Poems in Terza Rima

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Poems in Terza Rima

by Veronica Franco


A collection of 25 poems, 18 by Franco and 7 by Marco Venier and/or an unidentified male author; set in Venice and Verona in the late sixteenth century; published in Italian in 1575, in English in 1998.


Poems in Terza Rima, so named because of the meter in which the poems are composed, dramatizes Franco’s professional and personal relationships with male patrons; also the poems celebrate her skills as a writer and as oe of Venice’s most celebrated courtesans.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Veronica Franco was born in Venice in 1546 to a family’s of cittadini originari, native-born citizens of Venice who made up the city’s middle class. Franco’s mother, Paola Fracassa, had been a courtesan and probably passed her skills down to Veronica, who learned the profession by the mid-1560s. As a cortigiana onesta (honored courtesan), Franco made her living by providing company, conversation, and sexual favors to powerful and wealthy Venetian men as well as to foreign visitors. She was married to a doctor named Paolo Panizza in the early 1560s, but by 1564 she separated from him. Franco later bore six children (only three of whom survived) by different men. In 1575, a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague struck Venice. When the outbreak finally ended in 1577, over a third of the city’s inhabitants were dead. Thankfully Franco managed to escape infection, but she lost many of her valuable possessions due to theft during the plague years and found herself in serious financial straits thereafter. In 1580 Franco was accused by her son’s tutor, Ridolfo Vanitelli, of casting magical spells and was brought to trial for this offense by the Venetian Inquisition. Although she was subsequently cleared of the charge, the trial may have irreparably damaged her reputation. Just two years later, she filed a tax report that indicated she was living in an area of Venice inhabited by the city’s poorest prostitutes. Veronica Franco died in 1591 at the age of 45.

Franco enjoyed bouts of wealth and success in her short life. Along with her three brothers, she was educated by a private tutor, a rare opportunity for Venetian girls at the time. Her literary career began to blossom in the 1570s, when she became involved with Domenico Venier’s prestigious literary salon, where she must have met many of Venice’s most important writers, artists, and intellectuals. Domenico Venier (1517-1582), a Venetian aristocrat and poet in his own right, was both patron and literary mentor to Franco. Her book of Lettere familiari a diversi (Familiar Letters to Various People), published in Venice in 1580, reveals the mutual respect the two poets had for each other. It was in Venier’s salon that Franco first circulated the poems that would become part of the Poems in Terza Rima. The verse is written with a forthright eroticism and witty eloquence that sets it apart from the work of other women writers of Franco’s day.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The hierarchy of prostitution in sixteenth-century Venice

In 1543, three years before Veronica Franco was born, the Venetian government passed a law that defined prostitutes (meretrici) as single or married women who lived apart from their husbands and engaged in “business (comertio) and intercourse (pratich) with one or more men” (Leggi e memorie venete, p. 108; trans. C. Quaintance). Thus, any woman who had sex with a man outside of marriage and who accepted money or gifts from that man was legally considered a prostitute. The distinction between a sixteenth-century Venetian prostitute (meretrice) and a courtesan (cortigiana) is blurry, since these two words, along with the more vulgar term for whore (puttand), were used interchangeably in literary and legal documents. Still, it is likely that the term (cortigiana), which comes from the same root as cortigiano (male courtier) and thus implies a certain standard of elegance, was adopted by women who aspired to the heights of the profession.

The Venetian historian Guido Ruggiero identifies five to six different levels of prostitution in most major sixteenth-century Italian cities, including Venice (Ruggiero, Binding Passions, pp. 35-36). At the bottom of the heap were the many women who practiced their trade in the streets or in the city’s many taverns and inns. Patronized mainly by men from the lower social classes, they were not registered with the Venetian government, meaning they did not pay taxes on their earnings. Next came the registered prostitutes who worked in large houses, or bordelli, which were often run by prominent families. Above these prostitutes were the third and fourth levels, including, respectively, both unregistered and registered women who worked outside the bordelli and usually had a procurer or procuress who arranged their encounters.

