The central character in Margaret King’s book is a high official of the Venetian Republic who passed himself off as a military commander. The subject of Margaret Rosenthal’s book is a beautiful Venetian courtesan who wanted to be thought of as virtuous and cultured. Separated by a century, the lives of Jacopo Antonio Marcello (1398–c.1464) and Veronica Franco (1546–1591) had two things in common: they both lived when Venice was at the height of its splendor and they both wished to seem other than they were. Both the official and the courtesan tried to use literature to construct a new image of themselves. Marcello hired professional writers to celebrate, in fine manuscript Latin, the hero he would like to have been; Franco wrote about herself in the fresh vernacular that had recently taken over from Latin as the language of modern Italian culture, and she had her work published.

Constructed like a detective story, King’s book follows up every available clue to construct a portrait of a unique and enigmatic character. Not only, as it turns out, did Jacopo Marcello distort the facts to present himself as superior to his actual position in the Venetian Republic, but he also showed himself to be genuinely different from his contemporaries when he had to deal with life and death in his own family.

King’s inquiry starts with the story of Jacopo Antonio’s eight-year-old son, Valerio, who died on January 1, 1461, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Infant mortality of course was extremely high and the loss of a young child was a common event, seldom seen as important in the history of a fifteenth-century family. Moreover, Valerio was neither an only son nor the firstborn, and several of his brothers were alive to pass on the family name. But Jacopo Antonio reacted to the child’s death in a completely unexpected fashion. In a culture that considered tears a sign of weakness incompatible with manly dignity and believed that mourning beyond the appropriate period was a threat to public order, Marcello caused a scandal by flaunting his desperation over the loss of his son. “I disintegrate in sorrow,” he said, and he decided to immortalize his grief in an extraordinary book, whose manuscript is now owned by the library of the University of Glasgow. Though never completed with the illustrations planned for it, the book, King writes, includes “fifteen works by fourteen authors—letters, a poem, consolatory treatises, history, eulogy, and apology”—and it is “perhaps the largest and most richly textured of the funerary collections of the Renaissance.”

The Glasgow manuscript appears at first to be a solemn funeral commemoration produced by writers in honor of an exceptional child, at once handsome, intelligent, virtuous, and courageous. Valerio seems to have had an unusually close relationship with his father, while for his part Jacopo Antonio tended to see himself reflected in his son; he thought he saw in the boy’s features the promise of a new and glorious future for his family. The Glasgow manuscript is not just a memorial to a dead child. It can also be seen as a triumphal monument that Jacopo Antonio erected to his own glory, in violation of the accepted rules of Venetian decorum. It was, moreover, a borrowed and trumped-up glory, and King devotes some fascinating pages to showing the discrepancy between the man and the image that he tried to project.

During Marcello’s lifetime, Venice was engaged in a series of expansionist wars during which Padua, Vicenza, and Verona all came under the rule of the Republic and a thirty-year struggle took place with Milan for the control of Lombardy. Having been primarily a maritime power until the end of the fourteenth century, Venice was now attempting to become a major political player on the complex chessboard of the Italian peninsula. Marcello devoted much of his active life to these military campaigns, and had an important part in some of the battles with Milan. It was, however, a very different part from the one he claimed.

The Venetian Republic usually entrusted the command of its land-based armies to foreign mercenaries. It did not want to give any of its own citizens the chance to usurp the powers jealously guarded by the Venetian oligarchy. But in order to assess the ability of its generals and to oversee their strategic decisions, the Republic appointed a special category of officials—provveditori—to work alongside them. These were Venetians, usually of noble birth, who were supposed to verify the reports of the mercenaries and act as consultants on military organization among other matters. An “adviser rather than a fighter,” a provveditore was an important figure, but he never commanded troops in the field. Marcello served as provveditore for many years and was the first Venetian to make a career of being one, instead of alternating the job with other public offices as was the custom.


Marcello’s real ambition was to be a military commander—a fighter, not an adviser. He thus posed as a fighter, disregarding both the reality of his situation and the code of “understatement and reserve” that prevailed in Venice, with its insistence that the nobleman’s first concern be “for the city, not for himself.” Nor was Marcello satisfied with moving from his palazzo on the Grand Canal to a castle in Monselice, where he lived like a warrior prince, surrounded by armed soldiers. To show the world he was a fighting soldier, history had to be rewritten, and Marcello hired a team of humanists to do exactly that.

By 1450, before the Glasgow manuscript was written, he commissioned a number of writers, the humanist and pedagogue Guarino Veronese, and the poets Janus Pannonius and Giovanni Michele Alberto Carrara, to compose panegyrics celebrating the high points in his career. These were particularly the courageous defense of Casalmaggiore against the troops of Filippo Maria Visconti (1438), the lifting by the Venetians of the siege of Brescia and the subsequent strategic retreat from Brescia to Verona (1438), the transfer, in the following year, of the Venetian fleet from the River Adige to Lake Garda, and the second glorious battle for Casalmaggiore—all important engagements in the long war between Milan and Venice.

In the panegyrics, Marcellus is said to have had the strength of “a second Hercules” and the valor of a Roman. Portrayed as a latter day “Roman general”—he claimed to be a descendant of Marcus Claudius Marcellus—with the audacity of Hannibal, and the cunning of Xerxes, he emerges as the one and only hero and commander of the Venetian army. Many of these victories were in fact brought about by the commander in chief of the Republic, the famous Gattamelata, or by the other commanders Marcello had worked with as provveditore. “The reports of Marcello’s career,” King writes,

were more literary fabrications than histories built on eyewitness reports. They range from exaggeration to wholesale misrepresentation. The accounts of that nobleman’s deeds offered by humanists, genealogists and inscriptions alike do not square with the story told by the chroniclers.

It is in the Glasgow manuscript, however, that Marcello’s plan for self-glorification is most meticulously laid out. Ten of the fifteen sections on the young Valerio’s death refer to the father’s military career; all of them mention the same battles, use the same metaphors, and draw on the same historical and mythological parallels. “The continuity among the panegyrics.” King observes, “is so strong as to posit the existence of a ‘fact sheet,’ a kind of press release, from Marcello’s immediate circle, used by all subsequent authors.” It was in trying to reconstruct such a fact sheet that King was able to identify the humanist sources of Marcello’s heroic fantasies.

Among the texts that could have influenced Marcello’s hired eulogists, King makes much of the dedication to him that opens Guarino’s translation from the Greek into Latin of the Greek historian Strabo’s Geography, written in the first century BC. Strabo’s work was important for the understanding of the ancient world, and the translation, begun in 1453, had the patronage of Pope Nicholas V. The project was going to be shelved when the Pope died, but Marcello stepped in to finance it. Guarino’s dedication mentions his military success, fitting in with Marcello’s strategy to show himself as a military commander, but it also portrays Marcello as a humanist and patron of the arts, a man of letters interested in the classical world and able to produce extraordinary books. The copy of the Guarino translation which Marcello had prepared for King René d’Anjou, the pretender to the Neapolitan throne, is considered, King tells us, “one of the supreme accomplishments of the Quattrocento in the sphere of the book.”

But Strabo’s Geography was not the first literary gift the noble Venetian had sent René. In 1452 Marcello had given him the Latin translation of a legend entitled De sacerdotio Jesu Christi, and in 1453 he had sent him a Vita di San Maurizio—the patron-saint of the house of Anjou. The second of these books included a miniature portrait—probably by Andrea Mantegna—of Marcello himself. Marcello had thus managed to insert a very modern sort of message in an obscure medieval hagiography. As King writes in her fascinating reconstruction, “the portrait bust in stark profile [was] executed at an era when only great men were so depicted.” It prefigured the epoch-making portrait, “painted in 1474–1475 by the master Piero della Francesca, of that most beloved of the condottieri princes and patrons, Francesco da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.” In images as well as in words, Marcello created a picture of himself driven not so much by megalomania as by the Renaissance belief in the importance of the individual. No longer identified with the collective destiny of family, city, and society, this modern person was at last, in Leon Battista Alberti’s famous words, “faber fortunae suae“—the maker of his own fortune.


