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Renaissance Beauties

Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance

by Lynne Lawner
Rizzoli, 215 pp., $45.00

Until the establishment of the Kinsey Institute, no one, except perhaps when talking to his confessor or doctor, had any obvious reason to be entirely frank about his sexual behavior, and few people, in reading about the subject, wanted or expected accurate factual information. This makes the task of the historian investigating Renaissance sexual mores a particularly delicate one, for which evidence has to be gleaned from such diverse sources as census returns, sermons, legal records, literary texts, and private letters. The richest evidence, at least quantitatively, concerns courtesans, but it is also probably the least reliable.

That such women played an essential role in Renaissance society is obvious enough. According to the teachings of the Church, sexual activity outside marriage was sinful, and the upper classes were in general scarcely permissive toward the female members of their families. But men tended to marry much later than women, often by a decade or more, and many of them, perhaps as much as 10 percent of the total in some cities, were in religious orders and could not marry at all. Add to this the fact that the literature of the period was to a remarkable degree devoted to the theme of love, and the consequences are clear. Prostitution was a social necessity; yet the courtesans themselves were simultaneously condemned by the upholders of conventional morality and idealized by the more articulate of their clients. As a result we can see them today only through the distorting mirrors of censoriousness and fantasy.

Courtesans, whether the term is used simply to mean prostitutes or poules de luxe, figure much more prominently in writings of the sixteenth century than in any previous period. But how much this was due to an increase in sexual license, and how much to the proliferation of new genres of literature, such as the vernacular letter, is almost impossible to establish. Again, the strikingly high early estimates of the numbers of courtesans in Italian cities—such as Stefano Infessura’s tally of 6,800 in Rome in 1490 (“in addition to concubines and brothel prostitutes”) out of a total population of less than thirty thousand, of which about 60 percent were probably male—need to be regarded with the greatest skepticism. In this instance, if Infessura’s figure is anything more than an expression of indignation at a climate of sexual license, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he simply classified every sexually active unmarried woman as a courtesan.

A century later, according to rather more credible figures, there were around seven hundred prostitutes in Rome, out of a total population of about forty thousand, while in 1560 in Florence, a city where men were in a slight minority—a situation which did not obtain in Rome or Venice, the two centers most famous for their courtesans—the government calculated the number of such women at two hundred in a population of sixty thousand.

It is characteristic of Ms. Lawner’s approach that she is inclined to accept figures not much lower than Infessura’s, claiming that around 10 percent of the population of Rome were courtesans and their associates, and wholly disregarding arguments to the contrary by scholars such as Jean Delumeau.1 She constantly glamorizes the institution of the courtesan and exaggerates its scope and significance: Thus she uses the same term to describe a common prostitute and a woman like Laura dei Dianti, the tailor’s daughter who enjoyed a liaison with the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, after the death of Lucrezia Borgia, bearing him several children and probably eventually marrying him. She likewise describes Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the ruler of Milan, as a courtesan. But these women were royal mistresses; prostitutes they certainly were not, and anyone who treated them as such would soon have regretted it.

Even Ms. Lawner’s account of the more famous courtesans seems strangely unreal. That their lovers, actual and potential, tended to idealize their intellectual attainments as well as their physical attributes is hardly surprising, describing them, as they characterized themselves, in terms borrowed from literary commonplaces. Thus we are told that their beauty was supreme, they wrote sonnets and amused their clients with music and song. Ms. Lawner tends to take all this at face value, and writes about such women in terms that have more to do with romantic novels, or even Playboy, than with history, explaining that “it was above all in the boudoir that the courtesan had the responsibility of exciting the senses and plunging her visitor into an irresistible atmosphere of luxury and sensual pleasure,” and that “in the combined coziness and grandeur of her own chambers she could leisurely introduce her ideals of a cultured and civilized life.” Whether most courtesans genuinely held such ideals is impossible to say; but it seems more likely that if they behaved in this way, it was because they wished to conform to the image of the perfect mistress created by Renaissance writers on love.

Lives of the Courtesans is an attempt to use the available historical evidence about courtesans to illuminate the meaning of the countless paintings of beautiful women, dressed, naked, or in suggestive half-undress, which are such a striking phenomenon of sixteenth-century art. Whatever else their purpose may have been, such pictures were certainly meant to provide titillation for the men who bought them. It is therefore only appropriate, though regrettable, that the publishers seem to have recognized that most people will buy this book primarily as an attractive collection of mildly sexy and often very beautiful images. None of the illustrations is numbered; they are neither listed nor adequately cited in the index; not all of the works discussed in the text are reproduced conveniently nearby, and some are not reproduced at all; almost no attempt is made in the captions to provide more precise indication of date than by century, even when the information is readily available (though one caption includes the surprising statement: “1628. Early 17th Century”).

