Life Imitates Myth for the Renaissance Courtesan


During the Italian Renaissance, mythology and art contributed to the increasing popularity of the cortigiana, or courtesan. The Cinquecento, or 1500s, in Italy coincided with the rise of a very unique category of elite prostitute called “honest” or “honored” (onesta or onorata) courtesan in recognition of their elevated social position and special talents. The cortigiana created an image to suit the tastes of a clientele possessing ideals of womanliness which were carried through the ages from ancient times and spiced up with a bit of humanism and Neoplatonism. These women modeled themselves after the classic hetaera and promised both sexual delight and aesthetic enchantments in the most graceful, cultivated, and beautiful settings. Cortigiana took care to resemble ladies of the court in dress, mannerisms, and social function, entertaining with conversation, song, poetry, and musical accomplishments (Henriques, 1965). It was her profession to embody the aristocratic repertoire of desirable traits in all areas except chastity.

History and Mythology
As friends and mistresses of intellectuals, poets, and painters, cortigiana became artistic subjects. To display their culture, many put pen to paper creating madrigals dedicated to love and desire, well-rhymed terze rima verse, and elegantly composed letters. For these ladies art was a means to lasting fame and an instrument to achieve prosperous ends. Raffaello Sanzio painted the world renowned courtesan Imperia as Venus, creating both a beautiful portrait and a mythical icon. This painting worked as a modern-day billboard and personal manifesto for Imperia’s peers to read and a symbol of eternal beauty in which the courtesan and the goddess merge.

Like the hetaerae of ancient times courtesans dispensed pleasure and splendor. Their refined visage and expressions is found regularly in the works of renaissance sculptors and painters (Lawner, 1987). In images such as these the cortigiana promote their wares, providing access to perfection in the natural partnership of Aphrodite and prostitutes.

“The goddess of love is patron saint to whores. In researching the Greek words derived from her name you find that aphrodiastikos means lecherous, that aphrodiazein meant to copulate, that aphrodisia were brothels, and that a lessee of a public brothel was an aphrodiastes” (Grigson, 1976).

Imperia was venerated because of her wondrous beauty and attainability, to possess her was akin to entering a mythic reality. The crafty coupling of exceptional courtesans with mythological figures was a common occurrence in Cinquecento art and literature. Titian’s Flora and Venus are recognized by art historians as both “being fundamentally voluptuous” and the Flora portrait itself “should be considered as an important piece of evidence for the respect and admiration paid to the leading courtesans during the Renaissance” (Held, 1961). In Giorgione’s Laura, the “laurel wreath behind her appears to be a pointed reference to her professions as are the flowers held by Titian’s Flora” (Anderson, 1979). Myrtle and flowers, especially roses, are Venusian attributes. Similarly the Graces, givers of delight, were often represented holding roses and sprigs of myrtle, Aphrodite’s signs.

Cortigiane held the keys to earthly paradises of their own. Tullia D’Aragona, known as the “cortigiana de li accademici”, urged her poet-lovers to promote her metamorphosis from professional woman to deity. Girolamo Muzio immortalized her as the nymph Thirrenia and finally as the muse Thalia. This cortigiana’s representation was deliberate and self-determined. She was dissatisfied with the name of an insignificant nymph and used Muzio as an instrument to appropriate the name of an iconic muse. Her transfiguration from mortal to mythological fame was a calculated success (Biagi, 1886).

Born in 1546, Veronica Franco embraced the traditional coupling of courtesans and Venus, comparing herself to the pagan goddess of love. Her Terze Rime deal with love in its many states; joy, jealousy, fear of abandonment, pleasure, and loss. On paper, Franco’s Venice is transformed into a realm of love where nymphs and demigods sweeten the saltwater with their delights (Franco, 1912).

Literature and Society
In the introductory capitolo to the Terze Rime one of Franco’s lovers concludes with an incitation to Veronica to remain in the service of Venus and not abandon it for the devotion of Apollo, who represents art. Franco’s response urges the admirer to remain studious, thereby worthy of the sexual love she dispenses as his reward. Like an Aphrodite of myth, Franco promises pagan delights, explaining that her sweetness is best expressed in bed. Access to this bed is only guaranteed by virtue, in its Latin, not Christian, definition. The analogy vindicated the cortigiana’s sexuality by associating sexual delight with the immortality of myth and transcendence of art (Franco, 1912).

The successful cortigiana imitated the external characteristics required to achieve social esteem, publicly acting the lady and transforming her home into a round table where he discussed Petrarca, Ovid, love, and merit, like the most respected philosophers of her time. She carefully developed a public facade of dignity and respectability in order to retain an impressive clientele. However, it was very easy for her accolades to slip from glorification to vilification. A courtesan could be idealized by one admirer and defamed by the next (Venier, 1956). The most coveted form of flattery was attained in lyric poetry. Philosophers such as Plato and Petrarch provide the themes for works authored by cortigiana and for works in which cortigiana appear as subjects.

Platonic model greatly influenced Cinquecento prose, giving birth to the trattato d’amore, an extraordinarily popular genre. In these dialogued discussions the courtesan onesta was usually at center stage in a role as the priestess of Venus, and thereby an expert on love. Tullia D’Aragona, Giuseppe Betussi, and Pietro Bembo all wrote trattatos, or treatises (D’Aragona 1912). Some are set in fashionable ridotti, or salons, with cortigiane appearing cultivated and witty. Offering sparkling conversations centered on familiar philosophical topics such as the transitory nature of love, the transformation of lover and beloved, the place of jealousy, predestination of love, the classes of beauty, and so on. (Speroni, 1542). In these settings the cortigiana is not a whore but a superior woman, all because of her association with the Platonic absolutes of beauty, good, and truth.

