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Veronica Francoby Wendy Sloan

eronica Franco was renowned in her day as a glamorous Venetian cortigiana onesta (“honored courtesan”). As such, she “made her living” by entertaining and “arranging to have sexual relations, for a high fee” with wealthy aristocrats, visiting merchants — even a French king (Jones & Rosenthal 1). Franco wrote extensively, most notably in the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme terza rima, as part of the prestigious literary salon of retired Venetian Senator Domenico Venier (1517-1582). Franco and her intellectual circle experimented with the classical meters, forms, and genres, especially those of the Roman elegiac poets Ovid and Propertius. This constituted a sharp departure from the Petrarchan lyric that had dominated Italian poetry during the first half of the Sixteenth Century (“Cinquecento”).

Franco was often referred to as “La Franca” during her lifetime, the feminine form of “Franco” but also a name that particularly suited her, “franca” (“frank”) having the same meaning in Italian as in English. For, what distinguishes Franco’s voice is a unique combination of eroticism, honesty, morality, and social consciousness. Franco wrote with equal persuasion about her own sensual skills and attractions, on the one hand and, on the other, about the hardships and dangers of a courtesan’s life and the unjustly low status of women as a group. Not only did she compose works defending herself against the vicious attacks of a prominent male satirist, she also wrote poetry and prose specifically aimed at “protect[ing] fellow courtesans against mistreatment by men and … criticiz[ing] the subordination of women in general” (Jones & Rosenthal 2). Franco sought to establish a protective residence for prostitutes who wanted to leave the profession. In her wills, she left money to fund dowries for poor girls in order to enable them to marry respectably.

Despite the dubious distinction of being an internationally renowned sex symbol and the extreme limitations imposed on women’s lives by the Venetian society of her day, Franco retained her integrity and gained respect as an author and poet. With the help of powerful men, chiefly her mentor, Venier, Franco found considerable success as a writer during her lifetime and centuries after her death. Her two books bear no publisher’s name, though: a volume of poetry, the Terze rime (1575), was dedicated to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, with whom she conducted a literary correspondence; a volume of letters, Lettere familiari, was dedicated to her friend, Cardinal Luigi d’Este, and to King Henry III of France. Appearing after the Counter Reformation had taken hold, Franco’s books were “published clandestinely to avoid the prepublication censorship introduced” after the Council of Trent (Cox Lyric 14 & note 40). Franco also edited at least one poetry anthology, in 1575: a collection of sonnets, including nine of her own, commemorating the death of Count Estor Martinengo (Migiel 139). In an age when few women were literate, her achievement is all the more remarkable in light of the modest circumstances of her birth: her mother was also a courtesan. Yet she likely died in relative poverty at the age of forty-five; by the time she was thirty-five her career had all but ended.

The Women Poets’ Renaissance in Italy

It is a truism among contemporary scholars that there was no “Women’s Renaissance” in Italy. Nonetheless, except for the modern period, the Italian Renaissance stimulated the largest upsurge in publications by women in Western history (Stortoni & Lillie ix). The High Renaissance, roughly from 1500 until the Council of Trent in 1563, was an especially dynamic period of “incredible cultural expansion” for Italian women, when important women writers and poets, as well as political leaders, emerged in significant numbers (xiv). At Mantua, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), a leading patroness of the arts, governed in her husbands’ protracted absences. At Urbino, Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471-1526), wife of the Duke of Montefeltro, hosted the cultivated court portrayed in Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1526), one of the most influential books of the Cinquecento. Two talented aristocratic poets, Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara (1492-1547) and Veronica Gambara of Correggio (1485-1550), took over as heads of state upon their husbands’ deaths. Their “exceptional social position” enabled the favorable reception of their own writing and also, by example, “served to legitimize literary activity on the part of women and [ultimately] enabled the diffusion of the practice of women writing to lower strata of society” (Cox Canon 22). By mid-century, women poets emerged from the middle class, including the jeweler’s daughter, Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554) (Stortoni & Lillie xviii). At the same time, women’s participation in other creative endeavors also increased, notably singing (and, to a lesser extent, composing), the visual arts, and the new profession of acting (Cox Lyric 4-5).

This “golden age of female intellectual attainment” (Cox Lyric 1) developed out of the Renaissance philosophy of Humanism that originated in Italy during the fourteenth century and eventually spread throughout Europe (Stortoni & Lillie ix; Jones & Rosenthal xvii). With its emphasis on the secular, on observed knowledge and experience, and on the rediscovery of classical arts and learning, Humanism fueled a debate on the role of women that intensified throughout the Sixteenth Century. 1Ultimately, it made the education of women fashionable among the aristocracy, intellectuals, and, eventually, the emerging urban middle class (Stortoni & Lillie x). Daughters of aristocratic households increasingly came to receive the same classical education as their brothers, tutored with them at home, and this education prepared them to take over the affairs of court in their husbands’ absences (x). Humanism gave rise to “a social and cultural revolution in women’s lives” through which the “misogynist literature of the Middle Ages almost disappeared among educated people” (ix). Castiglione’s book included lengthy debate on the status of women and presented women characters as the educated and talented companions of men at court. The ideal courtier he portrayed ultimately became a model throughout Europe.

With the invention of the printing press (credited in Europe to Guttenberg, circa 1450), publication became widespread in Italy by 1500. Books and pamphlets became widely available, particularly at Venice, then-publishing capital of Italy, where a group of literati edited and popularized many new editions of classical Latin and vernacular Italian texts (Stortoni & Lillie xv). At the same time, the vernacular in a standardized, if antiquated, Tuscan dialect, advocated by the Venetian poet and intellectual (later Cardinal) Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), gained ever-increasing acceptance as a literary language, in preference to Latin (see: Cox Lyric 18-19).

From 1530-1570 in Italy, women writers emerged in public “as a group … for the first time” (Robin xvii). “[B]etween 1538, the year of [Vittoria] Colonna’s first publication, and the end of the century, no fewer than two hundred books were authored by women … [or were anthologies or men’s works that included them]” (Russell xix).

In 1559, the Rime diverse d’alcune nobilissime et virtuosissime donne (“Collected Poems by Some Most Noble and Virtuous Ladies”) appeared, edited by Lodovico Domenichi — the first anthology of women’s poetry ever published (Shemek 240). Domenichi was senior editor at Venice’s leading Giolito publishing house and “one of the most prolific and respected of the new class of writer-editors (poligrafi) who had risen up to service the literary needs of the presses” (Cox Lyric 14). The collection was “the most daring of [Domenichi’s] attempts to reproduce the image of the salon in an anthology” (Robin 50). The innovative editor “wanted to promote not just individual poets but an entire class of writers … to show the reading public that a vibrant culture of intellectual women existed not merely in a few select cities but in every part of Italy” (50, 51).

But Domenichi was also a convicted heretic who had already, in 1552, endured imprisonment at Pisa for translating and editing contraband work condemned by the Inquisition (Robin 59-60). “It was in this climate that … Domenichi … gave his manuscript of fifty-three women poets’ works … [to a small publishing house in] Lucca, which had the advantage of being an independent republic and one located at some distance from the bonfires of the Inquisition” (59 & note 47). In fact, Domenichi’s women’s anthology is an “extremely rare volume” that “must have had a relatively small print run” (50 & note 26).

While the “sales of anthologies of contemporary poets likely peaked” in Italy during the 1550’s (Robin 107), the Inquisition was also “at its height” at the time (61, 41). In 1554, at the same time that the Giolito firm and other Venetian publishers were “flood[ing] the market with new editions of poetry” (58), Giolito also published, upon orders of the Inquisition, a new catalogue of prohibited books. This 1554 Catalogo banned the complete works of 290 authors and many other humanist classics, including Dante’s De Monarchia. In 1556, Pope Paul 1V, ordering the issuance of a new Catalogo, became the first pope to ban books of “secular poetry, dialogues and novellas” on grounds that “the Inquisition had judged them sexually suggestive or lewd” even though they “articulated no dogma inimical to the Church” (104-105). Finally published in 1559, and more “radical and wide sweeping” than any previous index, the new Catalogo banned publication and sale of some 550 authors and many individual works including those of Lucian, Dante, Erasmus, Rabelais, Boccaccio and Machiavelli and “a number of poets who were the mainstays of the Giolito anthologies” (105). Poetry, in particular, was targeted as “immoral” and “lascivious” (58). In March 1559, on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, some ten thousand books were publicly burned in Rome (58 & note 46).

At first, the Inquisition’s book-banning campaign was slow to take effect and met with stiff resistance. In 1559, Venice’s bookmen’s guild initiated a boycott, but that “fell apart” when the Vatican “applied economic sanctions” (Robin 58). And, in response to the Pope’s 1553 order prohibiting the publication of any Jewish books and directing the burning of the Talmud, Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo “established a Hebrew press at Riva de Trento, which he kept going until 1562” (105 & note 15).2

But the edicts and indexes circulated upon the closing of the Council of Trent in 1563 “changed the face of Venetian publishing” within a few years to such an extent that “by 1567 Giolito, the most popular house in the industry, was regularly printing more devotional than secular books” (Robin 197). The publication of secular books in Italy “declined steeply … [i]n the first decade after Trent”, and “[w]omen writers lost ground in the years 1564-1575 …” (199).

