Veronica Franco was a 16th century Italian courtesan and poetess who was celebrated both for her beauty as well as her intellect. An independent-minded woman who took to the life of a courtesan to support herself and her infant son, she soon rose to become one of the most prominent Venetian courtesans. Consorting with the rich and the powerful of Europe gave her access to intellectual and political circles and she used the power this gave her to make her voice heard. Franco was a feminist and an activist much before the words were coined. In her writings, she furiously defends women who were victims of physical and verbal abuse by men. She rallied for the cause of the so-called “fallen” women so that they could get an education and make a living. She donated to shelters for helpless women and gave dowries to young girls getting married. In her independence and boldness, she was an anomaly in her day and age where women’s lives were to be led by the rules set by men.
Life as a Courtesan
Venetian courtesans were famous all over Europe and Veronica Franco was the best known of them all. She counted among her lovers King Henry III of France. The ‘cortigiane oneste’ enjoyed a lot of privileges that were not available to other women of those times. She could move freely among elite menfolk and hold discussions on art, culture, science and politics.
By her early 20s, Franco was a famous courtesan feted by kings, academics, senators and cardinals alike. Along with fame came wealth and Franco during this time lived a life resplendent with wealth and splendor. She embraced the life of a courtesan as is evident from her famous quote “I wish it were not a sin to have liked it so”.
Her life as a courtesan gave her access to the coveted literary circles in Venice. She was an accomplished woman who played the lute and the spinet and was well-versed in literature, especially of ancient Greek and Rome. In the 1570s, she became associated with Domenico Venier’s literary salon. Venier was a literary adviser to many poets. Franco was a frequent visitor to his palace and received commissioned works for assembling anthologies honoring the Venetian elite.
‘Terze Rime’, Franco’s book of poetry came out in 1575. There are 25 poems in the book out of which only 18 are by Franco. Her poems are bold and frank, touching upon subjects that were unheard of in poetry by women. They are erotic and sexually explicit which was a marked departure from the usual chaste poems of love and longing that people expected from women poets. No wonder that she was often known as ‘La Franca’ which is the feminine form of Franco and also means frank. In one of her poems, she fiercely responded to Maffio Venier who wrote obscene poetry against her. As expected, she came under a lot of criticism for this work.
In 1580, Veronica Franco published a volume of 50 letters titled ‘Familiar Letters’. Letters in those days were not just personal missives but were also literary pieces of work supposed to be read in literary gatherings. One of the letters is written to Henry III and another one written to the famous Venetian painter Tintoretto. The letters are about a wide range of topics from daily activities like preparing dinner and playing music to moral advice to friends and acquaintances. She also used this device to remark on the behavior of men.
Around the same time, her son’s tutor Ridolfo Vannitelli took her to court on charges of practicing witchcraft at her home. Veronica Franco fought her own case. With the help of her benefactor Domenico Venier she successfully defended herself and cleared her name. However, her reputation was irrevocably sullied. Her life as a celebrated courtesan soon came to an end.
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Family & Personal Life
Veronica Franco was the daughter of Francesco Franco and Paola Fracassa. Born in 1546, she was the only daughter among three sons. Her father was a Venetian merchant and was not married to her mother. However, he officially recognized her as his daughter, so she was considered a ‘cittadini originari’ or citizen of Venice and had her own coat of arms. She was educated along with her brothers by private tutors.
Franco had an arranged marriage before she was twenty. She got married to a physician, Paolo Panizza, but it was short-lived. Franco needed to support herself and it was then that her mother, a courtesan herself, trained her to become a ‘cortigiana onesta’ or an honest courtesan.
As a courtesan, Franco had relationships with some of the leading intellectuals of Venice. She had six children from different men out of which only three survived infancy.
Following the plague epidemic in the mid-1570s, Franco was forced to flee Venice. She came back to find that a large part of her valuables had been stolen. This, followed by her inquisition in court, damaged her finances badly. Her friend Domenico Venier and many other patrons died, leaving her friendless and in penury. By 1582, she was living in a destitute section of the city and trying to run a large household of sons and nephews. She died in 1591 at the age of forty-five.