Above and beyond this last class were the cortigiane oneste (honored courtesans), an elite class of intellectual courtesans at the top of the hierarchy of prostitution, into which Veronica Franco fits. In Venice there was also a distinctly less-honored variety, the cortigtcwe di lume (lower-class courtesans). While the cortigiana onesta lived independently and often kept a household full of servants, most cortigiane di lume operated out of inns (generally in the “Castelletto,” an area near the Rialto district).

The Venetian cortigiana onesta

The term cortigiana onesta, coined in the late fifteenth century, refers to a courtesan who was “‘honored,’ rather than ‘honest,’ that is, privileged, wealthy, recognized” (Jones and Rosenthal in Franco, Poems in Terza Rima, p. 3). Unlike the lowlier prostitutes, courtesans often lived in splendid palaces, kept numerous servants, and dressed in rich fabrics. But what really set them apart from common prostitutes was their intellectual, artistic, and literary prowess. Skilled in music and versed in classical as well as contemporary literature, courtesans such as Veronica Franco rubbed elbows with the cultural elite of Venice. Like her male counterpart, the courtier, the courtesan’s livelihood depended on her ability to perform, with effortless grace, the roles expected of her by her noble patrons (mainly skilled conversationalist, companion, entertainer, and lover). Emulating the nobility in both manners and dress, courtesans and courtiers sought to ascend the social and economic ladder. The successful courtesan of Venice aligned herself with the nobility there, violating a boundary for respected women of the day by appearing in public. At the same time, the courtesan distanced herself from the vulgar world of the bordello. She projected a highly sophisticated public image, using it “to move beyond the domestic space of the family’s. … Mimicking the graces and donning the costumes of the noblewoman, she was able to differentiate herself from the cortigiana di lume and meretrice (Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan, p. 68). Since the wealth earned by an honored courtesan gave her the means for splendid clothing, she dressed herself in ways that made it practically impossible to tell her apart from the women of the upper classes.

Prostitution and the law

Although prostitution remained legal throughout the 1500s, prostitutes were disciplined by society to an increasing degree over the century. In mid-1500s Venice, courtesans were subject to repeated legal attempts to control their dress, behavior, and freedom of movement. In 1543, and again in 1562, for example, courtesans were prohibited from wearing gold, silver, and silk in public, and in 1571, they were prohibited from attending church services on feast days.

The government’s attempts to control the city’s courtesans do not appear to have been very successful. In 1579, when Veronica Franco was 33, the Officers of Public Health complained that the prostitutes and courtesans in the city behaved very boldly despite recent efforts to punish them for their infractions. “They are incorrigible,” said the officers, “and they disregard all of our laws and regulations” (Scarabello, p. 19; trans. C. Quaintance).

Yet even as it denounced prostitutes for their morally corrupt behavior, the Venetian government tolerated, and even profited from, prostitution. Like other registered prostitutes and courtesans, Veronica Franco paid a sizeable tax to the government, which in this manner gained financially from the trade. Also there were social reasons that might explain why the Venetian authorities did not simply outlaw the selling of sex. In a society where married noblewomen were kept under lock-and-key to preserve their chastity, people had few legal outlets for sexuality. A sixteenth-century English visitor to the city, Thomas Coryat, remarked that Venetians tolerated prostitution because without it “the chastity of their wives would be the sooner assaulted, and so consequently they should be capricornified [cuckolded] … were it not for these places of evacuation” (Coryat, vol. 1, pp. 402-03). In other words, prostitution was seen as a necessary evil: by providing an outlet for the libidos of young Venetian men, it protected noble daughters and wives. Prostitution was also seen as a deterrent to sodomy, which people of the day viewed as the most abominable of vices. Finally, authorities turned a blind eye to prostitution because it “eased the severe socioeconomic problems facing sixteenth-century Venetian society” (Rosenthai, The Honest Courtesan, p. 23). Legend has it that the prostitutes residing in Venice’s most notorious red-light district were in fact encouraged to stand topless on the “Ponte delle Tette” (Bridge of Tits) to entice passersby. Despite the fact that the existence of this illicit sex trade was seen as necessary to the stability of the Venetian Republic, prostitutes—and especially courtesans, who were much more visible—faced many serious obstacles as they sought to enter the tightly knit ranks of Venetian high society.

