Imagine a woman with the intellectual heft of Mary Beard, the verbal brilliance of Kate Tempest and the sexual frankness of Girl’s Hannah Horvath. Imagine a woman who single-handedly supports three children, a large extended family and a household of servants. Imagine a woman who is a respected poet and member of one of the leading literary salons of the day. Imagine a woman who is a great supporter of other women, who tries to encourage the authorities to set up a refuge for women fallen on hard times. Then imagine a woman who would have no problem mixing it with the panellists of ‘Have I Got News For You’ and a woman who refused to sink her head beneath the parapet when the trolls raised their hairy heads.
Such a woman was the Italian Veronica Franco.
I should also perhaps mention that she lived in Venice in the sixteenth century and was a courtesan or cortigiana onesta an “honoured courtesan”. Thus the source of her income was arranging to have sex for a high fee with the elite of Venice and the many kinds of people who passed through the city which included a king, Henry III of France.
The fact that she could read or write at all was in itself remarkable. In Venice in the 1580s fewer than 4% of women had any public schooling and only 10 -12 percent were literate. Literacy amongst men was only 30 percent. So this was a remarkable woman by any standard. Her intellectual life began by sharing her brothers’ education by private tutoring and then continued when she was taken up by the patrician and poet and celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, who ran a literary salon at his palace, Ca’ Venier. He protected and encouraged her and published her and by her mid twenties she was well known as a poet.
Her prominence however brought forth great jealously from the young men who also wanted Domenico Venier’s patronage, including Maffio his nephew. In 1575 he wrote a series of virulent, misogynistic verses mocking and defaming her: ‘Your mouth is as foul as rotten mud…your breasts hang low enough to row a boat on the canal…Your eyes bulge out of your head as if a priest were exorcising you of all your sins…’ And on and on in this vein.
Franco however refused to be silenced. These outrageous slurs spurred her on. She refused to be shamed and she came out all guns firing, challenging him to a poetic duel. “I now challenge you to single combat: gird yourself with weapons and valour. I’ll show you how far the female sex excels your own. Arm yourself however you please and take good heed for your survival …”
It wasn’t however only the young men in Venier’s circle she had to watch out for. In 1577 she was put on trial by the Inquisition for witchcraft. It was in the aftermath of the plague of 1575-6 which had torn through Venice and the authorities were having one of their periodic fits of morality. The courtesans were easy targets. She survived – just, but her reputation was damaged. She died at the age of 44 in a poorer part of Venice. But for a decade this remarkable woman had lived an independent, sumptuous life, and in her verse and her letters she comes down to us dignified, combative, witty and flirtatious. In an era where women in the public eye are often vilified for how they look there is a lot we can learn from Franco’s verses. I like to think she would have been out there taking part in the Women’s March earlier this year proudly wearing a pink pussy hat.
I used Franco as the basis for Tullia Buffo, one of the characters in my book The Return of the Courtesan, but I gave Buffo a happier ending. One of the rewards of fiction is having the ability to re-write history. I wasn’t going to have Tullia die in a poor part of the city. I certainly wasn’t having that! I hope Franco would approve.