By the time Veronica Franco published her poetry in 1575, she encountered a far less receptive cultural and political climate than the one that had welcomed the generation of women before her. As the leading authority Virginia Cox has observed, the difference between Franco’s career and that of the Roman courtesan, Tullia d’Aragona, “is indicative of the trajectory of courtesans’ fortunes across the course of the [sixteenth] century, as Counter-Reformation moralism took hold” (Cox Lyric 14). While Aragona was “nationally feted” and repeatedly published by Giolito, Franco remained “a far more marginal figure, despite the acceptance she enjoyed within her own libertine circles in Venice” (14).

Several Italian women poets of the Cinquecento were, then, courtesans, including most notably, in addition to Franco, the famous Aragona (1510-1556).3 Prominent in intellectual and aristocratic circles in Rome and, later, Venice, Ferrara, and Florence,4 Aragona befriended some of the most esteemed poets and intellectuals of her day including Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) (courtier, poet and father of one of the greatest poets of the Italian Renaissance, Torquato Tasso (1544-1595)), Girolamo Muzio (poet and courtier) and the scholar, Benedetto Varchi. Originally published in 1547, Aragona’s collection, Rime della Signora Tullia di Aragona et di diversi a lei (Poems by Signora Tullia di Aragona and By Various [Persons} Written to Her) was extremely popular during her lifetime and was reissued in 1549 and 1560. The courtesan Tullia d’Aragona and the Marchesa Vittoria Colonna were both among the Giolito firm’s “front list” authors (Robin 60).

The courtesans and singers/musicians (in particular, Franco and Stampa5 ) rather than the aristocrats (like Colonna and Gambara), were among the more artistically daring and innovative poets (Stortoni & Lillie xviii, xxi). They were women to whom the usual social rules did not apply (xxi). Love, as expressed in their writing, was “openly sensual,” and portrayed as “a powerful erotic force” (xxi). Their work was “characterized by a freedom of expression and sincerity” that women writers did not achieve again until the twentieth century (xxi). Aristocratic women, on the other hand, remained severely “restricted by social mores” (xxi) even after marriage, and marriage was an economic arrangement for them — “a means of creating powerful alliances,” not a love match (xxi). They tended to focus on achieving “a high degree of conventional elegance” in their writing (xxi).
Then, too, a virtuosa’s or a courtesan’s life-style gave a woman the opportunity to mingle freely in society with illustrious writers, intellectuals, musicians, artists, politicians, and clerics. In fact, artistic and literary ability were skills of a courtesan’s trade, means of attracting and seducing clients. She was a virtuosa of love, the acknowledged expert in the field (Russell & Merry 32). Yet, because of the hardships of their lives, such women died young. Compare: Stampa at 31 (at the home of a family friend), Aragona at 46 (in a rented room at a Trastevere inn) (Masson 128), Franco at 45 (living out her final years in a neighborhood of poor prostitutes)6 , with Colonna at 55, Gambara at 65.7

Love was the courtesan’s domain, and the Cinquecento was a period when love was taken seriously in Italy. The nature of love was the subject of ongoing intellectual debate. Dialogues on the subject, in particular, proliferated. 8 The dialogue was a popular literary form during the Renaissance; writers and intellectuals were happy to be included as characters and participants in the debates portrayed in one another’s dialogues — inclusion enhanced one’s reputation and could insure literary immortality (Cox Dialogue 26, 34 et. seq.)9

Among the most popular dialogues on love were Sperone Speroni’s Diologo d’Amore (1542), which featured Tullia d’Aragona and her lover Bernardo Tasso as speaker/debaters, Francesco Sansovino’s Ragionamento … d’amore (1545), and Aragona’s own Dialogue on the Infinity of Love (1547). Sansovino’s work, published shortly after the untimely death of his close friend Baldassare Stampa, Gaspara’s brother, was dedicated to Gaspara. It has been described as “a common sense ars amandi in which some Ovidian ideas are adopted to the possibilities of sixteenth-century youths” (Russell & Merry 30). 10 Aragona’s Dialogue was very popular: it went through a second edition (in 1552), within five years of its original publication (1547) (Russell & Merry 26).

Moreover, the early Cinquecento witnessed a revival of the courtesan in Italy on a scale not seen since ancient times. Beginning in Rome, in particular under the Borgia Pope Alexander V1 (Rodrigo Borgia, ascended 1492)11 and persisting at Venice long after the end of the Cinquecento despite the Counter Reformation and increasing restrictions, the cortigiana onesta flourished.

In addition to slaves and lower level prostitutes, the Greeks had their hetaera and the Romans their docta puella — educated, accomplished women who befriended and entertained wealthy men in exchange for financial support in one form or another. Somewhat similarly, the cortigiana onesta emerged in Italy during the Late Renaissance “as a distinct social group … originally in the circles of the papal court …” (Cox Lyric 13). “The phenomenon”, Cox has commented, “reflects humanist intellectuals’ fascination with ancient Athens …” (13).

As the term implies, a cortigiana onesta differed from an ordinary prostitute (“meretrice”) or lowest-level sex worker (“puttana” or “whore”). Cortigiana is the feminine form of cortigiano which means, simply, “courtier”: a man who serves at court and, as such, exhibits a degree of talent, expertise, and refinement. Onesta meant “honored” rather than “honest”, that is, “privileged, wealthy, recognized” (Jones & Rosenthal 31). As a cortigiana, Franco in fact “promoted her literary career in much the same manner as the sixteenth-century courtier projected a rhetorical persona for political and social advancement” (Rosenthal 6). It was during Alexander V1’s papacy that the word “courtesan” came into current usage in Rome (Masson 6). Under the papacy of Pope Leo X (Giovanni dei Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificant), which lasted from 1513-1521, courtesans continued to be “allowed great freedom of movement, consumption of wealth, and a good measure of prestige and admiration” (Russell & Merry 22). The cortigiane formed alliances with prominent aristocrats, intellectuals, and members of the highest levels of the clergy alike,12 “adopting a lifestyle not notably different in material respects from women of more elite social ranks” (Cox Lyric 13, footnote omitted). Like the aristocratic court ladies, “there is evidence of courtesans engaging precociously with the practice of poetry” (13). For example, the “legendary Imperia Cognati (d.1512)”, the most famous early Cinquecento courtesan of all, was reputed to have written poetry (13). And see: note 8 below.

At the time of Franco’s career, there were nearly 12,000 registered courtesans paying high taxes to the City of Venice (Stortoni & Lillie xx), out of a population of some 175,000. Venice was famous for its courtesans, who were renowned throughout Europe and described in the memoirs and essays of many visitors to the city, such as Coryat and Montaigne (see: Rosenthal 16-24). When Montaigne visited Venice in 1580, Franco’s servant delivered a copy of her newly published Lettere (Letters) to him, a fact Montaigne duly noted in his Journal de voyage en Italie (Rosenthal 116). Among the social and economic reasons for the continued proliferation of courtesans and other prostitutes in Venice, even after the Counter Reformation, were: its open mercantile economy, its relatively relaxed social mores, the relative weakness of the Catholic Church as the Cinquecento (and the Counter-Reformation) progressed (as compared to Rome, for example, see: Stortoni & Lillie xx), the practice of late marriage for men, the high dowries required of women to marry, and the fact that most people married not for love but for economic and social advantage (see: Rosenthal 23).

Life of Veronica Franco

Veronica Franco was born in Venice in 1546. Her family were cittadini originari, that is, “native-born citizens who belonged by hereditary rights to a professional class that made up the government bureaucracy” (Jones & Rosenthal 2). The cittadini originari were members of the Venetian religious societies that organized charities and commissioned the scuole (schools) in which Venetian met “to pray, socialize, and make decisions” (Jones & Rosenthal). Franco’s mother, Paola Francassa, was a courtesan. Both Paola and Veronica are listed in the Catalogue of all the Principal and Most Honored Courtesans of Venice (1565), which gave the names, addresses, and fees of Venetian prostitutes (Jones & Rosenthal). Paola is designated as a “go-between” for her daughter: fees for Veronica’s services were paid to her mother.13

Franco was educated at home with her brothers by private tutors at a time when the education of women, though increasing, was still far from common, especially apart from the aristocracy: only 10 to 12 percent of Venetian women were literate, in contrast to 30 percent of men (Jones & Rosenthal 5)14 As a cortigiana onesta, Franco had the opportunity to continue her education through her interaction with leading writers and intellectuals, in particular through the salon of Domenico Venier.