Sixteenth-century courtesan satires

While honored courtesans were sometimes praised by their male contemporaries for their beauty, grace, and literary talent, they were also the subject of a host of satires and invectives that denounced them as venal, mercenary whores. Nowhere was this truer than in sixteenth-century Venice, where courtesans were plentiful and powerful. Even the most illustrious courtesans were victims of barbed literary attacks that sought to denigrate and demean them.

Invectives against courtesans began pouring from Venetian presses sometime after 1527, when the brilliant satirist Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) settled in Venice and published his scandalous Sonetti lussuriosi (Lascivious Sonnets), a sequence of pornographic sonnets featuring some of Rome’s most notorious courtesans. Aretino’s most famous work on courtesans, however, is the Ragionamenti (Dialogues), also known as the Sei giornate (Six Days). First published in Venice between 1534 and 1536, the work is organized as six days of dialogue between various female characters. During the first three days, the experienced courtesan Nanna, who is trying to decide whether to make her daughter a courtesan, discusses with her friend Antonia the merits and perils of the

Pietro Aretino, From The Sacred To The Banned

Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) gained renown on a number of literary and political fronts, some highly respected, others scandalous, On the respectable side, in 1538 he began publishing six books of letters, introducing a whole new genre to Italian literature—the letter-writing or epistolary form. Aretino also wrote comedies, religious pieces, and poetry. A coiner of biting satire, his poetry alternately cowed kings or filled them with thankful relief. Aretino’s sharp tongue shows itself in a sonnet that accuses Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (the future Pope Paul III) of winning his position by having his sister lie with Pope Alexander VI: “Tell me, my friend Farnese… you who to your honour traded your own flesh and blood to become a cardinal, what star has singled you out among us to be Pope? Everybody knows you are… a proud and cowardly inventor of all evil, who has nailed Christ to the cross a thousand times” (Aretino in Brand and Fertile, p. 273). On the shadier side, Aretino’s Dialogues have been classified as pornography. They feature an elderly prostitute who chafes at the loss of free will in a career like hers, which is so tied to pleasing her patron. The hardship, which applied to mate courtiers too, was one that Aretino could easily imagine. On the other hand, Franco knew from first-hand experience what it was like for a courtesan to enslave her body, mind, and soul to the desires of one client or another. Her verse has been seen as an attempt to overcome this very real loss of freedom by having her poetic courtesan interact “in forceful, even triumphant ways with her male critics and patrons” (Jones and Rosenthal in Franco, Poems in Terza Rima, p. 13).

three occupations available to women in the Renaissance: nun, wife, or prostitute. As the second part of the dialogue begins, Nanna teaches her daughter, Pippa, the art of courtesanry, and warns her of the dangers posed by men. On the last day, a new speaker, the “Midwife,” explains how to be a procuress as the other women listen attentively.

Aretino’s two obscene texts became archetypal for a circle of aspiring literary pornographers, including Niccolò Franco (1515-1570, no relation to Veronica), Anton Francesco Doni (1513-1574), and Lorenzo Venier (1510-1550), the elder brother of Veronica Franco’s patron Domenico Venier. In 1531 Lorenzo Venier published a pair of risquè invectives targeting two of the most popular courtesans in the city. Venier’s first poem, La puttana errante (The Wandering Whore), casts the courtesan Elena Ballerina as a sexually voracious whore who embarks on a quest to bed every man between Venice and Rome. As the poem concludes, the courtesan, racked with syphilis and crowned with lowly cabbage leaves, is hauled off amidst a jeering crowd to end her days on the Ponte Sisto, the infamous bridge in Rome where only the poorest prostitutes ply their trade. The satire, in effect, transforms the elegant courtesan into a low-class, disease-ridden prostitute.