Inspired by a humanist culture and very much ahead of their time, Marcello’s aspirations were bound to collide with the political realities of the mid-fifteenth century, thus forcing him once again to seek refuge in art and literature. Approaching his fiftieth year, he probably realized that he had no more than a modest place in the political and military machine of the Venetian Republic, which demanded that he sacrifice his personal inclinations to the shifting interests of the state. He had to give up his friendship with the two people he most admired, the learned and chivalrous René d’Anjou, and the great military commander Carlo Ludovico Sforza, both former allies and now enemies of Venice. From the 1450s on, “the adventures that preoccupied Marcello were literary.” While continuing to serve the Venetian Republic, he no longer had any illusions about his military career. The provveditore became a patron of the arts, a collector and publisher, and he gathered around him a small circle of scholars, entrusting them, among other things, with the task of reconstructing the story of his life in a way that would satisfy his dreams and ambitions.

This new turn in his career coincided with the birth of his son Valerio, so that the child’s sudden death eight years later “attacked the very center of the newly enriched spiritual life that the aging soldier had experienced.” In refusing to accept the death of his child, Marcello was again acting as a rebel and a man ahead of his time. That he rejected the usual formulas of consolation when his son died and instead commissioned the Glasgow manuscript shows, King writes, “his defiance of the psychological limits imposed by classical, by Christian, and contemporary moral thought” and makes him “one of the firstborn sons of the modern world.”

Thanks to Margaret King’s book, Jacopo Antonio Marcello is getting his wish. With erudition and a strong gift for narrative, she follows virtually every possible line of inquiry to reveal Marcello’s character and pretensions. She draws on political and military history to interpret, in the light of the humanist culture, the considerable literary production Marcello inspired. In doing so she reveals much about Venetian social conventions and the ways that literary ambition and patronage could be used to defy them.

During the century that separates Marcello’s career from that of the courtesan Veronica Franco, the way of life of the Venetian elite deeply changed. Still celebrating on occasion the virtues of heroes and warriors, literature in the Italian vernacular was, by the mid-sixteenth century, much more widely read and had become a powerful cultural force. It had become more concerned with beauty and hedonism, and was more open to women, both as readers and as writers. The presence of women in public life, however, was still extremely controversial and disguised in highly ambiguous formulas. The coining of the expression, “the honest courtesan,” which Rosenthal takes for her title, is a case in point and a highly instructive one.

In Italian, “courtesan” (cortigiana) is merely the feminine of the word for courtier (cortigiano). But the word hardly ever occurs in Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528), the great work on courtly behavior that served as a model for members of the European nobility and other elites. Castiglione describes as “ladies of the palace” the women who, with their beauty, grace, and conversation, did much to transform the amusements of the small court of Urbino into works of art. The word “cortigiana” had already taken on a sexual meaning that would have been out of place in the utopian court Castiglione envisaged, and to use it would have been out of the question. With very few exceptions, the only women in Renaissance Italian society who were allowed to make a public display of their physical and intellectual qualities were prostitutes. The closer a prostitute, through her refinement, culture, and elegance, came to the ideal of the “lady of the palace” as described by Castiglione, the further she would be from being seen as a common whore; she could instead claim to be a member of the superior social category of “honest courtesans.”

In the end the only substantial difference between the “lady of the palace” and the “honest courtesan” was that the former could play at love so long as she did not physically engage in it, while the latter, in bringing love down to earth, was free to make whatever use of her body and mind she wished. For the men of the Renaissance, who spoke of the “honest courtesan,” the word “honest” did not mean “morally virtuous,” but “honored,” “respected.” The adjective was used to acknowledge the courtesan’s ability to please, thanks to her beauty, culture, and good manners, and to distinguish the more cultivated and successful prostitutes from the rest. We get a sense of the social and official recognition of such “honest courtesans” in the Renaissance from the dedications of their books of poetry and belles-lettres to nobles, princes, and prelates. Tullia d’Aragona dedicated her Rime to the Duchess of Florence and her dialogue of the Infinità dell’amore to the Duchess’s husband, Cosimo de’Medici; Veronica Franco dedicated her Terze rime to the Duke of Mantua and her Lettere (“Letters”) to the cardinal Luigi d’Este, while Gaspara Stampa dedicated her collection of lyrics to Monsignor Giovanni della Casa.1

