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Veronica Franco vs. Maffio Venier: sex, death, and poetry in Cinquecento Venice.


In recent decades the body, its uses and its history, have become a focus of critical and historical investigation. (1) Still more recently the study of imaginary bodies that do not entirely correspond to the "real" body has come into prominence, marking the emergence of exo-corporeal theory. (2) In the context of early modern studies, we have seen the combination of the first approach or method--a material history of the body--with new histories and psychologies of not only the body, but of bodily fantasies. (3) This current fascination with corporeal experience and fantasy is in part a response to Foucault's works, to feminist and gender theory, and, last but not least, to the technology-induced anxieties of our historical moment. (4) The ongoing exploration of pre-modern fantasies of the body, its pleasure or pain, and its real or imagined vulnerabilities sheds light on the history of sexuality, as well as the transformation and evolution of our understanding of the mind-body continuum.

Sixteenth-century Venice provides fertile ground for such investigations. An international trade center, Venice was also the renowned-or infamous--European capital of the sex trade during the Renaissance. Partly as a result of its position as a global trade nexus, Venice was blighted by plagues, recurrent or continuous, and ranging from the bubonic to the syphilitic. Such scourges were a fact of life at that time, and not just for Venice, though certain reactions to these problems might be considered characteristic of and perhaps unique to that place and time. The literary and artistic talents of that city--some greater, some lesser--described, at times with astonishing candor, that peculiar mix of sexual desire and terror, of expansiveness and corporeal vulnerability.

This essay focuses on a paradigmatic expression of a fantastic and phantasmatic convergence of sex and death manifested in the real-life poetic combat between two individuals. This combat was performed by dueling authors, and was witnessed and judged by their drawing room audience, by the city itself, and ultimately by posterity. The ten-zone, or poetic battle, featured the courtesan poetess Veronica Franco, considered the most famous woman in Venice at that time, (5) and Maffio Venier, Venetian cleric, celebrated vernacular poet, and Franco's nemesis. This battle took place sometime before the publication of Franco's collection of poems, the Terze rime, in 1575--most likely in that same year. (6) The stakes in that battle of the pens were highly personal. For complicated reasons of his own--among which, we may surmise, jealousy and misogyny seem to have figured prominently--Venier sought to destroy Franco's reputation as a courtesan and as a poet/performer in the literary ridotto, or salon, sponsored by his uncle Domenico Venier. Domenico, an aristocrat, a patron of Veronica Franco, and a poet himself, led the informal academy that grew out of a close circle of patrician friends and included many prominent literati of the time. (7) Domenico wielded a great deal of cultural influence as an arbiter of literary taste, and his salon was one of the most important gathering places for intellectuals in mid-sixteenth century Venice (Feldman 487; Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan 89). It was before this prestigious group that Maffio Venier humiliated Franco in several poems, some of them excruciatingly savage and pornographic. (8)

Franco responded to his scathing attacks through certain poems and letters, and the very publication of her Terze rime constituted a rebuttal to Venier's verbal and psychological assault. Her responses to his poems, described in Capitoli XIII, XVI, and XXIII of the Rime, disclose her highly personal reactions of shock, pain, and fury at her attacker. They also contain an ad hominem attack against Venier's sexuality, more subtle but probably damaging. This literary conflict, though highly personal, was also quite public, and those who witnessed the battle between these two poets may also have had a stake in the outcome.

The tenzone between the two dueling writers has captivated the feminist imagination in recent years. Margaret Rosenthal's groundbreaking biography of Franco, The Honest Courtesan; Dacia Maraini's play, Veronica, meretrice e scrittora; and Marshall Herskovitz's film Dangerous Beauty all feature, in different yet compatible ways, portraits of an early-modern sex-worker, creative writer, and proto-feminist who came out on top of her trade. (9) But, as Marilyn Migiel and Irene Eibenstein-Alvisi have argued, these and other recent representations of Franco idealize her life and work to varying degrees, and assume a literary and social success on Franco's part that belies the brutal realities of her profession as a courtesan and as a female poet. They contend that the literary evidence of the Terze rime reveals a more precarious and violent existence for the courtesan poet than that which is usually celebrated by critics and historians.

