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Renaissance Beauties’: An Exchange

In response to:

Renaissance Beauties from the May 28, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Hope, in his review [NYR, May 28] of my Lives of the Courtesans, credits me with a fresh interpretation of a major Renaissance painting, but at the same time fails to give a full picture of the book. The reviewer, whose bias against iconography is well known and who often takes a bullying stance, seems to have turned a deaf ear both to the argument set forth and to the considerable evidence I muster to support my case.

The courtesan in the Renaissance was a unique figure devoted to the pursuit of economic independence, cultural achievement, and even, in some cases, civic ideals. She was also a symbol of beauty to all who gazed at her, the inspiration of writers and painters. Often she was a creator of culture, since she wrote poetry and was an accomplished musician and conversationalist. She stood apart from the hordes of common prostitutes.

This is the first major study attempting to view the far-reaching influence of the courtesan on culture and society. In Lives of the Courtesans I see her as reflected in art and literature and reflecting on herself. From the review you would never know that I attempt to set before the reader some extremely pleasurable works not available anywhere else until now, and to join literary evocations to pictorial ones. The reviewer also neglects to mention such things as the range of my study, the attention given to prints, the relating of phenomena in French and northern art to Italian art, and the citation of rare texts.

Among the latter are the extraordinary letters by Andrea Calmo originally in Venetian. There are sixty in all to real and imaginary courtesans; like his letters to Tintoretto, Michelangelo, and others, they are rich in visual details relating to Venetian art of the time. Many other writers of the time had much to say to, and about, these women. Hope believes I am simply imagining scenes in courtesans’ boudoirs, but I obtain my information, and some of my inspiration, directly from delightful novellas by Malespini, Fortini, and, of course, Giraldi Cinzio and Bandello.

Furthermore, you would never know from Hope’s review that a theory of the erotic image is developed in my study, and that I make a rather elaborate analysis of how society, particularly in the Venetian Republic, created what it desired, while courtesans consciously abetted this process. Indeed, the reviewer misleads readers into thinking that I probe, in unhealthy and unlikely ways, into the sexual mores of the past1 and crudely propose that the great Renaissance painters all painted unworthy “puttane.”

Despite what he says, I do not ever suggest that women such as Laura Dianti of Ferrara, eventually consort of Duke Alfonso II, were the same as common prostitutes. The whole thrust of my book is to make just such distinctions. I speak well of Laura (page 118) and describe her portrait by Titian in as eloquent tones as I could manage. Undoubtedly what Hope has done is to equate “courtesan” with “whore” in his own mind; hence whenever I refer to a woman or image as a “courtesan” or posed in the style of a courtesan, he feels justified in claiming that I have called that person or pose a whore or whorish. This is to bend my meaning into its very opposite.

Along this line, Hope says that I describe Cecilia Gallerani as a courtesan. That, too, is untrue. I carefully refer to her as the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, II Moro, who, it should be remarked, had a series of mistresses—they could be high-born and elegant, but that is what they were. It is also significant that I point out, in the introduction to my chapter on “the mistress portrait,” how difficult it is to make absolute distinctions between the high-class concubine, the “honest courtesan,” and the mistress (often of powerful rulers). Although the mistresses of the French kings achieved an amazing status in the sixteenth century, they were not prim and could even—in one outstanding case—be of tainted background.

Hope declares that I try to match up individual portraits to specific courtesans. This is certainly a temptation, but even if there is some justification in the case of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Giulio Romano’s Lady at Her Toilet in Moscow, the portraits of Katarina Jabach and Magdalena Offenburg, and (through striking physical evidence) Moretto da Brescia’s Salome who might be Tullia d’Aragona, I do not consistently try to do this.

