The scene is an Inquisition trial hearing in Venice in 1580. On trial is a woman many in the room know… perhaps intimately. She’s exceptionally beautiful, and one of the most influential women in the city. Once, she even “entertained” the King of France. Her name is Veronica Franco, and she is charged with performing heretical incantations. She stands alone, depending on her own verbal prowess and the influence of men who have fallen desperately in love with her.
—There was a movie made about Veronica in the 90s, so I’m going to use images from the movie when I can’t use actual portraits—
Veronica was born in 1546. She was married young, but then mysteriously separated by age 18, leaving her without a dowry and with a pregnancy from a man who was… not her husband. She made a decision that was as much intellectual as it was financial: she became a courtesan. At that time, prostitutes were the most educated women in Italy. Specifically, the cortigiana onesta, which translates to either honest or honored courtesan.
Venice had a Virgin Whore complex. On the one hand, it’s a Catholic city, so its moralizing and patriarchal and always vaguely terrified of God’s wrath. But it also identifies with Venus, who rose naked and seductively from the sea. And this image is much more at the core of Venice’s identity. Tourists in particular came to Venice for its beauty, its luxury… and its prostitutes. Courtesans were literally Venice’s major tourist attraction.
This dichotomy influences how the city treats its women. If you couldn’t marry, you had two options: become a nun, or become a whore. If you could afford a dowry, you got married. But if you married, you were refused access to any education beyond religious texts, and you essentially couldn’t leave your house without an escort. This is because at the time, men believed that eloquent speech led to promiscuity, which would tear down the male order. I think if you need evidence that women are naturally powerful, look no further than the Venetian belief that if you let women talk, it will lead to the downfall of civilization.
But courtesans in particular are paid not just for sexual pleasure, but for intellectual companionship. They were highly educated and required to demonstrate sophistication, culture, and talent. Veronica was a poet, as were the men who fill out her story. So let’s meet them now.
First up is Domenico Venier. He was her greatest, lifelong ally. He was a powerful nobleman and led the primary intellectual salon. He is extremely important because he invited her to his salon where she developed as a poet. Without Domenico, we would have no memory at all of Veronica. Importantly, there’s no evidence of a sexual relationship between them.
Next is Marco Venier. He was likely one of her major lovers and he figures importantly in her poetry. He also wasn’t one of the men who abandoned her, threatened her with physical harm, or forced her into exile. He did, however, pass sumptuary laws that prohibited courtesans from wearing some of the luxuries that distinguished them from married noblewomen, because men didn’t want to have to tell them apart by asking them about political theory. We are including him in the good guy camp anyway, because the actor who played him in the movie is super hot.
Now for the villains. First we have Maffio Venier. He is a fellow poet who develops an obsession with slandering her. The only apparent reason for this is that he saw her as competition. See, honest courtesans were a lot like male courtiers, in that they provided intellectual contribution in exchange for patronage. When you have people like Domenico bankrolling Veronica, it makes her a competitor to Maffio, with one key difference: Veronica was sexy. So, of course, Maffio gets to work calling Veronica ugly and syphilitic, insulting her intelligence, and downgrading her to a puttana, or public whore.
Finally, we have Vannitelli. He wasn’t in the movie, so I had to get imaginative, but he was the children’s tutor. We’ll get to him later.
Now, Veronica, especially under Domenico’s patronage, starts amassing a lot of wealth and influence. This is a double edged sword, because on the one hand, she has a lot of powerful allies, but on the other, she starts seriously threatening people like Maffio. Her reputation starts coming under fire, and it’s her reaction to this that develops her feminism.
Basically, Veronica starts publishing poetry anthologies that are made up of correspondences between her and her patrons. So for instance her first book begins with a love poem written to her by Marco Venier, to which she then responds. The reason she does this is threefold.
It allows her to advertise her powerful alliances. A great example is when she published a poem exalting the King of France, who had “bizarre sexual proclivities,” thanking him for spending a private evening in her home. Not so private anymore.
It rewrites the narrative of the honest courtesan. She rejects men who try to buy her, especially when her heart is elsewhere. She is not a greedy, venal whore- she is a faithful partner, and her love is real.
It positions her as an intellectual equal- and at times, a superior. In her correspondences with men, she critiques their poetry and gives them moral advice. In these poems, you see men looking up to her.