The controversies surrounding Veronica Franco, both in our own time and in the sixteenth century, are fascinating. This essay shall return to this much-studied controversy once again, investigating the personal stakes of those individuals involved, but also, perhaps more significantly, the cultural stakes in the struggle over Franco's reputation and, indeed, her body. We know that there were many witnesses to the conflict between Veronica Franco and Maffio Venier, including the lover whom she initially suspected and the entire coterie of patrician spectators at the Ca' Venier. This male circle of literati must certainly have witnessed the battle with interest, fascination, and possibly horror. For Maffio's dominant fantasy about Franco, expressed clearly in his third and final poem, was that she was afflicted what we would call the tertiary stages of syphilis. Consequently the assembly that witnessed this battle in the salon setting of the Ca' Venier and beyond would not have been disinterested spectators of their unparalleled poetic insult-slinging. Rather the audience might well have been unnerved by the threat of syphilis embodied in Maffio's virtual Veronica, as much as by the assertion of Amazonian subjectivity contained in Franco's poetic persona. This poetic battle, seemingly circumscribed by the walls of the Ca' Venier and its circle of members, raised a much larger social question emblematic of that time and place: namely, what did it mean to be a public woman in Cinquecento Venice--a woman who, in the case of Veronica Franco, was both a courtesan and a published poet. Franco was, in a sense, a living performance of public art--a renowned courtesan whose body was available to a certain exclusive clientele, a published author, and a public presence. The degree of her publicity was both anomalous and unsettling.

Before returning to this power struggle between the courtesan poet and her adversary, a conduit into the liminal fantasy life of sixteenth-century Venetians, it is necessary to lay out a key metaphor of this paper--namely, that of the virtual body. Then, using the concept of the virtual, and drawing on the syphilitic imaginary of late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century Europe, this essay will offer a psycho-corporeal reading of the tenzone, an "embodied" reading of the verbal duel, and it will also advance a set of more global psychological speculations regarding the ephemera of pre-modern bodily experience.

The Virtual Body

The metaphor of the virtual body hinges on a distinction between the actual human body and a psychic or imagined body. The virtual body is related to that of the "corporeal psyche" described by Australian philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, who retheorizes Freudian concepts of narcissism and the body ego in her book Volatile Bodies. This corporeal psyche is an imaginary body, a psychic projection of that body, though not a point-for-point mapping. It is "something like an internal screen," Grosz writes, "onto which the illuminated and projected images of the body's outer surface are directed.... [It] is a representation of the varying intensities of libidinal investment in the various bodily parts and the body as a whole" (37). Grosz distinguishes, then, between the actual body and a psychic version or experience of the body that does and does not correspond to the actual; it is not, she says, a "veridical diagram or representation of the empirical and anatomical body; nor is it an effect of which the body or the body's surface is a cause...." Rather, she thinks of this reformulated ego as deriving from two kinds of "surface"--one inside, however a psychic inside might be imagined, and the other outside, an outside which is equally, and counter intuitively, perceptual rather than simply real (37). It is, in a word, imaginary, though it is nevertheless rooted in one's experience of the world through one's body.

The virtual body is thus not restricted to the configuration of our "natural" bodies, but is in many ways prosthetic. Grosz argues, "the 'natural' body, insofar as there is one, is continually augmented by the products of history and culture, which it readily incorporates into its own intimate space" (38). Everything from sunglasses to automobiles and airplanes extends the corporeal psyche beyond the skin of one's actual body. For her formulation, Grosz sheds light on Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, when he discusses the human body and its technological supplements:
 With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or
 sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. Motor
 power places gigantic forces at his disposal, which, like his
 muscles, he can employ in any direction; thanks to ship and
 aircraft neither water nor air can hinder his movements; by
 means of spectacles he corrects defects in the lens of his own
 eye; by means of the telescope he sees into the far distance; by
 means of the microscope he overcomes the limits of visibility
 set by the structure of his retina. In the photographic camera he
 has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual
 impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting
 auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he
 possesses of recollection, his memory.

 ... Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When
 he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent, but
 these organs have not grown onto him and they still give him much
 trouble at times. (Freud 90-92; Grosz 38-39)

Grosz builds on the idea of the prosthetic ego as imagined by Freud in order to reformulate the mind/body problem; if the psyche cannot, in a fundamental sense, be separated from the corporeal, if it represents itself to itself and to others as contained or bordered by a series of distorted, highly flexible, and largely fictitious bodies of its own imagining--bodily fantasies founded, above all, on libidinal investments or lack thereof in certain body parts--then the mind/body split is no longer a split. Rather, the dichotomy of mind and body can be reconceived, Grosz suggests, as a Mobius strip of paradoxically intermingled and sometimes indistinguishable surfaces and interiors (36 et passim).

