Caravaggio’s Whores: The Courtesans of Rome Part II


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Caravaggio portrait by Ottavio Leoni (c. 1621)

Caravaggio portrait by Ottavio Leoni (c. 1621)

Without men there would be no prostitutes.

I’m starting this entry with a portrait of a man, the painter Caravaggio. And without Caravaggio, we would know nothing about these women.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio after the small town in Northern Italy where he grew up, was a prototypical bad boy, as I wrote in a story first published by Dream of Italy in April 2015. A rebel artist with a tortured personal life who lived in Rome from 1592 to 1606, Caravaggio created paintings unlike any that had been seen before: Dark, moody and startlingly naturalistic, he painted as he lived—in the most dramatic and risky fashion.

Andrew Graham-Dixon's fantastic 2011 biography.

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s fantastic 2011 biography.

Today, his reputation and life story lives on through his work, which is still revered in museums around the globe, and through movies, biographies, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2011 best-seller, and novels, like the engrossing A Name in Blood by Matt Rees, that capture the agony and ecstasy of the artist’s life.

In the 1500s, art was focused on glorifying the stories of the Bible and the saints. Like many artists in the late 1500s and early 1600s, Caravaggio often hired prostitutes to pose for his paintings. But unlike most artists who used the women’s features to paint works that conformed to the religious or moral expectations of the day, and conveyed a kind of ethereal beauty, Caravaggio took that tradition and brought in an element of realism that freaked out the establishment.

A traditional Italian insult

A traditional Italian insult

The Italians thought, essentially, that he was biting his finger at those traditions—a terrible insult.

His paintings do depict the expected stories and Biblical scenes, but he painted the Virgin Mary with the face of a known prostitute, or with a little too much cleavage for comfort. He dared to portray the Virgin as a realistic, normal woman, and even show her bare feet! Horrors. As writer Tiffany Parks ( told me, “He had to know what the reaction was going to be, but it was like he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t sell out.” Caravaggio wanted to show the truth and his truth often involved Roman prostitutes.

Who were Caravaggio’s prostitutes?

Fillide, at about 17, by Caravaggio (1597). She holds a sprig of Jasmine, a symbol of erotic love.

Portrait of a Courtesan, with Fillide, at about 17, by Caravaggio (1597). She holds a sprig of Jasmine, a symbol of erotic love.

Fillide Melandroni became a well-known courtesan, sought after by the elite. Anna Bianchini dreamed of such success but her life came to a tragic end. There were others, too, like Maddalena Antognetti, known as Lena, who likely worked as a prostitute in Piazza Navona and may have been Caravaggio’s lover at the time of his exile, but I’ll save her for a later post.

In Rome, street walkers often got rounded up,
whipped or tortured as the authorities tried to convince
them to change their wicked ways.

Fillide and Anna were both born in Siena, and they met as young girls when they were moving to Rome under similar circumstances. Both of their fathers had died, leaving the families in dire financial straights. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s stellar biography, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Fillide traveled with her mother and brother to Rome where her aunt worked as a waitress in a tavern. Sharing the carriage to Rome with the Melandronis were members of the Bianchini family—mother Sibilla, and her three children, including daughter Anna, who was the same age as Fillide.

You might imagine the girls sizing each other up during the cramped ride to Rome, but quickly realizing how much they had in common as their mothers talked about their shared misfortune and what awaited them in the city. The two families found lodging together, and before long the mothers “put their daughters to work as prostitutes,” writes Graham-Dixon. Anna and Fillide were about 13 years old.

Continue reading

Bernini’s Torrid Love Life


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Self-portrait of a young Bernini

Self-portrait of a young Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini had a raucous love life. Judging by his self-portraits in the Galleria Borghese, he was a dark eyed, intensely handsome guy, with a wide forehead and a full shock of dark hair. (And if his body is anything like his reportedly self-modeled David, then…enough said.)

As an artist he was intense, with a quick temper, and that fervor spilled over into his personal life when, in the mid-1630s, he took up with Costanza Bonarelli, the young, buxom wife of his collaborator Matteo Bonarelli. Bernini captured her earthy looks in a bust that can be seen in Florence’s Bargello Museum.

Costanza Bonarelli bust by Bernini

Costanza Bonarelli bust by Bernini

Before long, the love triangle became a square: Bernini’s younger brother Luigi started sleeping with Costanza as well. When Bernini discovered his half-dressed lover kissing his brother, “Bernini went berserk,” Franco Mormando writes in Bernini, His Life and His Rome. The artist chased his brother through Rome with his sword drawn, intent on fratricide. Even more shocking, he sent one of his servants to slash Costanza’s face with a razor. According to Mormando “in Baroque Rome it was a common, conventional public ritual of revenge…carried out by men upon their faithless lovers.”

In the end, however, Costanza’s marriage survived, Luigi fled Rome for about a year and Bernini was let off the hook by Pope Urban VIII but told in no uncertain terms to find a wife, which he did: the beautiful, respectable, 22-year-old Caterina Tezio. They were married for 34 years and had 11 children. —Lisa Chambers

(This story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.)

The Courtesans of Rome: Part I


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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, 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!