The author, too, despite her impressive scholarly credentials, appears to be in two minds whether she is writing a work of scholarship or merely one of entertainment. Thus her bibliography is quite inadequate, her notes superficial and incomplete, and her text abounds with mistakes of a kind that hardly inspire confidence. For example, the celebrated fifteenth-century humanist and writer on art and architecture was Leonbattista Alberti, not Giambattista; Tintoretto’s pictures in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice are not frescoes, but painted on canvas; Titian’s famous paintings for Alfonso d’Este are misdated by a decade, are wrongly described as allegories, and are conflated with his much later mythologies for Philip II; a set of rather charming prints of an imprudent visitor to Venice, entitled Vita del Lascivo, is not of the sixteenth century, but of the mid-seventeenth; and Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani is also placed in the wrong century.

The lack of care taken by both author and publisher is all the more annoying because the paintings themselves are not only very often of outstanding beauty, they also raise historical problems of a fundamental kind. How, where, and why did the taste for such pictures arise? Are these the likenesses of real, identifiable women? Where were they displayed? By what criteria were they judged? Were they meant to provide something more than a mere visual frisson for tired merchants and courtiers? And do they reflect a change in social and sexual mores?

It is to Ms. Lawner’s credit that she recognizes that such problems exist, and that some of the recent attempts to solve them, for example by treating images of naked women displaying themselves on beds as high-minded allegories, are hardly adequate. A typical instance of current scholarly attitudes which she calls into question is the theory that Raphael’s Fornarina, who places one hand below her naked breasts and the other between her legs, is “deliberately fashioned after the type of the Venus pudica, a gesture that is particularly appropriate in a bridal context,” the idea being that the artist showed his mistress in a way which both characterized her as a classical Venus and endowed her with the qualities of a wife. The term “Venus pudica” is now regularly used by scholars to describe a pose such as that of the Fornarina, with the implication that it denotes a relatively chaste or modest woman, but it was not employed with this sense in Renaissance texts; nor is there any reason to suppose that such figures were then regarded in this way. On the contrary, the pose can more simply be seen as a device which allowed artists to draw attention to the very part of the female body which convention did not normally allow them to represent at all. In the case of the Fornarina, indeed, Raphael can hardly have chosen such an arrangement for her hands in order to indicate her modesty. The lower hand is entirely redundant for such a purpose, because it rests on a layer of drapery.

While the author of this idealistic reading of Raphael’s famous picture, an interpretation redolent of the nineteenth-century view of that artist’s moral perfection, was evidently at pains to reject the idea that it might represent “a vulgar exposure of a woman of ill repute,” Ms. Lawner argues that here indeed we have a portrait of a courtesan, but a courtesan of a rather special sort, “the kind who wrote poetry (hence the laurel), modeled herself after Venus (hence the myrtle), divided her devotion between the shrines of Apollo and Venus, as Veronica Franco tells us in her poems she did, and wore precious rings on her fingers.” This type of interpretation, which itself can be found in many nineteenth-century publications, and which was revived in a relatively cautious way a few years ago by Hans Ost, 2 is typical of the book as a whole. In other words, the author believes that paintings like Raphael’s Fornarina were representations of real courtesans and meant to be recognized as such, and also that in a more general way the sexual imagery employed by artists reflects the kind of services that such women provided.

The author’s suspicion of many modern readings of such pictures is certainly well-founded, but the approach as a whole raises substantial problems. In particular, her uncritical acceptance of the more sensational and salacious accounts of Renaissance courtesans and the looseness of her definition of the institution itself make it hard to take her analysis seriously. And for her main contention, that many Renaissance paintings actually show wellknown courtesans, the evidence is virtually nonexistent. So far as I am aware, not a single extant Italian Renaissance painting can be identified with any degree of confidence as the portrait of a known courtesan, apart perhaps from Titian’s Danae in Naples, about which Giovanni della Casa wrote a rather jocular letter, implying that the artist would be prepared to give her the features of a specific woman if the patron, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, obtained a benefice for his son.

This does not mean that artists did not use such women as their models; but in these instances the identity of the model does not usually seem to have been relevant to the patron. For example, Titian’s painting of a girl known as La Bella and his Venus of Urbino appear to show the same woman; and letters from the men who purchased these pictures, the Duke of Urbino and his son, still survive. But they certainly did not indicate that these were likenesses of a courtesan, or of anyone known to them. The Venus was just called “the naked woman,” and La Bella “that portrait of that woman wearing a blue dress.” And it is striking that artists who specialized in paintings of this sort tended to reproduce the same physical type again and again, as if they were representing an ideal beauty rather than a specific person. Palma Vecchio is only the most famous example. Titian, too, frequently seems to have used his daughters as models for attractive half-lengths, even though earlier in his career he certainly employed prostitutes for nude figures.

To see paintings of beautiful women as representations of real courtesans is to fall into a romantic fallacy. Thus there is no good reason to assume, as Ms. Lawner does, that Raphael’s painting of Galatea in the villa of Agostino Chigi, the Farnesina, is a portrait of Chigi’s mistress, Imperia; she is simply a typical example of Raphael’s ideal of female beauty. The most extreme example of this tendency is in the discussion of the famous series of pornographic engravings by Giulio Romano, accompanied by very explicit sonnets by Pietro Aretino, known as I Modi, which show and describe sixteen different positions of lovemaking. Because in these sonnets Aretino sometimes mentions well-known Roman courtesans the author supposes the illustrations are portraits, and that the book as a whole is a sort of catalog of prostitutes in Rome, showing the specialty of each one: Quite apart from the fact that this kind of specialization is,. on the face of it, rather unexpected, one may doubt whether the book was really in essence a publicity pamphlet. If that were so, it would surely have been self-defeating to omit the names of most of the women. It makes more sense to see the Modi simply as an example of pornography, a genre more often associated with fantasy than with reportage.

