Today is December 17 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you make the best of life’s situation?” Courtesan, in modern usage, is a euphemism meaning a sugar baby, escort, concubine, mistress or a prostitute, for whom the art of dignified etiquette is the means of attracting wealthy, powerful, or influential clients. The term originally meant a courtier, a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.
In Renaissance Europe, courtiers played an extremely important role in upper-class society. As it was customary during this time for royal couples to lead separate lives—commonly marrying simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances—men and women would often seek gratification and companionship from people living at court. In fact, the verb 'to court' originally meant "to be or reside at court", and later came to mean "to behave as a courtier" and then 'courtship', or "to pay amorous attention to somebody.” The most intimate companion of a ruler was called the "favourite.”
For a modern interpretation of the concept of “the favourite” see the 2018 historical black comedy film The Favourite directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Set in early 18th century Great Britain, the film's plot examines the relationship between two cousins, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who are vying to be Court favourite of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
One such person who learned to make the best of her life situation was Veronica Franco (1546–1591) an Italian poet and courtesan in 16th-century Venice. Franco’s story is a powerful reminder to forgo judging the strategy someone is using, or has used, to navigate the chaos.
Franco was born in 1546 to a family of the citizen class. She had three brothers who were educated by tutors, and her mother, a former cortigiana onesta (intellectual courtesans) herself, insisted that Veronica share that education. This proved to be a wise decision, for though Veronica was married in her mid-teens to a physician named Paolo Panizza, the arrangement proved to be stifling and she soon sought a divorce.
Though Venetian women of that time could initiate divorce proceedings, obtaining a property settlement or support was virtually impossible if they did so; she asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support she had little option other than becoming a courtesan. Fortunately, her mother trained her well and Veronica was an apt pupil; she soon excelled at her profession and was able to support her family in great splendor for a decade.
By the time she was twenty, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice; her intelligence, strong personality and sexual skills won her a number of important clients, including King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet and literary advisor whose salon Veronica joined by the time she was 25.
As a member of the Venetian literati she participated in group discussions and contributed to collections of poetry published collectively by the salon; she also helped to edit these anthologies. In 1575 she published Terze Rime, a collection of 25 capitoli (verse letters) in the titular form; 17 of them are hers and the others are by Marco Venier (Domenico’s brother) and others, writing to and about her.
Veronica’s poetry is erotic and sometimes sexually explicit; she was not ashamed of being a courtesan but rather celebrated it and defended the rights of courtesans (and women in general). As she wrote in one of her letters/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 them twixt heaven and Earth
And drank on plenties blessed mirth
We thought ourselves eternal then,
Our glory sealed by God’s own pen.
But paradise, we found is always frail,
Against man’s fear will always fail.”
We know of Franco’s life story due to the 1993 non-fiction book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal, and the 1998 biographical drama film Dangerous Beauty, based on Rosenthal’s book, directed by Marshall Herskovitz and starring Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, and Oliver Platt.
How often do you make the best of life’s situation?