Venier began hosting the famous salon at his palazzo in 1546, when he retired from active political life as a senator at Rome because of physical infirmities (Rosenthal 17). His physical problems left Venier confined to a wheelchair, friends gathered at his home to keep him company, and the salon developed. Venier’s salon was an important gathering place for literati and Venier actively mentored many of the leading female writers of his day: Gaspara Stampa, for example, frequented Venier’s salon during the 1540’s. Besides Stampa and Franco, Venier gave literary advice to Tullia d’Aragona, Moderata Fonte, Veronica Gambara, and Irene di Spilimbergo (see: Rosenthal 89).

While still in her teens, Franco was married, through an arranged and apparently loveless marriage, to a doctor, Paolo Panizza.15 They quickly separated (Rosenthal 66). Of her six children, three of whom died in infancy, none were Panizza’s and each was fathered by a different man. For example, a wealthy merchant from Dubrovnik is believed to have been the father of Franco’s first son (Rosenthal 76); Andrea Tron, a nobleman from one of Venice’s most powerful families, was the father of her second son (Rosenthal 66, Jones & Rosenthal 4).16 Franco had no daughter who survived infancy.

Franco’s two wills reveal much about her character and social consciousness. Like many women of her day, Franco executed her first will in anticipation of the birth of her first child, an event that put her life at serious risk. She was eighteen at the time (1564). The will provides that should all her family members predecease her, her estate would be used to provide dowries for young girls of poor families to enable them to marry (Rosenthal 77). The will also requests that her mother demand restitution of Franco’s own dowry from Panizza for her mother’s benefit, “come quella che me l’ha data” (“as the one who gave it to me”) (78) (translation mine).

Franco’s second will was executed in 1570, a period of war for the Venetian Republic (against the Turks in Cyprus) and of flooding, famine, and typhus in Venice itself. Franco was also, by the will’s stated terms, “sick in bed” at the time (Rosenthal 78). After dividing her estate chiefly among family members, Franco left the “surplus” of her capital to provide dowries for the marriages of two “worthy maidens,” unless two “meretrici” (prostitutes) could be found who wanted to leave their “wicked life” to marry or to enter a convent (Rosenthal).

For much of her short adult life, Franco “supported herself and a large household of children, tutors, and servants” through her association with rich and powerful male protectors (Jones & Rosenthal 4). During the 1570’s, from the age of 24 to 34, she participated in the intellectual life of the Venier salon, established a reputation as a poet, and hosted gatherings of intellectuals, artists and aristocrats at her own home. When the twenty-three-year-old King Henry III of Valois passed through Venice in 1574 on his way to be crowned King of France, the Republic of Venice retained Franco to entertain him, and he spent the night at her house.17

But the late 1570’s brought more troubled times. During the plague years of 1575-1577, Franco, like many Venetians of means, fled Venice for the safety of the countryside and, also like many others, in her absence her valuables — jewelry, silver, money, and books — were stolen from her home. She never recovered financially from the loss.

In 1580, Franco was tried by the Inquisition for heresy on charges brought against her by one of her son’s tutors, who was likely motivated by fear of exposure in connection with thefts of Franco’s property (Rosenthal 162-177). Franco was charged, essentially, with making superstitious incantations in an attempt to locate her stolen property and with various other offenses, such as eating meat on Fridays. The charges were ultimately dropped, in part because of her association with Venier, in part because she was fortunate in the judge assigned to her case, and in part because she conducted herself with intelligence, grace, and honesty before the Inquisitor (see: Rosenthal 176). Franco denied eating meat on Fridays, except during periods of illness or childbirth. She admitted that she had indulged in a superstitious ceremony that she had (wrongly) considered harmless, at the urging of an unsophisticated neighbor woman; it involved peering into a basin of water and so on to discover the fate of her lost property. She recognized the error of her ways and was contrite (162-177). Considering the extent to which similar superstitions persisted in Italy (and elsewhere) up until the Second World War (if not later), one can well imagine how common they were among Italian women in Franco’s day.

Franco was very fortunate to escape punishment at the hands of the Inquisition. Other Venetian courtesans were not so lucky. Emilia Catena, a “meretrice publica” (public prostitute) and Isabella Bellocchio, “cortesana” (courtesan), accused of heretical incantations and witchcraft “by similarly vengeful servants and neighbors” (Rosenthal 158), were both sentenced to “public whipping in Piazza San Marco, and … forced to wear a ‘mitria’ (miter)” posting the accusations against them at the Rialto Bridge (158). Bellocchio was also banished from Venice for five years (158).

But Franco’s life was on a downhill trajectory. It did not end well. Her declaration accompanying a tax report filed in 1582 reveals that she had lost her wealth by the time she was thirty-six (Rosenthal 86). She had moved to a neighborhood near the Church of San Samuele, “where the poorest Venetian prostitutes had their homes” (Jones & Rosenthal 4). Her “increasing financial difficulties” are reflected in her frequent moves “from house to house and from neighborhood to neighborhood” (Rosenthal 86). Clearly, the “ten-year period in which she enjoyed household employees, sumptuous clothing, and elegant furnishings had, certainly by 1582, come to a crashing halt” (86-87). That was also the year in which Domenico Venier died (87).

Yet even during hard times, Franco continued to support and promote her fellow courtesans. In 1577 she petitioned the Venetian Council for the establishment of a new home for poor women who were ineligible for the existing charitable shelters because they were already married, had children, or were unwilling to take a vow of chastity (Jones & Rosenthal 4-5).

Sources and Influences

Many of Franco’s capitoli are in the lyric elegiac mode, including epistolary poems composed during her self-imposed exile from Venice (Capitoli 3, 17, 20). In them, Franco “manipulate[s] ancient elegy to redeem the courtesan’s reputation” (Rosenthal 204-205). As Rosenthal observes, “… expressing both plaintiff and accusative complaints, Franco’s epistolary poems, like her familiar letters, constitute fictional models — dialogue, poetic exchange, debate, verse epistle, elegiac lament — that point to, act out, and contain the tensions present in Franco’s ongoing polemical dialogue with a misogynistic society” (205). “[A]ppropriat[ing] classical tradition for her own ends … [she] … refashions both the denunciatory female voices of Ovid’s Heroides” and the “forthright amorous” voices of the docta puella, the Roman courtesan of classical love elegy depicted in such works as Ovid’s Amores and Propertius’s Elegies (205). 19

The Roman elegiac poets used love poetry as “a vehicle” for publicly rejecting the epic and the “military ethos of Augustan Rome and [as] a polemical forum for expressing their disenchantment with the sexual restrictions imposed on Roman women” (Rosenthal 206). Consequently, “although their reasons for their common dissatisfaction with prescribed social and gender norms had very different origins,” Franco found “congenial allies” in the Roman elegists (206). Seeking social equality between the sexes, she fashioned a “female rhetoric of female passion” (206). Seeking “amor mutuo” (mutual love) (e.g. Capitolo 2, Line 185, discussed below), and refusing to be relegated to the passive role of the abandoned woman that characterized, for example, the heroines of Ovid’s Heroides, Franco nonetheless “adopted the subversive dynamic” of the Roman elegists in order to “overturn” the “commonly held” image of the courtesan depicted in their verse as greedy, “dishonest[]”, “treach[erous]” and “promis[cuous]” (207). Franco is also, “much closer thematically and in her tone to the Roman elegiac poets [than to Petrarchan tradition] in her wry, sensual, narratively embedded treatment of love.” (Cox Lyric 34)

Throughout her work, Franco carefully constructs and projects an image of herself as an honest, loyal, highly principled, broad-thinking intellectual who is above mere monetary motivation. And, indeed, she apparently had all these qualities. Franco cultivated relationships not simply with rich men but with intellectuals in particular, including the participants in the Venier salon with whom she exchanged the poems ultimately published in her collection. She aimed high — at literary immortality. In Renaissance style, her voice speaks not only to the contemporaries with whom she engaged in active poetic and intellectual dialogue but directly to the ages, to the generations of readers to come — to us.

Other influences strongly reflected in Franco’s capitoli include the pastoral tradition of both classical and Italian verse and, of course, the Venier salon, where the rejection of Petrarch was an ongoing project.

The writers involved in the Venier salon increasingly adopted terza rima as they endeavored to modify Latin poetics to better fit the Italian vernacular. Ludvico Dolce, prominent among the literati connected to the Venier salon, famously wrote that, “Some … have wasted much ink in applying to this [Italian] tongue hexameters, pentameters, and a great number of verses … [used in] … Greek and Latin, and they do not realize that in our language these forms are neither graceful nor harmonious. … Therefore … instead of hexameters and pentameters … we have a type of verse called tercets” (Rosenthal 214, quoting Dolce, I quarto libri delle osservasioni (1550)).

Similarly, in his study of Ariosto’s work, I Romanzi, published in Venice in 1554, Giovani Battista Pigna agreed with Dolce that the best vehicle for elegy in the Italian vernacular is the tercet, because “by linking tercets together in a forward-moving chain of interlocking rhymes, an author was able to create a suspended, yet controlled, sense of uncertainty, motivated by intensely subjective and conflicting emotions” (Rosenthal 215 & note 42).

As Dolce demonstrated, while there was already a long tradition of terzetti in Italian, including Dante’s Divine Comedy and works of Boccaccio, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso etc., the Cinquecento poets of the Venier group were the first to specifically label their love poems in tercets as elegies (Rosenthal 215). “We have a type of verse called tercets,” Dolce explained, “because the writer almost always closes a sentence every three lines. Hence, during this time a number of those who describe their amorous passions in these tercets called them elegies” (cited and quoted in Rosenthal at 215). Moreover, when tercets are “grouped together as capitoli (as we find in Franco’s case), [they] often function as epistole” (216). In composing the love “elegy”, too, the poets of Venier’s circle tracked Ovid who, it was said, “best understood how bereavement” over the death of a beloved closely “parallels a lover’s experience of deprivation when deceived, betrayed, abandoned, or unreciprocated in love” (216).

In form (tercet capitolo) as well as content, then, Franco’s verse marked a departure from the Petrarchan sonnet tradition and was part of the “widening of poetic choices” that developed during the second half of the Cinquecento (Rosenthal 218).

Nor did Franco’s distinct feminine voice emerge in a vacuum. An entire generation of women poets before her had not only published, but published as a group in Giolito’s anthology. Two sexually liberated women in particular, Aragona and Stampa, had already introduced a new voice, with a new perspective on woman’s role in the heterosexual love match: both women demanded their own right to love, and not merely to be loved, both had openly loved more than one man, and, in both cases — in Stampa’s poetry and Aragona’s prose Dialogue, if not her poetry — love was not sublimated in the Platonic/Petrarchan sense (Finotti). Surely Franco, given her profession, scholarly accomplishments, ambition, association with Domenico Venier, and access to Venetian literary circles, was familiar with this body of work and, in particular, with Aragona’s widely circulated Dialogue.

Aragona was a formidable intellectual and writer. As a character in Sperone Speroni’s Dialogo, she “outshines all of the other speakers in eloquence and fervor … “(Russell & Merry 23, footnote omitted). In her own Dialogue, Aragona features with the Florentine intellectual Benedetto Varchi as the leading participants in the debate. The work was groundbreaking. Never before had a woman “cast herself as the main disputant on the ethics of love” (21). Aragona’s view of love expressed in her Dialogue was also ahead of its time: men and women were, she argued, equal partners in a natural bond both physical/sexual and intellectual (21). What is more, the lead characters in her work constitute an “intellectual alliance” of Tullia, “present[ing] herself as an openly experienced woman,” and Varchi, a professor who had been involved in two widely publicized scandals for violation of the sodomy laws (see: e.g. Robin xxv). And, indeed, the work includes a discussion of homosexual love. Aragona’s Dialogue was very popular during the Cinquecento: it went through a second edition (in 1552) within five years of its original publication (1547).

Franco expresses strikingly similar views on the nature of love throughout her work, in her insistence on the parity of man and woman in the love relationship (“amor mutuo”), in her insistence on the dual nature of love and mutual attraction as both intellectual and physical, and in her refusal to sublimate love in the Platonic/Petrarchan sense. And Franco went beyond Aragona — and even Stampa — in her own explicit expression of woman’s sensuality, and far beyond them in her broad social consciousness and expression of support for improving the status of women as a social group. Yet, in doing so, Franco stood on the shoulders of the generation of women before her.


Franco published two books, the Terze rime (1575) and her Letters familiari a diversi (Familiar Letters to Various People) (1580), discussed later in this essay.

The Terze rime is a compilation of twenty-five capitoli. The term capitolo means “chapter”, and although a capitolo can be any length, Franco’s are often several pages long. Theyconsist of eleven-syllable lines in groups of three (tercets), in the rhyme scheme known as terza rima that follows the pattern: ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, etc. — Pigna’s “forward-moving chain of interlocking rhymes.” Eighteen of the capitoli included in the Terze rime are Franco’s own; the other seven were written either by Marco Venier, Domenico Venier’s nephew and an admirer of Franco, or by unidentified male poets.

Marco Venier’s name appears on the opening capitolo (Capitolo 1) in two of the three surviving copies of Franco’s Terze rime, but it is omitted from the third, in which all of the male poets are named only as “incerto autore” (“uncertain author”.) Given the history of suppression surrounding the book’s publication, and the need to publish it clandestinely to avoid the Inquisition’s prepublication censors, it was, apparently, also necessary not to publish the identity of the men who had engaged in an ongoing dialogic poetic exchange with Franco. Marco Venier wrote Capitoli 1, and is believed to have also written Capitolo 14 and possibly many more (see: Jaffe 347-348, Rosenthal 160). Capitolo 6 is believed to have been written by Domenico Venier (see: Jones & Rosenthal 13, 50,85, 87; Rosenthal 160). And see: as to Marco Venier’s rise to positions of prominence in Venetian politics, footnote 22 below.

The first fourteen poems in Franco’s collection, then, follow late Renaissance practice in presenting dialogic sets of poems exchanged by the author with other poets, known as proposte e risposte (“proposals & responses”).20 Sometimes, but not always, Franco strictly follows the practice of adhering to the proposte’s rhyme scheme in her response. Like Tullia d’Aragona before her, Franco’s poems solicit or respond to the poems of various distinguished, even “trophy” male associates (see: Cox Lyric 25).

Aragona’s collection, Rime della Signora Tullia di Aragona et di diversi a lei (Poems by Signora Tullia di Aragona and By Various [People] Written to Her) included, as the title indicates, not only Aragona’s own poems but also many poems by notable (male) friends and associates, in an exchange of proposte e risposte sonnets that adhered strictly to the style’s rhyme prescriptions. Published in 1547, before the repressive censorship of the Inquisition had taken hold, Aragona’s collection identifies all of the luminaries whose poems are included, such as her long-time friend, lover and collaborator, Girolamo Muzio (courtier and poet), Alessandro Arrighi (a Dominican priest), and Niccolo Martelli (merchant, writer, and poet), among others (Pallitto 79, 81, 83 & notes 74, 75 & 76). In Franco’s book, as in Aragona’s, the “dialogic character of the text was enhanced by its layout,” (25) which placed each proposal next to its response, instead of grouping all of the reply poems together at the end of the book, as Pietro Bembo had done in his 1535 Rime (25). This format allowed Franco, like Aragona before her, to “reconstruct[s] her poetic correspondences with a series of male admirers and collect poetic tributes to her by others … in what has been aptly described as a ‘virtual salon’” (Cox Lyric 25, footnote omitted). In this way, Franco “presents herself as a poet engaged in intellectual exchanges with literary men” (Jones & Rosenthal 13), and “as a social being” rather than a “lyric solipsist” (25).

Among the most important poems included in the Terze rime are a dialogue between Franco and two men, though only the poems of one of the two men, Marco Venier, are actually included in Franco’s book (Rosenthal 160). All of the poems were circulated in Venetian literary circles prior to their ultimate publication. The two views of women expressed by these two male poets are typical of the misogynist culture of the times: on the one hand, the idealized woman on a pedestal and, on the other, the venal whore. Franco was unaware of the true identity of the two male poets when she began her responsive capitoli, apparently believing that all of the poems had been written to her by her friend and lover, Marco Venier.21 Actually, Marco was responsible only for the ones that address Franco in traditional, if trite, Petrarchan mode as an unobtainable lady of surpassing beauty, like Capitolo 1, discussed below. Three other, caustic poems satirizing a caricature of Franco were circulating in Venetian society at the time. They were written not by Marco (as Franco at first believed), but by Maffio Venier, the illegitimate son of Domenico Venier’s brother, Lorenzo Venier (1510-1556) and “a self-righteous moralizer who died at an early age of syphilis” (Jaffe 354).

In response, then, to Marco’s stylized and utterly clichéd praise of her (Capitolo 1), Franco rejects his pretty words with characteristic directness (Capitolo 2, lines 34-56) (translation mine) (Italian text included in Appendix, below)22 :

Because I won’t believe it when you say
you love me, or take empty words as true,
or feel an obligation to repay
mere promises, through deeds I’ll value you.
Try now, Signor, to make your proof prevail
and just the same, through actions must I, too
show love. But if it’s just the fairy tale
you want, then for so long as you incline
towards fantasy, a silly fairy tale
I’ll give you back. When you have tired of mine,
an open heart I’ll show within my breast
(as soon as you stop keeping yours confined)
then I’ll delight in pleasing you with my best.
If you think I owe thanks to Phoebus for
these lines, in works of love I am no less
in debt to Venus. Deep within my core
are certain traits secreted in repose,
with infinite sweetness I’ll reveal them — more
than poetry or prose have yet exposed
to anyone; on one condition: praise
me less with compliments. I’m indisposed
to credit empty flattery; please, praise
me less with words and more with concrete acts.

