Prostitution in Renaissance Italy: The “Necessary Evil”

fig-1-brothel

A 15th-century depiction of a brothel. You can imagine the man walking in saying, “Well, at least the prostitutes are women.”

In the wake of the fourteenth-century plague, which killed over half of Italy’s populations, cities were faced with a crisis. To make matters worse, Italian men seemed uninterested in repopulating the peninsula, struck by a sin worse than death—same-sex attraction. Fifteenth-century preacher Bernardino of Siena railed that “even the Devil flees in horror at the sight of this sin.”

Italian cities responded by encouraging prostitution. In 1403, the government of Florence opened an office to promote prostitution in order to prevent the worse sin of sodomy. Venice legalized prostitution in 1358 and created a brothel district in the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto.

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Cesare Vecellio’s “Public Whore” waves a flag and wears high-heeled chopines. (1598)

Prostitution was a reality of life in Renaissance Italy. But in spite of its legality, Renaissance Italians had a mixed opinion of the profession. The medieval church had declared prostitution a “necessary evil,” drawing on St. Augustine of Hippo’s proclamation that “If you do away with whores, the world will be consumed with lust.” Thomas Aquinas likewise declared in the thirteenth century that “If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.” Aquinas likened prostitution to a sewer in a palace—if you took it away, the building would overflow with pollution. Or, more specifically, “Take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy.”

Prostitutes, then, served as receptacles of sin, protecting the rest of society from male lust. And, in particular, they kept male passions focused on women, rather than other men.

But legalization did not mean prostitution was an esteemed profession. It was heavily regulated, as cities passed laws to ensure that honorable citizens could avoid the corrupting influence of prostitutes. Venetian prostitutes had to wear a yellow scarf in public. In 1384, Florence passed a law forcing prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, gloves, and high-heeled shoes.

Let’s talk for a minute about these special shoes—they were called chopines, and they likely originated with Venetian prostitutes. These heels could be up to twenty-four inches high (and I thought four inch heels were tricky!). Patrician women were so enamored with the style that laws forcing prostitutes to wear the shoes were passed to discourage “good” women from donning them. Those efforts failed.

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Pietro Bertelli’s flip-up courtesan shows off the woman’s chopines as well as her undergarments. (c. 1588)

Renaissance prostitution was meant to channel male lust in appropriate directions, and as such, prostitution reinforced gender norms. Venice, for example, encouraged women to run brothels, because men relying on the earnings of prostitutes inverted normal gender relations. The city worried that men who lived off of women’s earnings would become dangerously lazy and fall into a life of crime. In an ironic twist, this attitude put a great deal of power in the hands of “matrons,” who were integrated into Venetian business at multiple levels.

Expensive, educated courtesans were also able to use their position to enhance their independence. Tullia d’Aragona, a sixteenth-century Roman courtesan, published multiple books and owned many houses. Another famous courtesan, Veronica Franco of Venice, was a published poet of great distinction. When King Henry III of France visited Venice in 1574, the city hired Franco to entertain him. These two women were widely admired for their works, and had a degree of freedom unmatched by their married cousins. Another courtesan, Angela del Moro, served as the model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

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Titian’s Venus of Urbino, thought to portray his companion Angela del Moro, a Venetian courtesan.

Legalized prostitution reinforced gender norms, but in limited cases it provided opportunities for women to assert power. As madams or courtesans, women could own property, publish, and achieve social acclaim. Yet for the majority of Renaissance Italian prostitutes, it was a hard life, and often not one they chose. Prostitutes were exploited by the brothels and by the cities, often treated no better than the sewers to which Aquinas likened them. They existed on the margins, their exploitation justified for the “greater good” of society.lionandfox_coverfa-small

Sylvia Prince is a history professor and author. Her debut novel, The Lion and the Fox, is set in the cutthroat world of Renaissance Florence, and follows Niccolo Machiavelli as he solves the murder of a Medici. It also features male and female prostitutes, as well as a female brothel owner. Find out more at Sylvia’s website www.sylviaprincebooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @sprincebooks.

Sources

Brackett, John K. “The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680.” Sixteenth Century Journal, v. 24, no. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 273-300.

Clarke, Paula C. “The Business of Prostitution in Early Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly, v. 68 no. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 419-464.

Mormondo, Franco. The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy

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Wrath of God or a Cosmic Fart? The Great Plague of 1665-1666

London in the year of the plague, 1665

The last epidemic of the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, killing at least 100,000 people, or a quarter of the city’s total population. 

Though it hasn’t really been seen since in Britain, the plague did not come out of nowhere. There had been four other outbreaks between 1560 and 1660, the most recent being in the 1620s. People read the weekly Bills of Mortality to count the deaths, the rich to decide whether it was wise to leave the city for the country to avoid it, and the tradesmen to see if they were likely to have any work. (1)

There were two types of plague, pneumonic and bubonic, and both came from the Yersenia pestis bacterium, which was carried by fleas. The pneumonic plague set in when the disease went straight to the lungs, and the afflicted would die within three days. With the bubonic plague, most common in 1665, it went to the lymph glands. After ten days of incubation, the lymph glands swelled into “buboes”, and usually killed the victim within five days, although there was about a thirty percent chance of survival. (1)

The Court left before they were in any real danger, withdrawing to the safety of Oxford, while the rest of London waited. 

“The face of London was now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected … sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” (3)

The Bills of Mortality reported 68,596 deaths from the plague, but Pepys put the number closer to 100,000. A contemporary doctor thought the true number was closer to 200,000. (1)

A plague doctor. This one is Roman,
but the costume would have been
much the same. The “beaks” were filled
with fragrant herbs.


With the staggering number of deaths caused by the plague, human and animal (it was ordered that all cats and dogs in the city be put down), finding a place to bury the bodies became an issue. Most of the dead were still buried in churchyards, and the churchyards tried to accommodate them for as long as they could, stacking bodies on top of each other with or without coffins until every churchyard in London was filled with rotting, infected flesh. The smell must have been horrific. Soon the dead were put into enormous plague pits throughout the city. They’re still finding these today, so it’s impossible to say how many more remain below the city. 

Almanacs blamed the plague on “a cosmic fart”: “The pestilence generally derives its natural origin from a Crisis of the Earth whereby it purges itself by expiring those Arsenical Fumes that have been retained so long in her bowels.” (2)

Many people thought it was the wrath of God. Still others had claimed to see it coming in the bad omen of two comets that had appeared over the city in 1664:

“A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after another, a little before the fire. The old women and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex, whom I could almost call old women too, remarked (especially afterward, though not till both those judgements were over) that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery as the conflagration.” (3)

The Great Fire of 1666 did much to eradicate the plague from the city. So much of London was incinerated, fleas included. Stone houses replaced the wooden ones, and rats had a much harder time trying to get into these. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 ordered widened streets and banned open sewers, wooden houses, and overhanging upper levels, aiding sanitation and making the city less vulnerable to the spread of fire and disease. The overflowing churchyards proved the necessity for larger cemeteries further from the bulk of the population, and led to the establishment of the first formal cemeteries on the outskirts of town. 

For some truly terrifying reading, check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of gutenberg.org. Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis is a wonderful history of death in London throughout the ages and the chapter on the plague might just give you nightmares (I would have used it here, but I loaned my copy to someone and they don’t want to give it back!). There’s also an interactive guide to London’s many plague pits on historic-uk.com here

Sources

1. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
2. R. Saunders. The English Apollo. London, 1666.
3. Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722.