Prostitution flourished in Venice, and was more tolerated there than anywhere else in Italy. A series of public decrees had failed to curb the open display and dazzling style of the courtesans but they were not merely a tourist attraction, proof of the pleasures and liberties the Republic could afford. In a society in which the rising cost of dowries led people to marry later, they also offered an outlet for male sexuality. Prostitution became an illicit way of defending the legitimate world of the family and the chastity of spouses and daughters. It was also an underground economy that gave work to girls from poor families while bringing large sums of money to the state since the Venetian Republic taxed the earnings of prostitutes.

Pietro Aretino wrote in his famous Ragionamenti that, for the more successful prostitutes, eroticism could not be entirely separated from the display of culture; by his standards Veronica Franco was the “honest courtesan” par excellence. She combined feminine seduction and literary ambition, and won the admiration of her contemporaries. Two episodes testify to her success. Passing through Venice in 1574, Henry III of Valois chose to skip the grandiose public celebrations organized in his honor in order to spend the night with her, a meeting that a recent historian calls “the most famous example of the complex and regular mixing of high and low that was possible in this area of the illicit world.”2 Six years later, Veronica, hearing that Michel de Montaigne was visiting Venice, sent him a small book entitled Lettere familiari a diversi (“Familiar Letters to Diverse Persons”) by Signora Veronica Franco. Montaigne made a note of the gift in his journal.3

Veronica Franco is an exceptional example of how a woman could succeed in maintaining a delicate equilibrium between the illicit and the tolerated, between “sin” and “virtue,” transgression and social conformity; as such she is a promising subject for those engaged in women’s studies, and there is a renewed interest in her life and in her writings.4 Margaret F. Rosenthal draws on “the tools of materialist, feminist and social historians,” as she puts it, in attempting a new portrait of the courtesan writer.

Taking issue with those who have seen Franco’s writings as primarily autobiographical, Rosenthal proposes an entirely different reading. In her view, Franco followed a carefully planned literary strategy, and she wrote her poetry and prose with a precise objective in mind. She wanted, in Rosenthal’s view, to revise the actual story of her life and to construct a new image of herself, a “rhetorical persona” that would redeem her inferior position as a woman and a courtesan.

We do not know why Veronica Franco, a woman from a bourgeois background, chose to become a prostitute. Her mother had been engaged in the same profession, but she had provided her daughter with a dowry, thus putting her in a position to find a husband. Franco probably made her decision by the time she was nineteen years old, since her name appeared in the Catalogo di tutte le principali et più honorate cortigiane di Venezia, published in 1565. Nor do we know what kind of education she had, though from 1570 on she took part in the important literary circle that had formed around Domenico Venier; this is probably what gave Veronica a chance to refine her taste and find her way as a writer. Erudite, a fashionable poet, and a true gentleman, Domenico Venier (1517–1582),5 was Veronica’s literary Pygmalion. He encouraged her to write and edited the work she gave him, leaving her free to choose the forms she found most congenial.

In her Terze rime, Franco thus did not follow Domenico Venier’s Petrarchan example, choosing instead a metrical form which is rarely used in love lyrics and had previously been considered more suitable for satirical and moralizing poetry along the lines of Ariosto’s epistles. She organized her poems in twenty-five “chapters” of differing lengths, writing at least nineteen herself; it is not certain who wrote the others. In the first part of the book Franco’s chapters alternate more or less regularly with those of her suitor (probably Marco Venier, Domenico’s nephew), resembling in this an old Provençal form, though in Franco’s use of the technique she achieves a genuine dialogue between distinct voices.

