Brazen beauty – the life and art of Veronica Franco

by Barbara Maria Rathbone

“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.”

Veronica Franco (1546–1591), was a 16th century Venetian courtesan and poet and in part inspiration for Pellegrina, a character in my Venetian set novel and for whom this blog is named. She lived an extraordinary life as a cortigiana onesta –  a high-class Venetian courtesan who was well- educated and versed in the art of poetic and courtly love as well as physical pleasures.  Veronica is named as one of the most celebrated of them in the Catalogo di tutte le principale et piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia, a sort of guidebook for wealthy men seeking to indulge in the ars amoris of Venice, which contained the names and addresses of the finest courtesans in the Serene Republic. Married as a teenager, when the marriage failed Veronica was left in precarious circumstances, not least in fear of destitution, so she decided to seek her fortune and destiny in order to support herself and her child as cortegiana onesti could do very well for themselves and were held in high esteem in Venetian society.

However, it was an ambivalent role and women as intelligent and beautiful as Veronica, holding court in the sovereign echelons of Venetian patrician society and with incredible access to those in power (indeed she was courted by and had a passionate liason with Henry III of France) were prone to be treated with suspicion by the authorities, and Veronica was defamed  by the notorious Venetian inquisition for witchcraft, for which, due in part to her patrician connections, she was eventually cleared.  Furthermore, Veronica not content with being just an adornment in high chopines, also wrote and published her own poems and letters, works as powerful and spirited as any of those by Petrarch or Boccaccio, as well as those of other writers and founded a charity to support courtesans and their children.  Veronica’s portrait was painted by several distinguished artists, such as Tintoretto and Veronese.

Capitolo 13

(a playful challenge to a lover:)

No more words! To deeds, to the battlefield, to arms!
For, resolved to die, I want to free myself
from such merciless mistreatment.
Should I call this a challenge? I do not know,
since I am responding to a provocation;
but why should we duel over words?
If you like, I will say that you challenged me;
if not, I challenge you; I’ll take any route,
and any opportunity suits me equally well.
Yours be the choice of place or of arms,
and I will make whatever choice remains;
rather, let both be your decision….

Come here, and, full of most wicked desire,
braced stiff for your sinister task,
bring with daring hand a piercing blade.
Whatever weapon you hand over to me,
I will gladly take, especially if it is sharp
and sturdy and also quick to wound.
Let all armor be stripped from your naked breast,
so that, unshielded and exposed to blows,
it may reveal the valor it harbours within.
Let no one else intervene in this match,
let it be limited to the two of use alone,
behind closed doors, with all seconds sent away….

To take revenge for your unfair attack,
I’d fall upon you, and in daring combat,
as you too caught fire defending yourself,
I would die with you, felled by the same blow.
O empty hopes, over which cruel fate
forces me to weep forever!
But hold firm, my strong, undaunted heart,
and with that felon’s final destruction,
avenge your thousand deaths with his one.
Then end your agony with the same blade…..

Capitolo 21

(on an absent lover…)

I said: “My heart, if my own weapons
do this to me, what will those do
with which cruel fortune pierces me?”
If I myself feel, having fled far from my love,
that pain closes in on me ever more,
that my leaving brings it closer to me,
I must surely have taken medicine opposed
to my languid state and to my heart’s raving,
which sends me down a miserable path…..

“Such,” I say, “is my love’s handsome face,
where heaven bestowed all of its gifts,
and nature most reveals her perfection.”
Then when I see through the dark night
so many stars light up in the sky,
Love, who is with me, assures me and swears
that those lights in the sky, fair and everlasting,
are not as numerous as the virtues of the man
who ruthlessly tears the soul from my breast.
And to make my days even sadder and darker,
far from my light, I always carry alive in my heart
the burning sun from which I once caught fire,
to whom, weeping and sighing, I write……..