” did check from the Ottomans from any further advances. Luckily for them, the request came before 1588, which was when the Spanish Armada went to attack England, but was blown off course and ended up in Ireland, But Veronica Franco, Henry III, and the courtesans of Venice didn’t have anything to do with it.
Although Tintoretto did paint the “Conquest of Zara,” which is when the Venetians attacked during the Fourth Crusade. But painting Veronica Franco was probably a much more pleasant task.