Grosz's reconception of the relation of mind and body opens fields of investigation that are very fruitful for all those interested in the history of the body. Grosz's psychoanalytic model, though not itself an historicized approach to either the body or the psyche, invites one to build on her insights. The early modernist might evaluate, for example, the impact of certain epidemiological developments or technological changes (e.g., syphilis or the plague; guns and artillery, the printing press, modes of contraception) on the virtual body. When were particular tools or "prostheses," in the aforementioned Freudian sense, developed; and above all, how did these changes indelibly mark people's lived and imagined experiences of their bodies during the early modern period?

Through historical and psychoanalytic study of early modern fantasies regarding the body, one can move beyond the suggestive yet general reading of the corporeal psyche sketched by Grosz toward an understanding of individual imagined bodies and toward an awareness of certain collective sensibilities within the historical period or culture under investigation. The corporeal psyche, as Grosz defines it, is an individual's imagined experience of his or her own body. The virtual body, in contrast, is a more mobile concept--quite literally, in that it circulates. The virtual body may move from one person to another as shared corporeal fantasy, or it may be projected onto a person or group, or onto inanimate objects (e.g., buildings, ships, or cities). The virtual body, unlike the ego of classic Freudian theory, is not a transhistorical entity that exists outside of culture and inside one person, but a historically, socially, and geographically contingent projection of personal and also group identity. Though virtual bodies are fluid and evanescent, they are some extent generalizable--that is one premise of this essay: that one can posit many virtual bodies for a given time period. These are often templates of shared bodily anxieties and fantasies that nevertheless may have varied from person to person. We shall see several such bodies animating the poetry of Maffio Venier and Veronica Franco--the imagined bodies of prostitutes, sexual deviants, amazons, and many others.

The Syphilitic Imaginary

Syphilis had a significant and wide-ranging impact on the available range of corporeal fantasies in the early modern era. Syphilographers, early modern and modern alike, have studied the effect of the dreaded disease on the social, political, and spiritual lives of sixteenth-century Europeans. In his History of Syphilis, Claude Quetel traces the vectors of the epidemic, which may have been brought back from the New World (though historians continue to debate the origins of the illness), and which seems to have appeared in Italy in 1494, with the arrival of the mercenary army of Charles VIII of France. Certain of these soldiers carried syphilis with them, infecting the population with the virulent disease. In the following year Charles' troops were demobilized, and soldiers returning home and/or fleeing from the disease would spread the disease, that quickly became a near-global epidemic (Quetel 8-16).

Early medical commentators on syphilis, such as Gaspar Torella and Francisco Lopez de Villalobos, Jacques de Bethencourt, and Girolamo Fracastoro, detailed the symptoms of the disease, which proved most virulent in the first decades after its appearance in Europe, and which became marginally less severe by the end of the sixteenth century. (10) Their treatises, while not in agreement as to the causes of the disease, collectively create a portrait of the ravaging symptoms of syphilis on the body: initially, large, open sores on the genitals, together with a hardening of the surrounding tissues; terrible pains in the limbs, head, and neck; ulcerous pox erupting across the body; the loss of hair on the body; and tertiary damage to the nose, larynx, and bodily organs.

Frequently abandoned by doctors, syphilitics often relied on surgeons, barbers, or others even less proficient for treatment. This disastrous cure specified that ointments and frictions of mercury be applied to the body of the sufferer, and sometimes fumigations of mercury, as well. Mercury treatments caused one's teeth to fall out, generated large amounts of foul drool and an ungodly bodily stench. Mercury treatments could also result in neurological damage, indicated by symptoms such as shaking and paralysis. Clearly, if the disease did not kill the patient, the cure was likely to do so (Quetel 28-31, Fabricius, Syphilis in Shakespeare's England 38).

