Guest Post by Gabrielle Kimm, author of The Courtesan’s Lover
First of all, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog!
Your question – ‘how does one become a courtesan?’ did make me smile. I wondered at first how a classified ad might read:
Career Opportunities for the Broad Minded:
Thinking of making a fortune, and hoping to retire in luxury? Do you have style and charm, sex-appeal and courage? Is your sense of timing immaculate? Prepared for anything? Yes? Then you might just be standing on the brink of an extraordinary and highly lucrative career as … a courtesan. No formal qualifications required, though experience is preferred. Lack of moral scruples advised. Enthusiasm is a must.
Being a little more serious, though, many Renaissance courtesans were in fact introduced to the profession by their mothers, who had most likely been courtesans themselves, and had hopes of being kept in their old age by their offspring in the lavish style to which they had become happily accustomed. As it happens, Francesca, my eponymous courtesan, is an exception to this rule – as a devoted mother to her two daughters, she expresses her disgust at the thought of maternal procuring at one point in the book:
“Unlike me ,” she says, “(I discovered this life late, compared to most), most courtesans are born to it – born into harlotry – like that little snake, Alessandra Malacoda, who, if I am to believe the Neapolitan gossips, was introduced to the delights of the bedchamber at the age of ten by her pimping whore of a mother. No doubt La Malacoda has made her mamma proud of her. And she plans, so I have been told, to be just as proud of her own daughter. Hoping she’ll be kept in luxury in her old age, no doubt. The child is four. God! – the very thought makes me retch.”
In contrast to the more lowly street-walking prostitutes (or puttane), the courtesans never worked for pimps. Those who had been introduced into the profession by their mothers would have had patrons procured for them by those mothers; others would have worked with, say, a manservant, and provided their own clientele. Unwanted patrons were quickly dismissed, and so, to a large extent, a courtesan’s diary was filled only with those men she was happy to see and entertain.
Even within the luxurious world of the high-class courtesan, though, there lurked the threat of danger and disease. The great Veronica Franco, probably the best-known of the Renaissance Venetian courtesans (and subject of the film ‘Dangerous Beauty’), talked about this. I include a quote from Franco before the start of The Courtesan’s Lover. She says:
“ To expose yourself as prey to so many men, with the constant risk of being despoiled, robbed or killed; with the chance that one man, one day, may take from you everything you have acquired with many, over a long time; to say nothing of the other dangers – of insult and contagious, frightful disease. ”
Yes, it’s true that a courtesan in Renaissance times might not have faced the grueling terrors that an enslaved and drug-addicted modern sex worker is forced to face every day, and the courtesans may have lived lives that others might see as luxurious, but the bottom line was that they were selling sex, with all the inherent dangers that such a lifestyle brought with it. On top of everything else, too, at this period in history, there lurked the terror of damnation – the courtesans knew that what they were doing, in the Church’s eyes, was a mortal sin. Towards the end of The Courtesan’s Lover, at a point at which Francesca’s life seems to be falling in on her and crushing her, she says:
“Behind all the tawdry trappings, I have to face the fact … that I’m nothing but a whore. I earn my scudi on my back. Strip me of my finery and I am no different from any street puttana.”
What was the difference between a mistress and a courtesan? This is a difficult one. In many ways the courtesans were businesswomen – astonishingly independent, acute, even feminist, businesswomen. They may have slid into emotionally-charged affairs from time to time, and become to all intents and purposes mistresses of whichever man it happened to be; they may have become allied to one particular patron, to the exclusion of all others, for a protracted period; but in the end, they were at heart professional lovers. I suppose you could sum it up by saying that any courtesan could be a mistress, but not every mistress could be a courtesan. Does that make sense?
It’s been great fun exploring the world of the courtesan and discovering how extraordinary they were. I suppose, that in our comparatively liberal, sexually-emancipated world, there is no need for creatures like courtesans any more, but I can’t help thinking, having spent such a lot of time in their company of at least one of them over the last couple of years, that life is perhaps a little less colourful for their loss.
I do hope you enjoy The Courtesan’s Lover – and thank you again for inviting me onto the blog!