Notorious for their allure and beauty, it is no wonder that men travelled from all over Europe to marvel at the Venetian courtesans. These women were the epitome of lust and sensuality. They made their presence known throughout Venice with their extravagant and expensive clothing, layers of jewelry, and colorful makeup. Records show that during the early sixteenth century, there was an approximate number of 11,654 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people.[1] The Venetian commercial sex trade was actually run by older women, not men, and prostitutes wore brightly colored clothing while still exposing their breasts in order to attract customers. Judith C. Brown, and Robert C. Davis note in their book, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy that courtesans commonly stood at balconies, windows, and wore an array of ribbons[2]. In order to regulate these women on the street and for there to still be a sense of control throughout the city, the government designated a specific area for courtesans to roam and they were to remain only in that area. Eventually, some courtesans began to escape their confined boundaries by making their way into the Piazza of San Marco in search of clientele. The consequence for breaking such a rule in a male-dominated city was the government threatening to shave the heads of these women and have a part of their female identity taken away. However, this seemed to have little effect on the women and they would proceed with their chosen way of life despite the obstacles that men instilled upon them.[3] Many famous artists depicted the lives and beauty of the courtesans including Carpaccio, Giacomo Franco, Titian, Giorgione, and Bordone. However, because of what we know about Franco’s life, it is possible that scholars are merely assuming that the unknown sitters in the works of the above artists are courtesans. I will discuss what it is that was written about Franco and why that has led scholars to label most of the Venetian female portraiture as depicting courtesans.

[1]           Margaret F. Rosenthal. The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth- Century Venice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 11.

[2]           Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, eds. Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998), 31

[3]          Ibid, 19.

<- PREVIOUS      NEXT ->