Paula Findlen History 213B/313B




"She enjoys too much support in this city and is favored by many who should hate her." – Poet Redolfo Vannitelli’s accusation against Franco to the Inquisition, 3 October 1580

Dangerous Beauty is a historical film based on Margaret Rosenthal's The Honest Courtesan. The protagonist, Veronica Franco (1546-91) was the most famous courtesan in sixteenth-century Venice. She was well known for her poetry and her wit as well as for her sexual favors -- courtesans were high-class prostitutes whom one did not simply visit for sex but also for conversation and culture. She was indeed visited by King Henri III of France in 1574; Franco sent the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne a copy of her Lettere familiari a diversi (Familiar Letters to Various People) when he was in Venice in 1580.

Franco was an important participant in the public cultural life of the city. Her family belonged to the class of ordinary citizens which meant that their names were recorded in the Silver Book (Libro d'argento) rather that the Golden Book (Libro d'oro) that recorded the names of patricians. Both she and her mother Paola's names appear in the 1565 catalogue of all the prostitutes in Venice -- a sign that she began her career as an ordinary prostitute (meretrice) and then became something more.

In real life, Franco married in 1560-62, though her husband, the physician Paolo Panizza, does not seem to have been a large presence in her life. She had 6 children, 3 of whom died in infancy. In the late 1560s and early 1570s she was at the height of her fame, invited to all the leading literary academies and supported by male patrons as a poet, in particular by Domenico Venier. Her fortune began to change during the plague of 1575-77. While Franco had been celebrated as the embodiment of Venice (sexual and cultured rather than virginal), she now was castigated as a leading example of Venice's sins that had brought plague to the city. In 1580 she was denounced as a heretic ("a witch and a public whore") before the Inquisition and acquitted of the charge of practicing magic incantations. Attacks by some male poets contributed to the growing perception that Franco did not represent Venice well: "I implore you to have her punished immediately" so that "she can no longer contaminate this city," urged her accuser Vannitelli (Rosenthal, p. 165). By 1582, at the age of 36, Franco was utterly impoverished and increasingly obscure.

Franco was many things in her lifetime. She was a prostitute but made no attempt to justify or ennoble her profession, writing a famous letter chastising a mother who thought to make her young daughter another Franco by telling her what a hard life it was (while also acknowledging the difficulties for many poor women to marry well, forcing them into this life of necessity):

It is a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason, to subject one’s body and industriousness

to a servitude whose very thought is most frightful. To become the prey of so many, at the risk of

being despoiled, robbed, killed, deprived in a single day of all that one has acquired from so many over such a long time, exposed to many other dangers of receiving injuries and dreadful contagious diseases; to eat with another’s mouth, sleep with another’s eyes, move according to another’s will, obviously rushing toward the shipwreck of one’s mental abilities and one’s life and body; What greater misery? (Rosenthal, p. 133)

Franco became a successful author and used her cultural authority to push for social reforms. She encouraged the Council of Ten to enforce a 1563 law, making it a crime for mothers to support themselves by prostituting their daughters. She attempted to improve the lot of other unfortunate women by asking the Senate in 1577 to help found a home for unwed mothers and other women who had lost their virtue (Casa del Soccorso). The home was established though she ultimately did not play a key role in its activities, perhaps seeing herself more as someone who might have need of such charitable services rather than as its patron.

Franco participated actively in crafting and responding to the myth of Venice. For example, her Terze rime contains a number of poems to Venice:

In a manner from the worldly set apart,

Venice is built upon the water

by celestial, supernatural decree:

and the King of heaven was pleased

to found in her the safe, eternal nest

of his faith, which elsewhere lay oppressed;

and for his own delight on this shore he placed

all the most acclaimed and vaunted sweetness. (12: 37-45)

From that tranquil and fair Adria,

unequaled by any other in the things

that adorn a paradise on earth:

from those golden mansions of marble and carved stone

built upon the waters in such a manner

that the sea quietly returns to contemplate their exceeding beauty;

and thus sends its waves, purged of their fury,

to irrigate the noble city,

queen of the seas, upon the seas ensconced,

at whose feet the water humbly subsides,

and by varied and torturous channels

flows through her countless paths. (22: 154-165)

She celebrated Venice's beauty and liberty in her poems and did not hesitate to exhort male patricians to live up to the values of their class, as depicted in Contarini. At the same time, she also explored the contradictions of Venice's myth for women at this time, as in the following poem:

And the less freedom we have,

the more our blind desire, which drives us off the path,

will find a way to penetrate our heart;

so that a woman either dies from this

or moves away from the restricted life that we all share

and owing to a small mistake is led far astray. (22: 79-84)