Franco continues (lines 145-159):

And then my beauty, which you never tire
of praising, will insure you’re satisfied.
I’ll use it up fulfilling your desire
as we lie joined together, side by side;
you’ll taste the rarest treats love can reveal
when it has been expertly learned, and tried,
and such a deep, intense delight I’ll seal
in you, you will be totally content
and, falling even more in love, you’ll feel
how soft, delectable, and sweetly spent
I can become, when with someone in bed
whose love I sense and, sensing, so relent
that pleasure conquers all delight and dread
and our love knot, which seemed as tightly bound
as possible, grows tighter still, instead.


Franco at once displays control of the form, seduces her lover, and advertises her mastery of her profession, all the while positing her persona as a poet (as well as a courtesan): intelligent, honest, courteous, sensual — sexually available (clearly), but no push-over. Her accomplishment here is to portray herself as a sexual and intellectual equal offering “un amor mutuo” (Capitolo 2, Line 185), while defeating the stereotype of the venal, greedy prostitute. She begins with a ploy characteristic of her work, by “revers[ing] the blame, firmly assigning to the male poet the ability to feign and deceive a lover” (Rosenthal 184). She rejects “female avarice” (184) and monetary payment, demanding instead “amor in fatto (love in deed[s])” as repayment (184). In this way, Franco posits a definition of the courtesan “as intellectual collaborator rather then sexual partner” alone (185). At the same time, she recasts the Petrarchan muse as “poetic collaborator”, rather than “silent addressee” and “manipulates the courtly and erotic elements” to “promote herself as intellectual and erotic virtuosa” (185). In short, Franco offers not only sensual love, and not only “romantic” love, but “true” love, the marriage of true minds that did not exist in marriage in her day — “amor mutuo” — or, at least, an illusion thereof.

So much for Petrarch.

Maffio Venier, for his part, attacked Franco through cruel “comic[] parodies” of the courtesan. Pornography flourished during the first half of the Cinquecento, and leading pornographic writers of the era, in particular, Pietro Aretino and Lorenzo Venier, Maffio’s father, scathingly satirized famous courtesans (see: Rosenthal, Chapter 1, “Satirizing the Courtesan: Franco’s Enemies.”)23

Maffio launched his attacks on Franco as a means of “deflect[ing] his anxieties about Franco’s increasing stature in the literary marketplace” and of “defend[ing] the privileges of his sex and class against Franco’s literary ambitions” (Rosenthal 44). At the beginning of a major outbreak of the plague in Venice in 1575, Maffio’s “satirical verses scapegoating Veronica Franco began circulating in Venetian literary circles” (Rosenthal 49). These included three poems directly attacking Franco, two capitoli and a famous sonnet beginning with a pun on her name, “Veronica, ver unica puttana” (“Veronica, truly unique whore”). Maffio parodied Franco as a venal prostitute “riddle[ed] with syphilitic sores … [and] threatening the social cohesion and political stability of” the Venetian Republic (49). Ironically, it was Maffio Venier, not Franco, who later died from syphilis, reportedly contracting the disease in Constantinople in 1580 and succumbing to it in 1586 (49).

Franco responded forcefully. Fully “equipped to handle poetic contests” (Rosenthal 56), her poetic replies “not only oppose his portrait of her but ridicule the terms of his poetic discourse” (Rosenthal). Characteristically, Franco defends not only herself but her fellow courtesans and women in general, demonstrating that it is in fact “her detractor, not she, [who] subscribes to a dissolute, chaotic world out of control” (Rosenthal).

In her masterful terza rima Capitolo 16 (of which only excerpts, translated into prose, are included here),24 Franco both attacks Maffio’s competence as a poet and exposes his hatred of women. Characteristically, she begins by taking the high ground, unlike her opponent, who has clearly behaved badly. “It is not the feat of a valiant cavalier … ” she writes, “ … no, surely not the feat of a cavalier who’s filled his spirit with virtue … and fixed his mind … on honor, to sneak up on an unarmed person when they least suspect it, with your weapons concealed, and deal them heavy, mortal blows” (lines 1-9) (translation mine). In response, “with sword in hand”, she has “learned military skills” and now “challenges you to skirmish in the field” (lines 34, 56). Franco declares, “I don’t know if you think it a slight risk to enter the field of armed combat with a woman, but … I’m warning you … it’s considered of the highest importance. When we women have become armed and expert too, we’ll be able to prove to all men that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours” (lines 58-66). She goes on to demonstrate that women can be the equal of men, and promises to “take up the defense of all women against you” (lines 79-80).

Franco turns to demeaning Maffio’s skills as a writer, mocking his opening line, “’Verily unique’ [‘Verunica’], among other things, you called me, alluding to Veronica, my name … and, in your discourse, reproached me. But, according to my dictionary, I don’t know how something can properly be called ‘unique’ in a bad sense, as a reproach … A woman whose fame makes her illustrious, and who excels in beauty and courage, and whose great virtue is without equal, is rightly called ‘unique,’ and art, without irony, singles her out from among the others … ‘Unique’ is used to praise and esteem by those who so intend, and whoever speaks otherwise deviates from the true meaning of the word.” (lines 139-156).

She turns the tables on Maffio, charging bluntly that “you don’t insult me, but yourself, in speaking ill of me without cause” (lines 167-168), “ … and often a man shows his evil nature by taking joy in what he believes is most harmful. In my case, you’ve demonstrated this more than once …” (lines 172-174). Finally, Franco concludes by challenging Maffio to choose his weapons, whether “everyday speech or whatever idiom you choose” (lines 199-200), and “get out your paper and ink” (line 193) to meet her in the field. “… [I]f you don’t respond to me” she warns, “I will say that you’re very afraid of me, even though you think yourself so talented” (lines 202-204). Venier did not respond.

So much for Maffio Venier, misogynist slanderer of women!25

Taken as a whole, then, “[t]he central poems of Franco’s Terze rime denounce the kind of man who delights in exalting women to the stature of virginal queen when it serves his legitimizing purposes, but who, when faced with social adversities, transforms women into vulgar whores whom he charges with the social and moral dissolution rampant in Venetian society” (Rosenthal 57). In short, Franco’s poems expose the hypocrisy of misogynist society’s view of women.

Franco’s second book, the Lettere, is a collection of prose letters in the classical style exemplified by Cicero. They are among the very small number of Italian Renaissance courtesan epistolary writing that has survived.26 Franco’s letters were probably written throughout the 1570’s (Jones & Rosenthal 9). Especially worth noting, in addition to those discussed in more detail below, are Letter 21, written to Jacopo Tintoretto, who painted Franco’s portrait, and an introductory dedicatory letter and two sonnets to King Henry III of France, commemorating the night Franco spent with the king. The sonnets are a charming amalgam of technical virtuosity, tactful flattery, subtle praise of the King’s virility, and skillful self-promotion.

Franco’s letters are personally revealing yet sophisticated prose works. For example, in Letter 44, to Domenico Venier, Franco writes with characteristic tact, asking to borrow a wheelchair: “Fortune favors me by giving me an indisposition of the limbs similar to yours, most noble sir, having made me almost lose a leg, … a welcome offense because, in addition to imitating your indisposition in this way … I’ll also, in my need, enjoy some of your dear castoffs … such as one of your wheelchairs … ” (Letter 44) (translation mine) 27.

In her letters, too, Franco projects an image of herself as an intellectual with a strong moral and social conscience. The most famous is Letter 22, written to a woman who planned to turn her own daughter into a courtesan, surely one of the most astoundingly honest and moving pieces ever written on the status of women. As one scholar, Irma B. Jaffe has emphasized, “we may well believe that Veronica had read Speroni’s Dialogo and had Tullia [d’Aragona] in mind when we read” this letter. For in Speroni’s work, Tullia bluntly tells him, and the other men participating in the discussion of love, what the life of a courtesan really is. “If you knew the servility, the vileness, the depths and inconstancy of such a life, you would blame anyone … who said it was a good one and excused it. And anyone who helps a young girl, foolish enough to be pushed into such a life, to get out of it is saving her from misery” (Jaffe 339 & note 6).

Franco — whose own mother trained her for the profession — begins by telling her friend that she has, indeed, been avoiding her, and is writing in a last-ditch effort to “remove” her friend’s “evil intent … or … to take away any hope of ever speaking to me again” (Letter 22). Franco states bluntly that “because you’re her mother, if she becomes a woman of the world you’d become her go-between and deserve to be punished harshly …” She renews her offer to help the girl gain admission to the Casa delle Zitelle, a charitable home for poor young women where their virginity, and so their chances of making a good marriage, were protected. Franco complains that the woman has taken to dressing her daughter, “… with her bare breasts falling out of her dress … and with all those other embellishments and all those other guises that are used to make the merchandise measure up to the competition”. Yet, she admonishes, “considering the matter, then, from a carnal point of view, she has so little beauty, I can’t say otherwise, because my eyes don’t deceive me, and she has so little grace, and so little wit in conversation, that you’ll break her neck expecting her to do well in the Courtesans’ profession, where it’s very hard for a woman to succeed even if she is beautiful, and has style, good judgment, and virtuosity in many accomplishments.”

