Five hundred years ago, Venice was one of the wealthiest cities in the world — and it was Europe's capital for Renaissance harlots. In Venice, courtesans not only earned a fortune, but they were also revered as intellectuals. Women like Veronica Franco and Tullia d'Aragona published poems and books, gaining a reputation across the continent. They rubbed shoulders with royalty, sat for portraits with the most famous artists of the Renaissance, and they often lived in luxury. And their fashion, including 2-foot-tall platform shoes, inspired noblewomen to imitate their style.
But life wasn't always easy for courtesans. They were accused of witchcraft and arrested for breaking frivolous laws. Courtesans were never supposed to cross social boundaries, and when one aristocrat married a courtesan, the people of Venice revolted and threw the woman in jail. While Renaissance Venice legalized pleasure work and tried to protect courtesans by discouraging pimps and encouraging matrons, the city's high-end women of the night still faced challenges.
Renaissance Venice was one of the most influential cities in the Mediterranean region, proclaiming dominance over the seas. Venetians established colonies around the Mediterranean and built a vast empire on the Italian peninsula. Wealth poured into the city, and it became a crossroads for European trade.
And Venice, home to 150,000 people in the 16th century, also counted among its population 20,000 "workers" — meaning that one in four women in Venice was in the profession. The practice was legal in Renaissance Venice, and the taxes from the trade helped fuel the city's expansion.
Some courtesans could afford lavish homes. In the 16th century, courtesan Julia Lombardo lived in a three-bedroom apartment that also boasted a reception room and study. Lombardo owned rugs, purses, shoes, gloves, and 64 camisoles. Courtesans were also fashion trendsetters, donning pearls and platform shoes, and wearing dresses that exposed their breasts.
These styles caught on with Venetian noblewomen, who imitated the expensive, luxurious look of the courtesans. In spite of sumptuary laws that outlawed excessive pearls and costly fabrics sewn with gold or silver, women were willing to risk arrest to dress like a courtesan.
In 1358, just a decade after the Black Plague destroyed Venice's population, the city legalized the "oldest profession." Even the church agreed it was a "necessary evil" because it would reduce the number of attacks on women.
Venetian laws both protected women in the business and restricted them from society. For example, Venetian bordellos were run by women to ensure the safety of employees. But the law also restricted them to practice in specific districts, and the women had to wear a yellow scarf at all times.
The law also prohibited the women from attending church on feast days, and they were not allowed to wear luxury items like jewels, silk, or gold.
Venice's courtesans often associated with artists like Tintoretto and Caravaggio. Tintoretto painted Veronica Franco's portrait, and Caravaggio used courtesans as models — even for religious paintings. In his depiction of St. Catherine, commissioned by a cardinal, Caravaggio painted Fillide Melandroni, a courtesan, as the saint. She also posed for Caravaggio's Portrait of a Courtesan, stood in for Mary Magdalene, and acted out Judith slaying Holofernes.
Melandroni was apparently more than just a model for the artist. In 1606, Caravaggio allegedly slayed Ranuccio Tomassoni, who historians believe was Melandroni's pimp.