There's a lovely little bridge in Venice, the Ponte delle Tette, (the Bridge of Breasts) which once led to the red light district (at one time the law in Venice stipulated that a prostitute had to display a red light on the prow of her gondola). Here the lower class of working girls often sat topless in their windows, living adverstisements to entice both citizens and visitors to the famously carnal city.
However, not all the notorious women were common prostitutes. In fact, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Venice was famed for her beautiful, cultured courtesans. At a time when respectable women were pretty much confined indoors and seldom seen by anyone except their husbands and immediate families, the courtesan enjoyed a life of independence and freedom.
Young, beautiful, more highly educated than other women of the time, courtesans who managed to secure one or more "patrons," could live a life of luxury they never could have achieved in any other way. They earned as much as a ship's captain and more than twice the wages of a master tradesman. Some were even able to save enough money to allow them to marry with a sizable dowry.
They dressed in the finest clothes and jewels, and indeed often were the leading fashionistas of the day. Their tax revenues contributed vast sums to the Venetian treasury. It is said that in one year the city collected enough taxes from its courtesans to pay for 16 galley ships.
According to Jan Morris in The World of Venice, at the end of the sixteenth century, there were approximately 2,900 noble women, 2,500 nuns, 2,000 merchant class women, and over 11,600 courtesans in the city. Although this number includes many lower class prostitutes, it's still astonishing.
One of the most famous courtesans was Veronica Franco (1546-1591), who was also a celebrated literary figure, best known for her poetry collection titled Terze Rima. She led a most interesting life: in addition to her several noble lovers, she had a brief liason with King Henri III of France. She had at least six children, and she founded a home for poverty stricken "fallen women." Accused of witchcraft when Venice was struck by the plague, she successfully defended herself in the court of the Inquisition and was acquitted of the charge.
The 1998 movie Dangerous Beauty tells a fictionalized version of Veronica Franco's life and times. It's a gorgeous costume piece filmed on location in Venice and starring Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, and Oliver Platt. Next to Katharine Hepburn's more modern Summertime, it's my favorite film about Venice and definitely one to feed your dreams of Venice.
I'll be sure to point out the Ponte delle Tette when we're strolling through Venice in October on An Artful Tour of Florence and Venice. It's a great spot for a photo!