Veronica Franco, the Honest Courtesan
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
In 16th century Italy, while Catholics and Protestants battled throughout much of Europe, Venice enjoyed comparative peace and prospe
rity. One of the most culturally influential cities in Europe, Venice had become a publishing center, that drew talented artists and writers thanks to a rich, vibrant port town that attracted a great diversity of people from all over the world.
For over two hundred years, many cities, including Venice, owned and operated municipal brothels, where registered and regulated prostitutes were allowed to work. A 1509 census counted 11,164 public prostitutes in the city, or about 10% of the population.
Not unlike today, the social status of sex workers in 16th century Venice varied greatly depending on their position in the whorearchy. At the bottom were the Puttanas, or ‘public prostitute’, “the poorest class and most morally condemned category of sex worker”. At the top were the Cortigiana Onesta—known for their sophistication, beauty, wit and intellect, they published essays and poetry, and, in exchange of a large sum, bedded the most influential men of the city. While Puttanas were tolerated, Cortigianas were celebrated.
At a time when married women were only allowed to leave their home twice a year, for Christmas and Easter, modestly veiled and accompanied a male family member, Cortigianas enjoyed exceptional freedom of movement. Veronica Franco was a revolutionary poet, a wildly successful courtesan, and, when times were tougher, a puttana. She was born in 1546 to a courtesan mother, Paola Fracassa, and a merchant father, Francesco Franco. Unlike most girls in Venice who received little to no education, when tutors came to Franco home to teach Veronica’s three brothers, her parents allowed her to sit in on their lessons.
In 1560, at the age of 14, Veronica married Paolo Panizza, a doctor. After two years of marriage, discontent with the limitations of domesticity, Franco separated from Panizza and started working as a puttana. Veronica then met Domenico Venier, an influential patron of the arts. Mesmerized by the young woman’s wit, he introduced her to the upper echelon of Venetian society: the very rich, the very talented and the exceptionally beautiful. Veronica quickly became a favorite among artists, intellectuals, and powerful politicians. She rose in status from common prostitute to celebrated courtesan and influential member of the Venetian literati. Her new social position and literary talents led her to be commissioned to write sonnet anthologies, and often played an important role in selecting which of her contemporaries would be published.
Franco supported a large household that included three children, servants and tutors. After the plague killed one of her brothers, she took care of his children as well. Knowing full well how tenuous the fortunes of whores (and their dependents) can be, she petitioned the city to fund a charity for the children of courtesans. While this attempt was unsuccessful, it nonetheless underscores Franco’s devotion to the welfare of her peers.
In 1571, the sentiment around prostitutes and courtesans began to change. The growing international reputation of Venice as a city of whores began to worry the local politicians. In response, they started banishing foreign-born prostitutes. More sumptuary laws were enforced, forcing courtesans to wear yellow scarves to identify themselves, and forbidding them from wearing pearls and other finery.
In 1574, King Henri III traveled to Venice. Having heard tales of the celebrated courtesan, the king spent time in Veronica Franco’s bed during his trip. Records do not specify whether Henri chose Veronica from the two hundred and ten sex workers in the “Catalogue of the Chief and Most Renowned Courtesans,” or if he secretly took a gondola to her home and spent the night, but evidence points toward the impact that their meeting had on both parties. Franco wrote effusive poetry about Henri III for years, and the king left Venice a miniature portrait of Franco, and pledged his support in the publication of a book of her work.
Despite an increasingly hostile and misogynistic environment, Franco persisted in composing sexually explicit poems and letters that promoted the rights of sex workers as well as civilian women. She then provided an impassioned defense herself against vicious verses that were being circulated about her. Three obscene poems, written by Domenico Venier’s nephew, Maffio Venier, to attack her, claimed she had syphilis and was therefore polluting Venice. Many scholars believe that he and other courtiers resented having to compete for patronage and attention with a sex worker.
Unfortunately for Franco, her eloquent defense proved futile against the turning tide of public opinion. The plague hit Venice hard in 1575 and lasted for two years, killing almost half the population. As it is often the case during a public health crisis, the city turned on its courtesans, and Franco was forced to flee. In her absence, her house was looted—she lost most of her belongings, including one of the best private libraries in Venice.
Franco’s fifty Familiar Letters were published in 1580. In many letters, she portrays herself as a moral authority, bestowing advice to patrician male friends and to a mother who is thinking of helping her daughter become a courtesan. She insists that women who share her profession are virtuous, reasonable, wise and fair people.
That same year, one of her tutor’s son, Ridolfo Vannitelli, reported Franco to the Inquisition on charges of practicing witchcraft and making magical incantations in her home. The Inquisition forced her to testify publicly, and she ardently defended herself, courtesans and women. Thanks to her friends in high places, Franco was able to avoid imprisonment. However, in this vitriolic anti-prostitute atmosphere, the trial damaged her reputation. Continuous attacks by some male poets contributed to the growing perception that Franco tainted the image of Venice: “I implore you to have her punished immediately” so that “she can no longer contaminate this city,” urged one of her detractors.
Little is known of her later years, aside from the precipitous decline in her wealth and status. Franco’s tax declaration of 1582 stated that she was living in a neighborhood where the poorest Venetian prostitutes resided. She died of fever July 22, 1591. She was 45.
Susan Griffin's "The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues"
Sharon L. Jansen's "Monstrous Regiment of Women"
Evelyn Korsch Nicola Imrie's "Diplomatic Gifts on Henri III's Visit to Venice in 1574"
Margaret F. Rosenthal's "Franco, Veronica (1546-1591), Venetian Courtesan Poet"
Maggie McNeil's "Veronica Franco"
Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones "The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice"