Pure Poetry #20: Veronica Franco, the Courtesan

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
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While I was living in Florence, Italy, my flamboyantly gay Italian literature teacher introduced me to the Rosie the Riveter of Renaissance Italy: Veronica Franco.

I immediately fell in love. And how could I not, with such tenderly erotic poetry such as this:

Cosi dolce e gustevole divento,
Quando mi trovo in letto,
Da cui amata e gradita mi sento,
Che quel mio piacer vince ogni diletto …

(So sweet and appetizing do I become,
When I find myself in bed,
With he who loves and welcomes me,
That our pleasure surpasses all delight …)
~From my Italian literature class notes, no idea what poem this is.

Like Rosie the Riveter, Veronica Franco became an icon for women to leave the confines of the home and enter the world of men. Unfortunately, in those days the only real way to do so was to become a prostitute.

Renaissance men expected their wives to be pure(ly idiotic), but demanded their mistresses to be well-educated and worldly. With her quick wit and sharp pen, Veronica Franco soon became one of the most sought-after courtesan in Venice and friend and confidant to some of the most powerful men in Europe.

Men fell in love with her and wrote long sonnets about her beauty and intellect. However, Veronica knew better than to fall for their idle words and in this poem demands more from her lover, Marco Vernier, to whom she wrote many beautiful and strong-willed pieces on love:

If I could be convinced by what you show me
In words and face – for both can be a cover
For a fickle heart ¬– that you do truly love;
If what your mind keeps well concealed within you
Could be brought out in open by such actions
By which the other cannot be deceived,
The fear I feel could easily be lifted,
Fear that, if I proceed without full surety
I might be laughed at for a simple fool.
~Terze Rime 2, translated from original Italian by Laura Anna Stortini & Mary Prentice Lillie in Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies & Courtesans

But not everyone loved Veronica Franco. As we all know, men tend to hate uppity women, especially insecure beta males. Take, for example, the schmarmy Maffio Venier, a poet known exclusively these days for talking smack about the talented and unique Veronica Franco.

After Venier was particularly crude and called her “Ver’unica puttana, or “a truly unique whore,” Veronica penned a viciously clever response, my favorite of all of her pieces.

This poem begins with some tongue and cheek banter about the frailty of women and calls out Venier’s “knighthood,” questioning why he would attack her if he be as noble of a knight as he claims:

“Such an attack is the more unexpected
Against us women, who are made by nature,
More than all else, for giving joy to men;
Weak in our bodies, very ill adapted
For doing harm to others, hardly daring
At heart even to defend ourselves.
This fact alone should make you be more careful
And not strike blows so cruel and so bitter
With your own hand upon my naked breast.”

She then takes a sincere turn to discuss how his unprovoked words did hurt and shock her when she first read them, saying:

“I cannot even tell how this can happen,
But that I know that you withdrew your weapon,
Dripping red blood, from my afflicted side.”

However, she quickly moves on and takes a warrior stance, stating proudly that she has taught herself to fight just as a man would but with heart:

“Awakened then as from an idle slumber
I found new courage in averted peril,
Although a woman, born for woman’s work,
And taught my hands to wield an iron weapon –
For women are by nature just as agile
As men, and so I learned to arm myself.
I have put so much industry and labor
Into learning to fight – thank heaven for it! –
That I no longer fear to be attacked.

So now, having regained both power and courage,
I burn to challenge you to field of battle
With a full heart kindled for my revenge.
You think, perhaps, the risk is very little –
Entering in armed conflict with a woman –
But I, although betrayed, announce to you
That for a man to fight against a woman
Brings heavy shame to him, but for the other
Can be a case of great and high import.

She then, most beautifully, goes on to discuss the equality of women to men and encourage other women to take “arms” and answer for themselves as well as men do:

When we are armed and practiced well, we women
Can answer for ourselves as well as men can

But, for a fact, most women do not know this

And, to persuade you that I speak out truly,
I want to be the first of many women
To set a brave example for the rest.”
~All the above from Terze Rime 13, translated from original Italian by Laura Anna Stortini & Mary Prentice Lillie in Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies & Courtesans

Veronica Franco used her poetic talent to break through the sexism and classism of Renaissance Italy and become an honored courtesan, but courtesan she was. Franco encouraged women’s equality to men, but did not encourage other women to join her profession. In fact much of her poetry and prose often addresses what she felt were the horrors of her work.