On the other hand, II trentuno della Zaffetta (The Zaffetta’s Thirty-one) recounts in graphic detail the violent tale of the trentuno —a pseudonym for gang-rape—that a slighted lover inflicts upon Angela dal Moro, who falls victim to a procession of 80 peasants, fishermen, gondoliers, and other low-status males. In the final stanzas, the poet holds up Angela’s misfortune as a warning to all courtesans who dare to refuse their noble lovers: “If some gentleman wants to screw you, think first about Angela and her dishonor. By saying yes, you will pay him homage, and this, my dear whores, is the road to success” (Venier, p. 63; trans. C. Quaintance). Whether this passage comes from some real historical account, as some scholars believe, is in one sense beside the point. The words accomplish what the rapes would have: the public humiliation of the courtesan.

The Poems in Focus

Contents overview

Franco’s Poems in Terza Rima is dedicated to Gugliemo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua and a famous patron of musicians. The collection, which contains 25 poems, can be divided into two parts. The first section consists of 14 poems arranged in pairs: a poem from a male author is followed by a response from Franco, and vice versa. The second section consists of eleven capitoli, all by Franco and addressed to specific male authors. The collection ends with a long capitolo in praise of “Fumane,” the country estate belonging to an important man of the Church, Marcantonio della Torre (1531-1591) of Verona.

All of the poems in Franco’s collection are examples of the capitolo in terza rima, the preferred form for academic, satiric, and comic poetry in the first half of the sixteenth century. Modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, capitolo in terza rima, the consists of a series of terzine (sets of three lines of eleven syllables each) that follow the rhyme scheme aba/bcb/cdc, … and end with a single line that stands on its own and rhymes with the middle line of the preceding set:aba/bcb/cdc/d. Franco’s choice of the capitolo is remarkable, since the difficult form was almost never used by other women writers of her era. In her Poems in Terza Rima, the capitoli exchanged between the female poet and the unidentified male author make up a poetic debate, or in literary terms, a tenzone.

Contents summary

Capitoli 1-2. By including poems from aristocratic male authors in her collection, Franco allies herself with one of Venice’s most elite social and literary circles. The pair of poems that opens the collection not only sets the tone of poetic debate that pervades the entire book, but also presents Franco’s literary persona to her readers. The first poem in the book is identified in later copies as being by an “incerto autore” (unidentified author), but in an earlier edition he is identified as Marco Venier (1537-1602), a distant relative of her patron Domenico Venier. Marco Venier, an important figure in Venetian politics, may well be the author of all of the poems now labeled “incerto autore.”

As Capitolo 1 begins, the poet-lover entreats “la signora Veronica Franco” to relieve the suffering caused by his unrequited love for her, presenting himself as the abject, yearning lover in the tradition of Petrarch (see Petrarch’s Canzoniere, also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). The poet presents the object of his love as a cruel lady who refuses to satisfy his desires: “But how ever can it be, in the tenderest part, of your body, that your fair, fine, white breast, can enclose a heart so hard and pitiless?” (Franco, Poems in Terza Rima, p. 51). Reminding his beloved that her beauty will not last forever, the poet insists that in order to become “eternal and divine on earth,” she must replace her cruelty towards him with “pity for the man who loves [her]” (Poems, p. 53).

Even as it laments her resistance to love, Marco Venier’s poem celebrates Franco both for her legendary beauty and for her skill as a writer: “And so among beauties you are famous for your learning,/and among learned women you are known for your beauty,/and in both you excel one group and the other” (Poems, p. 57). After praising the courtesan’s literary talent, the poet cautions her not to let her intellectual pursuits take precedence over her skills in the arts of love. She will make her name eternal through the “gifts of Venus,” he asserts, no less than through her writing. He ends the poem with a final plea for mercy, declaring that if she will do as he asks, she will be “without equal on earth” (Poems, p. 59).

