Observations of Venice (Courtesans)

But since I have taken occasion to mention the particulars of their women, I will insist farther upon that matter, and make relation of their Cortezans also, as being a thing incident and very proper to this discourse, especially because the name of a Cortezan of Venice is famoused over all Christendome. And I have here inserted a picture of one of their nobler Cortezans, according to her Venetian habites, with my owne neare unto her, made in that forme as we saluted each other. Surely by so much the more willing I am to treate something of them, because I perceive it is so rare a matter to find a description of the Venetian Cortezans in any Authour, that all the writers that I could ever see, which have described the city, have altogether excluded them out of their writings. There fore seeing the History of these famous gallants is omitted by all others that have written just Commentaries of the Venetian state, as I know it is not impertinent to this present Discourse to write of them ; so I hope it will not be ungratefull to the Reader to reade that of these notable persons, which no Author whatsoever doth impart to him but my selfe. Onely I feare least I shall expose my selfe to the severe censure and scandalous imputations of many carping Criticks, who I thinke will taxe me for luxury and wantonnesse to insert so lascivious a matter into this Treatise of Venice. Wherefore at the end of this discourse of the Cortezans I will adde some Apologie for my selfe, which I hope will in some sort satisfie them, if they are not too captious.

The woman that professeth this trade is called in the Italian tongue Cortezana, which word is derived from the Italian word cortesia that signifieth courtesie. Because these kinde of women are said to receive courtesies of their favourites. Which word hath some kinde of affinitie with the Greeke word eratpa which signifieth properly a sociable woman, and is by Demosthenes, Athenaeus, and divers other prose writers often taken for a woman of a dissolute conversation. As for the number of these Venetian Cortezans it is very great. For it is thought there are of them in the whole City and other adjacent places, as Murano, Malomocco, &c. at the least twenty thousand, whereof many are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow. A most ungodly thing without doubt that there should be a tolleration of such licentious wantons in so glorious, so potent, so renowned a city. For me thinks that the venetians should be daylie affraid least their winking at such uncleannesse should be an occasion to draw down upon them Gods curses and vengeance from heaven, and to consume their city with fire and brimstone, as in times past he did Sodome and Gomorrha. But they not fearing any such thing doe graunt large dispensation and indulgence unto them, and that for these two causes.

First, ad vitanda majora mala. For they thinke that the chastity of their wives would be the sooner assaulted, and so consequently they should be capricornified, (which of all the indignities in the world the Venetian cannot patiently endure) were it not for these places of evacuation. But I marvaile how that should be true though these Cortezans were utterly rooted out of the City. For the Gentlemen do even coope up their wives alwaies within the walles of their houses for feare of these conveniences, as much as if there were no Cortezans at all in the City. So that you shall very seldome see a Venetian Gentleman s wife but either at the solemnization of a great marriage, or at the Christning of a Jew, or late in the evening rowing in a Gondola.

The second cause is for that the revenues which they pay unto the Senate for their tolleration, doe maintaine a dozen of their galleys, (as many reported unto me in Venice) and so save them a great charge. The consideration of these two things hath moved them to tolerate for the space of these many hundred yeares these kinde of Laides and Maides, who may as fitly be termed the scales of Christendome as those were heretofore of Greece. For so infinite are the allurements of these amorous Calypsoes, that the fame of them hath drawen many to Venice from some of the remotest parts of Christendome, to contemplate their beauties, and enjoy their pleasing dalliances. And indeede such is the variety of the delicious objects they minister to their lovers, that they want nothing tending to delight. For when you come into one of their Palaces (as indeed some few of the principallest of them live in very magnificent and portly buildings fit for the entertainement of a great Prince) you seeme to enter into the Paradise of Venus. For their fairest roomes are most glorious and glittering to behold. The walles round about being adorned with most sumptuous tapistry and gilt leather, such as I have spoken of in my Treatise of Padua. Besides you may see the picture of the noble Cortezan most exquisitely drawen. As for her selfe shee comes to thee decked like the Queene and Goddesse of love, in so much that thou wilt thinke she made a late transmigration from Paphos, Cnidos, or Cythera, the auncient habitations of Dame Venus. For her face is adorned with the quintessence of beauty. In her cheekes thou shalt see the Lilly and the Rose strive for the supremacy, and the silver tramels of her haire displayed in that curious manner besides her two frisled peakes standing up like prety Pyramides, that they give thee the true Cos amoris. But if thou hast an exact judgement, thou maist easily discerne the effects of those famous apothecary drugs heretofore used amongst the Noble Ladies of Rome, even stibium, cerussa, and purpurissum.