Perhaps the most significant feature of syphilis, for the purposes of this argument, was that the disease was increasingly difficult to hide and, in later stages, was likely to result in disfigurement and perhaps madness. (11) Syphilitics, associated in the early modern cultural imaginary with lepers and other pariahs, were at various times exiled from cities, confined to primitive and barbaric hospitals, and in other ways marginalized or cast out by those terrified by their illness and disfigurement.

The blight of syphilis was not, as we know, resolved until comparatively recent times, with the advent of antibiotics after World War II. Intriguingly the disappearance of syphilis after its centuries-long devastation in populations around the world has resulted in a certain amnesia about its impact on history--and certainly on the history of the body. Countering that amnesia, Johannes Fabricius has described the "syphilitic shock" of the Renaissance. Fabricius argues that European society at the end of the fifteenth century was a permissive one, and that many individuals at all levels of society enjoyed a sexual freedom "not realized since antiquity" (17). If indeed a certain hedonism was the mark of late fifteenth-century sexual mores in Europe, that freedom would soon be challenged by the advent of syphilis. Marriage and fidelity would be cherished by religious reformers, and social critics would denounce prostitution and promiscuity not only as affronts to moral probity but also as serious public health threats (19-20).

But if there was an anti-promiscuity, anti-sex backlash in the sixteenth century, it does not seem to have affected Venetian social life in any predictable way. Venice saw the establishment of the Spedale degli Incurabili in the early years of the sixteenth century. (12) The creation of this hospital for victims of the Mal Francese and other extreme illnesses demonstrated "the acceptance by the Venetian government of the necessity and utility of these hospitals not just in the territory, but also in the capital itself" (Arrizabalaga, Henderson and French 165). Governmental involvement with and attention to the mal franciosati is also evident from the records of the Venetian Sanita, the civic Board of Health (165).

There was, however, a disjunction between the recognition of syphilis as a public health threat on the one hand, and on the other, the mentality of tolerance and libertinism for which early modern Venice was well known, especially regarding prostitution. Renowned throughout the world for its sex tourism, Venice was home to a vast number of prostitutes, who constituted up to one tenth of the population at various times. (13) Prostitution was, perplexingly, a growth industry in Renaissance Venice, despite the fact that the women involved in this practice were widely recognized as vectors of the disease and blamed for its spread. (14) Though married women--especially of the patriciate--were effectively quarantined in their houses, (15) men were free to pursue their pleasure as they wished--except, theoretically, with other men; at this time homosexuality was criminalized in Venice, though it remained a partly tolerated practice. (16) Sixteenth-century Venetian notions of gender morality were, as Satya Datta has suggested, "a peculiar blend of puritanism (afflicting only women in the family) and permissiveness (for men and certain groups of women)." (17) One could interpret the sequestering of wives as evidence of a desire to control women's sexuality and an obnoxious double standard, which undoubtedly it was, as well as an attempt to preserve families from the contamination of sexually transmitted diseases. If that is the case, then that sequestering also suggests secrecy or even denial--a shared state of non-recognition, a collective fantasy of bodily invulnerability in the face of very high odds of disease and/or mortality. Or perhaps it demonstrated a resignation at the inevitability of both.

Although she does not talk about denial per se, Anna Foa points out the difficulties in representing syphilis in sixteenth-century Venice. She argues that syphilis lacked an iconography of its own, and consequently drew on that of leprosy: "It was as if Christian society had already dealt with its fear of sex by symbolizing it in leprosy. Society, then, had virtually used up its metaphorical capacities.... Syphilis, specifically tied to sexual intercourse with Renaissance prostitutes, never assumed the symbolic status of a sickness/evil at the same level as leprosy--the punishment of embraces only dreamed and feared" (Foa 38).

It should also be noted that by the mid-sixteenth century, the effects of the disease seemed less virulent than they had at the onset of the epidemic over a half-century earlier. As one celebrated doctor-historian, Girolamo Rossi, wrote in his Storia di Ravenna, first published in 1572, the symptoms of the disease seemed much mitigated in his own time, a fact that he attributed either to astrological realignments or the discovery of remedies. (18) Habitual denial mingled with hope in the possibility of a cure, or at least in the available programs for treatment. In any case, prostitution in Venice remained one of the principal attractions of the city, for countless foreigners and natives alike, and syphilis remained, paradoxically, a secret malady. (19)

