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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.