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The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

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The Venetian courtesan has long captured the imagination as a female symbol of sexual license, elegance, beauty, and unruliness. What then to make of the cortigiana onesta—the honest courtesan who recast virtue as intellectual integrity and offered wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life? Veronica Franco (1546–1591) was such a woman, a writer The Venetian courtesan has long captured the imagination as a female symbol of sexual license, elegance, beauty, and unruliness. What then to make of the cortigiana onesta—the honest courtesan who recast virtue as intellectual integrity and offered wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life? Veronica Franco (1546–1591) was such a woman, a writer and citizen of Venice, whose published poems and familiar letters offer rich testimony to the complexity of the honest courtesan's position. Margaret F. Rosenthal draws a compelling portrait of Veronica Franco in her cultural, social, and economic world. Rosenthal reveals in Franco's writing a passionate support of defenseless women, strong convictions about inequality, and, in the eroticized language of her epistolary verses, the seductive political nature of all poetic contests. It is Veronica Franco's insight into the power conflicts between men and women—and her awareness of the threat she posed to her male contemporaries—that makes her literary works and her dealings with Venetian intellectuals so pertinent today. Combining the resources of biography, history, literary theory, and cultural criticism, this sophisticated interdisciplinary work presents an eloquent and often moving account of one woman's life as an act of self-creation and as a complex response to social forces and cultural conditions. "A book . . . pleasurably redolent of Venice in the 16th-century. Rosenthal gives a vivid sense of a world of salons and coteries, of intricate networks of family and patronage, and of literary exchanges both intellectual and erotic." —Helen Hackett, Times Higher Education Supplement The Honest Courtesan is the basis for the film Dangerous Beauty (1998) directed by Marshall Herskovitz. (The film was re-titled The Honest Courtesan for release in the UK and Europe in 1999.)


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The Venetian courtesan has long captured the imagination as a female symbol of sexual license, elegance, beauty, and unruliness. What then to make of the cortigiana onesta—the honest courtesan who recast virtue as intellectual integrity and offered wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life? Veronica Franco (1546–1591) was such a woman, a writer The Venetian courtesan has long captured the imagination as a female symbol of sexual license, elegance, beauty, and unruliness. What then to make of the cortigiana onesta—the honest courtesan who recast virtue as intellectual integrity and offered wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life? Veronica Franco (1546–1591) was such a woman, a writer and citizen of Venice, whose published poems and familiar letters offer rich testimony to the complexity of the honest courtesan's position. Margaret F. Rosenthal draws a compelling portrait of Veronica Franco in her cultural, social, and economic world. Rosenthal reveals in Franco's writing a passionate support of defenseless women, strong convictions about inequality, and, in the eroticized language of her epistolary verses, the seductive political nature of all poetic contests. It is Veronica Franco's insight into the power conflicts between men and women—and her awareness of the threat she posed to her male contemporaries—that makes her literary works and her dealings with Venetian intellectuals so pertinent today. Combining the resources of biography, history, literary theory, and cultural criticism, this sophisticated interdisciplinary work presents an eloquent and often moving account of one woman's life as an act of self-creation and as a complex response to social forces and cultural conditions. "A book . . . pleasurably redolent of Venice in the 16th-century. Rosenthal gives a vivid sense of a world of salons and coteries, of intricate networks of family and patronage, and of literary exchanges both intellectual and erotic." —Helen Hackett, Times Higher Education Supplement The Honest Courtesan is the basis for the film Dangerous Beauty (1998) directed by Marshall Herskovitz. (The film was re-titled The Honest Courtesan for release in the UK and Europe in 1999.)

30 review for The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lesliemae

    I like reading anything that supports empowering women in difficult scenarios. Rosenthal tracks the life of Veronica Franco (portrayed in pop-culture in the movie Dangerous Beauty). Franco born into an economically struggling family, her mother worked as a prostitute/courtesan, and trains her daughter in the trade. While this sounds horrific, you really have to understand that during the Renaissance women were severely limited in education, role (mother or nun), and intellectual capacity (Aristo I like reading anything that supports empowering women in difficult scenarios. Rosenthal tracks the life of Veronica Franco (portrayed in pop-culture in the movie Dangerous Beauty). Franco born into an economically struggling family, her mother worked as a prostitute/courtesan, and trains her daughter in the trade. While this sounds horrific, you really have to understand that during the Renaissance women were severely limited in education, role (mother or nun), and intellectual capacity (Aristotle basically convinced the male population that women had smaller brains and were useless at education beyond arts, crafts, and morality). To be a courtesan opened doors intellectually (Franco published two books), publically (courtesans had access to the intellectual and political milieu's unavailable to those stay at home mom's), and verbally (silence was not a necessity). Franco marketed herself successfully, educated herself through private tutors and later in the literary salons of Domenico Venier. Her literary skills garnered the attention of the Republic who hired her to entertain Henri III of France while he was on a pitstop in Venice before assuming the French throne. Her life was lived in wealth, agency, and with a sense of identity. However, she was of course hated by all citizens openly. Aye, there's the rub. and...after the plague swept through in the late 16th century denounced with other luxuries that sent God's plague upon the Venetians. She was a pariah, excommunicated, tried in the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft, routinely abused in print, and generally left to fend for herself in a hostile environment. She died poor, but at least she lived better than most Renaissance women for a time.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    Veronica Franco, beautiful Venetian courtesan and accomplished poet, may be best known as Catherine McCormack's character in the film Dangerous Beauty. However, the real woman was far more provocative, challenging and engaging than anything the film could imagine. Rosenthal takes a wide view and places Franco within her historical, cultural, literary and economic milieu with breathless ease and fine judgement. Not a biography, although it does include biographical elements (such as they can be re Veronica Franco, beautiful Venetian courtesan and accomplished poet, may be best known as Catherine McCormack's character in the film Dangerous Beauty. However, the real woman was far more provocative, challenging and engaging than anything the film could imagine. Rosenthal takes a wide view and places Franco within her historical, cultural, literary and economic milieu with breathless ease and fine judgement. Not a biography, although it does include biographical elements (such as they can be retrieved), not a book of literary criticism, not a history book, it combines elements of all these to give us a three-dimensional view not just of Franco but of the possibility for Venetian women to subvert the rules and pressures of Venetian patriarchy. Although this does contain examples of Franco's writings, it would be best read alongside the collection edited by Rosenthal: Poems and Selected Letters (Other Voice in Early Modern Europe). Franco is a fascinating woman, and Rosenthal does a fine job of making her accessible to a non-Italian speaking audience.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Huston

    A very good, if somewhat dry, biography about Veronica Franco, a courtesan of sixteenth century Venice. Not for everyone. The poetry is gorgeous, though, and very moving. This was turned into the movie Dangerous Beauty. Five stars.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ubiquitousbastard

    This book was utterly dry and kind of a chore to read. I am a fan of nonfiction, but that doesn't mean it has to feel like you're reading a dispassionate, technical description of everything about the topic. I didn't like the overly scholarly language, I didn't like the way that quotes were introduced repetitively, and I didn't like the huge chunks of Italian right in the text. If I were bilingual in Italian, it wouldn't have bugged me, but seeing as I know about ten words in Italian, it made me This book was utterly dry and kind of a chore to read. I am a fan of nonfiction, but that doesn't mean it has to feel like you're reading a dispassionate, technical description of everything about the topic. I didn't like the overly scholarly language, I didn't like the way that quotes were introduced repetitively, and I didn't like the huge chunks of Italian right in the text. If I were bilingual in Italian, it wouldn't have bugged me, but seeing as I know about ten words in Italian, it made me just have to completely skip over huge amounts of text to get to the English translation. Such things would have done better in the back of the monograph. The subject matter seemed interesting, but I never go very involved in Franco's life even though there were references to her poems and letters. I never connected with her as a real person instead of a historical figure. I blame this entirely on the author's presentation and not anything wrong with Franco herself. So, I'm interested in the topic and did learn a few things, but really this book could have been written more accessibly.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sayletta

    I also saw the movie on Netflix called dangerous beauty. OMG THIS WAS EXCELLENT. This was the love story of all love stories. He never quit would have death do us part for her. If you love love you’ll love this. I recommend it so you can rate it yourself. Every book is not going to be liked by everyone. But this was just plain fantastic and suspenseful.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Amalie