This structure also comes in handy during an epic battle with Maffio. First, Maffio writes three disgusting poems about Veronica and disseminates them around Venice. Here are some lines from one of them:
“Veronica, veritably unique whore. Foxy, flighty, flimsy, flabby, smelly, scrawny, scrimpy, and the biggest scoundrel besides. A woman reduced to a monster made of human flesh. To sing of all that is wrong with you, your flaws, your faults, would take a hundred concepts, thousands of pens and inkwells, and countless poets.”
Veronica gets wind of this, and mistakes the identity of the author as Marco. She writes a furious poem to him, calling him to pick up arms and fight her. But because she also really digs Marco, she ends the poem by challenging him not to a duel with swords, but to a duel in bed. She says, “Perhaps I would even follow you to bed, and stretched out there in skirmishes with you, I would yield to you in no way at all.”
Marco, who’s innocent, is like “what the fuck, this wasn’t me, someone is trying to poison our love, but also what you’re suggesting sounds pretty okay, so have your way with me.”
At this point, Veronica has figured out it was really Maffio that wrote the poems, and she’s super pissed. She challenges him to a poetic battle, and it’s in this poem that she defends the essential nature of women. She says “When we too have weapons and training, we will be able to prove that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours.” Then she says that she will be the first to show women what they’re capable of, and will throw him to the ground. And she does. She beats Maffio, publishes her books, and is at the height of her career.
Annnnnd then the plague hits. Venice, the city smiled upon by God, loses a third of its entire population to a disease that comes out of nowhere. Meanwhile, Veronica is forced into exile because she’s threatened by a jealous lover. This is good for her physical health, but it’s really bad for her household, which is now being run by desperate staff. She loses almost all of her wealth in lootings, and returns to a city that’s in a full on identity crisis. Venice, one of the first cities in Europe to be hit by the plague, is trying to figure out why God has forsaken it. They end up questioning what had been the core of its identity- its sumptuousness. Because men can’t be blamed for anything, they start turning on the prostitutes. The wives were ok, but dammit women weren’t supposed to be talking at all! Obviously, the prostitutes, like sirens to jagged rocks, had been seducing men into their spiritual demise. And this is when Vannitelli comes in.
Vannitelli was the children’s tutor, and he stole a bunch of shit from her house. Veronica suspects him, so he turns her into the Inquisition for reciting “heretical incantations.” Given the perilous position of prostitutes at this time, she’s in deep shit. Now Venice was more liberal about witchcraft than other cities in Europe, so she wasn’t necessarily facing execution, but she was facing public punishment and humiliation, which would mean the total destruction of her reputation and livelihood.
Veronica at this point is used to defending herself against bullshit accusations. She took the stage with confidence and charm, suggesting that the Inquisition had bigger fish to fry. But in reality, she was defending a life that had given her a voice. She was defending the genuine love she’d felt for her patrons and the warmth and elation of her open sexuality, which Vannitelli was trying to cheapen and condemn. And though she had no one formally defending her, she did have an ace in her pocket that she might not even have known was there. Domenico, risking his own reputation, stepped in to save her. The charges were dropped.
Now… why do I find Veronica so compelling? Well, throughout history, women have had to masculinize themselves if they wanted to gain and hold power. You have Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt, who wore men’s clothes and called herself Pharaoh instead of Queen and Elizabeth I who presented herself as asexual and even manly, or even Catherine de Medici and Queen Christina of Sweden who adopted androgynous imagery. There has always been this implicit suggestion that great women somehow “rose above their gender” by adopting masculine virtue. As though to be excellent, you had to be masculine. But Veronica constantly challenged this. She never defined femininity, and she even blurred the definition of masculinity, pointing out that “some men who are delicate are also strong, and some, though course and rough, are cowards.” What she did instead was to redefine virtue. Instead of female purity or male strength, she insisted that virtue was defined by integrity and intellect, which men and women have in equal measure. Because of this inherent equality, she allowed herself to be openly sexual and feminine, which really just meant that she was fully herself. Femininity was powerful, and it was enough.
Now, Veronica died at 45 in relative poverty, having never quite recovered from the plague. But instead of focusing on that, I want to you focus on this. Remember Maffio? Who called her ugly and syphilitic? Guess how he died. Fuckin’ syphilis.