Prostitutes and Courtesans

Prostitutes and Courtesans. A reality of life in Renaissance Italy, Venice was known throughout Europe and Russia, for its beautiful and exotic prostitutes.

One served the working class men and tended to live and operate around the Rialto area; whilst more educated and sophisticated “Courtesans”, offered companionship, entertainment and sexual favours; to the wealthier noble and merchant class.

The Venetian authorities legalised prostitution in 1358 and set up the first brothel in the Rialto area, that was highly regulated and controlled by the authorities.

Napoleon called Venice, “Europe’s drawing room” and was one of many illustrious visitors to the drawing rooms of this most sensual of cities. 


Prostitutes and Courtesans – INTRODUCTION


After the 14th century plague, which reportedly killed over half of Italy’s populations, the cities were faced with a crisis.

Adding to this, Italian men seemed uninterested in repopulating the peninsula, struck by a sin that at the time was considered to be worse than death – same-sex attraction.  Bernardino of Siena a 15th century preacher, railed that “even the Devil flees in horror at the sight of this sin.”

Italian cities responded by encouraging prostitution – a lesser of two evils.

Venice first legalised prostitution in 1358 and set up it’s first brothel in 1408, in the Rialto area.

The important role played by the institutionalisation of prostitution is clear in a society, in which money was tied to landed estates and dowries were increasingly inflated.  The result was that 51% of males from patrician families in 16th century Venice, did not marry and those that did were around 35 years old.





One served the working class men and tended to live and operate around the Rialto area; whilst more educated and sophisticated “Courtesans”, offered companionship, entertainment and sexual favours; to the wealthier noble and merchant class.

With the rise of tourism, in his book “Crudities” of 1611, Thomas Coryat suggested that the were 20,000 prostitutes in Venice; that had at the time; a population of around 150,000.  By his perhaps generous estimations, a quarter of all the women were working in the sex trade!

For the majority of Renaissance Italian prostitutes, known as “cortigna lume”; it was a hard life and often, not one they chose.  Prostitutes were exploited by the brothels and by the cities often treated them, no better than the sewers to which Aquinas likened them.  They existed on the margins; their exploitation justified for the “greater good” of society.

Legalised prostitution reinforced gender norms, but in limited cases it provided opportunities for women to assert power.

As madams, or for courtesans who served the noble and merchant classes; women could own property, publish and achieve social acclaim. They were known as “cortigna onesta”; honest or intellectual courtesans.

The courtesan culture in Venice has been likened to that of ancient Greece and medieval Japan.

By the 16th century dawn of tourism, Venice had 11,654 registered tax-paying prostitutes, there was even a tourist guidebook published around 1565, listing names, addresses, prices and who the fee should be paid to.


Prostitution was a reality of life in Renaissance Italy.  But in spite of its legality, Renaissance Italians had a mixed opinion of the profession.

The medieval church had declared prostitution a “necessary evil”, drawing on St. Augustine of Hippo’s proclamation that “If you do away with whores, the world will be consumed with lust”.

Thomas Aquinas likewise declared in the 13th century that “If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.”  Aquinas likened prostitution to a sewer in a palace – “if you took it away, the building would overflow with pollution”.  Or, more specifically, “Take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy”.

Prostitutes, then, served as receptacles of sin, protecting the rest of society from male lust and in particular; they kept male passions focused on women.

Left: Cesare Vecellio’s “Public Whore” waves a flag and wears high-heeled chopines. (1598)

But legalisation did not mean prostitution was an esteemed profession.  It was heavily regulated, as cities passed laws to ensure that honourable citizens could avoid the corrupting influence of prostitutes.  It must be remembered, that women of high class, were rarely seen out alone in public and were dressed soberly, in dark colours.





Left: Pietro Bertelli’s flip-up courtesan shows off the woman’s chopines as well as her undergarments. (c.1588)




Left: A patrician lady dressed in the sober style.

Venetian authorities created a brothel district named “Castelletto” in the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto.  The name developed because the collection of houses was heavily guarded and governed by rules more suited to a fortress!

The resident of the Castelletto, later dispersed to another Rialto area, known as “Carampane”.

In the 18th century onward, the rise in sodomy caused so much concern to the authorities; that working girls were allowed to flaunt themselves in doorways and windows and display their breasts to attract custom.  At night they could use a lantern.  The boundary of the Carampane, was demarcated by a canal; containing the renowned “Ponte della Tette” (Bridge of Tits).

In the “red light district”, working girls were subject to strict regulation.

The premises were supervised by six custodians and were closed every evening, when the third bell of St Mark’s had finished ringing and on all main religious holidays.  They had to obey the matron, who collected all earnings and divided them up at the end of the month.

They were not allowed to leave the locality and if they flouted the law, were punished.

(However, the laws against them were mild in comparison to those meted out for male/male sodomy in early modern Italy; whose punishment mandated the amputation of cheeks, tongue, hands, or nose, branding, or galley service).