By turning away from the Petrarchan sonnet, Franco freed herself from a highly codified poetic tradition which was by now a prisoner of its traditional images and metaphors, and for which she substituted a form that was at once simpler and more direct. More important still, in choosing terza rima, a metrical form different from the sonnet, she also refused to accept the Petrarchan concept of love with its insistence on sublimation and renunciation.6 Veronica Franco, writes Rosenthal, “rejects an idolatrous poetic discourse that insists on exalting the woman as a disembodied object of male praise.” For the author of Terze rime love means joy, pleasure, and the gift of oneself: it is a relationship between equals, to be engaged in with loyalty and frankness. “The poetic elegiac mode,” Rosenthal observes, “allowed her to align herself with truthfulness and honesty in love relationships,” implicitly rejecting the “traditional notion of the free and unfaithful courtesan who loves more than one man.”

Franco’s defense of her dignity and profession would become more explicit, however, when she responded to the biting attacks of Maffio Venier, another of Domenico’s nephews. In two violent and vulgar satirical pieces written in the Venetian vernacular, Maffio made use of the entire repertory of misogynist insults against prostitutes: “Veronica, ver unica puttana, / Franca, ‘idest’ furba, fina, fiappa e frola, / E muffa e magra e marza e poi mariola…” (“Veronica, veritably unique whore. Franca, id est (i.e.) foxy, flighty, flimsy, flabby, smelly, scrawny, scrimpy, and the biggest scoundrel besides…”)

In chapter 13 of the Terze rime, and above all in chapter 16, Franco counterattacks vigorously. To Maffio’s cowardly behavior and indecent prose she responds with frankness, courage, and literary skill. Speaking on behalf of her sex as much as of herself, she does not repudiate her profession but celebrates it as making possible a serene hedonism based on beauty, kindness, and pleasure: “Data è dal Ciel la feminil bellezza, / Perch’ella sia felicitate in terra / Di qualunque huom conosce gentilezza” (“Female beauty is heaven sent / So long as it becomes happiness on earth / for any man who knows kindness”).

The hedonistic ideal that marks Terze rime was not merely utopian. In the lines she wrote in memory of her stay at a villa in Fumane, Franco conceived of a higher form of love, enriched by feelings of friendship: (“In amicizia il folle amor trasformo…” “Into friendship I transform mad love….”). She wrote this while the guest in the house of a noble and cultured man, and describes herself as being in a setting of great natural and artistic beauty. The poetry she wrote at Fumane, Rosenthal writes, suggests the possibility “of the kind of harmonious balance between the sexes that she had only imagined was possible in other capitoli in her Terze rime.”

In the Terze rime she defends the dignity, propriety, and sincerity of the courtesan’s experience of erotic love—“Così dolce e gustevole divento, / quando mi trovo con persona in letto, / da cui amata e gradita mi sento, / che quel mio piacer vince ogni diletto” (“So sweet and palatable I become, / when I find myself in bed with someone, / who I feel loves and appreciates me, / that my pleasure is beyond all delight”). Later, in her short book Familiar Letters, Franco put forward her idea of the private and public virtues. She used the fashionable epistolary form, publishing imaginary letters written in the vernacular, not in Latin, with a view to publication.7 In letter after letter, she constructed a portrait of her own moral and intellectual qualities, in which literary and social interests are combined with sentimental and romantic reflection; she is thus able to present herself as truly “honest” without ever having to repudiate her profession. It is a self-image, Rosenthal writes, based on the humanist concept of “virtù“: “The honest courtesan’s capital…is acquired by “honest” means alone, that is, through intellectual and literary projects.”

Letter 22 presents a good example of her thinking. Writing to another courtesan, Franco advises her not to encourage her daughter to take up the profession. Rather than a denunciation of the horrors of prostitution or a statement of conversion, this letter, as Rosenthal sees it, amounts to an attack on the “ideological assumptions that have forced an innocent young woman and her mother into a morally compromising situation.” Women, Franco was saying, were in a particularly vulnerable position, and Venice did not keep its promises of liberty and justice in its treatment of them.

Rosenthal is meticulous in reconstructing the stylistic and literary precedents that may have influenced Franco’s writing. She is clearly familiar with the complexity of the cultural scene in late Renaissance Italy and with Venice’s special position as the principal center for publishing. Sometimes, however, she cannot resist giving her personal interpretation of events with an assertiveness that seems excessive.