    I read this book back in 2008? I don't remember but I know I read it, perhaps only a quick read and it was my first book on Feminism and I remember it to be a very dull one to read and too scholarly for casual reading. So this is not a book I highly recommend to everyone. But should check out "Poems and Selected Letters" by Veronica Franco. I'm planning to. I recently watched the the movie version based on the book just to see the accuracy and- Oh well. It's the same story. Veronica Franco in th I read this book back in 2008? I don't remember but I know I read it, perhaps only a quick read and it was my first book on Feminism and I remember it to be a very dull one to read and too scholarly for casual reading. So this is not a book I highly recommend to everyone. But should check out "Poems and Selected Letters" by Veronica Franco. I'm planning to. I recently watched the the movie version based on the book just to see the accuracy and- Oh well. It's the same story. Veronica Franco in the movie differs in so many ways from the real woman. Veronica Franco was a scholar, a skillful poet and of course, a courtesan in 16th century Venice. She belonged to cortigiana onesta means she is an intellectual courtesan, perhaps the most celebrated member of the category other than Mata Hari. So yes, basically she was a well-paid prostitute but reading her shows that she was much more, perhaps a very first feminist, her choice of work must not shadow the fact that she was a woman of courage and freedom. I mean what a woman to do to make her own way and survive once the husband is dead, a time in which education was denied to women. "When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow." —Veronica Franco

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    This book is very dense, but is very well written. Rosenthal is able to create a biography of Veronica Franco by introducing Franco's literary works, her actions, and the impact she had on the restrictive patriarchal society in which she lived. I am very glad I got to know Franco as well as I did and grateful for Margaret Rosenthal's excellent telling of her story. This book is very dense, but is very well written. Rosenthal is able to create a biography of Veronica Franco by introducing Franco's literary works, her actions, and the impact she had on the restrictive patriarchal society in which she lived. I am very glad I got to know Franco as well as I did and grateful for Margaret Rosenthal's excellent telling of her story.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sylvia Torres

    a literary delight thus far..

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nelson

    A valuable but frustrating book. Rosenthal has done terrific work recovering the context surrounding Veronica Franco, a courtesan poetess of the late 16th century in Venice. Unfortunately, it kind of falls between two stools, wanting to be both a biography and a literary study. In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a coherent narrative of Franco's life on the basis of this work. To be sure, key events (her being hauled before the Inquisition, her legal and testamentary disputes, her A valuable but frustrating book. Rosenthal has done terrific work recovering the context surrounding Veronica Franco, a courtesan poetess of the late 16th century in Venice. Unfortunately, it kind of falls between two stools, wanting to be both a biography and a literary study. In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a coherent narrative of Franco's life on the basis of this work. To be sure, key events (her being hauled before the Inquisition, her legal and testamentary disputes, her poetic duels) are recounted here with a rather high degree of meticulousness. But that very precision makes it terribly difficult to get a wider angle view on the life as a whole. Perhaps that finally isn't Rosenthal's aim. In any case, the immersion in poetic mores of this period in Venice is quite deep. Helpfully, Rosenthal translates _all_ of the Italian she quotes, so non-speakers or -readers need not be put off by that. However, general readers will be. It never settles down into a clear biographical format nor are there very many end- or beginning-of chapter summaries that place all the contextual material into the broader framework of the life. This book will be most valuable to those who plan to read the letters and poems; indeed, Rosenthal's close contextual readings here are where the book is at its most useful. The very complete bibliography is also extremely useful for scholars, but not so much for the general reader.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Marsha

    Set in La Serenissima, I was prepared for a sweeping epic about this enigmatic, decadent slice of Italy. There are intriguiing moments, to be sure. I never knew Venice is festooned with two dual images of the female: the Virgin Mary (signaling the miracle of a city that seems to float on water) and Venus at her moment of rising from the waves. Although sacred and profane, both encompass visions of spotless purity, for this was the moment was Venus was a virgin maid, before she gave herself to di Set in La Serenissima, I was prepared for a sweeping epic about this enigmatic, decadent slice of Italy. There are intriguiing moments, to be sure. I never knew Venice is festooned with two dual images of the female: the Virgin Mary (signaling the miracle of a city that seems to float on water) and Venus at her moment of rising from the waves. Although sacred and profane, both encompass visions of spotless purity, for this was the moment was Venus was a virgin maid, before she gave herself to divine and mortal lovers. But this look at Veronica Franco, one of the famed courtesans who held sway at court and knew the patronage of powerful men, gets bogged down in exhaustive details about her two wills; trials made against her by spiteful neighbors, envious courtiers and thieving servants and seemingly endless dissections of her personal letters and poetry. It's true that we get the image of a learned, intelligent woman who used her education and wit beyond the confines of a boudoir. Yet with so much of it mired in technical minutiae, this is one very dry literary tome indeed. There are also many passages and snippets of Italian scattered through it. Even with translations, this makes for slow slogging for the English reader. All i all, only bilingual readers or dedicated scholars could delight in this book. For me, this was 255 pages that felt like a thousand.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Norma