What Lives of the Courtesans provides, in essence, is a banal view of Renaissance sexuality applied to a banal view of Renaissance art. Patrons occasionally acquired portraits of the famous beauties of the day, such as Joanna of Aragon, who was painted by Raphael; sometimes they wanted portraits of their mistresses, like Titian’s lost picture of Cornelia Malaspina painted for Francisco de los Cobos; often, too, they would seem to have commissioned the likeness of women for whom, Petrarch-like, they cultivated a possibly unconsummated passion, a case in point being Titian’s portrait of Elisabetta Querini Massolo, which was owned by Giovanni della Casa. But there is very little reason to suppose that many patrons wanted portraits of whores. There was a highly respectable precedent for paintings of beautiful women in Simone Martini’s portrait of Laura, immortalized by Petrarch in two sonnets known to every educated Italian of the period; and she was hardly a courtesan.

But Ms. Lawner does not have much to say about the Petrarchan tradition, or indeed about the Renaissance cliche that the role of the artist, even in portraiture, was to improve on nature, as the Greek painter Zeuxis had done when he was required to paint an image of Venus on the island of Croton. Failing to find any single model of sufficient beauty, Zeuxis combined the best parts of five different women. However impractical this procedure may have proved in practice (and we are solemnly assured by some writers of the period that it was actually adopted by Renaissance artists), it certainly provided a handy justification, as useful as the Petrarchan parallel and the cult of platonic love, for the possession of portraits of beautiful women, since these could be seen as examples of the artist’s excellence in a particularly challenging genre.

Other classical precedents could also be invoked, as Ms. Lawner herself notes. According to one famous legend, Apelles was once asked to paint Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great. While doing so he fell in love with her, and the king was so impressed by his artistic talent that he gave the girl to him. This anecdote is surely the reason why several Renaissance paintings of women, such as Titian’s portrait of Laura dei Dianti and Raphael’s Fornarina, are signed with the artist’s name inscribed on an armband. There is no reason to suppose, however, that such signatures imply anything about the character of the sitter (since we are wholly uninformed about Campaspe, whose wishes in the matter do not seem to have been consulted), or even about the artist’s relationship to her, which in the case of Titian at least can hardly have been improper. Instead, these signatures need only imply that the painter was emulating Apelles in his art. Exactly the same kind of claim was made by the use of the term Faciebat rather than Fecit, in artists’ signatures, because Pliny had reported, in a passage well known in the Renaissance, that Apelles had signed his paintings in this way, to indicate, with becoming modesty, that he had not succeeded in achieving the perfection to which he aspired.

This is not to deny that part of the appeal of paintings of beautiful women, whether in contemporary dress, en déshabillé, or in mythological guise, was that they carried an erotic charge. That was what they were supposed to do, and it was a great part of the artist’s responsibility to convey this quality. Nor is it to deny that male fantasies in the Renaissance were often projected on the figure of the courtesan. But the two phenomena overlap only to a rather limited degree. The correlation of the emergence of new types of secular painting centered on images of female beauty and changes in sexual mores is not easy to discern. More plausibly we should see the motivating force in this development in the growing taste for paintings of all kinds for secular and especially domestic settings. A number of justifications and rationalizations could be invoked for the type of pictures that met with most favor, notably classical precedent, the influence of Petrarchan poetry, and the related vogue of Neoplatonism. And just how far the imagery of the naked female form could be removed from the associations with mercenary sex is demonstrated by the ubiquitousness of female nudity in virtually every secular context—in temporary triumphal arches erected to honor visiting dignitaries, in the decoration of public buildings, on the title pages of books. Even the Venetian government could fill the Doge’s Palace with painted personifications of Venice represented as a beautiful young woman; but the Doge and senators certainly would not have taken kindly to the suggestion that in any way she resembled a prostitute.

Ms. Lawner seems to believe that in the Renaissance art imitated life, and that in one conspicuous respect it imitated low life. Her hypothesis is difficult to reconcile with the idea that artists were supposed to improve on nature. Doubtless this was also the duty of the courtesan. But it is hardly likely that anyone would have admired painters who achieved their effects by looking to the guiles of such women. By contrast, if courtesans modeled themselves on the creations of painters and writers, thus conforming to the most pervasive and fully realized male images of women in the Renaissance, they would only have been doing their job.


Renaissance Beauties’: An Exchange September 24, 1987

  1. 1

    Jean Delumeau, Vie économique et sociale de Rome dans la seconde moitié du XVIue siècle (Paris: 1957), Vol. I, pp. 416ff.

  2. 2

    Tizians sogennante ‘Venus von Urbino’ und andere Buhlerinnen,” Festschrift für Eduard Trier zum 60. Geburtstag (Berlin: 1981), pp. 129ff.

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