For few of the Cortezans are so much beholding to nature, but that they adulterate their faces, and supply her defect with one of these three. A thing so common amongst them, that many of them which have an elegant naturall beauty, doe varnish their faces (the observation whereof made me not a little pitty their vanities) with these kinde of sordid trumperies. Wherein me thinks they seeme ebur atramento candefacere, according to that excellent *Proverbe of Plautus ; that is, to make ivorie white with inke. Also the ornaments of her body are so rich, that except thou dost even geld thy affections (a thing hardly to be done) or carry with thee Ulysses hearbe called Moly which is mentioned by Homer, that is, some antidote against those Venereous titillations, shee wil very neare benumme and captivate thy senses, and make reason vale bonnet to affection. For thou shalt see her decked with many chaines of gold and orient pearle like a second Cleopatra, (but they are very litle) divers gold rings beautified with diamonds and other costly stones, jewels in both her eares of great worth. A gowne of damaske (I speake this of the nobler Cortizans) either decked with a deep gold fringe (according as I have expressed it in the picture of the Cortizan that I have placed about the beginning of this discourse) or laced with five or sixe gold laces each two inches broade. Her petticoate of red chamlet edged with rich gold fringe, stockings of carnasion silke, her breath and her whole body, the more to enamour thee, most fragrantly perfumed. Though these things will at the first sight seeme unto thee most delectable allurements, yet if thou shalt rightly weigh them in the scales of a mature judgement, thou wilt say with the wise man, and that very truely, that they are like a golden ring in a swines snowt. Moreover shee will endevour to enchaunt thee partly with her melodious notes that she warbles out upon her lute, which shee fingers with as laudable a stroake as many men that are excellent professors in the noble science of Musicke ; and partly with that heart-tempting harmony of her voice. Also thou wilt finde the Venetian Cortezan (if she be a selected woman indeede) a good Rhetorician, and a most elegant discourser, so that if she cannot move thee with all these foresaid delights, shee will assay thy constancy with her Rhetoricall tongue. And to the end shee may minister unto thee the stronger temptations to come to her lure, shee will shew thee her chamber of creation, where thou shalt see all manner of pleasing objects, as many faire painted coffers wherewith it is garnished round about, a curious milke-white canopy of needle worke, a silke quilt embrodered with gold : and generally all her bedding sweetly perfumed. And amongst other amiable ornaments shee will shew thee one thing only in her chamber tending to mortification, a matter strange amongst so many irritamenta malorum ; even the picture of our Lady by her bedde side, with Christ in her armes, placed within a cristall glasse.

