Selling love with Veronica Franco

Words: Chloe Johnson

Veronica Franco’s literary name is eclipsed by those of Dante and Petrarch, and for only one reason – the writer and sex worker does not fit neatly into history or literature books on the Italian Renaissance. Ignoring the common writing style of the time – lamenting love poetry addressed to unattainable women – Franco made it clear she was attainable. In fact, she was passionate about love and sex, writing raucous verse and bold prose alongside her career as a cortigiane onesta (honest courtesan). 

Veronica Franco was born out of wedlock in Venice to a merchant father and courtesan mother, which left her as the recognised, educated daughter of a merchant. She was married off at 20 to a Paolo Panizza, but decided against the set path and separated from him soon after to make her own way. 

An honest courtesan was a recognised position. They provided men with both intellectual and physical pleasure, occupying the space between what was acceptable and unacceptable for women of the time. For most of her life, Franco supported herself and a large household of children, tutors, and servants. She published several volumes of work including the popular Terze Rime, many of which challenged popular patriarchal conventions, and was a renowned courtesan available to certain exclusive clients – one of which is rumoured to  have been King Henry III of France. 

Franco received patronage from Domenico Venier, enabling her to publish her works, and his brother, Marco Venier, started writing typical love poems to her.

The popular practice that dominated literature at the time was known as imitation. This feels like a vague – or even derogatory – term to a 21st-century audience used to copyright scandals, but contextually it was a highly technical art form. Texts like Cicero’s De Oratore, Ascham’s On Imitation and Petrarch’s Letters On Familiar Matters instructed writers on how to best imitate: it was the highest form of flattery to be imitated, and the highest peak for a writer to imitate successfully. 

Petrarchism – the imitation of the poet Petrarch – was probably the most popular type of imitation at the time Franco was writing. The form was cleverly constructed, but it was also rooted in misogyny. Women in Petrarchism were untouchable creatures who inflicted suffering by denying men gratification, and the poet’s voice often struggled to reconcile desire to have sex with a woman with concern about ‘ruining’ a pure, virginal being. In short, women in Petrarchism were heavily objectified, held at a distance as a muse that enabled the writer to wallow in his own emotional turmoil. 

Franco rejected this ethereal account of love. By writing her own experience, she gave voice to the muse who was always personally absent from the romantic Renaissance tradition. This lady was not cruelly silent or indifferent: in Terze Rime, she interweaves vivid sexual imagery with scathing replies to Marco Venier. The traditionally Petrarchan poetry impresses on the reader the distinct lack of Petrarchan emotion Franco shows – she favours ‘actions’ over her suitors’ typical anguished ‘nonsense’, and claims that Venier’s declarations are not ‘solid’ proof of love, but ‘fairy stories’.

‘Now, do you really want to make me love you?’ she asks, ‘Or do you think that you will catch me leaping out of myself to fall in love with you?’ In this, Franco pierces the heart of Petrarchan love politics. What does Venier expect her to do? He wants her to remain unattainable: the social rules dictate that he must chase her, but Franco says that if he attempts to woo her in reality, she will find any excuse to give him what he claims to desire. 

He doesn’t actually want her, Franco suggests. He doesn’t even want the idea of her. What he wants is the fame that comes along with writing about her. While Franco is endangered by and ridiculed for her profession of selling love, both in terms of sex and in her writing, male poets are lauded as geniuses. Franco is a subversive, working within traditional Petrarchan themes and sounds in order to question its foundations.

Veronica Franco wasn’t just defiant in her writing. She tirelessly defended other women regardless of their social standing and advocated for them to be educated to the same degree as men. She also set up shelters for ‘fallen women’ and petitioned the Venetian council to allow women into the existing shelters without requiring them to take a vow of chastity, or be unmarried or childless. This petition was unsuccessful: Franco’s views were ahead of their time. In fact, she defied the odds in getting published at all. 

In 1580, Franco’s son’s tutor, Ridolfo Vannitelli, accused her of heretical incantations. There have been many theories surrounding Vannitelli’s accusation – some have said he was a spurned lover, or a thief that Franco discovered and dismissed.

Sex workers were often accused of witchcraft during Franco’s time. Witchcraft was associated with sex, and the traditional Christian morality of Renaissance Venice viewed female sexuality as sinful – hence all the women in Petrarchan poetry who remain perfect because they would never give in to their lovers’ demands. Rather than claiming innocence, Franco was repentant: she admitted her incantations, but said they were to follow the latest trends, not for witchcraft, and passed the test.

Franco’s position meant she could never truly be part of the aristocracy, and her money and status were never secure. If social ruin didn’t befall a courtesan for one reason or another, sexually transmitted diseases, childbirth, or simple aging could spell the end. Like most honest courtesans, Franco managed to live a relatively autonomous life socially and financially, but only for the time that she was useful to men. When no longer fit for public life, she faded away into poor obscurity. 

Today, Veronica Franco appears on few undergraduate reading lists, despite the themes and thoughts of her work being an ideal fit for an examination of Renaissance poetry. When she does appear, her presence is justified by the fact that she was admired by male contemporaries, or that she responded to masculine traditions. Franco’s work speaks for itself – and she should not be made out to be an amateur. She was a sex worker, and an intellectual, and a public figure, and a staunch feminist, and it’s time to do away with the belief that any one of these statements makes less true any of the others.

“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realised 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, from Lettere Familiari 1

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Chloe Johnson is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Instagram.