Venetian prostitutes had to wear a yellow scarf in public. (In 1384, Florence passed a law forcing prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, gloves, and special high-heeled shoes).

These special shoes called “chopines”, likely originated with Venetian prostitutes. These heels could be up to twenty-four inches high.   Perhaps the origin of today’s platform shoes!

Patrician women were so enamoured with the style, that laws forcing prostitutes to wear the shoes were passed to discourage “good” women from donning them.  Those efforts failed, as they perceived courtesans flamboyant style of dress fashionable and also possibly because it kept fine clothing, raised off the filth of the streets!

A  document dated to 1543, on what they were allowed to wear is in the Archivo di Stato (State Archives).

Other regulations were that they could not own a house on the Grand Canal, travel along it in daylight hours, or use two-oared boats. Nor could they enter churches on solemn occasions, or wear white “maidens veils” and cloaks.

They could not adorn themselves with gold, jewels or pearls, whether real or paste.

Neither they or their pimps could not give evidence in court and they could not go to court to exact any payments due.

In exchange for relative tolerance, the dues they paid to the senate, were said to be enough to maintain twelve galleys!

Renaissance prostitution was meant to channel male lust in appropriate directions; Venice for example, encouraged women to run and administer brothels as “Matrons”, to protect the working girls from being attacked.

The city authorities, worried that men who lived off of women’s earnings would become dangerously lazy and fall into a life of crime. Ironically, this attitude put a great deal of power in the hands of these matrons, who became integrated into Venetian business at multiple levels.

In the relationship between government officials, brothel-keepers, and prostitutes, there developed a debt and credit system that was used in the sex trade; which often kept the prostitutes subservient to the brothel-keepers and to their other creditors.

















A courtesan in modern usage, is a euphemism meaning a sugar-baby, an escort, concubine, mistress, or a prostitute for whom the art of dignified etiquette is the means of attracting wealthy, powerful, or influential clients.

The term originally meant a courtier, a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.

In feudal society, the court was the centre of government as well as the residence of the monarch and social and political life were often completely mixed together.  Prior to the Renaissance, courtesans served to convey information to visiting dignitaries, when servants could not be trusted.

In Renaissance Europe, courtiers played an extremely important role in upper-class society.  As it was customary during this time for royal couples to lead separate lives, commonly marrying simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances.   Men and women would often seek gratification and companionship from people living at court.

In fact, the verb ‘to court’ originally meant “to be or reside at court” and later came to mean “to behave as a courtier” and then ‘courtship’, or “to pay amorous attention to somebody”.  The most intimate companion of a ruler was called the ”favourite”.

In Renaissance usage, the Italian word “cortigiana”, feminine of “cortigian” (courtier) ,came to refer to a person who attends the court.  It then applied to a well-educated and independent woman, eventually a trained artist or artisan of dance and singing or versed in literature and poetry.  Especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class society, who was given luxuries and status in exchange for entertainment, companionship and sexual favours.

The courtesan culture in Venice, has been likened to that of ancient Greece and medieval Japan.

The women from the first class of courtesan, the honest courtesan, were often born into patrician or merchant family they were raised as educated and cultured women.  But in a society that dictated exorbitant dowries that could often bankrupt a family, extra daughters were often given no opportunity to marry.  They could go into a convent and become a nun, but that still required a dowry, though not as large.  They could remain in the household as an ageing spinster tending to family member, forever dependent and submissive perhaps to a new mistress of the household, if it should pass to a brother and his wife.  Or circumstances, like poverty from funding a dowry to an older sister, or failed commercial activities could encourage a young woman to consider the life of a courtesan.  Often, in these situations, a courtesan could end up being the sole support of their family.

​Among the Venetian men generally, courtesans were seen as cultured women who provided entertainment for wealthy noblemen and merchants.

In Venice, a man wouldn’t be expected to marry until well into his thirties and courtesans could provide these young men pleasure and culture and hopefully a disease-free experience.

An older man might take a courtesan as his mistress and enjoy a less inhibited sexual experience than he would from a wife who had most likely been raised in a convent-like atmosphere.

Successful courtesans could enjoy a luxurious life filled with parties and salons.  They often moved in influential circles and had access to artists, poets, politicians and the thinkers of the day.  In such circles a courtesan had the opportunity to wield influence, if she was skilled enough to do so.

Left: Casanova, blows up a condom to test its safety before use!


Aside from the potential for power and influence, the honest courtesan still faced the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease; something that observed no class barriers.

On the negative side, Courtesans could be still subject to charges of “witchcraft” and also it was considered unthinkable to marry below their perceived class!


Venice was famous for its famous courtesans, whose wit, charm, education and sophistication, were much sought after.

Courtesans were also fashion trendsetters, donning pearls and platform shoes, and wearing dresses that exposed their breasts.