One of the book’s main arguments, for example, is based on a suggestive but somewhat forced parallel between “cortigiano” and “cortigiana“—courtier and courtesan. “Much like the behavior of courtiers,” Rosenthal writes, “Franco’s texts were appeals for social connection and public recognition.” Since Venice, unlike many other states, did not in fact have a royal court, one must presume that Rosenthal here uses the term loosely, in order to show that both Franco and professional courtiers were struggling to establish a position in society. But surely there is more to Franco’s writing than that. It is worth recalling that in the second half of the sixteenth century, with the rise of Italian as the common language, the boom in publishing, and the popularity of literature among the well-to-do, writing letters and poetry had become a high society game, one that Franco, quite apart from any “rhetorical project,” might have been drawn to, partly out of convention and partly for amusement. Franco could well have taken up writing less as a means of getting social recognition than as a way of conforming to, and sharing, the habits and style of the literary coterie that had welcomed her with open arms and with which she was eager to feel entirely at home.

As for Maffio Venier’s attacks on courtesans in general and Veronica in particular, are we really to suppose, as Rosenthal does, that they were dictated by male envy and fear of female competition for public esteem and patronage? Maffio did not have the easiest of careers in the service of the Pope and the Medici, but it seems far-fetched to compare his eventual investiture as a bishop with the literary successes of a courtesan.8 And quite apart from the exact reasons for Maffio’s nastiness toward Veronica, wouldn’t it have been useful to recall that literature directed against prostitutes had always been peculiarly virulent and misogynist; as such it can be seen as the underside of the Petrarchan idealization of women. Like his father Lorenzo before him, Maffio9 had already shown considerable talent in adapting the genre that scorned prostitution to the Venetian vernacular. He did so in a style that flaunted a taste for the obscene, the repellent, and the abject; he would not have needed to be irritated by the success of a particular courtesan in order to unleash his venomous attack.

Rosenthal writes that she intends as a literary historian to follow the example of Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg in reading “documents and literary texts together” and concentrating “on the textuality of archival documents.” Rosenthal then argues that Franco’s work and the relevant documents show the coherent steps she took to carry out her main goal, which was, in Rosenthal’s view, to enter “into a territory of rhetorical casuistry, public debate, and self-defense traditionally forbidden to Renaissance women.” This approach is interesting but the results are disappointing. Thus when Franco was denounced to the Inquisition for performing sacrilegious rites and engaging in immoral activities, the records of her interrogation show that in defending herself she responded fully and directly to the questions put to her by the judges. The wit she demonstrated before a court that was by no means hostile to her is hardly to be interpreted as a step in the rhetorical construction of herself that Rosenthal sees at work in the literary games of the Terze rime.

Benedetto Croce, according to Rosenthal, read Franco’s letters and poems as “the confessions of a repentant magdalen,” but this is both untrue and inconsistent with Croce’s view of her. Croce pointed out in one of his essays on Franco that while Catholic hagiographers maintained exactly such a view, he himself found it unacceptable.10 To suggest that Croce was “shortsighted” and read Franco’s letters as “mere autobiographical records” betrays a deep misunderstanding of his writings and literary theories. As Croce saw it, literature and poetry are never straightforward transcriptions of reality; nor can they ever be reduced to merely biographical or autobiographical documents. Rather, they derive from and testify to the spirit of a past culture or phase of civilization. Seen from this point of view, Franco’s writings have much to tell us about Italian culture, and it is for this reason that Croce had Franco’s letters published, after more than three centuries of neglect.11 He was convinced that Franco “truly embodies a particular manifestation of the Renaissance spirit,”12 in her rejection of medieval asceticism, and her sense of the value of earthly life and in the “energy of individuality” that Jacob Burckhardt speaks of. That spirit is what Franco shares with Jacopo Antonio Marcello.13

The position of courtesan, Croce writes, was widely accepted, and it did not prevent Franco from “living another life of probity, wisdom and cultivation of both beauty and the intellect.” In his view, she deserves a place in the history of Italian literature because “she knew how to speak of herself truthfully, and to achieve, more or less, the ideal she had formed of herself.” Rosenthal is, of course, entitled to disagree with this view, but she should not misrepresent the critical literature on Franco in doing so.

Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

This Issue

April 6, 1995