Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan: on Renaissance prostitution

20140412-215354.jpgAs far as I am concerned, any book whose cover  sports a  detail from Titian’s celebrated Venus of Urbino (Florence, Uffizi Galleries, c. 1538) is obviously a prime candidate for a closer look under the Art History and Renaissance Category of this blog. Add to this Sarah Dunant’s reputation as a superb weaver of stories, and you have a second reason for looking at In the Company of the Courtesan. But the most compelling reason, for me at least, is the book’s position as the middle piece of a triptych of novels on Renaissance Women, ranging from the treatment of marriage in The Birth of Venus (Virago, 2003) to Sacred Hearts  (Virago, 2009) with its focus on nuns at the brink of enforced enclosure in Counter Reformation Ferrara (previously reviewed on this blog here ).  Neither of these two books deals with an ‘ideal’ Renaissance woman as maybe defined most beautifully in Francesco Barbaro’s 1416 treatise ‘On Wifely Duties’, but it is in the centrepiece of her Renaissance Women novels, In the Company of the Courtesan  (Virago, 2006), that Dunant explicitly deals with issues of sexual transgression, female nonconformity and gendered space. The heroine of the book, flame-haired Fiammettasits nicely between the raven-headed Alessandra of The Birth of Venus and the golden-haired Serafina at the centre of Sacred Hearts, but her foil is neither an elder husband nor a scholarly nun, but a dwarf. Bucino is not an ordinary dwarf though but a fiercely intelligent little man with a very big heart and even bigger aspirations. Bucino is also Fiammetta’s brain, her business acumen, and her pimp. On the one hand, this makes for an unlikely pairing, on the other hand, it allows Dunant, superb novelist that she is, to externalize some of the internal qualities of her characters and to build stereotypes, thus to be able to tell her story more effectively. The reviews published on the appearance of the book in 2006, all comment on this pairing of Fiammetta and Bucino, and their mutual strengths and weaknesses; have a look at, for example,Virginia Rounding’s piece in  The Guardian (8 April 2006) that emphasises the strength of the narration and revels in Dunant’s ‘imaginative ability’. Likewise Erica Jong, for the  New York Times (12 March, 2006) looks primarily at the way the story is told (very much lamenting that Dunant does not let her into Fiammetta’s head), but surely, this pairing of Beauty and the Beast (to make an all too obvious comparison) is just one strand in a rich tapestry.

As a piece of fiction, this is a great read, but as a Renaissance art historian with research interests in Venice and women, my eye was particularly  caught by the author’s creation of her historical setting for this piece. Fiammetta is a courtesan, an exclusive, highly paid sex worker, catering to high-class or affluent patrons, of the likes of Veronica Franco whose life and writings formed the basis not only of Margaret Rosenthal’s book the Honest Courtesan but a range of films especially Dangerous Beauty (1998) . The glamour and seduction of the courtesan’s luxurious life style is quite an established trope, but what makes In the Company of the Courtesan so compelling is Dunant’s s courting with the darker, seedier, brutal and visceral side of prostitution. Veronica Franco herself,famous not just for her looks but her poetry,penned a chilling reminder of the reality of Renaissance Prostitution in her famous letter 22,’ A Warning to a mother considering turning her daughter into a courtesan’ (Veronica Franco, Poems and Selected Letters, edited and translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal, Chicago University Press, 1998, pp.37-40):

… I  also fulfill a humane obligation by showing you a steep precipice hidden in the distance and by shouting out before you reach it, so that you’ll have time enough to steer clear of it. Although its mainly a question of your daughter’s wellbeing, I’m talking about you as well, for her ruin cannot be separated from yours. … Where once you made her appear simply clothed and with her hair arranged in a style suitable for a chaste girl, with veils covering her breasts and other signs of modesty, suddenly you enhcouraged her to be vain, to bleach her hair and paint her face. And all at once, you let her show up with curls dangling around her brow and down her neck, with bare brests spilling out of her dress, with a high, uncovered forehead, and every other embellishment people use to make their merchandise measure up to the competition. …

Franco here expresses her deep concern about turning a girl into merchandise, before pursuing a two-pronged argument where on the one hand she speaks of the girl’s lack of charm –

Your daughter -considered from the purely carnal point of view, is really not very beautiful (to say the least, for my eyes don’t deceive me) and has so little grace and with in conversation that you’ll break her neck expecting her to do well in the courtesan’s profession which is hard enough to succeed in if a woman has beauty, style, good judgement and proficiency in many skills.

But it is the next section of this astonishing letter that really cuts to the core of the matter; here, Franco speaks of the brutal reality of a career as a paid sex worker:

I’ll add that even if fate should be completely favourable and kind to her, this is a life that always turns out to be a misery. It’s a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason, to subject one’s body and labour to a slavery terrifying even to think of. To make oneself prey to so many men, at the risk of being stripped, robbed, even killed, so that one man, one day, may snatch away from you everything you have acquired from many over such a long time, along with so many other dangers of injury and dreadful contagious diseases; to eat with another’s mouth, sleep with another’s eyes, move according to another’s will, obviously rushing toward the shipwreck of your mind and your body- what greater misery? What wealth, what luxuries, what delights can outweigh all this? Believe me, among all the world’s calamities, this is the worst. And if to worldly concerns you add those of the soul, what greater doom and certainty of damnation could there be?

Franco’s own life certainly unravelled, and the famous courtesan who entertained King Henri III of France ended up robbed of her possessions, ill, accused of witchcraft and eventually died in obscurity, in a grim echo of the letter quoted above. For any more information on Veronica Franco, have a look at the Veronica Franco Project, led by Professor Margaret F.Rosenthal, but let’s return to one final thought about Fiammetta and Bucino.

This thought, or rather cluster of thoughts, is all about identity, and about the spaces and places to express them; in other words, its about ideas about self-fashioning. Renaissance identities are performed through material culture,that is clothes, food, possesions, and located within a space, a house, a home that is not just a physical place but a psychological entity that speaks of family, belonging, and allegiance. Bucino and Fiammetta have a place to live- but its a rented palace, a temporary space. They have objects and clothing- but many they received as gifts, and quite a few came from second-hand merchants. The lose one place in Rome, with their goods looted, their servants dispersed and Fiammetta stripped of her key asset, her hair; they arrive in Venice in the dark, and repair to an old dank house rented for Fiammetta’s (deceased) mother, before moving into grander, albeit it temporary palace again. There is no family, there are no roots, there is no fashioning of a permanent identity for the prostitue and the dwarf, and Dunant’s narrative master stroke comes with playing with these themes in the final third of her book. But, enough said- go and discover it for yourself.




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