A Woman to Know: Veronica Franco

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. — Veronica

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. — Veronica Franco

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Veronica was known as “the honest courtesan.” That’s the term 16th century Venetians used to describe a local call girl who attracted men with her intelligence and wit as well as her good looks and sexual prowess. She certainly earned the so-called compliment — by the time she was 20, Veronica could play multiple instruments, including the lute and the spinet piano; dazzle scholars with her adept references to Greek poetry and ancient history; paint alongside the best of the Renaissance artists, some of whom were her clients; and even (notoriously) write epic poems.

In 1575, already well-known (and even officially recorded!) as one of the city’s most popular courtesans, Veronica published her first book of poems — erotic poems. She included original verses of her own as well as a selection of her lovers’ own works, all written in praise of her charm and beauty. She set up her legendary parlor as an artists’ salon, bringing her patrons together with contemporary painters and writers.

The same year, she petitioned the city to fund a home for courtesans and their children, with Veronica herself working as the official administrator. There, she taught the women to read and write and eventually opened the house to other impoverished families in need.

But later that year, the threat of plague forced Veronica and her young nephews, then in her care, to flee the city. When she returned in 1577, she found her house ransacked and her reputation destroyed. In 1580, the Inquisition called her to stand trial for witchcraft. She called a prominent patron to come to her defense, and the court ultimately found her innocent of all charges.

But recovering her title of “honest courtesan” proved almost impossible. Veronica managed to published one final book of poems, but her client list began to dwindle. When her last suitor died in 1582, Veronica moved out of her once-beautiful house. Her tax declaration in 1582 records Veronica living in the area of Venice where old prostitutes were exiled, the neighborhood in which historians presumed she died.

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