Venetian Courtesan (engraving) 1590 Anonymous The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Lawner.

An engraving that was actually made during the lifetime of Veronica Franco by an anonymous artist entitled, Venetian Courtesan, depicts the courtesan wearing men’s undergarments. As Lawner explains,

In the “get-up” of the courtesan, the contrast is even more fascinating, for her long, formal skirt often concealed a pair of men’s breeches. Evidently courtesans needed to switch, from one instant to the next, from simulacrum of respectable lady to enticing gamine free to move about the city in disguise. The ambiguity must have been appealing to the men of that time, who enjoyed mingling the natural and “unnatural” ways of making love, often keeping male lovers and alternating them with their chosen courtesans.[1]

The previous quote by Lawner gives insight on the outrageous fashion choices made the courtesans in order to cater to their customers.


Laura Giorgione 1506. Oil on canvas over wood Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. ARTstor.

However, it is curious that there are some portraits of Venetian women where they are clearly depicted in men’s clothing but are not labeled as courtesans. For instance, Giorgione’s Laura is shown wearing a fur coat, something that would be seen only on men. Nevertheless, she is still identified as Petrarch’s “virtuous” Laura because of the laurel wreath behind her head. Even though she has the wreath behind her head which symbolizes virtue, she is still exposing her right breast, suggestingf a more sensuous and erotic appeal. Additionally, it is important to note that it is not as though her dress is merely slipping off her, causing the exposure of the breast to be an accident. On the contrary, Laura is shown to have complete control over the situation since one can see her right hand opening the coat to reveal herself. Technically, one could call Laura a courtesan because she is displaying all of the features that are typically associated with courtesans. Yet, the title of this painting is Laura, and was once called Portrait of Young Bride as well.[2] There is not single mention of the word ‘courtesan’ in either of those titles. To make the matter even more ambiguous, Fortini Brown proceeds to add,

While it may well have referred to the name of the sitter, laurel was also associated more broadly with poets and poetry. Petrarch’s Laura was his creation, and laurel was an emblem of her chastity, just as it was an emblem of his poetic genius…Her hair is pulled back severely, but wispy tendrils escape from it. So she is “just a woman.”[3]

Needless to say, Giorgione’s Laura can perhaps be one of the most ambiguous female portraits known to date because of the confusion as to whether or not she is a respectable woman of the high class or a courtesan.

  [1]           Lawner, 20.

[2]           Patricia Fortini Brown.  Art and Life in Renaissance Venice (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 32.

[3]           Ibid.

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