In response to a friend urging Veronica Franco to help her daughter become a courtesan, Franco warns her that the profession can be devastating:

“[E]ven if Fortune were only benign and favorable to you in this endeavor, this life is such that in any case it would always be wretched. It is such an unhappy thing, and so contrary to human nature, to subject one’s body and activity to such slavery that one is frightened just by the thought of it: to let oneself be prey to many, running the risk of being stripped, robbed, killed, so that one day can take away from you what you have earned with many men in a long time, with so many other dangers of injury and horrible contagious disease: to eat with someone else’s mouth, to sleep with someone else’s eyes, to move according to someone else’s whim, running always toward the inevitable shipwreck of one’s faculties and life. Can there be greater misery than this? … Believe me, among all the misfortunes that can befall a human being in the world, this life is the worst.”

Profile photo of Queerie Bradshaw

Lauren Marie Fleming is Queerie Bradshaw. She loves shoes, social justice and sex. Born a farmer's daughter, she believes everyone deserves a good roll in the hay, and feels empowered by her feminine sexuality. She frequently travels both domestically and abroad, exploring women and wine from all regions. A recent law school graduate, she fights for international rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of good porn. When not studying sex and the law, Lauren Marie Fleming is a freelance writer, speaker and consultant, owner of Creativity Squared, LLC, a digital publishing and consulting company and is Editor-in-Chief of QueerieBradshaw.com, a site for Frisky Feminists and Politiqueers.

Queerie has written 9 articles for us.

7 Comments

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    The first one you quoted is from a untitled poem, which is usually referred to as “Capitolo 2: Franco’s response to Capitolo 1″ Capitolo 1 is a poem by Marco Venier, a former lover of Veronica, who is now married and is trying to convince her (through flattery and praising her beauty) to become his private mistress. In her response, Capitolo 2, Veronica bascially tells him, “I’m not that easy. I’m not going to play second-best to your little wifey. If you want to get with me, shut up and prove your love. If you can do that, then yeah, I’ll rock your fucking world in bed.”

    What’s not to love?

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    Also “hombres necios que acusáis” de Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz:

    Silly, you men-so very adept
    at wrongly faulting womankind,
    not seeing you’re alone to blame
    for faults you plant in woman’s mind.

    After you’ve won by urgent plea
    the right to tarnish her good name,
    you still expect her to behave—
    you, that coaxed her into shame.

    You batter her resistance down
    and then, all righteousness, proclaim
    that feminine frivolity,
    not your persistence, is to blame.

    When it comes to bravely posturing,
    your witlessness must take the prize:
    you’re the child that makes a bogeyman,
    and then recoils in fear and cries.

    Presumptuous beyond belief,
    you’d have the woman you pursue
    be Thais when you’re courting her,
    Lucretia once she falls to you.

    For plain default of common sense,
    could any action be so queer
    as oneself to cloud the mirror,
    then complain that it’s not clear?

    Whether you’re favored or disdained,
    nothing can leave you satisfied.
    You whimper if you’re turned away,
    you sneer if you’ve been gratified.

    With you, no woman can hope to score;
    whichever way, she’s bound to lose;
    spurning you, she’s ungrateful—
    succumbing, you call her lewd.

    Your folly is always the same:
    you apply a single rule
    to the one you accuse of looseness
    and the one you brand as cruel.
    ……
    It’s your persistent entreaties
    that change her from timid to bold.
    Having made her thereby naughty,
    you would have her good as gold.

    So where does the greater guilt lie
    for a passion that should not be:
    with the man who pleads out of baseness
    or the woman debased by his plea?

    Or which is more to be blamed—
    though both will have cause for chagrin:
    the woman who sins for money
    or the man who pays money to sin?

    So why are you men all so stunned
    at the thought you’re all guilty alike?
    Either like them for what you’ve made them
    or make of them what you can like….

    every line is perfect, even the ones I cut out to make it shorter. And this from the 17th century! She had everything figured out! And then they made her promise not to write…

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    Thanks for pointing out this person. I’m always happy when I hear about a non-compliant badass. I thought “Che quel mio piacer vince ogni diletto…” would be “That my pleasure surpasses all delight…” rather than “That our pleasure surpasses all delight…” Then again, I do not remember diddly shit in Italian. In any event, thanks again!

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