Venetian Attire: Similarities Between Courtesans and Aristocratic Women

Newlywed Venetian Bride, Noble Venetian Matron, Venetian Courtesan (engraving) Anonymous Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Lawner.

In order to better understand this ambiguity as much as possible, an analysis of Venetian female portraiture is necessary. Firstly, in order to become associated with the idea that courtesans dressed almost exactly the same was as aristocratic women did, it is best to analyze the engraving entitled, Newlywed Venetian Bride, Noble Venetian Matron, and Venetian Courtesan by an anonymous artist.[1] In this engraving, it is clearly shown that both the bride and noble matron are dressed exactly the same as the courtesan. All three women wear long, patterned gowns each donning a corset that shows minimal cleavage. Curiously, it is actually the courtesan that looks the most modest of them all because her chest is the most covered up while the noble matron is the one whose breast is the most exposed. All three women have the exact same hairstyle and are all wearing pearls. It is crucial to note that the courtesan is wearing pearls as well which is quite odd considering that it was illegal for courtesans and prostitutes to wear pearls during the sixteenth century; it was something only reserved for the aristocratic women. However, one must also note that Veronica Franco is always depicted as wearing pearls, which is quite unusual. This leads one to raise the question as to whether the sources that tell us that it was illegal for courtesans to wear pearls are in fact wrong[2], or whether or not the woman that is labeled as a courtesan in this engraving is indeed a courtesan. Also, is the portrait of Franco made by Tintoretto actually Veronica Franco? Again, scholars are not entirely sure that it is her and they are not entirely sure that the painter was Tintoretto himself, other scholars speculate that it was one of his followers that painted it. Because of the possibility that the woman in the portrait is not Franco, scholars might be identifying other female portraits based on what they know about her in an incorrect manner.


A Venetian Courtesan Assisted by Two Maidservants Anonymous Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Lawner.

As discussed earlier, both courtesans and the more “modest” women tended to have the same fashion sense. For instance, it is known that the women of the bourgeoisie and the courtesans both wore high clogs.[3] Although the sources tell us that evidently the women of all social classes wore these shoes, it is curious that the women shown wearing them in portraits are immediately classified as only courtesans. An example of this can be seen in a work made by an anonymous artist entitled, A Venetian Courtesan Assisted by Two Maidservants.[4] This work shows a woman standing on the clogs being supported by two other women so that she does not trip while she walks. However, how are scholars sure that this woman is indeed a courtesan? Her gown looks like one that could easily be found on an aristocratic woman. Did the women of the high class not need help when walking on such high clogs as well? Also, was the title of the work given to it by the artist or did a scholar who happened to come across this illustration decide to take matters into their own hands and assume that the woman is a courtesan? Because we are not fortunate enough to know who the artist is, we do not know for sure whether he was indeed illustrating an actual courtesan or if it was a woman of a distinct class, thus bringing up the notion of ambiguity.


[1]           Lawner, 68.

  [2]           Ibid, 25.

[3]           Ibid.

[4]           Ibid, 24.

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