The Courtesans

Women’s Wear Daily “W” magazine Anniversary Issue, July 27-Aug 3 1987

The Courtesans

The fearsome Medici may have locked Florence in their iron grip, but they in turn were disarmed by the feverish embraces of the city’s courtesans, a demimonde of redoubtable cultural and political power, according to historian Lynne Lawner.

“These women’s lives are filled with a swashbuckling quality and a passion that made them alive,’ says Lawner, who spent 15 years in Italy studying them for her Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance (Rizzoli International). “There was a cult of erotic passion at the time that had been developing for centuries, and the courtesans made themselves custodians of it.  There was a very brutal side to Renaissance life—rapes, internecine warfare of the Italian states, civil strife—and I think some of the men’s relationships with women were very crude.  But there was this concept of rebirth through beauty and love of knowledge, love of form, of the human body, proportion and symmetry.  I believe a great deal of that entered into relationships between men and women, suffused with fantasies of the ideal.”

Propelling the modern imagination over the distance of such idealized ardor is a task eased by Lawner’s sensuous detail: In her jewel-box setting, the courtesan and her lover lay on silk sheets, the pillowcases “embroidered with gold and silver thread and decorated with pearls and jewels…every empty surface was piled with brocade, velvet, and satin cushions.” A volume of Petrarch as well as other works would be prominently displayed.

“It was above all in the boudoir that the courtesan had the responsibility of exciting the senses and plunging her visitor into an irresistible atmosphere of luxury and sensual pleasure.” Lawner goes in her book: “Beds were inlaid or painted, sometimes with scenes from mythology or romances, and satin canopies billowed over them.  The ceiling of the room could be decorated with appropriately lascivious depictions…”

The point Lawner makes is that the senses and the intellect fused in a unique, incendiary moment.

“Our society doesn’t encourage that kind of synthesis,” says a regretful Lawner, an intellectual siren who admits to having been drawn “not to the cloistered or ladylike types” but to a more flamboyant, expansive type, women who lived as well as wrote” (as many of them did).  “The emphasis is on production—making things, making money.  Here, love is a commodity; then there’s the Mayflower Madam’s managerial side of love.

“There’s no romance, idealism, spirituality,” she continues. “We have to go back and study the history of love.  There are many lessons to be learned.  It’s a disciplined; it leads to unexpected pleasures.”

Lawner, a Fulbright scholar, says she struggled to shimmy down from the ivory tower with her looks, brains and emotions intact. The lure for the academic—“those of us who love books, love libraries, love archives”—is to burrow, to never come out to see the daylight.

“But I was vain enough as a woman, interested in love and people,” says Lawner, who claims she does identify to a limited extent with the Renaissance courtesans.  One of the most outstanding of Lawner’s subjects is Beatrice of Ferrara, the probable sitter for Raphael’s “Fornarina”, mistress of the infamous dissolute Lorenzo de Medici, the subject of an anonymous poem extolling “a neck of snow-white alabaster” and “secret parts” that “are even more beautiful,” and reported model for I Modi, the uncompromisingly graphic Renaissance sex-manual.

“I wouldn‘t call them feminists in any way,” she says, “but no one more than they were aware of the pitfalls and extraordinary possibilities of advancing themselves in a world of men.  They were among the first modern women to be supporting themselves who had independent spirits.  What distinguished the most prominent of the honest courtesans—as opposed to the legions of street prostitutes—is that they chose their lovers.  And the lovers had to live up to certain standards, or they’d be dropped

So they instituted taste,” she continues.  They were didactic: there was nothing crude or crass about them.  They were dressed in the most lavish materials—they were the showcases for the Venetian republic.  And these women were so powerful that they could influence the courts to send noblemen to jail.”

And just how adroit were they in bed?

“Well, we have evidence that very delicate complex emotions were felt.  From Gaspara Stampa’s poetry,” she continues, “referring to the famed Venetian courtesan, “we have beauty, and evidence that something in the human heart was felt and expressed.  We have ardor…we have burning.”

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