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Tochter der Venus. Die Kurtisanen Roms im 16. Jahrhundert.

Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1995. 348 pp. DM58. ISBN: 3-40639757-3.

Books on women's history are beginning to stream from European continental presses, and their authors are increasingly receiving academic recognition for having written them. Kurzel-Runtscheiner is a lecturer in the history of women at the University of Vienna as well as a curator at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In preparing this admirable work, she spent nearly four years in Roman archives collecting references, particularly legal documents, to the Eternal City's thousands of courtesans, whose professional designation bore witness to the stature and wealth of the men in papal and princely courts to whom they sold their bodily arts. Northern European outrage notwithstanding, hardly anyone in Rome could have been disillusioned by the passage in De emendanda ecclesia (1537) that described the courtesans riding their mules in state through the streets of Latin Christendom's capital city. Indeed, Kurzel-Runtscheiner repeats the assertion made in an earlier article that the sex industry catering to Rome's lay and clerical upper crust economically benefitted the populace.

The book takes up several dimensions of the courtesans' existence, beginning with the exceptional receptivity of Rome to their presence, which is attributed to the disproportionate numbers of wifeless and bored men among its inhabitants. Whereas unfortunate girls may have "fallen" into prostitution, many courtesans, whose origins are mainly obscure, rose into the highest echelons of their trade by a combination of luck, beauty, cleverness, and connections. The revival of antique culture brought with it an appreciation of refined sexuality. Fine food, stimulating conversation drawing upon classical letters, musical performance, elegant clothing, and interior decoration conditioned and enhanced fleshly enjoyment; indeed, the most sought-after women of pleasure had picked up a smattering of the Latin classics as well as an ability to play a musical instrument, and could thus provide preliminary entertainment for their guests. Few probably attained substantial pecuniary rewards and fame, with the notable exception of the "divine Imperia, the empress of courtesans," who enjoyed the favor of cardinals (46-52). Kurzel-Runtscheiner has studied surviving tax records and testaments to find examples of wealth. But rarely could these women sustain material adequacy beyond the age of thirty, when their lovers were inclined to prefer more youthful partners. Aging courtesans married or often trained a successor, sometimes their own daughters, in whose households they continued to live. Kurzel-Runtscheiner sees the Convent of Mary Magdalene ("the Converted") as holding comparatively little appeal despite Counter-Reformation preachers' efforts to persuade them to give up their craft.

The theme of male violence recurs throughout this study. Women of pleasure had the right to accept or reject suitors, though balancing a full roster of customers was by itself a dangerous art. Spurned or jealous lovers, in keeping with concepts of masculine honor, frequently sought revenge against each other and against their hostess. Another theme is the growing official disapproval of the elite sex trade as the reforming spirit of the Counter-Reformation increased. Pope Pius V took drastic measures against the courtesans beginning in 1566, confining prostitutes to one quarter of the city, prohibiting them from riding in coaches, restricting men's access to them during Advent and Lent and on high holy days, requiring them to attend sermons designed to reform them, and imposing taxes. Some were driven from the city. Despite every effort, "the houses of these women remained centers of sociability and entertainment" (118).

Replete with vivid anecdotes drawn from primary sources, this study modifies the works of Emanuel Rodocanachi, Alfred Semerau, and Georgina Masson, which were not based on a sufficient perusal of the records (272). Kurzel-Runtscheiner also criticizes conclusions based solely upon literary depictions of courtesans (273-74). Her vulnerability to criticism lies in a residual, low-key romanticization of courtesans as strong and independent women, the alleged shapers of their own existence in an anti-feminine atmosphere. Whereas wives were never to seek, much less explore, sexual gratification, courtesans were free "to live and to enjoy their sexuality" (139). "Like no other group of women, they were able to live out their sexual needs and satisfy them with various men without having to fear far-reaching consequences" (138). The balance of the evidence presented here, however, would suggest that courtesans were not exactly in control of their sexual expressions as they provided their customers with the services sought; these included anal intercourse for members of the clergy, who wished in part to avoid progeny, and for other clientele, their transdressing as men. The courtesans themselves left virtually no expressions of their own sexual preferences. This book thus widens our understanding of male but not of female eroticism in the sixteenth century. That itself is no mean achievement.

SUSAN C. KARANT-NUNN Portland State University
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Author:Karant-Nunn, Susan C.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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