    "Safe now, I remember the danger of when, through your eyes and handsome face, Love held out to me its burning torch, and intent on wounding me in a thousand ways, he had gathered the flames of my fire even from the river of your eloquence." Well analised, gives a deep account of what meant to be a prostitute and a courtesan in Venice and what Veronica had to live through and how she was different and also the same as the others. Her poetry is beautiful and explains a lot of what she felt at the "Safe now, I remember the danger of when, through your eyes and handsome face, Love held out to me its burning torch, and intent on wounding me in a thousand ways, he had gathered the flames of my fire even from the river of your eloquence." Well analised, gives a deep account of what meant to be a prostitute and a courtesan in Venice and what Veronica had to live through and how she was different and also the same as the others. Her poetry is beautiful and explains a lot of what she felt at the time.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    This book is extensively researched, with 100 pages of notes plus a bibliography. However, this is not a biography but more of an analysis of Franco's work and times. I wished it had talked more about her life and those of the people around her, though I realize her biography is scant. It is a bit confusing if her main volume of poetry is autobiographical or not. In addition, the appendices included are in Italian only. I would recommend this for scholars or those already familiar with her work. This book is extensively researched, with 100 pages of notes plus a bibliography. However, this is not a biography but more of an analysis of Franco's work and times. I wished it had talked more about her life and those of the people around her, though I realize her biography is scant. It is a bit confusing if her main volume of poetry is autobiographical or not. In addition, the appendices included are in Italian only. I would recommend this for scholars or those already familiar with her work. I feel like I should have read her works first, then this book.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Craig Monson

    The go-to study of a sixteenth-century "great woman," eminently readable and informative, eventually turned into a hawribble movie The go-to study of a sixteenth-century "great woman," eminently readable and informative, eventually turned into a hawribble movie

  14. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    I read this book a couple of years ago.It still thrills! The essence of the "TRUE" story centers around the Venetian Courtesan (cortigiana onesta)aka_"The Honest Courtesan" Veronica Franco(1546-1591).We all know "what the oldest profession" is_since it's been around since the beginning of time.However,Franco was a woman before her time & the Laws that governed what women can and can not do,regardless of profession.She was a citizen of Venice whose published poems and rich letters give testimony I read this book a couple of years ago.It still thrills! The essence of the "TRUE" story centers around the Venetian Courtesan (cortigiana onesta)aka_"The Honest Courtesan" Veronica Franco(1546-1591).We all know "what the oldest profession" is_since it's been around since the beginning of time.However,Franco was a woman before her time & the Laws that governed what women can and can not do,regardless of profession.She was a citizen of Venice whose published poems and rich letters give testimony to her complexity.The honest courtesan recast virtue as an intellectual integrity,offering wit and refinement in return for patronage and a place in public life.Franco was an avid supporter of defenseless women,had strong convictions about inequality and wrote in the eroticized language of her epistolary verses,the seductive political nature of all poetic contests.Franco was insightful enough to know that her power posed a threat to her male contemporaries and more often than not _many of her clients. Even more fascinating was the movie on DVD cld."Dangerous Beauty" tells the sensuous story of Veronica Franco..played by Catherine McCormack.When she was deemed a woman of Witchcraft,she may pay a price_BUT the Inquisition will show that the mighty Church Authorities were really some of her CLIENTS!All based on the book "The Honest Courtesan". A REAL DELICIOUS MEAL WITH THE DESSERT BEING THE WHOLE STORY!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jeanine

    I have mixed feelings on how to rate this book. The book is well organized and the selected pieces of writing along with their translations are lovely. This book, however, feels like it was written by a 9th grader. There are awkward paraphrases that precede the presented writing that are essentially the same words. She bores you with blah passive structure and sentences that say "Interestingly," Calling it dry is being almost too polite. Yet the content keeps the reader engaged, so go figure. If I have mixed feelings on how to rate this book. The book is well organized and the selected pieces of writing along with their translations are lovely. This book, however, feels like it was written by a 9th grader. There are awkward paraphrases that precede the presented writing that are essentially the same words. She bores you with blah passive structure and sentences that say "Interestingly," Calling it dry is being almost too polite. Yet the content keeps the reader engaged, so go figure. If you can get past the section where Rosenthal describes the wills, you can get through this book and enjoy it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Koe