Franco begins her response (Capitolo 2) by warning Venier that his words are not enough to make her believe that he truly loves her. What she requires instead is that he prove his love through action:

Since I will not believe that I am loved,
nor should I believe it or reward you
for the pledge you have made me up to now,
win my approval sir, with deeds.
          (Poems, p. 63)

She tempts him with a description of her erotic prowess, promising him erotic fulfillment on the condition that he demonstrate his love for her “through more than compliments” (Poems, p. 63). Insisting that “such an act doesn’t suit my profession,” Franco declares that she will not accept money as a sign of love (Poems, p. 65). She proceeds to echo her earlier request, once again asking him to demonstrate his love in deeds instead of words. (Although the poem never makes this explicit, Franco may have hoped that Venier would collaborate on a literary project; the “deeds” were probably poems she asked him to contribute.) She sweetens her request with praise: “This will be no burden to you, / for to your prowess any undertaking, however difficult, comes with ease” (Poems, p. 67).

Fighting With Words—The Tenzone

Inherited from the French region of Provence, the tenzone entered the Italian poetic tradition in the thirteenth century as a means for personal exchange and debate between two or more poets, The first author proposed the subject of the debate (often love, religion, or politics) and set the rhyme scheme, and the second author responded in like rhyme.

While early Italian poets mostly used the sonnet form to conduct their tenzoni, early-sixteenth-century satirists, such as Franceso Berni (1497/8-1535), adopted the capitolo form instead. In the hands of Berni and his followers, the capitolo, considered a highly sophisticated form because of the difficulties posed by its complicated rhyme scheme, was used as a verbal weapon against other writers and even political figures. In sixteenth-century Venetian literary circles, the tenzone turned into a praposta/risposta (challenge/response) exchange between two poets, which is the form it takes in Franco’s Poems in Terza Rima.

The poem ends with a restatement of the original request and the promise of erotic reward, but only on Franco’s terms:

Let me see the [poetic?] works
I’ve asked for from you,
for then you’ll enjoy my sweetness to the full;
and I will also take pleasurein yours,
in the way that mutual love allows,
which provides delight free from all pain.
I yearn and long to have a good reason
to love you: decide what you think best,
for every outcome depends on your will.
I have no more to say; go in peace.
          (Poems, p. 71)

The poetic debate with Maffio Venier

That Franco’s position in Venetian society was precarious is evident from the vicious literary attack waged upon her by Maffio Venier (1550-1586), the son of Lorenzo Venier and nephew of Domenico Venier. Sometime in the 1570s, Maffio wrote and circulated a series of three obscene poems in Venetian dialect targeting Franco, who was away from Venice at the time. The dialect poems are not included in Poems in Terza Rima, but they are an integral part of the poetic debate in Franco’s book: several of her capitoli are indirect or direct responses to Maffio Venier’s defamatory verse.

Capitoli 13-14. Franco initially believed that the poems attacking her were penned by one of her lovers (probably Marco Venier), as is demonstrated in Capitolo 13. Here Franco accuses a man with whom she has been intimately involved of betraying her. Her poem opens with an angry call to arms: “No more words! To deeds, to the battlefield, to arms!, For, resolved to die, I want to free myself from such merciless mistreatment” (Poems, p. 133). At the beginning of the poem, Franco adopts the language of military combat, challenging her opponent to a duel and threatening to rip his heart from his breast and his “deceiving tongue” from his mouth (Poems, p. 133). After having shed his blood, she continues, she may turn the knife on her own breast.

The violent language in the first part of the poem gives way to erotic imagery as the poet contemplates her bed, the locus of their amorous delights and the place “where I took you in my arms, and which still, / preserves the imprint of our bodies, breast to breast” (Poems, p. 135). Proposing the bed as battleground, she invites her lover-adversary to lay down his weapons and join her in an erotic contest: “What if, all weapons laid aside, you took / the path opened to a love match in bed?” (Poems, p. 137).

