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.

fig-2-meretrice

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.

fig-3-flip-up

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.

fig-4-venus-of-urbino

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

Advertisements

Art is the Best Revenge: Painting Justice with Artemisia Gentileschi

ag-slef-portrait-1638-9

Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait, 1638-9.

Centuries before feminism had a name, post-Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) made waves with exemplary work in a male-dominated medium. Raped at seventeen, she channeled her trauma into her art, raising questions about the mistreatment of women with paintings of staggering beauty and brutality. Of fifty-seven known paintings, forty-nine feature female heroines from history and mythology in positions of strength, many of them also survivors of sexual assault.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was an established artist who taught her to paint while she was growing up. By the age of sixteen, she already showed great promise, but was rejected by more formal academies. Wanting to nurture his daughter’s talent, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to be tutored by a friend of his, artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644).

wbsusanna

Susanna and the Elders. AG, 1610.

Perhaps the first hint that Tassi was not exactly a gentleman can be found in Susanna and the Elders (1610). The Biblical Susanna was a virtuous young woman who was sexually harassed by some of the older men in her community. While many male artists had depicted Susanna as compliant or even flirtatious, Artemisia’s heroine is anything but: she is disgusted and exposed, shielding herself from two men almost falling over each other to leer at her.

By 1612, Orazio had taken Tassi to court for raping his daughter. Artemisia testified he had forced himself on her, and she had fought him so savagely that she removed a chunk of flesh from his penis. After the rape, Tassi pressured her into having an ongoing sexual relationship with him with the promise he would eventually marry her. Tassi was already married and could fulfill no such promise, but continued to abuse Artemisia until her father brought charges against him.

It wasn’t Tassi’s first run-in with the law. He had already been tried for rape, incest, and the attempted murder of his wife. Artemisia, his latest victim, was a well-behaved young woman of eighteen. So what happened?

They tortured her.

Although Tassi’s defense was contradictory and blatantly false, the court didn’t believe Artemisia’s claim that he had raped her. She was subjected to a humiliating physical exam in front of the court to prove she was no longer a virgin, her character was questioned, she was accused of promiscuity, and then she was tortured with thumbscrews while her rapist watched. Over months of witness testimonies and torture, Artemisia never once changed her story and Tassi was eventually convicted. He chose banishment from Rome over imprisonment, but he was back within a few months. By now it was common knowledge that he was a real piece of work, but he had friends in high places: Pope Innocent X was a big fan of his landscapes.

Tassi may have escaped justice through the courts, but Artemisia wasn’t done with him. Now a far superior artist to her one-time tutor, she took her revenge in a series of masterful paintings depicting women equal to or dominating men. At least half a dozen show women physically assaulting men, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes:

ag-judith-slaying-holofernes-1614-1620

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612, and again in 1620): As the story goes, Judith was a Jewish widow. When her town was attacked by Assyrian general Holofernes, she took advantage of his attraction to her by going to his tent with him and then decapitating him as he was passed out drunk. This story has been interpreted by several notable artists including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Kilmt in the twentieth century, but Artemisia’s is undoubtedly the most graphic. It was owned by the Medicis, but hidden for years as it was considered too brutal to display. Two versions of this were painted, the first just after Tassi’s trial.

untitled-design-10

Caravaggio’s Judith (left) and Gentileschi’s Judith (right)

This painting is a clear tribute to Caravaggio’s work of the same name, but Artemisia takes it further. Artemisia’s Judith is more mature and self-assured. While Caravaggio’s Judith hesitantly beheads her attacker with a look of distaste on her face, Artemisia’s Judith is all business. She looks almost bored as she hacks off Holofernes’ head as if it’s something she does–or has thought of doing–every day.

ag-judith-and-her-maidservant-1613-14

Judith and Her Maidservant (1613-14) : Here we see Judith leaving with her maidservant, sword in hand. Holofernes’ head is in a bag, bottom left. Her hairpin here depicts David, who likewise removed the head of Goliath.

ag-judith-and-her-maidservant-with-the-head-of-holofernes

Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes (1625): In the last of this series, the head is bottom center as Judith and her maid escape into the night.

And then there’s Jael and Sisera (1620):

gentileschi_jael_sisera_grt

Sisera was a Canaanite leader who had ruled over the Israelites for many years. Following his defeat by the Isrealites, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s tent, only to have a tent post hammered into his brain once he fell asleep.

Artemisia painted heroines she could relate to, such as Lucretia, the classical victim of rape, and other famous “fallen women” like Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Lucretia and Cleopatra are shown in the moments prior to suicide: instead of despair, they seem to question the idea that they ought to take their own lives. Surely a woman is worth more than the concept of “honor” attached to her body?

Artemisia seemed to think so. She married another painter and worked as an artist her whole life, fulfilling commissions for the Medicis and England’s Charles I. She was a friend of Galileo, painted a ceiling for Michelangelo’s nephew, and inspired countless other women artists to follow in her footsteps during her lifetime.

As for Tassi, his work has fallen into obscurity and he is now primarily known as Artemisia’s rapist. I wasn’t able to find a portrait of him, but we might be able to guess what he looked like…

untitled-design-9

Jessica Cale

Further Reading:

Brash, Larry. Artemisia Gentileschi.

Christiansen, Keith, and Mann, Judith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Sartle. Category: Artemisia Gentileschi