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Courtesans, by Giovanni Cariani

Four Courtesans and Three Gentlemen, by Giovanni Cariani (1519)

Courtesans! I’ve been waiting for the right moment to write about them and the time has finally arrived! I was super excited when a friend, Barbara Kaminska (an English-speaking tour guide in Rome) told me about a tour offered by storytellingrome.com, on courtesans in the Eternal City. What juicy fun! I couldn’t wait to go, and it was so worth the €20.

Led by Massimo de Fillipis, the three-hour tour introduced us to seven Roman courtesans who were the lovers of artists, emperors and, yes, popes. Massimo really did his homework, so many thanks to him for a lot of this information.

Saint or Sinner

Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. Good girl or bad. These labels are as old as time and in Renaissance and Baroque Rome, home of the Mother Church, they pretty much summed up the “career” options open to women. You had three choices:

  1. Botticelli's Virgin and Child.

    Botticelli’s Virgin and Child.

    Saint: A woman could be a good girl who obeyed her parents and got married to whomever her father picked, regardless of how young she was (Lucrezia Borgia was married off when she was about 13, Olimpia Pamphili’s granddaughter was horrified to be forced into marriage at 12—she had her first baby at 13) or how old, fat or ugly the prospective groom. Usually the marriage allowed the family to expand their business, power, or gave them a leg up in society. At that point, the girl’s job was to pop out a bunch of kids to keep the family name going.

  2. SuperSaint: If the woman’s family couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for a dowry so she could marry, many daughters entered convents—some were forced to join—and remained virgins locked away for the rest of their lives (although some nunneries became hotbeds of illicit affairs, which is a whole other blog entry).
  3. Card Players by Wouter Pietersz. Crabeth (1594-95)

    Card Players by Wouter Pietersz. Crabeth (1594-95)

    Sinner: Lastly, a woman could enter the world’s oldest profession, either as a street walker or, if she were lucky (or educated, with rich sponsors/clients), she could become a courtesan.

Prior to the 15th century in Italy the term “courtesan” was used exclusively to describe a woman who lived at a royal court—it wasn’t a negative word, but simply meant “woman courtier.” Merriam-Webster dictionary puts the first known usage at 1533.

Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI

But my tour guide Massimo says that in 1490, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI in 1492, went to an aristocrat’s house party where a group of sexy girls were dancing for the esteemed guests. The seductive dancers mesmerized the wily Spaniard, who’d had several children with his mistress Vannozza (one of the women Massimo talks about and whom I’ll write about in part II). Struggling to come up with a way to describe the dancers and the erotic spell they cast, he applauded and said they were lovely…courtesans. And a new definition—and role for women—was born.

One-fifth of the population of Rome survived through prostitution!

Courtesans were the aristocrats of prostitution. The women were often well-educated, versed on the politics of the day, and like the carefully trained Japanese Geisha, they were able to converse knowledgeably with the men who populated the highest levels of society—kings, emperors, ambassadors and noblemen.

Catherine McCormack in the film Dangerous Beauty, about a Venetian courtesan and poet. The film shows the education and training courtesans went through to become the most sought-after.

Catherine McCormack in the film Dangerous Beauty, about Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco. The film shows the training courtesans went through to become the most sought-after women.

By the 1500s, about 50,000 people lived in Rome and 7,000 of them worked legally as courtesans. That means that one-fifth of the population of Rome survived through prostitution! And it’s no wonder why so many women might be interested in taking up the life: According to Massimo, a top courtesan could earn the equivalent of $20,000 a day.

Gerard van Honthorst painting, in the Caravaggio style.

Gerard van Honthorst painting in the Caravaggio style.

And while the Church cracked down violently on common street-walkers, they needed the courtesans to entertain the high-level guests who arrived in Rome. So courtesans were legalized, registered in the tax records as prostitutes, and taxed on their income.

St. Peter's Dome

St. Peter’s Dome

It sounds too ironic to believe, but Massimo insists the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica—the crown jewel of the Mother Church, designed by Michelangelo—was funded by the prostitution tax. Ah, Rome!

The common, everyday street-walker probably didn’t fork over the taxes, but she paid in other ways. Like through arrest and torture. Street hookers, of which there were many in Rome, were often poor girls, many were desperate and forced into the life to support their families. Some hoped to get lucky enough to meet a rich man who would fall in love with them, or offer them protection so that they could get “promoted” to courtesan level. Considering most prostitutes—even some courtesans—lived only to be 25 years old, many didn’t achieve their goals.

And those unlucky enough to remain on the streets were often arrested and flogged for their sins, or even had their hands tied behind their back and hung by them until their arms dislocated and they promised to take up a new profession.

A former courtesan's house that still stands in Rome. (It's now a restaurant and piano bar.)

A former courtesan’s house that still stands in Rome. (It’s now a restaurant and piano bar.)

Of course, most had no other recourse and returned to the streets—if they survived the torture. Even many convents wouldn’t take in prostitutes who wanted to reform or escape their sad existence.

But while successful courtesans often lived in opulent houses (with huge balconies where they could show themselves off to prospective clients) and could afford to wear elegant clothing—or received their clothing from bountiful patrons—common prostitutes weren’t as well dressed.



To figure out if a woman on the street was a prostitute, all you needed to do was check out her shoes. A woman in clogs indicated a common whore. And Massimo says that even today it’s a great insult to call a woman in Rome a “zoccola”—“zoccolo” means clog.

Regardless of whether a prostitute was at the bottom or top of the food chain, many of them also worked as models for artists at the time. Two of the courtesans—or in this case, common prostitutes—that Massimo talked about modeled for Caravaggio. In fact prostitutes were among his favorite models. He may have worked as a pimp for some.

The two women he painted were struggling prostitutes who’d been forced into the life to support their families, but they became famous as models for the shocking, rules-breaking rebel Caravaggio, who dared to use prostitutes as models for the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and even used the corpse of one of them to depict the Virgin Mary’s death. But that’s a whole other blog entry….

Death of the Virgin (detail), by Caravaggio (1605-06)

Death of the Virgin (detail), by Caravaggio (1605-06)

To be continued!