Renaissance Venetian society recognized two different classes of courtesans: the cortigiana onesta, the intellectual courtesan, and the cortigiana di lume, lower-class prostitutes who tended to live and practise their trade near the Rialto Bridge. Veronica Franco was perhaps the most celebrated member of the former category, although she was hardly the only onesta in 16th-century Venice who could boast of a fine education and considerable literary and artistic accomplishments.
The daughter of another cortigiana onesta, Franco learned the art at a young age from her mother and was trained to use her natural assets and abilities to achieve a financially beneficial marriage. While still in her teens, Franco married a wealthy physician, but the union ended badly. In order to support herself, Franco turned to serving as a cortigiana to wealthy men. She quickly rose through the ranks to consort with some of the leading notables of her day and even had a brief liaison with Henry III, King of France. Franco was listed as one of the foremost courtesans of Venice in Il Catalogo di tutte le principale et piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia.
A well-educated woman, Veronica Franco wrote two volumes of poetry: Terze rime in 1575 and Lettere familiari a diversi in 1580. She published books of letters and collected the works of other leading writers into anthologies. Successful in her two lines of work, Franco also founded a charity for courtesans and their children.
In 1575, during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city, Veronica Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. On her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity in an Inquisition for witchcraft trial (a common complaint lodged against courtesans in those days). The charges were dropped.
There is evidence that her connections among the Venetian nobility helped in her acquittal. Her later life is largely obscure, though surviving records suggest that although she won her freedom, she lost all of her material goods and wealth. Eventually, her last major benefactor died and left her with no financial support. Although her fate is largely uncertain, she is believed to have died in relative poverty.
Veronica Franco was born in Venice into a family who were native-born citizens with hereditary rights. As a professional caste, the cittadini originari made up the Venetian government bureaucracy and the religious confraternities. The daughter of a courtesan, Paola Fracassa, Franco learned the profession of the honored courtesan (cortigiana onesta) by the mid- to late1560s. Married to Paolo Panizza, a doctor, in an arranged union in the early 1560s, Franco separated from him soon after as her wills of 1564 and 1570 attest because she requests her dowry to be returned to her. She bore six children from different men, but only three survived beyond infancy. For most of her life she supported herself and a large household of children, tutors, and servants.
Franco was the only daughter among the family's three sons. Her intellectual life began with sharing her brothers' education by private tutors. She became involved in the 1570s with Domenico Venier's renowned literary salon in Venice. Venier served as a literary adviser not only to male writers but also to many women poets of the Veneto region. Franco was a frequent visitor to Ca' Venier, his private palace. There she exchanged her capitoli in terza rima with male poets, and received sonnet commissions for anthologies she assembled to commemorate men of the Venetian elite, such as the military hero, Estore Martinengo. In 1575 she published a volume of her own poetry, the Terze rime. There are 25 poems, but only 17 are by Franco. The others are by Marco Venier or an unidentified male author. Her poems represent and transform her life as a courtesan. As an honored courtesan she lived quite splendidly; she played music (the lute and the spinet), was well versed in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome as well as of the present, and mingled with thinkers, artists, politicians and poets. The poems advertise these accomplishments and raise her above less educated women selling sex. Her engagement with male patrons is dramatized in her capitoli as she always addresses her poems to a specific man from whom she requests a response. Franco is also openly erotic, even sexually explicit From her first poem, she celebrates her sexual expertise as a courtesan and promises to satisfy her interlocutor's desires. Her frankness of speech and the specific situations she dramatizes also challenge the idealizing clichés of Petrarchan love poetry. In her poems and letters, she undermines the traditional portrayal of the female beloved as a silent, distant, cruel and unattainable woman. She insists on engagement and dialogue, and capitoli 13 and 16 are combative and polemical. In capitolo 16, she writes a fierce and persuasive response to three obscene poems written against her in Venetian dialect by Marco Venier's cousin, Maffio Venier. She defends herself against Maffio's attempts to humiliate her in public. She also defends all women who are verbally or physically abused by male attackers. In capitoli 3, 17 and 20 she echoes the rhetoric, themes, figures of speech, and characters of the Latin elegists, Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid. In these capitoli, she speaks, however, in the woman's voice about the destructive powers of longing, desire and jealousy and the frustration of self-enforced exile. Owing to their epistolary format, these poems most closely resemble Ovid's Heroides and Epistulae ex Ponto.
Franco's fifty Familiar Letters were published in 1580 in Venice. The first is written to Henry III, King of France and the twenty first to Jacopo Tintoretto, the Venetian painter, thanking him for the portrait he did of her. The letters display the courtesan's many skills and they have great biographical value. They show her in a range of daily activities -- playing music, sitting for a portrait, making a dinner for friends, asking for a loan of a wheelchair, engaged in literary projects. They also comment on the events and situations represented in her capitoli. In many letters, she portrays herself as a moralist, giving advice to patrician male friends and to a mother thinking of making her daughter into a courtesan. Her familiar letters, intended for publication, allow Franco to shift her private life into the public sphere; they permitted her to comment in print on the behavior of men and to insist on the courtesan's virtue, reason, wisdom and fairness. Even though her letters firmly established her reputation as a courtesan to the elite, Franco was brought to the Inquisition courts in 1580 by her son's tutor, Ridolfo Vannitelli, on charges of having practiced magical incantations in her home. Her own defense, the help of Domenico Venier, and the predisposition of the Inquisitor freed her from the charges. But this began a downward spiral as her reputation was irreparably damaged. She was also severely impoverished by the plague years of 1575-77 in which she lost many of her valuable possessions through theft, and her faithful patron and friend of many years, Domenico Venier, died in 1582. Her tax declaration of 1582 stated that she was living in a section of the city where many destitute prostitutes ended their lives. Her death at forty-five ended a life that had included a decade of sumptuous wealth but also many difficulties, dangers, and losses.