Then Franco states bluntly that the courtesan’s life, at best “… always turns out to be such a miserable, most unhappy thing, and it’s so totally contrary to human reason to subject one’s body and labor to such a slavery, that it’s terrifying even to think of it.”

In words addressed not only to the addressee of her letter (if that person was not, in fact, a fictional vehicle created by Franco) but to the ages, words reminiscent of Franco’s own struggle to maintain her integrity, her economic security, and her property, she continues her argument:

To make one’s self prey to so many men, at the risk of being stripped, of being robbed, of being killed, so that just one man, one day may take away from you all that you’ve acquired from so many over so much time, with so many other dangers of injury and of frightening, contagious diseases; to eat with another’s mouth, sleep with another’s eyes, move according to another’s desire, all the while rushing towards the certain shipwreck of your mind and life, what greater misery? 28. What riches, what comforts, what delights can outweigh this? Believe me, of all the disasters in the world this is the worst; but then if you add to worldly considerations those of the soul, what perdition, and what certainty of damnation is this?

Afterlife of Veronica Franco

By the time Veronica Franco published her collected poems in 1575, the Inquisition’s campaign of book burning and censorship had taken its toll on the Venetian publishing industry. The publication of secular books in Italy had “declined steeply”, and women writers had “lost ground” since the peak of their participation in Italian literary production at mid century (Robin 199).

Franco had the additional bad luck of publishing her collection just when the plague broke out in Venice. The epidemic lasted from 1575 to 1577, killing some forty thousand people and forcing everyone who could to flee the City, including many printers and publishers (Robin 199). Production at the Giolito press, for example, declined from some thirty or forty editions a year to a mere seven editions in 1576 when the plague was at its height (199).

Unsurprisingly, then, Franco’s two books carry the name of no publisher at all: they were published “clandestinely to avoid the prepublication censorship” introduced by the Inquisition after the Council of Trent (Cox Lyric 14 and note 40). The extent of her success as a writer during her lifetime is, consequently, hard to evaluate (Jones & Rosenthal 21). We know that Franco was recognized as a poet in Venice and beyond: she was well regarded within the Venier salon, she both edited and participated in the Martinengo anthology, her sonnets appeared in collections that included the work of noblewomen, distinguished contemporaries made reference to her work (see discussion: Jones & Rosenthal 21). Yet, “however widely her poems circulated in manuscript in or beyond the Venier circle, her two books are unlikely to have been read very widely in her lifetime, because few copies of either one were printed” (21).

Nonetheless, the women poets of the Cinquecento — and especially the more sexually liberated women poets, Aragona, Stampa, and, finally, Franco — contributed to the invention of “a new poetic voice” during this period that moved away from Petrarchan tradition (Finotti 121, 128). This new lyric voice experienced not one, but a plurality of loves, and, significantly, a fulfilled, “mature sensuality” rather than Petrarch’s unrequited love. Most importantly, this emerging lyric voice replaced the Petrarchan sublimation of love with an earthly, unsublimated love, or a love sublimated merely into literary achievement, as the “medieval ideal of an eternal life of the spirit [was] replaced by the classical concept of a survival after death through ‘fame’” (128-129). These women poets demanded the right to love, and not merely to be loved, not merely to serve as the superficial objects of male desire (Finotti 131). Veronica Franco demanded this “explicitly” in her Capitolo 2, directing her lover to give her “fewer words” and “stronger reciprocal sentiments” (Finotti 132).

“Something new resonates here”, the scholar Fabio Finotti explains, “both sensual and sentimental, a melancholy of the body and the spirit that makes even poetic discourse more moving, more expressive and musical. The female voice provides a foundation for the new psychology and the new melancholy and sensual rhetoric of Torquato Tasso, in turn a model for Italian and European poetry of the seventeenth century. A tendency develops for the woman writer courageously to enclose herself within a total passion from which she does not want to escape, a passion no longer sublimated” (Finotti 134).

Following the close of the Cinquecento, the women’s lyric tradition in Italy fell into obscurity for nearly a century, experiencing its first revival in the last decade of the seventeenth century (Cox Lyric 38). This revival culminated in 1726 with the publication by Venetian writer and editor Luisa Bergalli of an anthology of women poets (38), in which two of Franco’s poems, Capitolo 12 & Capitolo 24, appear. Bergalli also rediscovered Gaspara Stampa, “practically forgotten since 1554” (38).

The leading women poets of the Cinquecento, including the three more sexually liberated ones, Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco, were again rediscovered during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Cox Lyric 40). But, in each case, their new editors “reordered, censored, and falsely expanded texts” so as to distort their work and present false portraits of the poets themselves (Jones 287). Each poet was recast as “an idealized, isolated, and penitential figure” that had “almost nothing in common” with her actual self.

In Franco’s case, Abdeldader Salza, in the course of editing the Terze rime in 1913, added an anonymous penitential sonnet at the end of the work which he entitled, Elevazione e conversione (“Elevation & Conversion”). He cast Franco as a repentant sinner whose last days were “a pure performance of the conventional conversion ritual” (Jones 304). A similarly misleading “conjectural conversion narrative” had been proffered by Franco’s biographer, Arturo Graf, in his 1888 biography, “Una Cortigiana fra mille” (304). Fortunately, the leading Italian critic Benedetto Croce, in the course of research for his 1949 edition of Franco’s letters, recognized the sonnet in question as one actually written by the noblewoman Veronica Gambara. As Croce discovered, there is in fact no evidence whatsoever of any “repentant end” to Franco’s career (305). In addition, Graf and Salza accepted as a genuine image of Franco a portrait of a saintly woman in black painted for an altarpiece in Venice’s Casa di Soccorso; she turned out to have been a Venetian noblewoman (305).

Ironically, the narrative foisted on Franco by these editors is precisely the one she so firmly rejected in her own work, “according to which the heroine turns from the whore to the saint” (Jones 306). “[W]hen they have not found this conventional plot,” the scholar Ann Rosalind Jones decries, “they have invented it.” (307).

Beginning with Croce’s research and reassessment in the 1940’s, Franco has finally undergone a true and, hopefully, enduring rediscovery of her work. Following Margaret F. Rosenthal’s definitive 1992 biography, The Honest Courtesan, Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice, Jones and Rosenthal published a new translation of Franco’s Poems and Selected Letters (1998). She is included in Virginia Cox’s definitive 2013 anthology, Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance. As the bibliography to this essay attests, much critical attention and analysis has been devoted to Franco’s poetry and prose in recent years, and much more remains to be done. Veronica Franco is, at long last, getting the respect and attention she earned over five hundred years ago.


Veronica Franco’s Capitolo 2, Lines 34-56:

Poi ch’io non crederò d’esser amata,
né ‘l debbo creder, né ricompensarvi
per l’arra che fin qui m’avete data,
dagli effetti, signor, fate stimarvi:
con questi in prova venite, s’anch’io
il mio amor con effetti ho da mostrarvi;
ma, s’avete di favole desio,
mentre anderete voi favoleggiando,
favoloso sará l’accetto mio;
e di favole stanco e sazio, quando
l’amor mi mostrerete con effetto,
non men del mio v’andro certificando.
Aperto il cor vi mostrero nel petto,
allor che ‘l vostro non me celerete,
e sará di piacervi il mio diletto,
e, s’a Febo si grata me tenete
per lo compor, ne l’opere amorose
grata a Venere piu mi troverete.
Certe proprietati in me nascose
vi scovriro d’infinita dolcezza,
che prosa o verso altrui mai non espose,
con questo, che mi diate la certezza
del vostro amor con altro che con lodi,

Capitolo 2, Lines 145-159:

E qual ella si sia, la mia bellezza,
quella che di lodar non sete stanco,
spenderò poscia in vostra contentezza
dolcemente congiunta al vostro fianco,
le delizie d’amor faro gustarvi,
quand’egli e ben appreso al lato manco,
e ‘n cio potrei tal diletto recarvi
che chiamar vi potreste per contento,
e d’avantaggio appresso innamorarvi,
Cosi dolce e gustevole divento,
quando mi trovo con persona in letto,
da cui amata e gradita mi sento,
che quell mio piacer vince ogni diletto,
si che quell, che strettissuni parea,
nodo de l’altrui amor divine piú stretto.


Allen, Beverly, Kittel, Muriel & Jewell, Keala Jane, Eds., The Defiant Muse: Italian Feminist Poems From the Middle Ages to the Present, A Bilingual Anthology, New York, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1986.

Aretino, Pietro, Dialogues, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, New York, Ballantine Books, 1971.

Bassanese, Fiora A., “Selling the Self, or, the Epistolary Production of Renaissance Courtesans”, Italian Women Writers From the Renaissance to the Present, Revising the Canon, Maria Ornella Marotti, Ed., University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, 69-84.