Hypothetical as some of these identifications necessarily may be, I am astounded that Hope would doubt the courtesan presence in the sixteenth-century experiment called I Modi in which Giulio Romano, Marcantonio Raimondi, and Pietro Aretino participated, the latter naming several well-known courtesans of the day in his verses. Evidently Hope has read my book published in Italy (“I Modi” Nell’ Opera di Giulio Romano, Marcantonio Raimondi, e Conte Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck [Milan: Longanesi, 1984]). While I speculate on whether this might be a visual catalogue of specific Roman courtesans (an idea not to be rejected out-of-hand), I also remark that the sonnets by Aretino below the designs showing sixteen couples in various erotic postures are “the realistic pedestals on which the idealistic engravings rest” (I Modi, page 40).

Of course, these designs by Raphael’s favorite disciple were generalized depictions of beauty. However, who else but courtesans could Giulio have had in mind when, as legend has it, he went to avenge himself on Clement VII by sketching obscenities on the walls of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican? Wives, nuns, widows? Figurae veneris had a long tradition behind them relating to courtesans in the ancient world. Even high-class pornography (literally in Greek “writing about courtesans”) entered into the humanistic revival of antiquity.

Finally, moving from the low to the high style, it is startling that Hope accuses me of neglecting the Petrarchan tradition. I make it quite clear that I consider courtesan poets such as Gaspara Stampa the custodians of the Provençal tradition of love, on which Petrarchism was based. This is a tradition I have studied and published articles about for many years. Nevertheless, it is time to redress the balance and to see the impact, on sixteenth-century Italian culture, of the “realistic” tradition spurred on by Aretino and his cohorts and the various “polygraphs” associated with the Venetian printing presses.

It is the lively tension between these two “ideologies” that intrigues us and gives dynamic impulse to many of these representations seemingly of courtesans. The tensions come to a boiling point precisely in a painting such as The Venus of Urbino, where a very real woman reveals to us her consciousness of playing a hallowed and yet dubious role.2

Charles Hope is welcome to attack my main thesis, which I supposed was controversial. However, I cannot allow him to malign with impunity the courtesans. How insulting to these women not to see them as creating a space for themselves and influencing culture! It is fascinating to find even the prostitute Marcolina (literally “daughter of Venice”), the heroine of a primitive playlet in Venetian La Bulesca, exclaiming joyfully: “Dear Zuana [her cousin], it’s so wonderful/to be one’s own woman, to live in one’s own house,/and not slave in this brothel and in that… /I always had to give Alvise Verzo/three or four lira, but now I keep it all./I don’t have to slice off a third or a fourth.”

Many examples exist of courtesans, real and fictional, proclaiming in far more refined tones their will to be free, and rejoicing in what must have been intermittent but inebriating moments of latitude and choice.

Hope claims that if courtesans were civilized and held high values (he doubts it, in any case), they behaved in this fashion only “because they wished to conform to the image of the perfect mistress created by Renaissance writers on love.” Has he read Veronica Franco’s letters, edited by Benedetto Croce in 1949? It is she who is the teacher and who takes the initiative.

Similarly, he sees courtesans who posed for painters “only doing their duty” by conforming to “the most pervasive and fully realized male images.” By making this statement, he deliberately and provocatively ignores my discussion of the at once profound and playful dialectical relationship between Renaissance artists and models in whom the artists mirrored themselves and from whom they learned how to create an illusion of beauty. Anyone who reads these passages will find me proposing that, in courtesan portraiture, Renaissance art imitates a nature that has already made itself artful; contrary to what my reviewer claims, I never baldly claim that, in that period, “art imitates life.” (On the other hand, one should not discount Renaissance “naturalism,” a theory—as Hope knows—sanctioned by ancient practice.)

Renaissance documents of every kind confirm the fact that courtesans were economically enterprising, often formidable and powerful, and occasionally cultural beacons as well. That is why my reviewer’s way of speaking about them is so objectionable. He refers to the performance of sexual “services.” Even the lowest levels of women (call them whatever you like) made an attempt to conceive of their role in a noble fashion: if they were in the service of anything it was of the god of love.