The final episode of the poem invokes the ambiguous language that often attends a relationship charged with sexual desire. The woman speaker suggests that she wants to “die” with her opponent, yet her final words emphasize her refusal to accept the traditional position of womanly submission and her resolve to best her opponent in the erotic battle she proposes:

Perhaps I would even follow you to bed,
and, stretched out there in skirmishes with you,
I would yield to you in no way at all.
To take revenge for your unfair attack,
I’d fall upon you, and in daring combat,
as you too caught fire defending yourself,
I would die with you, felled by the same
But hold firm, my strong, undaunted
and with that felon’s final destruction,
avenge your thousand deaths with his one.
Then end your agony with the same blade.
          (Poems, p. 137)

In Capitolo 14, the male author seems unaware of the obscene verses directed against Franco. The first line of his poem both echoes Franco’s challenge in Capitolo 13 and reverses it, exhorting the courtesan to make peace with him: “No more war, but peace! and may the hate and rage/and whatever disagreement has arisen between us, be transformed into twice as much love” (Poems, p. 139). Protesting his innocence, he suggests that another man could be to blame: “perhaps someone was offended/by our living together, so that he was quick/to scatter his poison over our sweetness” (Poems, p. 141). The male poet uses the language of military combat introduced by Franco in Capitolo 13, describing his beloved as a “fierce warrior,” armed against him with the arrows of Love. In the final verses, he affirms both his position as abject, powerless lover and the erotic supremacy of the courtesan:

As for myself, as long as you are satisfied,
I grant you complete dominion over me,
bound hand and foot, and legs and arms;
and I send you, in faith, carte blanche
to have total sovereignty over my heart,
so that no part of it does not belong to you.
          (Poems, p. 147)

Capitolo 16. The poetic debate culminates in Capitolo 16. Here it is clear that Franco has realized that her attacker is not the man she accused in Capitolo 14 (who was probably Marco Venier). Now the attacker is Maffio Venier. She never explicitly identifies her adversary in the poem, but she does describe him as a poet who prefers to write in dialect and she even refers to one of his more famous works (Poems, p. 167).

The first part of the capitolo contrasts Maffio Venier to the conventional image of the virtuous courtly knight, bound by duty to protect and defend the female sex. In the opening lines, Franco reprimands Venier for having broken one of the fundamental rules of knightly conduct: he assailed an unarmed opponent without warning. Even worse, she continues, the victim of his assault is a defenseless woman. In this first part of the poem, Franco emphasizes female weakness, describing women as “weak in body, and not only quite unfit/to injure others, but also far distant, through their timid hearts, from self-defense” (Poems, p. 161). The poet extends the notion of female weakness to herself; at the time of Venier’s attack she was “defenseless, alone, off my guard / fainthearted and never practiced in combat” (Poems, p. 161). There is an abrupt change of tone at line 31, however: though at first she “wondered whether [she] would survive” his vicious poems, the attack has become the catalyst for the courtesan’s transformation from defenseless woman to female warrior:

As if jolted awake from sweet sleep all at once,
I drew courage from the risk I’d avoided,
though a woman, born to milder tasks;
and, blade in hand, I learned warrior’s skills,
so that, by handling weapons, I learned
that women by nature are no less agile than men.
So, devoting all my effort to arms,
I see myself now, thanks to heaven, at the
point where I no
longer fear harm from anyone.
          (Poems, pp. 162-163)

“Women by nature are no less agile than men,” says the poet, deftly reversing her initial statement of the inability of women to defend themselves. She also comes to the defense of the entire female sex. When women are allowed to train in the arts of war, they will be able to prove they are men’s equals: “When we women, too, have weapons and training/we will be able to prove to all men that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours” (Poems, p. 163). Franco bolsters her arguments by stepping into the role of poet-speaker, who through her verse will serve as a model for feminist action: “And to prove to you that I speak the truth, / among so many women I will act first, / setting an example for them to follow” (Poems, p. 165).

Challenging her adversary to a duel, Franco underscores her own literary skills, declaring that she is ready to compete with him in any language or manner he chooses. Whether the language is Venetian dialect or Italian, whether the style is lofty or comic, makes no difference to her. She is equally skilled whatever the conditions. In fact, she has honed her talents precisely for the purpose of engaging in literary debate with him.