These styles caught on with Venetian noblewomen, who imitated the expensive, luxurious look of the courtesans.  In spite of sumptuary laws that outlawed excessive pearls and costly fabrics sewn with gold or silver, women were willing to risk arrest to dress like a courtesan.

One of the most celebrated and well-known Venetian courtesans was Veronica Franco, (1546-1591).

 Veronica was more than capable and willing to use her beauty and physical charms to their best advantage!

Born to the courtesan, Paola Fracassa and the merchant, Francesco Franco, she also had three brothers.  Her intellectual life began with sharing her brothers’ education by private tutors in the family home and while still in her teens, she married the physician Paolo Panizza.  Probably an arranged marriage, it ended badly shortly afterwards and Veronica was forced to support herself.

Franco became a “cortigiana onesta” (honest courtesan) in the mid to late 1560’s and soon became famed for the intellectual and cultural entertainments she provided.  She continued her education by frequenting literary gatherings of writers and painters in Venice, during the 1570’s and 1580’s and mingled with politicians, poets, artists and thinkers.

She captured the interest of Domenico Venier (1517-1582), a Venetian poet and the head of the most renowned vernacular literary academy in Venice, who became her reader and protector.  A frequent visitor to his private literary salon at Ca’ Venier (the Venier palace), Franco composed sonnets and capitoli in “terza rima” for exchange with male poets.

By her mid-twenties, Franco was requesting sonnets for publication from male poets, for anthologies that she assembled to commemorate men of the Venetian elite.  One such volume, was the “Rime di diversi eccellentissimi autori nella morte dell’Illustre”  Signed. Estor Marteninengo.

​When King Henry III of France visited Venice in 1574, the city hired Franco to entertain him.

She repented in later life and founded a home for women who wanted to follow suit at Santa Maria del Soccorso.  Santa Maria delle Penitenti was another option, for the five-year rehab programme at the Ricovero Penitenti.

Gaspara Stampa (1523-54), is considered to have been the greatest woman poet of the Italian Renaissance and she is regarded by many as the greatest Italian woman poet of any age.  Independent and unmarried, Stampa moved graciously around Venetian society.

She was much admired by women and was rightly acclaimed for her rhetorical powers ,to stir the feelings of a largely male audience at her much sort out poetry recitals.

Pursued by many powerful and wealthy men, it is known she enjoyed a passionate love affair with Count Collaltino di Collalto; which ended badly for her.

A full but short life with much emotional turmoil, came to an end when she became ill with a high fever and after fifteen days she died on April 23, 1554.  In October 1554, Pietrasanta published the first edition of Stampa’s poetry, edited by her sister Cassandra.  Her poems were published posthumously in the collection, “Rime”.

Julia Lombardo’s apartment had three richly furnished bedrooms, a reception room, a study, kitchen and storage rooms where, according to Lombardo’s own inventory; she stockpiled linen, rugs, clothing, shoes, gloves, stockings, purses, sleeves, and sixty-four fine white camisoles!   Other than her inventories, little is known about Julia Lombardo’s short life is that in May 1522, in what appears to have been an attempted rape or robbery; she was brutally attacked by thugs in the entrance to her apartment and that by August 1542 she was dead.

Maria Emiliana was greatly admired for her intelligence and musicianship by the Elizabethan traveller and writer and trail blazer of the Grand Tour; Thomas Coryat.  Unfortunately, he was thrown out of her chamber, when he tried to challenge her profession.

He wrote “Her face is adorned with the quintessence of beauty.  In her cheekes thou shalt see the Lilly and the Rose strive for the supremacy and the silver tramels of her haire displayed in that curious manner besides her two frisled peakes standing up like prety Pyramides, that they give thee the true Cos amoris”.

However, his time in Venice was not wasted, besides leaving an invaluable record of early 17th century life and customs there in his book “Crudities”; he discovered the joys of the fork and brought it back to England.

Pietro Aretino wrote the “Capricciosi ragionamenti”, in which a mother teaches her daughter how to make it big as a courtesan.

Titian and Palma il Vecchio popularised half length, semi-clad portraits of beautiful women, inspired by the Renaissance love poetry published in Venice and often using courtesans as models.  Angela del Moro, another courtesan, served as the model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

Above: Titian’s Venus of Urbino, thought to portray his companion Angela del Moro, a Venetian courtesan.


Caravaggio used courtesans as models; even for religious paintings.  In his depiction of St. Catherine, commissioned by a cardinal, Caravaggio painted Fillide Melandroni, a courtesan, as the saint.  She also posed for Caravaggio’s Portrait of a Courtesan, stood in for Mary Magdalene, and acted out Judith slaying Holofernes.

Melandroni was apparently more than just a model for the artist.  In 1606, Caravaggio allegedly slayed Ranuccio Tomassoni; who historians believe was Melandroni’s pimp.















See my other related posts in the History of Venice category



Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans

Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans

Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans     Prostitutes and Courtesans

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