Whores” indulging in “mercenary love,” using “guiles,” blindly conforming to the wishes of others, permanently disqualified to be the subject of paintings for important patrons3—this is how he talks about women who, instead, studied so carefully how to talk about themselves and lovemaking, and to educate men in a discipline that, alas, has been nearly lost today, at least in Western society.

Cleansing the female nude in Renaissance painting of associations with the courtesan deprives this figure of a further frame of reference. And, as far as portraits are concerned, why does she not have a name if she is such a respectable lady? Why has she come down to us as “Goodlooker” (a deliberately rough translation of Palma’s—and Titian’s—La Bella), or with the name of an ancient courtesan?

And why continue to keep Titian on a pedestal? Letters of the period confirm the fact that the artist used to dine with Angela del Moro, a courtesan who seems to have been involved in some of the raciest episodes of the century, and also had mistresses—albeit rather rustic ones—of his own. Art historians often quote an entry in the inventory of works Rubens possessed recording that there were several courtesans by Titian.

To move on to another point, there are certainly errors, most of them (such as the ones Charles Hope mentions) due to the publishing history of the book. They will soon be corrected in a new edition. As every scholar knows, in a book as wide-ranging as this one there are bound to be mistakes. Indeed, there are two even in the short space of Hope’s review: it was in order to portray Helen of Troy, not Venus, that the Greek painter Zeuxis sought the most beautiful of the Crotonese maidens as models (incidentally, the resulting masterpiece was dubbed Helen the Courtesan); Croton (today Crotone) is not an island but, rather, a city of Magna Graecia on the mainland of Italy on the Gulf of Taranto.

In one case, Hope contrasts his opinion with mine and calls mine an error of fact (when he categorically states that the paintings for Alfonso d’Este are not allegories). As for demographic statistics, may I point out that Paul Larivaille in 1975 already attempted to do away with Delumeau’s reconstructions.

The apparatus of the book might seem, in the narrow context of academic journals and monographs, to be limited. I do apologize if it is occasionally difficult to locate a specific reproduction. It was finally the editor’s decision to distribute the illustrations through the text in what The New York Times called “an exceedingly handsome, well-designed book” and Vogue “one of the most tantalizing art books in years.”

How embarrassing to have to cite these words, but finally I must ask: why should a book on culture not be “entertaining” (Charles Hope’s own word, which he means to be disparaging). If I have achieved this, I feel very pleased. It is also a tribute to Rizzoli that they wanted to publish such a book.

Lynne Lawner

New York City

Charles Hope replies:

Ms. Lawner’s expectation that I might take “a bullying stance” seems to have colored her reading of my review. I do not have “a bias against iconography,” but against certain types of iconographic interpretation for which I nowhere criticize her. In this respect I regard her as an ally, as I tried to make clear. I did not suggest that the investigation of the sexual mores of the past is in any way unhealthy, nor did I imply that Ms. Lawner had overlooked significant literary sources in her research. But it would surely have been patronizing to praise her for using Calmo’s letters, for example, because these have often been cited before in the scholarly literature on courtesans. I did not claim that Ms. Lawner had suggested that women such as Laura dei Dianti “were the same as common prostitutes,” but I did take exception to the explicit statement that she was a courtesan (page 115) and was surprised by the following comment: “It is tempting to ascribe the yellow shawl Laura is wearing to the category of yellow veils courtesans in some cities in Italy were required to wear even into the sixteenth century, but it is unlikely that someone in Laura’s position would have allowed this aspect of her past to be so flagrantly displayed, unless, of course, she had a secret pride in her own ascent” (page 118). Paolo Giovio reports that Laura was a virgin when she became the Duke of Ferrara’s mistress; and I know of no evidence that she was ever promiscuous. Again, Ms. Lawner denies that she described Cecilia Gallerani as a courtesan. But she did say of the famous portrait by Leonardo that “her Spanish costume and ostentatious pet remotely signaled the dangers that lay ahead for the mistress-courtesan” (page 127). If Cecilia was not herself a mistress-courtesan, I cannot understand the relevance of such a comment. The ostentatious pet, incidentally, is an ermine, a very familiar Renaissance symbol of chastity; and for this reason I am slightly surprised by Ms. Lawner’s comments that Cecilia “has all the dignity of the traditional kept woman” and that her “sexuality curled up and coy is yet present” (page 115).