She then proceeds to break down Venier’s dialect poem, “Verily Unique Whore,” which he intended as a vulgar pun upon her given name, Veronica. Her analysis of how the enemy poet uses the words “unique” and “whore” turns his usage on its head. “Unique,” she says, is correctly used only as “a term meant for most excellent things” (Poems, p. 169). Thus, when he calls her a “verily unique whore,” he is unwittingly paying tribute to her virtue: “without realizing it, you give me praise/for qualities based upon goodness and virtue” (Poems, p. 169). Likewise, his use of a positive adjective to modify whore turns the negative word into a positive term, and praises both Franco as an individual and her profession in general.

Franco ends the capitolo by reiterating her challenge and restating her literary prowess. If Venier refuses to respond to her, she will tell the world that he is afraid:

So make ready now your paper and ink
and tell me, this time, without further delay
which weapons I must wield in combat with you.
You may choose the language of every day,
or whatever other idiom you please,
for I have had practice in them all;
and if you do not write me a response,
I will say that you feel great fear of me,
even though you think yourself so brave.
          (Poems, p. 171)

Nothing personal?

The exchanges between Franco and her male attackers reflect a growing hostility against courtesans that would persist throughout the sixteenth century and beyond. By the time Veronica Franco had risen to the heights of fame as a courtesan and writer, invective and satirical literature targeting the vices of courtesans was flourishing in the literary salons of Venice. Domenico Venier’s salon, where Franco honed her literary skills and met many of the most famous writers in the city, was no exception. While Franco’s experience in the salon was undoubtedly fundamental in furthering her literary career, her relationship with the men she met there was not always positive. Indeed, the literary attack waged on her by Maffio Venier suggests that her presence in the salon was not always welcome. In 1575 another visitor to the salon, the Paduan scholar Sperone Speroni (1500-1588), wrote a moralistic tract entitled Orazione contra le cortegiane (Oration Against Courtesans) that denounced courtesans as nothing more than prostitutes. In the preface, Speroni asserts that the tract, which gives examples of courtesans ruined by greed and lussuria (lascivious desire), aims to show such women the errors of their ways in hopes that they will leave the profession for a more honorable lifestyle.

In attacking the courtesan, these satires joined a centuries-old tradition of anti-female literature that harks back at least to the philosophical and medical theories of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, sixteenth-century satirists justified their literary attacks on specific courtesans by invoking long-standing misogynist stereotypes (all women are greedy, sexually voracious, and incapable of faithfulness, to name a few). Yet, though longstanding, these commonplaces were used in attacks tied to personal and social relations specific to sixteenth-century Venice.

A number of male poets may have had professional cause for their jealousy and insecurity, since they had to compete with upwardly mobile courtesan writers like Veronica Franco for the attention and resources of patrons. Indeed, the attention Franco received from her patron Domenico Venier may have been the catalyst for Maffio Venier’s vicious literary attack. What is remarkable about Veronica Franco is that she was not silenced by Maffio’s attempts to defame and dishonor her. Instead, she responded to Maffio’s attack by urging him to compete with her in a poetic battle, turning the attack into an opportunity to bolster her public and literary persona.

Sources and literary context

The most important influence on Franco’s literary production was her association with Domenico Venier’s literary salon held at his private palace in the heart of Venice. Venier, born into one of Venice’s most privileged noble families, was the most important literary mentor in the city and a poet and an editor in his own right. His salon was the major center for intellectual and literary exchange in Venice until his death in 1582. One of the group’s preferred poetic forms was the capitolo, the form that Franco chose for her Poems in Terza Rima; in fact, some of its capitoli were probably exchanged in manuscript with members of the salon before the book’s publication in 1575.

Although Domenico Venier is not explicitly named as one of the men with whom she converses in the Poems in Terza Rima, “his role as literary and moral counselor is often evoked in her verses,” and capitoli 15, 18, and 23 are addressed to him (Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan, p. 179). In Capitolo 18, for example, Franco asks an unnamed “Molto illustre signor” (Most illustrious sir), for help with revisions of a poem she is writing.

