Courtesan and poet
Early Life. Veronica Franco’s life suggests both the possibilities and limitations for an educated woman in Renaissance Italy and also highlights the ways in which intellectual connections and literary or artistic talents occasionally worked to offset a life that otherwise went against convention. Franco was the daughter of Francesco Franco, a Venetian merchant, and Paola Fracassa, a woman not his wife who made her living arranging sexual partners and companions for leading Venetian men. Franco’s father did not deny that she was his daughter, but officially recognized her, which meant that, like her father, she was considered a citizen of Venice and had an official coat-of-arms. Her father arranged for her to be educated by private tutors along with her brothers, and from a young age she showed great skill in writing.
Multiple Relationships. As was to be expected for a young woman in Italy at this time whose father was quite well-off, she was married when she was less than twenty to another Venetian citizen, but she separated from him soon afterward and apparently never had any children by him. At that point she began a series of relationships with leading intellectuals and writers in Venice, providing them with intellectual and emotional companionship; she had six children by several different fathers, although, as was common in this period, only half of her children survived infancy.
The Honest Courtesan. Franco never denied her activities, and she became known as an “honest courtesan,” one of a handful of women in the large cities of France or Italy during this period who achieved prominence and near-respectability through their sexual connections with nobles, intellectuals, and officials. Such courtesans were often glamorized in plays and poetry as they dressed and lived lavishly and seemed to flaunt the normal expectations for sexual morality in women. This assessment was true to some degree, but the chances for such a life were slim, possible only to those with beauty, talent, and usually family connections. Courtesans often came from well-to-do urban families or the lesser nobility, and were often born out of wedlock; they and their families realized that they had greater opportunities for gaining wealth and stature through informal relations with prominent men than through marriage. Compared with the lives of most women, the life of a courtesan seemed elegant and independent, but their status was still set primarily by the men to whom they were attached, just as a married woman’s status was set by her husband.
An Unusual Independence. Franco was able to be more independent than many courtesans because of her own abilities. Her literary talents brought her to the attention of Domenico Venier, an acclaimed poet and the head of the most important literary academy in Venice, where writers and other learned individuals came together to read their work and discuss other cultural topics. Venier became her patron, inviting her to the meetings of the academy and other gatherings and encouraging her literary pursuits. Franco began her publishing career with a type of work viewed as especially appropriate for a woman: she requested poems from male writers and gathered them into an anthology honoring prominent Venetian men.
Literary Boldness. In 1575 Franco published a book of her own poetry, Terze rime, in which she was frank about her own life, including its sexual aspects. This boldness was unusual in a female writer, for most women of the Renaissance and Reformation periods who wrote chose religious topics, and those who did write about secular topics rarely discussed sexual issues. She was attacked by some of her male acquaintances for this boldness, perhaps because it went against what they expected women to be both in real life and in poetry. In real life, women were expected to be chaste and obedient; in poetry, they were expected to be reserved, beautiful, and unattainable—the inspiration for men’s poetry about love and longing, not women who felt love or sexual passion themselves.
Letters. Along with her poetry, in 1580 Franco also published a volume of fifty letters addressed to various prominent individuals. Such volumes were common for Renaissance humanists, who saw the letter as an opportunity to show off their literary skills as well as a means to convey information. Most people who wrote letters during this period did not expect them to be private, and they took great care in crafting their prose. Letters were often handed around at literary gatherings or read aloud, with readers or listeners commenting on their style and skill. The letters in Franco’s collection were, in fact, never sent to their addressees, but, as was the case with similar collections published by other writers, simply published as a collection, allowing their author to describe her life and provide advice to the well-to-do men to whom they are addressed.
A Troubling Accusation. In the same year that her book of letters was published to great acclaim, Franco was accused by her son’s tutor of performing magical incantations and was brought to trial by the Venetian Inquisition. The trial was a sensation and it damaged Franco’s reputation, even though she was eventually cleared of all charges through her own efforts and those of her supporter Venier. She died in poverty at the age of forty-five, having outlived her patrons and no longer able to attract the attention of new ones. Some of her loss of wealth was the result of the plague in Venice, but it was also a common situation for women who had made their reputations as courtesans. Franco is unusual in that her literary works have survived her and have lasting importance as significant and beautiful examples of Renaissance love poetry.
Veronica Franco, Poems and Selected Letters, edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).