Since readers can judge for themselves whether Ms. Lawner has represented my views accurately, rather than responding to every point in her letter it seems preferable to concentrate here on the real basis of our disagreement, which concerns the nature of the historical evidence about courtesans and the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from this evidence. Almost all Renaissance literature was written by men and for men, or at the very least was based on conventions established by men. Veronica Franco’s letters notwithstanding, this literature tells us much more about the ways in which men chose to see women than about the women themselves. The same is true of visual images, which were again created by men and for men. I do not believe that the evidence provided by Ms. Lawner allows us to conclude that Renaissance artists “learned how to create an illusion of beauty” from courtesans. Indeed, I think that such a conclusion is rather implausible, just as I think it unlikely that it was from Laura that Petrarch learned how to write poetry. Nor can I accept that in Titian’s Venus of Urbino “a very real woman reveals to us her consciousness of playing a hallowed and yet dubious role.” The woman is real only because Titian made her so; the role she plays is one that he gave her; and the reality and the role were meant to appeal to a male customer. My objection to Ms. Lawner’s approach is precisely that she seems to place too little emphasis on this important point.

I am glad to assure her that in my review I had no intention of maligning Renaissance courtesans, some of whom were no doubt remarkable women; and I am grateful to be corrected on the story of Zeuxis and the maids of Croton.

  1. 1

    Hope’s notion that the intellectual exploration of the private sexual life does not begin until the Kinsey report is certainly a curious one. What is one to make of the soul-searching and sometimes quite graphic accounts that come down to us through the ages in biographical and autobiographical writings concerning personalities such as Saint Augustine, Abelard, Rousseau?

  2. 2

    Hope’s resistance to any interpretation of the sources and deeper meaning of Renaissance female portraiture is only what one would expect from a critic who, in his monograph on Titian, limits what he has to say about erotic paintings in Venice in the sixteenth century to two or three dismissive sentences (cf. “But there was also a distinct and more pervasive local tradition of pictures in portrait format of anonymous pretty girls, either clothed or partly nude, which were no more than elaborate pinups” [Titian, page 62]) and who feels a “ressentiment” for what he conceives of as the New York–Princeton School of Iconography.

    In his review of my book, Hope either contradicts himself or is in bad faith, because he attacks me simultaneously for bringing Renaissance erotic art down to earth by seeing it as incarnations of real, mortal women (a move he should have embraced) and for not stressing more the Petrarchan-Neoplatonic elements (an iconographical gesture that, to be consistent, he should have deplored). As a matter of fact, Neoplatonism is brought up several times, most significantly in relation to Titian’s Venus and the Organist in Berlin and his Danae in Naples. Can I not persuade him to see the interplay of the two possibilities?

  3. 3

    Hope’s words: “But there is very little reason to suppose that many patrons wanted portraits of whores.” To cite just one example, Ottaviano Grimaldi of Genoa was to be sent a portrait of himself and a matching one of “a lascivious woman” by Paris Bordone. Who could this woman have been besides a courtesan? Pope-Hennessy, in The Portrait in the Renaissance, claims that Titian’s La Bella (“just a pretty girl,” “mildly erotic,” Hope fudges it in his description) was “the first properly documented case in which a portrait was sold by a painter to a purchaser [Francesco Maria della Rovere] not as a record, but as a work of art.” Why would the great banker Agostino Chigi not have wanted to enshrine the features of his famous Imperia in the frescoes of the Villa Farnesina built for their pleasure? Someone distinguished undoubtedly demanded and paid for the now lost portrait of Veronica Franco by Tintoretto.

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