“When we women, too, have weapons and training,
we will be able to prove to all men
that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours.”
(capitolo 16, lines 64-66)
– Veronica Franco
Veronica Franco was not an honorable woman. To have that title, a woman in Italy living in the sixteenth century had to be endowed with the following six characteristics:
Chastity, Silence, Modesty, Reticence, Sobriety, and Obedience.
An honorable woman had, in essence, to be seen and not heard, to be pliable in mind and body, to procreate and run a household. Girls were born to become obedient wives, devoted mothers, to raise their children to be good Christians. Nothing more beyond that.
Not Veronica Franco, the most famous courtesan of Renaissance Venice; she was a poet, intellectual, proto-feminist, philanthropist. Her mother had insisted on giving her the same education as her brothers. A courtesan herself, she wanted financial and social security for her daughter.
She taught Veronica how to use her mind and looks to achieve that security. It worked; Veronia married, but the union did not last; the teenager was suffocating in her domesticity. She was able to secure a divorce, but in the absence of laws protecting women’s rights to settlements or support, she lost whatever wealth she had owned.
She became a courtesan, but an “honest courtesan,” cortigiana onesta. In cosmopolitan Venice, such women offered not only physical, but intellectual and cultural pleasures to their clients. By the age of twenty, Veronica was among the most famous of those. Her clients included some of Europe’s most powerful men, like King Henry III of France and poet and literary Domenico Venier.
She perfected her sexual and conversational skills and constantly pursued her education. She rose up Venice’s social ranks and became a member of the most prestigious literati salons, where she collaborated with intellectuals. In group discussions, she challenged social convention regarding women, all women, and called for their political and social rights, as well as their education. She edited anthologies and wrote and published her own poetry. It was erotic, sometimes sexually explicit, and scandalously honest.
She would later write and publish letters too, advising powerful men – clients of hers – on matters of morality, philosophy, and politics. And she would found a charity for courtesans and their children.
Veronica Franco, the free-minded female intellectual, fell, as would be expected, in 1577. Charged by the Venetian Inquisition of practicing witchcraft, brought to trial, she defended herself with dignity and was acquitted. The damage however, both social and financial, was irreparable. Veronica died in obscure poverty in 1591.
“Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”
Veronica Franco was and remains that example of an independent, intellectual, and beautiful woman who did not need or seek society’s definition of honor in order to be honorable.