Venier’s group of vernacular poets also translated and wrote commentary on the themes and images of ancient Roman elegy (love poetry), which figure prominently in Franco’s capitoli. The group’s work on the Latin elegies of the poets Catullus, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus probably provided the basis for Franco’s adaptation of their verse. Franco adapted the ancient writers’ laments on exile, infidelity, jealousy, and loss, transforming their male voices into a female voice (Poems, p. 7). One of the most important Latin sources for Franco’s poetry is Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of letters in which the male poet writes in the female voice. Through Ovid’s pen, classical heroines such as Penelope, Dido, and Medea reproach the famous lovers who have abandoned them. Franco also drew many powerful poetic images from the myths collected in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In a number of her poems Franco describes the effects of her lover’s cruelty, which has caused her to flee the city, by using notions drawn from ancient Latin elegies (the pain of love, the distant lover’s constant weeping and sighing). Interestingly, while the Latin poets present themselves as victims of powerful, talkative, sexually assertive courtesans, faulting the women for such qualities, Franco’s speaker revels in precisely those qualities.


Franco probably circulated her poems in manuscript form among writers associated with the Venier salon. However, since very few copies of the Poems in Terza Rima were actually printed, it is unlikely that her poems were widely read outside her circle during her lifetime. Domenico Venier’s interest in her poetry—given his role as the most important literary patron in the city—attests to at least some recognition of Franco’s literary talent while she was alive. So does the fact that she was asked to compile a collection of sonnets as a tribute to a slain military hero (Estore Martinengo). This recognition would grow in the centuries to come.

In 1726, the Venetian poet and editor Luisa Bergalli included two of Franco’s capitoli (Poem 12, in praise of Venice, and Poem 24, in which Franco takes a man to task for having threatened to slash a woman’s face) in an anthology (Componimentipoetici dellepiii illustri rimatrici d’ogni secolo [Poems by the Most Illustrious Women Writers from Every Century]). About 150 years later, the Venetian historian Giuseppe Tassini wrote the first full-length biography of Franco (1874). It would, however, be another hundred years before Franco’s work began to be studied as literature in its own right. Scholars of the twentieth century tried to place it in the tradition of sixteenth-century Petrarchan love poetry or its opposing camp. One study even suggested that Franco’s verse was a corrective to Petrarchan poetry (Adler, p. 215). Later, in the twentieth century, in her landmark literary biography The Honest Courtesan (1992), Margaret F. Rosenthal presented Franco’s poetry as part of a project of self-fashioning by Franco to gain entry into elite social and literary circles. Considering the poet’s remarkable achievement, Rosenthal observed how groundbreaking Franco was, especially in poetic debate. In her quarrels in verse with fellow Venetians, she at once “manipulate [d]” standard practice “to suit her own designs” and crossed “boundaries of private domesticity and public silence” that were typically placed on women in her day (Rosenthal, p. 197).

—Courtney K. Quaintance

For More Information

Adler, Sara Maria. “Veronica Franco’s Petrarchan Terze Rima: Subverting the Master’s Plan.” Italica 65, no. 3 (1988): 213-33.

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Coryat, Thomas. Coryat’s Crudities. Glascow: University of Glasgow Press, 1905.

Franco, Veronica. Lettere dall’unica edizione del MDLXXX con Proemio e nota iconografica. Naples: Ricciardi, 1949.

_______, Poems in Terza Rima. In Poems and Selected Letters. Ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Lorenzi, Giovanni Batista, ed. Leggie memorie venete sulla prostituzione fino alla caduta della Repubblica. Venice, 1870-1872.

Rosenthal, Margaret F. The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

_______. “Veronica Franco’s Terze Rima: The Venetian Courtesan’s Defense.” Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 227-57.

Ruggiero, Guido. Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Scarabello, Giovanni. “Le ‘signore’ della repubblica.” In Ii gioco dell’amore: le cortigiane di Venezia dal Trecento al Settecento. Milan: Berenice, 1990.

Tassini, Giuseppe. Veronica Franco: Celebre poetessae cortigiana del secolo XVI. Venice: Alfieri, 1969.

Venier, Lorenzo. La Zaffetta. Ed. Gino Raya. Catania: Libreria Tirelli, 1929.