But beware notwithstanding all these illecebrae & lenocinia amoris, that thou enter not into termes of private conversation with her. For then thou shalt finde her such a one as Lipsius truly cals her, callidam & calidam Solis filiam, that is, the crafty and hot daughter of the Sunne. Moreover I will tell thee this newes which is most true, that if thou shouldest wantonly converse with her, and not give her that salarium iniquitatis, which thou hast promised her, but perhaps cunningly escape from her company, shee will either cause thy throate to be cut by her Ruffiano, if he can after catch thee in the City, or procure thee to be arrested (if thou art to be found) and clapped up in the prison, where thou shalt remaine till thou hast paid her all thou didst promise her. Therefore for avoiding of those inconveniences, I will give thee the same counsell that Lipsius did to a friend of his that was to travell into Italy, even to furnish thy selfe with a double armour, the one for thine eyes, the other for thine eares. As for thine eyes, shut them and turne them aside from these venereous Venetian objects. For they are the double windowes that conveigh them to thy heart. Also thou must fortifie thine eares against the attractive inchauntments of their plausible speeches. Therefore even as wrestlers were wont heretofore to fence their eares against al exterior annoyances, by putting to them certaine instruments called a/m(pwtises : so doe thou take unto thy selfe this firme foundation against the amorous woundes of the Venetian Cortezans, to heare none of their wanton toyes ; or if thou wilt needes both see and heare them, doe thou only cast thy breath upon them in that manner as we doe upon steele, which is no sooner on but incontinent it falleth off againe : so doe thou only breath a few words upon them, and presently be gone from them : for if thou dost linger with them thou wilt finde their poyson to be more pernicious then that of the scorpion, aspe, or cocatrice. Amongst other things that I heard of these kinde of women in Venice, one is this, that when their Cos amoris beginneth to decay, when their youthfull vigor is spent, then they consecrate the dregs of their olde age to God by going into a Nunnery, having before dedicated the flower of their youth to the divell; some of them also having scraped together so much pelfe by their sordid facultie as doth maintaine them well in their old age : For many of them are as rich as ever was Rhodope in Egypt, Flora in Rome, or Lais in Corinth. One example whereof I have before mentioned in Margarita Emiliana that built a faire Monastery of Augustinian Monkes.
There is one most notable thing more to be mentioned concerning these Venetian Cortezans, with the relation whereof I will end this discourse of them. If any of them happen to have any children (as indeede they have but few, for according to the old proverbe the best carpenters make the fewest chips) they are brought up either at their own charge, or in a certaine house of the citie appointed for no other use but onely for the bringing up of the Cortezans bastards, which I saw Eastward above Saint Markes streete neare to the sea side. In the south wall of which building that looketh towards the sea, I observed a certaine yron grate inserted into a hollow peece of the wall, betwixt which grace and a plaine stone beneath it, there is a convenient little space to put in an infant. Hither doth the mother or some body for her bring the child shortly after it is borne into the world ; and if the body of it be no greater, but that it may conveniently without any hurt to the infant bee conveighed in at the foresaid space, they put it in there without speaking at all to any body that is in the house to take charge thereof. And from thenceforth the mother is absolutely discharged of her child. But if the child bee growne to that bignesse that they cannot conveigh it through that space, it is carryed backe againe to the mother, who taketh charge of it her selfe, and bringeth it up as well as she can. Those that are brought up in this foresaid house, are removed therehence when they come to yeares of discretion, and many of the male children are employed in the warres, or to serve in the Arsenall, or Galleys at sea, or some other publique service for the Common weale. And many of the females if they bee faire doe matrizare, that is, imitate their others in their gainfull facultie, and get their living by prostituting their bodies to their favourites.

Thus have I described unto thee the Venetian Cortezans ; but because I have related so many particulars of them, as few Englishmen that have lived many yeares in Venice, can do the like, or at the least if they can, they will not upon their returne into England, I beleeve thou wilt cast an aspersion of wantonnesse upon me, and say that I could not know all these matters without mine owne experience. I answere thee, that although I might have knowne them without my experience, yet for my better satisfaction, I went to one of their noble houses (I wil confesse) to see the manner of their life, and observe their behaviour, but not with such an intent as we reade Demosthenes went to Lais, to the end to pay something for repentance ; but rather as Panutius did to Thais, of whom we read that when he came to her, and craved a secret roome for his pastime, she should answere him that the same roome where they were together, was secret enough, because no body could see them but onely God ; upon which speech the godly man tooke occasion to persuade her to the feare of God and religion, and to the reformation of her licentious life, since God was able to prie into the secretest corners of the world. And so at last converted her by this meanes from a wanton Cortezan to a holy and religious woman. In like manner I both wished the conversion of the Cortezan that I saw, and did my endevour by perswasive termes to convert her, though my speeches could not take the like effect that those of Panutius did. Withall I went thither partly to the end to see whether those things were true that I often heard before both in England, France, Savoy, Italy, and also in Venice it selfe concerning these famous women, for

Segnius irritant animos demissa per aures
quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus, & quse ipse sibi tradit spectator

Neither can I be perswaded that it ought to be esteemed for a staine or blemish to the reputation of an honest and ingenuous man to see a Cortezan in her house, and note her manners and conversation, because according to the The maxime, Cognitio mali non est mala, the knowledge ledge of evil is not evil. I thinke that a virtuous man will be the more confirmed and settled in virtue by the observation of some vices, then if he did not at all know what they were.

Citation Type  Prose
Citation Year 1602