Benson, Pamela Joseph & Kirkham, Victoria, Eds., Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Women Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Cox, Virginia, Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance, Baltmore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013 (cited as “Cox Lyric”).

Cox, Virginia, The Renaissance Dialogue: Literary Dialogue in its Social and Political Contexts, Castiglione to Galileo, London, Cambridge University Press, 1992 (cited as “Cox Dialogue”).

Cox, Virginia, “Women Writers & the Canon in Sixteenth-Century Italy,” Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Women Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy”, Benson & Kirkham, Eds., Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005, 14-31 (cited as “Cox Canon”).

Finotti, Fabio, “Women Writers in Renaissance Italy: Courtly Origins of New Literary Canons”, Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Women Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy, Benson & Kirkham, Eds., Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005, 121-145.

Jaffe, Irma, with Gernando Colombarde, Shining Eyes, Cruel Fortune: The Lives and Loves of Italian Renaissance Women Poets, New York, Fordham University Press, 2002.

James, Sharon, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, “Bad Press: Modern Editors versus Early Modern Women Poets (Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco”, Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Women Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy, Benson & Kirkham, Eds., Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005, 287-313.

Jones, Anna Rosalind and Rosenthal, Margaret F., Eds., Veronica Franco: Poems & Selected Letters, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Masson, Georgina, Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance, London, Secker & Warburg, 1975.

Migiel, Marilyn, “Veronica Franco”, Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Rinaldina Russell, Ed., Westport, Ct. & London, Greenwood Press, 1994, 138-144.

Migiel, Marilyn and Schiesari, Juliana, Eds., Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance, Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1991.

Pallito, Elizabeth A., Ed. & Trans., Sweet Fire: Tullia d’Aragona’s Poetry of Dialogue & Selected Prose, New York, George Braziller Publishers, 2006.

Phillippy, Patricia, “Altera Dido: The Model of Ovid’s Heroides in the Poems of Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco”, Italica 60 (Spring 1992): 1-18.

Robin, Diana, Publishing Women: Salons, the Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Rosenthal, Margaret F., The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Russell, Rinaldina, Ed., Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Westport, Ct. & London, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Russell, Rinaldina & Merry, Bruce, Eds. & Trans., Tullia d’Aragona: Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Salza, Abeldekar, Ed., Rime di Gaspara Stampa e di Veronica Franco, Bari, Laterza, 1913.

Stortoni, Laura Anna, Ed. and Trans, & Lillie, Mary Prentice, Trans., Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies & Courtesans, New York, Italica Press, 1977.

Tower, Troy & Tylus, Jane, Eds. (Tylus, Trans.) Gaspara Stampa, The Complete Poems, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 2010.


1. As to the debate on the “woman question” that began at the end of the Middle Ages and continued throughout the Renaissance, see: Maryann Corbett’s Timeline essay on French poet Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) . It was de Pizan who “[i]nitiat[ed] … the feminist side of … the four-hundred-year-long debate on women (querelle des femmes).” (Corbett)

2. In August of 1553, the Inquisition outlawed the printing of Hebrew books in Venice and ordered the public burning of the Talmud; in October, the ghetto was searched and a “bonfire of Jewish books was made in Piazza San Marco” (Robin 58). “… [H]undreds of thousands of Jewish books were burned in cities all across Italy” (Robin & note 40).

3. Unlike Stampa and Franco, who were roughly upper and lower middle class, respectively, Aragona descended from royalty. Modern scholarship has confirmed that she was the daughter of Luigi d’Aragona, the natural son of Ferdinand 1 of Naples, who was appointed Cardinal in 1493 by Pope Alexander V1 (Borgia) (Russell & Merry 22 & n.1, Masson 98). Her mother was Giulia Campana , a cortigiana onesta with whom the Cardinal lived for at least ten years (from 1505 to 1515), apparently contributing both financially and through his connections to Tullia’s excellent education (Pallito 17 & notes 21 and 22).
It is instructive of the position of women in Italian Renaissance society to compare Tullia’s fate with similarly-situated bastard men, including, apparently, her own father. For another example, Maffio Venier, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Venier, secured a series of “appointments within the ecclesiastical infrastructures” and was finally elected Archbishop of Corfu in 1583 (Rosenthal 49).

4. Aragona lived in each of these cities, sometimes moving to escape personal scandal and sometimes to escape crackdowns on courtesans. While at Florence, she successfully petitioned Cosimo de’ Medici, through the active intervention of his wife, Eleonora de Toledo, for an exemption from the sumptuary law requiring courtesans to wear a yellow veil. Cosimo issued a pardon which survives, ruling, in his own hand, “Fasseli gratia per poetessa” (“Exempted, because she is a poet”) (Pallitto 20 & note 34) (translation mine).

5. For a discussion of Stampa and her work, see: my Timeline essay, “Gaspara Stampa: To Live in Fire and Never Feel the Pain.”

6. There appears to be authority for the possibility that Franco actually died at the home of the wealthy Venetian aristocrat, Andrea Tron, who was believed to be the father of at least one of her sons. Ann Rosaline Jones, an expert in the field, so states, without citing supporting authority, in her excellent essay, “Bad Press, Modern Editors Versus Early Modern Women Poets — Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco,” at 305.

7. Of course, not every single cortigiana onesta died in poverty. A few managed to retain considerable wealth, e.g.. the Romans Fiammetta (granted a large papal “dowry” at age 14 in 1479) (Masson 17-20) and the famous Imperia (1481-1512) (Masson 51-58). Imperia was a friend of Raphael’s and the companion of the extremely wealthy banker, Agostino Chigi (Masson 36, 47). Yet prostitution carried a stigma that was hard to escape. The daughters of noted courtesans had little alternative but to become courtesans themselves, like Franco and Aragona (and, possibly, Aragona’s daughter, Penelope; Masson 127-128). Even the renowned Imperia, herself the daughter of a common prostitute, may have committed suicide not over a love-affair-gone-wrong (as tradition would have it), but to enable her daughter, Lucrezia, to escape prostitution and marry respectably. Having stashed her daughter safely away in a nunnery to be educated, Imperia committed suicide just when Lucrezia was coming of age. Heiress, then, to a considerable dowry, Lucrezia married a wealthy merchant. Ultimately, she became renowned for her purity. When summoned by the unscrupulous governor of Siena, who was holding her husband prisoner, she took poison rather than suffer imminent “dishonor,” nearly died, and became a heroine throughout Italy (Masson 56-57).

8. And see: for a more complete compendium and discussion of the dialogues on love that proliferated during the Cinquecento, Russell & Merry at 28-32.

9. The Cinquecento dialogue, which “employed historical figures as interlocutors,” resembled the Ciceronian dialogue in its “choice of speakers of a relatively high social status, a close attention to historical accuracy and an overwhelming concern with decorum” (Cox Dialogue 14). Significantly, Castiglione chose “to cast his discussion of the perfect courtier not as a treatise, but rather as a dialogue and, specifically, a Ciceronian dialogue, on the model of De oratore” (15).

10. Sansovino’s Ragionamento …d’amore has been described by one scholar as “drawing largely on the Decameron and other slightly scandalous stories” (Tower & Tylus 7), a somewhat odd type of book, then, to dedicate to a young maiden. Similarly odd is Sansovino’s dedicatory letter to Gaspara Stampa opening the work, in which he suggests that he will now counsel her, like a father, lest she be led astray by unscrupulous men, and is proffering her his book to that end, that she might “learn to flee the deceptions that perverse men use with innocent and pure young ladies, like you; and with this [book] show and counsel you to pursue your glorious studies, fleeing every occasion that might disturb your undertakings” (translation mine) (quoted in the original Italian in Tower & Tylus 7 n. 19, “imparar a fuggir gli ignanni che usano i perversi uomini alle candide e pura donzelle, come voi sete. E con questa vi ammaestro e vi consiglio a procedere ne’vostri gloriosi studi, fuggendo ogni occasione che disturbar vi potesse dalla impresa vostra.”) Is Sansovino protesting too much here? His comments would seem almost tongue-in-cheek, were it not for the fact that he and Gaspara were both extremely young at the time. Perhaps he simply admired her.

11. Pope Alexander V1 (the “Borgia Pope”) had many illegitimate children with a succession of mistresses; likely one was born during his papacy (Masson 5). He was notorious for, among other things, installing his teenage mistress, Giulia Farnese, in a newly constructed palazzo next to the Vatican for his convenience. Alexander V1 was known for attending the wild “bunga bunga” parties of his day, including one reportedly attended by fifty prostitutes (Masson 7-9).