In an era aspiring to perfection, the cortigiana was elevated to a higher level in human society. In Tullia D’Aragona’s text she is the modern counterpart of the Greek hetaera who taught Socrates the mysteries of love. Tullia assumes the classical stature of friend and teacher of great men as a mistress of wisdom or priestess of the sacred rites. In Renaissance mythological painting cortigiane become the face of mystery, pleasure, knowledge, and love. In both mediums they assimilate the virtues and qualities of goddesses and muses, becoming the fleshly messengers of sacred beings. In this way during the Renaissance the cortigiana and her knowledge of love are spiritualized in modern and revitalized Petrarchan and Platonic themes. Through the use of metaphors and images she projects a positive self-image and sheds her mortality. Remade in this goddess image she is pure, sacred, and eternal. She becomes Venus in verses, inks, and oils, an icon more than a woman.


Cortigiana – in Renaissance usage, the Italian word “cortigiana”, feminine of “cortigiano” (courtier) came to refer to “the ruler’s mistress”, then to a well-educated and independent woman of free morals, then eventually to a trained artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for companionship. The word was borrowed by English from Italian through the French form “courtisane” during the 16th century, especially associated to the meaning of “court-mistress” and “prostitute”. Modernly, “courtesan”.

Cortgiane – plural form of cortigiana.

Courtier – a person who is often in attendance at the court of a king or other royal personage, also a person who seeks favor by flattery, charm, etc. See bibliography (Castiglione 1972).

Hetaera or Hetaira – a highly cultured courtesan or concubine, esp. in ancient Greece, also any woman who uses her beauty and charm to obtain wealth or social position.

Hetaerae or Hetairai – plural form of hetaera or hetaira.

Onesta – Italian for “honest” (f).

Onorata – Italian for “honored” (f).

Petrarchan – from Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), an Italian scholar and poet, known as the “Father” of Humanism. A major “Petrarchan” theme is love of an impossible object of desire.

Platonic – from Plato, a Classical Greek philosopher. Recurrent “Platonic” themes of his are relationships, knowledge, immortality of the soul, perception vs. reality, nature and custom, art, muses as inspiration, pleasure, sexuality as human nature, and wisdom.

Ridotti – plural form of “ridotto”, a salon or hall for gaming and socializing, in Italian literally “retreat”.

Terze Rime – an Italian form of iambic verse consisting of lines arranged in tercets (three-line stanzas), the middle line of each tercet rhyming with the first and last lines of the following tercet. For example, the pattern A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C, D-E-D, with two possible endings of d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e.


Anderson, Jaynie. “The Giorgionesque Portrait: From Likeness to Allegory.” Giorgione. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studio per il 5th Centenario della Nascita. 29-31 maggio 1978. Comune di Castelfranco Veneto, 1979.

Biagi, Guido. “Un’etera romana: Tullia D’Aragona.” La Nuova Antologia LXXXVIII, 4(1886): 655-711.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. Il Libro del Cortegiano. Ed. Ettore Bonora. Milano: Mursia, 1972/76.

D’Aragona, Tullia. Della infinita d’amore. In Trattati d’amore del ‘500. Ed. Giuseppe Zonta. Bari: Laterza, 1912/75.

Franco, Veronica. Terze Rime. Ed. Gilberto Beccari. Lanciano: Carabba, 1912.

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Goddess of Love: The birth, triumph, death, and return of Aphrodite. London: Constable, 1976.

Held, Julian. “Flora, Goddess and Courtesan.” De Artibus Opuscola XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panovsky. Ed. Millard Meiss. New York: New York UP, 1961.

Henriques, Fernando. “The Century of the Courtesan.” Prostitution in Europe and the Americas. New York: Citadel Press, 1965.

Lawner, Lynne. Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance. New York: Rizzzoli.

Speroni, Sperone. I Dialoghi di Messer Sperone Speroni. Venezia: Aldus, 1542.

Venier, Maffio. Il libro chiuso di Maffio Venier (La tenzone con Veronica Frano). Ed. Manlio Dazzi. Venezia: Neri Pozza, 1956.


Raffaello SANZIO (Rafael) Venus and Cupid 1517-18 Fresco Villa Farnesina, Rome

Raffaello SANZIO (Rafael) Venus, Ceres, and Juno 1517-18 Fresco Villa Farnesina, Rome

Vecellio TIZIANO (Titian) Flora 1515-20 Oil on canvas, 80 x 64 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Vecellio TIZIANO (Titian) Danaë (rotated to fit page) 1544-45 Oil on canvas, 117 x 69 cm Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

Vecellio TIZIANO (Titian) The Venus of Urbino (rotated to fit page) before 1538 Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Vecellio TIZIANO (Titian) Venus and Cupid (rotated to fit page) c. 1550 Oil on canvas, 139 x 195 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

GIORGIONE Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) 1506 Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 41 x 34 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Life Imitates Myth – 2011 Rewrite (Copyright 2011, pdf download for use with proper credit only)

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