    I could never get very far into this book. I'm a big fan of history even history that's rather dry. This book though goes a step beyond ordinary dryness and bores even me. I suspect if I already had a much better understanding of Veronica Franco and her time I'd find the book much more interesting. I could never get very far into this book. I'm a big fan of history even history that's rather dry. This book though goes a step beyond ordinary dryness and bores even me. I suspect if I already had a much better understanding of Veronica Franco and her time I'd find the book much more interesting.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    Read this one years ago- but I'm planning on re-reading it since it's really non-fiction and there's so much info that needs refreshing. I'm interested in understanding her poetry in more depth. Bit of a heavy read -but incredibly interesting. I also don't have the review for it..so good incentive as well. Read this one years ago- but I'm planning on re-reading it since it's really non-fiction and there's so much info that needs refreshing. I'm interested in understanding her poetry in more depth. Bit of a heavy read -but incredibly interesting. I also don't have the review for it..so good incentive as well.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kate Lowell

    It was an interesting book, but a bit dry. More of a scholarly tome--which is what it is--than something that is meant to paint a vivid picture of the person. Overall, it had interesting and useful information, and I was able to piece together some of the implied information from the text rather easily.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    While I found Franco's life and poetry fascinating, Rosenthal tends to wander a bit in the discussion of external subject matter. A half dozen pages on the evolution of Venetian poetry to explain why she wrote a particular poem the way she did seems like overkill. I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get my point. Overall, this is a really interesting read about an equally interesting woman. While I found Franco's life and poetry fascinating, Rosenthal tends to wander a bit in the discussion of external subject matter. A half dozen pages on the evolution of Venetian poetry to explain why she wrote a particular poem the way she did seems like overkill. I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get my point. Overall, this is a really interesting read about an equally interesting woman.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Vyff

    I had seen the movie Dangerous Beauty, then heard about the book. Reading it, the customs and the times--fascinated me, it was sad to hear an outcome not at all as 'Hollywood' as the movie, quite humbling--and helped me grow as a person. Veronio Franco is still a hero.... I had seen the movie Dangerous Beauty, then heard about the book. Reading it, the customs and the times--fascinated me, it was sad to hear an outcome not at all as 'Hollywood' as the movie, quite humbling--and helped me grow as a person. Veronio Franco is still a hero....

  21. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    i have to be in the right mind set to read this, text like style book. right now, i need books to take me to another plain, where i can escape for a few hours in to the fantastical. sso far it is very informative, but just a revisit me type of book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    This book was just very hard to get through. It should be read more for the history of wars and civil battles of the time than for the life of Veronica Franco.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anne Marshall

    A lot dryer than I expected - not enough biographical or anecdotal information. Veronica Franco's letters and poems were very well written. A lot dryer than I expected - not enough biographical or anecdotal information. Veronica Franco's letters and poems were very well written.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tracy

    I first fell in love with the movie Dangerous Beauty. So when I came upon this book I had to get it. I love the story of Veronica Franco - and the history.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Momo

    Movie based in part on this piece of work entitled Dangerous Beauty. Saw the film first, was intrigued as to who Veronica Franco was, and read the book. Amazingly sultry stuff!!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lafang

    Much as I loved Dangerous Beauty (the movie) I found this history a bit tough going. It IS worth reading, and yes indeed, Hollywood did gloss over and falsify the end of Veronica's life. Much as I loved Dangerous Beauty (the movie) I found this history a bit tough going. It IS worth reading, and yes indeed, Hollywood did gloss over and falsify the end of Veronica's life.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany Mitton

    What a truly amazing woman!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Daphne

    After a while, this just started to drone on and on. It was interesting, but could have been about 50 pages shorter.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Liz

    Been wanting to read this and couldn't find it anywhere. I think it's out of print. My library happened to have it though...about keeled over when I saw it. Been wanting to read this and couldn't find it anywhere. I think it's out of print. My library happened to have it though...about keeled over when I saw it.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    Just watched Dangerous Beauty, the '98 movie based on this book. It (plus other books on my currently-reading list, have got me thinking about womens' roles. Just watched Dangerous Beauty, the '98 movie based on this book. It (plus other books on my currently-reading list, have got me thinking about womens' roles.

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