I resolved to make a virtue of my need.
– Capitolo 19, line 62
Veronica Franco is quite bewildering to the contemporary mind. Born in 1546 in Venice, she was a cortigiana onesta — an intellectual courtesan — the equivalent of a modern-day escort (versus the cortigiana di lume, the lower-class courtesans more on par with prostitutes). Over her lifetime she rose in rank to be a respected poet and charitable organizer, as well as one of the leading escorts of her time, providing for her family by her work.
How was all of this possible?
Well, in the mid-sixteenth century during which she lived, being a professional escort was a somewhat respected business. Royals were known to consort with these educated, classy women who were trained in the arts and were generally involved in the social politics of their time. But Franco took this profession to a new level when she decided to own and celebrate it but not let it confine her to what courtesans were “supposed to be”.
Franco’s childhood helped to set up her future. Naturally attractive and educated by the best of tutors alongside her brothers, she was married at a young age to a wealthy doctor. But after the birth of their first child the marriage ended. With no other way to support herself, Franco turned to the role she had seen her mother play throughout her childhood and already knew well — that of the cortigiana.
Because of her talent and education, she naturally circulated amongst the most educated and talented of the European elite — she was even employed by King Henry III of France for a while.
But what sets her still above and apart from the escorts (and definitely the common prostitutes) of her time was how she expressed her own ideas and artistic desires.
In her poetry, Franco was honest about her profession, and rather proud of it. The style of poetry everywhere outside Venice at the time was mostly Petrarchan: Petrarch developed the humanist ideas of Plato, which meant that instead of educating the population only in law, medicine, mathematics and other such trades as Aristotelian Venice insisted, they should also be educated in what we now know of as the humanities — grammar, history, poetry and ethics.
This led to a style of poetry that truly looked at humans as people and studied how and why they existed. Yet most of these poems were written by men, and the women in them were often silent, cold, unattainable and subject to blame for whatever it was the poet was going on about.
Franco challenged this form of poetry in her own. She wrote love sonnets about herself and her work, addressing them to her lovers and clients. In them she was brazenly sexual and sensual, apologizing for nothing. Instead of the Petrarchan form that was one-sided and spoken from the point of view of the writer, she wrote in conversation and engagement. And when another poet questioned her talent as a writer or her morality as a person, she was not shy in attacking back through words.
Franco had six children over the course of several years with different partners. Three of them lived through their childhoods (death in infancy was common due to illness and the lack of knowledge of proper nutrition) and she supported them by escorting and through her poetry. Overall, things were going rather well for Franco. She was socializing in intelligent circles where she was respected. And both her escorting and writing businesses were healthy and whole.
However her life became inevitably harder when she fled with her family from Venice in 1575 because of an outbreak of the plague. Though they returned two years later unscathed, most of her possessions and wealth were lost to looting.
Seeing the pain of others who had suffered so much during this hard period in Venice, Franco started putting some of her time into charitable work. On her own dime she opened a home for poor women and alongside her own children began raising her nephews who had been orphaned during the plague.
Several years later, in 1580, her fame was once again followed by misfortune. That year she published fifty Familial Letters. In these letters, written to lovers from Henry III to various others, she brought her private life into the public eye. A radical feminist of the time, she detailed what her life as a professional escort meant. She portrayed her profession as a rather virtuous one — where she sat for portraits, made dinner for friends, did charity work and took care of her children. She gave advice in some of her letters, advice that she deemed fair and reasonable.
She also wrote in an almost political manner about the inequality of women and the damage that rape and unwanted sexual advances did to women of her time. Most likely she saw how these directly affected why women went into escorting. While respected for her style and intelligence, she was often criticized for her content. But she believed in what she wrote, so she didn’t seem to care who disagreed with her.
And we’re not talking about a woman who just had a lot to say and so picked up a pen. Franco was so well educated and studied and in love with poetry that she really knew what she was doing. She would preface her work, describing whether the piece was in the style of Dante or Cicero. When she mistakenly accused, through poetry, a former lover of shaming her through literature, she apologized to him through the written word, citing that “the poems written against her were not good enough to have come from his pen”.
This was a very smart, educated woman who was incredibly forward-thinking, liberal and feminist. And, yes, she also happened to be an escort.
Following the publication of her Letters she was charged with witchcraft — a popular accusation for non-conformists in all times. Her son’s tutor, Ridolfo Vannitelli, claimed he had seen her practice magic in her home. At the time she was supporting herself, her children, her nephews, her staff and the women’s home she still worked at. She had publicly proclaimed herself to be a professional escort.
The charges were, obviously, dropped when proof failed to emerge.
Yet, as it often happens after scandals, her reputation suffered from the accusation and never fully recovered until after her death by natural causes in 1591. Until then she continued to work — to see clients, to provide for her family, and to write.
In 1992, Margaret Rosenthal wrote a biography on Franco that was later the basis for the film Dangerous Beauty. With it there came renewed interest in her poetry, and her work is once again highly regarded as being sharp, fresh, and uncommonly intelligent.
Though Franco died less wealthy than she lived for most of her life, there is no sad ending to her story. Rather, hers is a life to be looked at with admiration: she lived independently of any man, working for herself and choosing on her own what was right and wrong with the world, with the relationships between men and women and with what she should do with her body. She never apologized for her profession but, rather, tried to raise it on a pedestal so as to inspire other women.
She took care of her family, and of others, and never stopped educating herself. Though she was a professional escort, that is not what is most remembered about her in the history books. Nor was she accused of being a prostitute. Rather, her being so bold as to claim her profession as part of her identity and her pride in it have made historians and writers focus on her artistic, intellectual and social acts, not her sexual ones.
Women have not yet realized the cowardice that resides, 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.