In the weeks before the launch of A Baron for Becky, I wrote a number of vignettes about courtesans, concubines, mistresses, prostitutes, sex slaves, and others who were kept for their bodies or who used their bodies to win a place in the world. It was interesting material, and I’ve saved it all, so today I’m beginning a series called Wanton Weekends. Each week, I’ll post another vignette, and when I’ve run out, I’ll research and write some more. So if I don’t cover a period or a wanton you’d like to hear more about, just comment and I’ll add to my list.
The life of a courtesan may seem glamorous, but my character Becky hopes to save enough money to leave it. How about you? Courtesan or Bride? Before you answer, consider the following quote from a letter written by Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco:
I’ll add that even if fate should be completely favourable and kind to her, this is a life that always turns out to be a misery. It’s a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason, to subject one’s body and labour to a slavery terrifying even to think of.
To make oneself prey to so many men, at the risk of being stripped, robbed, even killed, so that one man, one day, may snatch away from you everything you have acquired from many over such a long time, along with so many other dangers of injury 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 your mind and your body- what greater misery?
What wealth, what luxuries, what delights can outweigh all this? Believe me, among all the world’s calamities, this is the worst. And if to worldly concerns you add those of the soul, what greater doom and certainty of damnation could there be?
(Letter 22,’ A Warning to a mother considering turning her daughter into a courtesan’ Veronica Franco, Poems and Selected Letters, edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal, Chicago University Press, 1998, pp.37-40)
Veronica was a courtesan and the daughter of a courtesan. Given a fine education, she was trained for marriage, but her union with a wealthy physician ended badly. Needing to support herself, she turned to the sex trade, and quickly became highly regarded. She was listed (in a guide to courtesans of Venice) as one of the leading courtesans of the day.
She was a celebrated member of literary circles, and a poet in her own right, publishing often erotic, sometimes sexually explicit, poetry as well as a collection of 50 letters.
The movie, Dangerous Beauty, based on Margaret Rosenthal’s book The Honest Courtesan, opens with this one of her poems.
We danced our youth in a dreamed-of city,
Venice, paradise, proud and pretty.
We lived for love and lust and beauty,
Pleasure then our only duty;
Floating then twixt heaven and Earth
And drunk on plenty’s blessed mirth.
We thought ourselves eternal then,
Our glory sealed by God’s own pen.
But heav’n, we found is always frail,
Against man’s fear will always fail.