A courtesan was a professional mistress, a prostitute of the highest rank who provided her services and companionship to wealthy nobles or rulers. Courtesans were popular among Renaissance aristocrats and royalty, whose marriages were often arranged for the political or financial gain of their families. With love an emotion that often remained outside of a legal marriage, the use of courtesans by husbands was often accepted by their wives, who were much more restricted in their actions, their living conditions, and their ability to circulate in society.
Many women who became courtesans began as common streetwalkers or brothel workers, who welcomed members of the middle class, artisans, and travelers (some brothels were disguised as convents). Prostitutes in most Italian cities were registered, taxed, and regulated by law. Through intelligence, manners, and a good appearance, they gained a safer and more prestigious place in a court through the sponsorship of a man of high rank. Such courtesans were valued for their ability to converse with powerful and intelligent men and put them at ease. In some cases a highly valued courtesan was shared among a group of men, each of whom reserved her company on a certain night of the week. The life of a courtesan was always tenuous, however, as her career depended on gaining the trust and support of patrons. The alliance between a nobleman and a courtesan could end suddenly on the gentleman's whim, leaving the courtesan again with no place of business but the streets.
There were two kinds of courtesans in Italy: the higher rank belonged to the “honest courtesan,” a partner for entertainment and intellectual discussion, who was educated and often talented as a writer, singer, or musician. The cortigiana di lume was a lower-class courtesan, one who took on all manner of customers, showed no special talent or intellectual ability, and who were generally looked at as prostitutes.
The honest courtesan was supported with gifts of money and other valuables, and sometimes property. In the drive to improve their circumstances, some married women engaged in the profession with the full knowledge and support of their husbands. If they were single, their careers sometimes ended when their customers arranged their marriage—or took them as wives themselves. The courtesan was an ornament, as well as a fashion trend setter and status symbol. She reflected the good taste and wealth of her patron. The most successful courtesans attained complete independence and lived out their lives in comfort and high regard. One such was the famous Roman courtesan Imperia, who lived like a princess in a magnificent suite of rooms.
Veronica Franco, one of the most famous Renaissance courtesans, plied her trade in Venice, a city where the profession of courtesan carried great prestige. The daughter of a courtesan, she was trained in the profession by her mother from a young age (mothers of courtesans often acted as managers for their daughters). She took part in Venice's vital new printing industry and published several books of her own poetry and letters. Under Franco's patronage, a charity for courtesans and their children was established in Venice.
See Also: Franco, Veronica; Venice
cour·te·san / ˈkôrtəzən; ˈkər-/ • n. a prostitute, esp. one with wealthy or upper-class clients.