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The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice.

Margaret F. Rosenthal's The Honest Courtesan is a welcome addition to the growing body of literary and historical scholarship on the lives and accomplishments of women of the past. Rosenthal offers a wide-ranging and thoughtful discussion of the life and writings of the sixteenth-century Venetian poet Veronica Franco, known in her day and ours for her sexual as well as her literary exploits. Sexuality is important in Rosenthal's analysis too, but she rightly argues from the very beginning that the term "courtesan" is a problematic one for us and for sixteenth-century Venetians, and nowhere more so than in the person of Franco herself, who was accused by contemporaries of being a common whore, but who also appropriated conventional language about women's sexuality in order to fashion her public persona, in both literary and sexual terms. Franco styled herself, as apparently many of her contemporaries did, the "honest courtesan" of Rosenthal's title, a woman whose sexuality was publicly available, but whose "social and intellectual refinement" was also inextricably bound up with that sexuality. The honest courtesan sought to advance herself through networks of patronage much as did the courtier, by acquiring what Rosenthal calls intellectual capital, rather than pursuing the merely financial gain sought by common whores. In this manipulation of patronage, the honest courtesan set herself up as a rival to the courtier, incurring his public enmity at least as often as his public and private support, since courtier and courtesan alike competed for the scarce resource of princely or aristocratic favor.

Rosenthal elucidates the dilemmas and opportunities Franco faced in coming to terms with her culture's definitions of women and their sexuality, and in dealing with issues of language and literary genre, in five chapters organized around both sources for and themes in Franco's life and writing. Chapter one, "Satirizing the Courtesan: Franco's Enemies," describes the social, sexual, and literary economy of the Venice to which Franco's sexuality and writing were subject. Chapter two, "Fashioning the Honest Courtesan: Franco's Patrons," examines Franco's family background and her efforts to manipulate sexual and literary patronage to her advantage. Chapter three, "Addressing Venice: Franco's Familiar Letters," takes up more systematically one of Rosenthal's major arguments, namely that in all of her writing Franco reworked and criticized male canonical genres and themes to further her own ideal of equal emotional, sexual, and intellectual relations between men and women. Chapter four, "Denouncing the Courtesan: Franco's Inquisition Trial and Poetic Debate," extends both this argument and the problematics of sexuality presented in chapter one in the context of legal and literary attacks on Franco's character and morals, and Franco's responses to those attacks. Chapter five, "The Courtesan in Exile: An Elegiac Future," offers a Franco freed from the immediate necessity of self-defense, taking up the persona of abandoned lover in her Terze rime and working through its classical intertextuality to present (in Rosenthal's closing words) a "corrective vision" of "social harmony . . . [that] depends upon the equal participation of all men and women."

Rosenthal's approach is firmly historicist in the best sense of the term, insisting upon judicious readings of all available texts pertaining to Franco's life and literary production. Her larger project, to present the process of Franco's "self-fashioning" on multiple levels, social, sexual, intellectual, and literary, is well served by her painstaking archival research and careful presentation of a wide variety of materials. As Marilyn Migiel has recently noted, however, there are perils as well as pleasures in this kind of "philogynist" approach to women and gender structures of the past ("Gender Studies and the Italian Renaissance," in Toscano, ed., Interpreting the Italian Renaissance: Literary Perspectives. [Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum, 1991], 29-41). Migiel argues that Franco's poems are fundamentally ambiguous about such issues, central to Rosenthal's argument, as agency and voice. Rosenthal tends to be relatively inattentive to potential textual ambiguity, preferring instead to offer Franco as a model of the powerful woman of the past, challenging all (male) comers and providing a vision of sexual equality that sounds suspiciously like the dreams of many twentieth-century feminists. I have every sympathy with this approach, both in its subtle executions, which normally characterize Rosenthal's work, and even in its cruder formulations, such as that to which she gives rein in the final sentences quoted earlier. But like Migiel I also worry about its literary and historical (not to mention theoretical and political) costs. Margaret Rosenthal has given us an important foundation on which to build further investigations of gender in the Italian Renaissance. Let us heed the challenges that it offers, both to build on it and to rethink some of its premises.

Jennifer Fisk Rondeau UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
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Author:Rondeau, Jennifer Fisk
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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