Culture /
Art

Poets or Whores? Meet the Courtesans

“To live in burning and never notice pain”

Gaspara Stampa

Can you hear them? Some whisper it, others shout it. It lurks in every street, hovers over every canal. The word for which every woman trembles: whore. Let them shout it: their condemnation is my freedom.

They call me by the name that was Elena’s. Thinking they are insulting me, calling me by the name of the woman for whom a war was waged. A war whose glory has echoed for millennia. The woman for whom Homer sang the Iliad, for whom Paris betrayed Hector, for whom Aphrodite went mad, for whom Achilles was killed. From her comes the word born to reduce our sex to mere flesh. Love, the art of being loved, is the fundamental source of power. Whether you are man or woman, desire makes you blind. All it takes is a look, a finger, a glimpse of the neck. The sight is blurred, the pulse rises, the blood roars in the veins. They wanted to tame her, Elena, they wanted to reduce her to her limbs. With her, they have made the feminine synonym of beastly, instinctive, slavery. She, first among all of us, paid the price of having set fire to a man’s soul. A man who could not bear her gaze. For her, we pay. For her, we fight. For her, we love.

Five hundred years ago, a woman has the ardour to refuse to belong to a man. Refusing to buy her salvation with a dowry, refusing to make herself an object so as not to compromise her public image. Or rather, not a woman, of women. Women like Veronica Franco and Gaspara Stampa. Living four centuries before the birth of the feminist movement, they inhabited the Serenissima at the height of its splendour. They were ‘Cortigiane honeste’ (honest courtiers), distinguished from prostitutes by their passion for the arts and the nobility of their lovers. They did not live in the brothels of the Rialto, and their salons were instead places of culture, the source of inspiration for the first treatises on the condition of women, signed by Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinelli, printed in Venice between the 16th and 17th centuries.

Paduan by origin but Venetian by adoption, Gaspara Stampa is considered the most important poetess of the Renaissance. Her Rime, published in 1554, broke into Petrarchism and overturned its canons. Her verses are about love, but for the first time it is man who is the muse, and it is the voice of a woman who says: “Amor m’ha fatto tal ch’io vivo in foco”. For the first time, the suffering protagonist is a woman, a woman who does not hide that she has had more than one lover. “A pena era anche estinto il primo ardore,/ che accese l’altro Amore, a quel ch’io sento/fin qui per priva, più vivo e maggiore./ Ed io d’arder amando non mi pento.”

In 1575, Veronica Franco echoes her, with renewed confidence in her own strength, in the Terze Rime: “Quasi da lazy sonno or poi svegliata, /dal cansato periglio animo presi, /benché femina a molli opere nata; /e in man con il ferro a essercitarmi appresi, /tanto ch’aver le donne agil natura, / non men men too, in armeggiando intesi: /Because, in this place, all my industry and care, by heaven’s grace, I see myself reached such a point, that I have no more fear of others’ offences. “

It is therefore from Venice, from a city that forced its own women citizens to “give themselves to the prey of many, with the risk of being dispossessed, of being stolen, of being killed [… contagious and frightening infirmities; eating with the mouths of others, sleeping with the eyes of others, moving according to the desires of others” that the roar of women ready to undergo public humiliation, and, in the case of Franco, a trial by the Inquisition, in order to maintain their independence, rises firmly.

 

Love has fashioned me so I live in flame.
I’m some new salamander in the world,
and like the animal who also lives and dies
in one and the same place, no less strange.
These are all my delights, and this my joy:
to live in burning and never notice pain,
nor do I ask him who reduced me to this state
to pity me, much or a little.
Hardly was that first passion spent
when Love lit another, and what I’ve sensed thus far
suggests this one’s more alive, more forceful.
Of this consuming love I won’t repent,
as long as he who’s newly taken my heart
is satisfied with my burning, and content.

Gaspara Stampa

 

Women so far haven’t seen this is true;
for if they’d ever resolved to do it,
they’d have been able to fight you to the death.
And to prove to you that I speak the truth,
among so many women I will act first,
setting an example for them all to follow.
On you, who are so savage to us all,
I turn, with whatever weapon you choose,
with the hope and will to throw you to the ground.
And I undertake to defend all women
against you, who despise them so
that rightly I’m not alone to protest.
[…]
I return to the purpose from which I have strayed,
and I now challenge you to single combat:
gird yourself with weapons and valor.
I’ll show you how far the female sex
excels your own. Arm yourself however you please
and take good heed for your survival,
for I will answer you with blows
(though leaving the choice of field to you)
unlike any you’ve ever felt before.

Veronica Franco