The Honest Courtesan

Veronica Franco, Citizen & Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

by Margaret F. Rosenthal
University of Chicago Press

Review by Cathleen Myers

As the book’s cover tantalizingly observes, the book was "The basis for the movie Dangerous Beauty." Colorful and romantic as the film is, the real story of Courtesan-Poet Veronica Franco is far more fascinating. Rosenthal’s beautifully documented literary biography is full of excerpts from Veronica’s own poems, essays and letters and we get to hear a great deal of Veronica talking in her own voice. Rosenthal brings alive the world of the Venetian courtesan, who were often highly educated women of letters far removed from common prostitutes. For dowerless girls of education and ambition, the courtesan’s profession was the only means of rising in the world (since both respectable marriage and the convent required dowries). While Veronica achieved both social and financial success in her profession and admiration for her published poetry, the downside of the courtesan’s life is very clearly portrayed in the book (with quotations from Veronica herself) and her two harrowing trials for heresy and witchcraft before the Inquisition are fully described (with a complete trial transcript included). Once again truth is stranger than fiction: Unlike the film version, in which Veronica’s defense is managed primarily by her powerful male protectors, in the historical trials, Veronica ably defended herself.

For a really up close look at Veronica, don’t miss her Poems and Selected Letters, edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal (University of Chicago Press), including the original Italian text of the poems, side by side with the English translations. Included in the collection are her famous poetic duel with a rival male poet (probably Maffio Venier) - dramatized in the film as a literal duel with sword and verse - and the famous letter (also dramatized in the film) in which she dissuades a friend from making her daughter a courtesan. You’ll find yourself reading her Italian terza rima in no time, so good are the translations. And her letters (reproduced in English only) reveal more sides of her character than the movie even attempted to: Her feminism, her shrewdness in business, her wit and her awesome erudition.

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