12. Although the heyday of the Roman courtesans ran from the beginning of the Cinquecento until the sack of Rome in 1527 (Masson 10), courtesans continued to thrive reasonably well there until the election of Paul 1V (1555). Paul attempted to “diminish[] the courtesans’ attraction by limiting the ostentatious display of luxury upon which so much of their fascination depended,” by prohibiting them from riding in carriages, for example (Mason 141). It was not until the ascension of Pius V (1566), however, that such sumptuary laws were strictly enforced. Pius was the first pope elected after the Council of Trent (1563) and had served as Inquisitor for Como. Shortly after his election, he decreed that all prostitutes must leave Rome within six days. In the ensuing panic, many poor prostitutes fled the City — alone and unprotected — and, as soon as they were outside the City walls, were attacked, robbed, and thrown into the Tiber to drown (think Fellini, Nights of Cabiria (1957)); others “died of heat and exhaustion on the road” (Masson 142). Rome was thrown into turmoil, the decree rescinded, and ultimately, by popular demand, prostitutes were allowed to remain in the City, though forced to live in a restricted quarter (142-43).

13. This was the common practice. A courtesan trained her daughter for the profession, acted as her promoter and go-between, and was in turn supported by her daughter in old age. Similarly, Tullia d’Aragona’s mother had been a courtesan before her, groomed Tullia and was supported by Tullia in her old age.

14. Citing Paul F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300-1600 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1989), 87-102.

15. Franco’s marriage to Panizzza appears to have been genuine, given the dowry her family paid him. There was a common practice among courtesans at the time, however, of entering into sham marriages as a cover, thereby gaining enough of a gloss of respectability to avoid facing compliance with the sumptuary laws and other laws governing prostitutes. Tullia d’Aragona recorded a marriage to a man who has remained a mystery. Nothing whatsoever is known of him, apart from the record of his marriage to Aragona (Robin 174 & note 42).

16. Tron’s will has not been found, and whether or not he provided for Franco’s son is unknown. Another wealthy Venetian aristocrat, however, Lodovico Ramberti, did. Ramberti descended from “one of the most respected merchant families of Venice” and owned an apothecary shop at the Rialto Bridge (Rosenthal 79). He is named in Franco’s will as one of the executors. In a will he made in 1570, Ramberti left a farm to Franco’s son Achiletto with the provision that Achiletto share its use and revenues with Veronica until he reached the age of twenty-five, when he would come into full possession and control (Jaffee 343). In a letter written three years later, Ramberti left to his “delicious” friend, Veronica Franco, his featherbed with the provision that she not use, sell or discard it. Academic authorities disagree as to whether this latter bequest was serious or not (Compare: Jaffee 342 & note 15 with Rosenthal 296 & note 54). In a codicil, Ramberti gave directions for the erection of his tombstone with an epitaph bearing the initials “V” and “F”, to memorialize the fact that the verse was written by “the very learned Madonna Veronica Franco” (Jaffee). The epitaph refers to a notorious episode some thirty years earlier. Ramberti’s brother Pietro was (rightly) convicted of murder and sentenced to be drawn and quartered — alive — in Piazza San Marco. To spare his brother this horrible fate, Ramberti smuggled poison to Pietro in prison on the eve of the execution, and Pietro died before the quartering. Sympathetic to Ramberti for his brotherly devotion, the Venetian authorities were relatively lenient with him, sentencing him to four years’ banishment from Venice (Jaffee 343).

17. The young Henri’s “triumphal entry” into Venice “occasioned the grandest, most extravagant … state reception” the town had ever seen (Rosenthal 102). The King was feted at endless receptions, balls, and performances over ten days. One night, after the banquet and the theater, he was seen out late cruising the canals in a gondola with his cousin, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, after which his whereabouts were unaccounted for, and he reportedly did not return home that night, or the next (102-103).

18. Two charitable women’s residences were already in existence in Venice, the Casa delle Zitelle (House for Unmarried Maidens), which admitted only unmarried women, and the Convertite (Home for Women Penitents), which required a vow of chastity (Jones & Rosenthal 5).

19. For additional discussion of the tradition of the Roman love elegy and the role of the docta puella, see: the biographical section, “Life”, in my Timeline essay, “Gaspara Stampa: To Live in Fire and Never Feel the Pain”, and footnotes 13 & 14. And see: Sharon James, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, University of California Press, 2003. For a discussion of the revival of Ovid’s popularity among late fifteenth century courtly poets in Italy, and its carry over, post 1530, into the work of “socially ‘irregular’ poets such as Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco” see: Cox Lyric 16-17.

20. Italy had a long tradition of poetic exchange, the tenzone. Originating in Provence, the devise in Italy developed through the Sicilian school, the poet Guittone d'Arezzo, and the dolce stil nuovo school of Dante's youthful circle chiefly as an exchange of sonnets among two or more poets devoted to the discussion of a specific subject, often concerning love.

21. Marco Venier’s career stands in sharp contrast to Franco’s. While Franco’s prospects dwindled severely with age, Marco had a steady and “exemplary” rise in Venetian politics (Rosenthal 50). “Beginning as a savio agli ordini (responsible for maritime affairs) at age twenty-five, an obligatory office for young patricians, Marco then went on to occupy such influential positions in the Venetian republic as officiale alle cazude (tax enforcer), provedditore sopra la sanita (commissioner of public health during the plague, a position which, once he was elected to it, a Venetian patrician could not legally refuse), savio di terraferma (responsible for military affairs on the mainland), avogadore di commun (chief state prosecutor), and balio to Constantinople (diplomatic envoy). Eventually he became a member of the more rebellious giovani faction, and finally he became the head of the Council of Ten, after it had undergone a radical redefinition of its powers. In addition to the council’s executive overseeing of secret affairs and state security, it also assumed control over all financial questions. Having climbed from the bottom to the top of the political ladder, Marco Venier finally was elected savio grande, the highest-ranking member of the Collegio, the steering committee or cabinet of the Venetian Senate” (51).

22. This tersa rima translation of Capitolo 2 is my own, based upon the Italian text published by Abdelkader Salza in Rime, Gaspara Stampa — Veronica Franco (Laterza, Bari) 1913, at 237-242. Salza’s Italian text is included in the Appendix, below.

23. Aretino repeatedly caricatured and attacked Tullia d’Aragona (among others); Lorenzo Venier (Domenico’s brother) viciously satirized, among others, the prominent Venetian courtesan Angela del Moro (known as “La Zafetta”). Of course, courtesans were not the only victims of Aretino’s pen — the clergy came in for a substantial thrashing. His famous work of pornography, the Dialogues, fairly opens with a depiction of the purported “life of the nuns”, considered in contrast to the other career paths open to women, the “life of the wives” and the “life of the whores”. Aretino portrays the life of the nuns as a protracted orgy. And this theme apparently persists in the imagination of some: testimony at the trial of aides to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (on charges of procuring prostitutes) described how young women dressed as sexy nuns danced striptease at a “bunga bunga” party at Berlusconi’s villa.

24. All translated excerpts from Franco’s Capitolo 16 included in this discussion are my own, based upon Abdelkader Salza’s Italian text; see: note 21 above.

25. Margaret Rosenthal, in her groundbreaking biography of Franco, devotes her first chapter, “Satirizing the Courtesan” to a discussion of the many lewd satires of courtesans and other prostitutes that proliferated in Italy during the Cinquecento. One of the most disgusting was written in 1530 by none other than Maffio’s father, Lorenzo Venier, the infamous Il trentuno della Zaffetta (Rosenthal 37-38 & note 81). Described by Rosenthal as “comic satire in ottava rima” (37), the poem describes a brutal and widely publicized gang rape of the famous Venetian courtesan Angela del Moro, known as La Zaffetta (“the policeman’s daughter”). Though the incident appears to be, if not entirely fictional, at least greatly (and grotesquely) exaggerated, the reality of prostitutes’ lives during this period was just as horrific as the satires, and male supremacy was buttressed by episodes of extreme violence against women (see: Rosenthal).

26. Unlike Franco’s letters, the other letters of Italian courtesans that have survived from this period were not intended as art. They consist of a small number of letters composed by housemates Camilla Pisana and Alessandra Fiorentina, discovered in archives at Florence among the papers of Filippo Strozzi, their protector, and a handful of Tullia d’Aragona’s letters to Benedetto Varchi (Bassanese 71). Strozzi was a Florentine of enormous wealth; he had also been a lover of Aragona’s when both were living in Rome (Mason 93). An opponent of Cosimo de’ Medici, Strozzi died in prison in Spain in 1538, “probably by his own hand,” after Bernardo Tasso failed in a mission to secure his release (Mason 100).

27. All translated excerpts from Franco’s Lettere are my own, based upon one of the few extant Italian texts, that in the Special Collections of Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. An electronic facsimile of the work is available from the library by email, currently rbml@pobox.upenn.edu.

28. These words paraphrase Aretino’s Dialogues, while presenting a strikingly different picture of the courtesan. See: Jones & Rosenthal 12 & note 19.

Veronica Franco
Years: 1546-1591
Birthplace: Italy
Language(s): Italian, Latin
Forms: Capitolo, in terza rima (including lyric, elegy, epistle, poetic debate, dialogue); Sonnet, Prose (letter).
Subjects: Love/passion, equality for women, morality/duty
Entry By: Wendy Sloan
32 Poems
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