Women’s History Month: Meet the Almost-Forgotten Courtesan Veronica Franco

Women's History Month: Veronica Franco
Jacopo Tintoretto or Follower. Portrait of a lady. 16th century. Worcester Art museum, Massachusetts
A portrait, said to be of Veronica Franco, was acquired by the Worcester Art Museum from a private collection in Venice in 1948. On the lining of the painting, Franco’s name appears in block letters.

“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”
—Veronica Franco, from Lettere Familiari 1

March is Women’s History Month, and I want to tell you about a woman I dearly hope I whispered behind a fan with in a past life. I still look for remnants of her in this one, and continue to find her in the most unexpected places—and people.

If you’re not familiar with Veronica Franco, don’t worry; she’s hardly a regular in the history books. I only became acquainted after seeing “Dangerous Beauty,” and it was a fluffy introduction at best. Like so many Hollywood biopics about women, “Dangerous Beauty” took the life of its subject and reduced it to eye candy in a gondola. It was only after reading Margaret Rosenthal’s “An Honest Courtesan” that I really got to know Veronica Franco—and she is a woman worth getting to know, now more than ever.

More than a voluptuous ghost in brocade, Franco’s presence in that sinking city is a reminder, however faint and nearly forgotten, that to live boldly and well is the ultimate revenge against one’s oppressors.

Born in 1546, Franco was a Venetian writer and cortigiana onesta, an honest courtesan. Clever, well-versed, and irresistibly charismatic, she was a professional lover of wealthy and powerful men. Women of that time, however high born, had about three options where their future was concerned: wife, nun, or prostitute. Even from a modern perspective, it’s pretty impressive just how much freedom courtesans enjoyed. They were permitted an education and could openly debate their male counterparts (as long as they did so with eloquence), and were kept in the know on matters of art, science, exploration, and politics. They owned property and moved about freely, and many doubled as courtly spies, giving birth to the popular trope of the femme fatale.

Above all, courtesans were free to embrace the physical and intellectual rights others of their gender were systemically denied. Seeking liberation from an unfortunate marriage and the means to support her first child, Franco’s entrance into the life of the courtesan not only proved lucrative but immensely pleasurable. (“I wish it were not a sin to have liked it so,” she would famously remark.) By her early 20s, Franco was one of Europe’s most celebrated courtesans, as well as a respected member of the Venetian literati lead by Domenico Venier. At one point she was mistress to King Henri III of France, who in turn sent reinforcements to Venice when it came to blows with the Ottoman empire.

Franco was an unabashed feminist during a period of hysteria that actually cited the clitoris as proof of an accused witch’s guilt. Not content to luxuriate in her youth, beauty, and newfound privilege, Franco supported and stood up for members of her sex, regardless of their social standing. When Maffio Venier, nephew of Domenico, distributed a collection of pornographic slut-shaming poetry in which she was the subject, Franco took up the pen and published a savage clapback that was more or less the equivalent of “come at me, bro.” She routinely defended victims of verbal and physical assault, making it clear that while she may be a tigress in the bedroom, she was an unwavering ally to her fellow women. Franco tirelessly campaigned to establish homes for then-dubbed “fallen” women to receive shelter, an education, and assistance in learning a state-approved trade. When a scorned suitor dragged her before the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft, Franco defended herself without the aid of a lawyer and won her appeal.

The latter years of Franco’s life weren’t so sexy, and I suspect this is why we don’t hear much about her. Forced to flee Venice during the plague outbreak, Franco’s home was looted and the majority of her wealth lost, leaving her at the mercy of former benefactors. And while Team Franco stood by her during her trial, her reputation was nonetheless damaged beyond social and spiritual redemption. By the time she died in 1591 at the age of 45, Franco was reportedly living in modest quarters and caring for an extensive household. Rather than meeting with an operatically tragic or contrite Magdalene-esque end, Franco exited the way many women of her time did: the best she could.

I don’t think it was Franco’s saucy profession that ultimately X’d her out of mainstream memory, since a number of history’s trailblazers dappled in the art of seduction. Franco was a feminist, accomplished lady, and unrepentant sex worker, the combination of which renders her something of an enigma in the oft-hierarchal feminist arena. To the very end she loved her menfolk—as bedfellows, as comrades, as equals—which is why she never stopped demanding better from them.

More than a voluptuous ghost in brocade, Franco’s presence in that sinking city is a reminder, however faint and nearly forgotten, that to live boldly and well is the ultimate revenge against one’s oppressors. Some 400 years after her death, it’s still an act of rebellion for a woman to exercise personal agency. I truly believe that when we stop giving in to the pressure to separate all our vital aspects—sexuality, intellect, vulnerability, determination—into compartments, to be opened and closed with the sole permission of a self-appointed authority, we’ll at last achieve what Franco fought for: a long-awaited renaissance of women.