Veronica Franco (1546–1591) was an Italian poet and courtesan in 16th-century Venice. She is renowned for her notable clientele, feminist advocacy, literary contributions, and philanthropy. Her humanist education and surviving cultural contributions make Veronica Franco a compelling case study for the accomplishments of Courtesans in the late Venetian Renaissance.
In her notable works, Franco uses perceived virtue, reason, and fairness to advise male patricians and other associates. Her writings serve as a display of her intellect and social connections. She was able to exercise greater autonomy in her authorship than other traditional Venetian woman due to her established reputation and influence.Capitoli in Terze rime and Lettere familiari a diversi (" to Various People"),
Veronica Franco was born to a family in the Cittadini class. She developed her position in Renaissance Venetian society as a cortigiana onesta (Honored Courtesan), who were intellectual sex workers that derived their position in society from refinement and cultural prowess. They served in contrast to other sex workers such as cortigiana di lume or meretrice ('harlots'), who were lower-class prostitutes that tended to live and practice their trade near the Rialto Bridge.
Franco received a respectable humanistic education at a young age from her brother's tutor, an unusual opportunity for Venetian women. She continued her education by mixing with learned men, writers, and painters. This granted her access to a Domenico Venier, a patron and advisor to women writers. She was able to use her education to contributed considerably to literary and artistic outlets.
Franco learned additional skills from her mother, Paola Fracassa, who had an interest in finding suitable clients for her, as well as marrying her off. While still in her teens, Franco was briefly married to a mature, wealthy physician named Paolo Panizza. At the age of eighteen in the year 1564, she indicated her first of six pregnancies, none of which were from the short marriage to her husband. Her three surviving children instead born from her clients, a Venetian nobleman and a wealthy merchant. She supported her children along with a household of tutors and servants for most of her life.
In order to support herself, Franco turned to serving as a cortigiana to wealthy men. She quickly rose through the ranks to consort with some of the leading patricians in Venice and even had a 10 day liaison with Henry III, King of France.
Franco was listed as one of the foremost courtesans of Venice in the Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia (published about 1565).
Franco wrote two volumes of poetry: Terze rime in 1575 and Lettere familiari a diversi in 1580. She published books of letters and collected the works of other leading writers into anthologies. Successful in her two lines of work, Franco also founded a charity for courtesans and their children.
In 1565, when she was about 20 years old, Veronica Franco was listed in the Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia (Catalog of all the Principal and most Honored Courtesans of Venice), which gave the names, addresses, and fees of Venice's most prominent prostitutes; her mother was listed as the person to whom the fee should be paid (her "go-between"). From extant records, we know that, by the time she was 18, Franco had been briefly married and had given birth to her first child; she would eventually have six children, three of whom died in infancy.
By the 1570s, she belonged to one of the more prestigious literary circles in the city, participating in discussions and contributing to and editing anthologies of poetry.
As one of the più honorate cortigiane in a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, Franco lived well for much of her working life, but without the automatic protection accorded to "respectable" women, she had to make her own way. She studied and sought patrons among the learned.
In 1575, during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city, Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. Upon her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity before the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft, a common complaint lodged against courtesans in those days. The charges were dropped. There is evidence that her connections among the Venetian nobility helped in her acquittal.
Her later life is largely obscure, though surviving records suggest that although she won her freedom, she lost all of her material goods and wealth. Eventually, her last major benefactor died and left her with no financial support. There is little information for her life after 1580. Records suggest that she was less prosperous in her later years, but was not living in poverty. However, she published no more writings. Although her fate is largely uncertain, she is believed to have died in relative poverty.
In 1575, Franco's first volume of poetry was published, her Terze rime, containing 18 capitoli (verse epistles) by her and 7 by men writing in her praise. That same year saw an outbreak of plague in Venice, one that lasted two years and caused Franco to leave the city and to lose many of her possessions. In 1577, she unsuccessfully proposed to the city council that it should establish a home for poor women, of which she would become the administrator. By then, she was raising not only her own children but also her nephews, who had been orphaned by the plague.
In 1580, Franco published her Lettere familiari a diversi ("Familiar Letters to Various People") which included 50 letters, as well as two sonnets addressed to King Henry III of France, who had visited her six years earlier.
Franco's success was not limited to being a coveted courtesan, it was her wittiness and often criticized voice that was immortalized by way of being published that has brought forth much recognition. Records indicate that the amount of actual publications were limited as they were thought to have been at her own expense, or private publications. Her work is known to have been included in an anthology of women poets in the eighteenth century (1726) edited by Luisa Bergalli.
"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 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."
The embodiment of her role in the public realm was made evermore tangible, amongst the literary circles and the Venetian public during her polemic literary battle with Maffio Venier. The poem referenced above Capitolo 16, A Challenge To A Poet Who Has Defamed Her – is believed to have been one of the many directed to Maffio Venier. These poems are Capitolo XIII, XVI and XXIII of her literary publication, Terze Rime. The polemic literary battle or discourse, between Veronica Franco and Maffio Venier has warranted many literary analyses to date.
In the 2000s Franco prompted scholarly inquiries on “what it meant to be a public woman in Cinquecento Venice”. This directly pertained to her duality of both a courtesan and a published poet. Franco is referenced to have been a “living performance of public art—a renowned courtesan whose body was available to a certain exclusive clientele, a published author, and a public presence.” Franco's literary work demonstrates her ability to defend women kind, as a whole, in a format that can be studied and understood as ahead of her time. Franco's work fearlessly embarked on juxtaposed realms such as sexuality and women's agency as a whole. In doing so, she challenged and disrupted the patriarchal norms that surrounded her.
In 2013, her work was interpreted as adopting “a position of public authority that calls attention to her education, her rhetorical skill, and the solidarity she feels with women." She embodied in writing a duality, toggling between and addressing both private and public life matters. Her publications have allowed her work and proto-feminist efforts to transcend time.