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Prostitution in Renaissance Venice

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

The Venetian authorities became concerned that it was impossible to distinguish between courtesans and respectable women. Rules drawn up in 1543 determined what the courtesans could wear.

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Thomas Croyat

A Courtesan There was a red light district in Venice but there were also courtesans who were less obvious.

They were educated prostitutes who were refined and well dressed and serviced the social elite.

The authorities became concerned that it was impossible to distinguish between courtesans and respectable women.

So rules were drawn up in 1543 to determine what courtesans wore. Rather than ban undesirables, Venetians tended to make rules to control them.

Work was acceptable for poorer women. Prostitution was not the respectable option but in hard times women did turn to the oldest profession.


A Courtesan Coryat on courtesans: "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".

The 1543 document outlining the regulations on what courtesans were permitted to wear is in the state archive.

Thinking History

A Courtesan dancing We have in Venice Tintoretto's vast depiction of paradise, from which the awed observer was meant to draw the analogy of Venice as a paradise on earth. Thomas Coryat certainly came to this conclusion. What is your opinion?

Was Venetian freedom and prosperity a myth?

You are given two different answers in the programme. One emphasises the uniqueness of Venice, arguing that myths grow from somewhere, that Venice was not perfect but nevertheless extraordinary.

The other asks you to look at the murk below the glittering waters, and argues that all is not as it seems. Which seems most persuasive? Are the two interpretations wholly incompatible? What else do you need to know to convince you? There are various lines of enquiry that might prove useful here.

For example, it would be worthwhile comparing Venice's record for stability and internal harmony with that of other cities. Did Venice erupt into violent protest? What kind of steps did the Venetian authorities take to cope with crises of dearth and sickness? Did the authorities use employment at the Arsenale to get people off the streets? Venice's record is one of being very proactive in all these respects, the historian's task is to assess how successful it was.





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