These women are popular characters in historical romance – perhaps because for their day, they enjoyed a deal more freedom than other women. In the Renaissance period in particular there were only three viable roles for women – wife and mother, nun, or a courtesan/mistress. Of course, that’s not to say that it wasn’t dangerous, particularly in the midst of a Borgia court….
My historical stories have featured two courtesans as heroines so far. Regency courtesan Juliana from ‘The Virgin Courtesan’ faced both different and similar dangers than Katerina, my heroine in my current project, ‘Borgia Heat’. Yet both women find themselves in the unenviable position of bartering their bodies to secure an independent future for themselves.
So what was it really like for these women? We tend to see courtesans as being glamorous, desired and much courted by the leading men of their time. Yet theirs was a career that often left them on the fringes of society, or led to them becoming pivotal figures in political and societal intrigue…
Courtesans in the Italian Renaissance
These women often had an important role in high society, often standing In for wives at important functions. Their role was a mixture of high class prostitute and paid mistress, receiving not just jewellery and gifts for their services but often lands, property and even titles. The mother of the infamous Borgia clan was Vanozza Cattanei, a Spanish courtesan and long time mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, who became a wealthy woman indeed, owning farms and inns.
For some reason, female poets of the day often doubled as courtesans (perhaps because it was impossible to make a living as a woman poet) such as the much celebrated Ventian courtesan Veronica Franco (pictured).
Sadly, Veronica died in poverty after her benefactors grew old and died, her house in Venice was looted, and she narrowly escaped with her life following a witchcraft trial. A film was made about her life in 1998 entitled ‘A Dangerous Beauty’ starring Catherine McCormack.
Making an appearance in Borgia Heat is Fiametta (also referred to as ‘la fiametta’, suggesting this was a title rather than a name. Fiametta means little flame and the Rosetti painting of this name heads the front of this post)) the real life lover of Cesare Borgia and a famed Roman courtesan. Like Cesares mother she died a wealthy woman.
In spite of their seeming independence however a courtesans lot was largely determined by keeping hold of a wealthy patron – becoming a kept mistress or ‘concubine’ to just one man, as Vanozza Cattanei did for Rodrigo Borgia, becoming so beloved to him that even after he became Pope and took the teenage Guilia Farnese as his new lover, he continued to grant Vanozza land and wealth, gibing her the means to become independent. For many courtesans – particularly those whose names go unrecorded in history – their fate was much more precarious.
Courtesans in the English Regency
By the early eighteenth century, this was even more true. Georgian London was largely built on the sex trade and traditional courtesans faced fierce competition from the ladies of the Covent Garden brothels and also actresses, who often doubled as prostitutes. Neither were courtesans likely to be privy to political intrigue and at the centre of events, as was often the case in Renaissance Italy. The need to secure a wealthy patron was even more crucial. Still, there many famous courtesans of the period, most notably Harriette Wilson (pictured), who enjoyed the favours of the Prince of Wales himself.