Franco and the Women of Venice

Franco did not solely focus on her role of a courtesan in her writings, but also included fair warning to a mother in Venice of her desire to make her daughter a courtesan. Although they are integrated into a male-dominated sphere and educated, courtesans of the sixteenth century maintain a tarnished reputation. While Franco embraced her role as a courtesan in Venetian society, she knew the reputation of her occupation and the damage it took on the lives of courtesans. In a letter to a friend, Franco tries to convince a mother that by influencing her daughter to be a courtesan would not only be a burden on the girl, but her mother as well. “Although it’s mainly a question of your daughter’s well-being, I’m talking about you, as well, for her ruin cannot be separated from yours. And because you’re her mother, if she should become a prostitute, you’d become her go-between and deserve the harshest punishment, while her error wouldn’t perhaps be entirely inexcusable because it would have been caused by your wrongdoing.”[1] Although Franco welcomes the title of cortigiana onesta, she warns the mother that if her daughter is a courtesan or a prostitute, she will also be burdened with the guilt and promiscuity of her daughter. The honesty of Veronica’s letter is powerful since she has embraced and learned to live her life as a courtesan. The outright disgust with the woman’s desire to transform her daughter into a courtesan could be related to Franco’s own spite toward her mother. In fear that the relationship of mother and daughter will end, Veronica has written this letter in hopes that her friend does not “slaughter in one stroke [her] soul and [her] reputation, along with [her] daughter’s.”[2] Based upon the overall tone of distaste, the mother should reconsider in allowing her daughter to become a courtesan. Franco as a cortigana onesta, demonstrates that the role she has taken as a courtesan is not accepted by the entire Venetian society. Veronica Franco uses her letters to persuade a mother that the life of a courtesan is not to be taken lightly; it is filled with burdens and decisions that are detrimental to one’s happiness.

In her final years, Franco used her education to give back to the city of Venice. Franco drafted two wills throughout her life, both including a charitable donation to women of Venice who were too poor to help themselves. Her first will was drafted in 1564, during the final months while she was pregnant. Her will stated that money would go to her child (if it were a girl), to her women servants, and to the most charitable woman in Venice who deserves to receive the dowry.[3] Six years later, Franco’s second will leave an inheritance to her children, but also to two Venetian girls to save for their marriages. Although, Franco also stated that if the executors found two prostitutes that wished to change their lives and end prostitution, then the money would go to them.[4] Franco creates these wills in hopes that she will help the women of Venice find alternative ways of life other than prostitution or becoming a courtesan. In “Terze Rima 24” written by Franco (Poem 1), she acknowledges that it is difficult for women to become successful in a male dominated society. She understands the power that women could hold if they are educated and that “in power of mind, [they] could by far excel the men.”[5] Franco knows the role of women in Venice, and with her education, she tries to change the ideas that women have toward their submissive role. To help the young mothers of the city, Franco drafted a petition to the Venetian council to open a community home. Her actions recognized the need for an outreach to Venetian women who otherwise had nowhere to go.[6] At her death in 1591, Franco had done all she could for the women of Venice. Although a home for the outcast mothers of Venice was not commissioned by the state, her influence in the city was far greater. A poet, humanitarian, and courtesan of Venice, Veronica Franco left her impression on the city.

Poor female sex, you are forever troubled

With evil fortune, held in base subjection

And forced to live deprived of liberty!

This does not come from any fault of ours,

Because, though we fall short of men’s robustness,

We are the same in mind and intellect

For virtue does not lie in strength of body,

But in soul’s vigor and the force of genius

By which anything known can be possessed.

And I am certain that in such endeavors

Women are not in any way less worthy,

But often show a greater aptitude.

But if we think ourselves inferior,

Perhaps from modesty and greater knowledge,

We are superior in every way…

And therefore we, better than you in wisdom,

To avoid conflict, bear you on our shoulders,

As those with stronger feet bear those who fall.

But the majority in this thinks wrongly,

And woman, since she will not practice evil,

Lets herself be reduced to vassalage.

Because, if she but wished to prove her value

In power of mind, she could by far excel

The men, not merely prove herself their equal.

But since the human race could not continue

If women, obstinate in this great duel,

Should treat men coldly and with bitterness,

So, not to spoil the world, which is so lovely

For all of us, we women must be silent;

Though men be evil tyrants, we submit.

They are delighted with their empty power,

For the most part, not knowing what they do

(For mortal weight is felt most by the wise),

And therefore men should show the greatest honor

To women, since they freely have surrendered

All earthly rule, leaving it up to men…

Poem 1: Veronica Franco. “Terza Rima 24.”

[1] Veronica Franco. “A Warning to a Mother Considering Turning her Daughter inti a Courtesan.” in Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters, 38.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] Jones, 3.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Veronica Franco. “Terza Rima 24.” in Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtesans, 205-206.

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