Maffio Contra Veronica: We find in the poems of Maffio Venier written against Veronica Franco some interesting representations of, and fantasies about, prostitution, as well as syphilis. Franca, credeme, che, per San Maffio [Believe Me, Franca, That by Saint Maffio], the first and least offensive poem in the series of three about Veronica Franco, gives a clue in its title to the poet's identity. However, it is likely that Veronica was uncertain about who had authored the capitolo, supposing her lover Marco Venier wrote it, rather than his cousin Maffio (Dazzi 27, 46; Jones and Rosenthal 17). The speaker declares his desire for Franco, yet complains about her high fees:
 Intendo che, quando'un ve vuol basar,
 Vole cinque o sie scudi, e con fadiga
 Con i cinquanta ve lasse chiavar.
 [I understand that she wants five or six scudi / if you want to
 kiss her, / and she'll barely let you screw her for fifty.] (20)

Though Maffio almost certainly exaggerates Veronica's price scale, (21) he feigns outrage that Veronica charges for sex.

Maffio praises her good looks and presentation, but states that she is not worth the price:
 No perche vu no sie bella e pulia
 Cara, dolce, gentile costuma,
 Ma perche mi ho st'umor, sta bizaria:

 Me tagiarave el cazzo, e, despera,
 De sti cogioni faria una fortagia,
 Co' pagasse una volta, co' ho chiava. (Dazzi 23-24)
 [It's not because you're not beautiful and polished, / Lovely,
 sweet, kind and well-mannered, / But because I have this humor,
 this eccentricity: // I would cut off my member, and in despair /
 Have my balls made into an omelette / If I were ever to pay the
 person I screwed.]

The poet's "bizaria," his "eccentricity," arises from his desire to preserve his own bodily integrity, which he envisions as graphically undone--by himself--if he were to trade money for sex. To hire a courtesan would be tantamount to doing violence to his own masculinity.

Masculinity may be also at stake in another stanza of the poem:
 Se paga le puttane de bordello
 Che a tutti i muodi se fa bisegar
 E spesso ha falla buso e a manganello. (Dazzi 26)
 [Whores in brothels get paid / For doing it every which way / Often
 mistaking the bore for the artillery.]

Almost in passing, Maffio hints at the "sexual deviance" of prostitutes and of the men who frequent them. How exactly that might work he leaves to the imagination. It should be noted, however, that while prostitution was tolerated in Renaissance Venice, certain forms of intercourse were not. Sodomy between men and women, or between men and men, was, for example, stigmatized and sometimes severely punished (Ruggiero, Boundaries of Eros 109-45). It is not clear, however, whether Maffio implies a specific sexual act by "ha falla buso e a manganello'; he could also be referring to female dominance, sexual or otherwise. Franco, though a courtesan rather than a common prostitute, leaves herself open to such charges of deviance by charging for her services, as does her clientele.

In the second poem in the series, An fia, comodo? Ache muodo ziogheno? [Wouldn't you like that? How should we play?], Maffio launches a deeply ad feminam attack. Each part of Veronica's body is profoundly ugly, wasted, destroyed:
 Se dise co' una in ossi xe reduhta
 Chela somegia Veronica Franca,
 Che no ghe xe de ti la piu destrutta. (Dazzi 31)
 [They say that reduced to her very bones / she resembles
 Veronica Franco, / and that no one is more destroyed that
 she is.]

As Margaret Rosenthal notes, the poem offers an anti-blazon describing infected and horrific body parts (Honest Courtesan 56). This attack on Franco also contrasts with and undermines the blazons by male lovers that were written to Franco and that she included in her publication of the Terze rime, perhaps to counteract the damage done by Maffio. What is striking about this second in the series of three poems attacking Franco is that here he switches from an attack on her practice to an attack on her body, suggesting that it is wasted by age and disease.

It is the third and last poem, however, that presents the most extreme images of Veronica's body. Veronica, ver unica puttana describes a syphilitic "mostro in carne umana" [monster in human flesh, Dazzi 37]. Maffio's virtual Veronica, the "adopted daughter of the French disease," sends so many men to the hospitals that these institutions send her gift baskets at Easter and Christmas:
 E te manda da Pasqua e da Nadal
 Un sturuol de regallia ogni ospedal.
 No estu del gran mal
 Francese la diletta fia adottiva ... ? (Dazzi 38)
 [And at Easter and Christmastime / every hospital sends you
 a gift basket. / Are you not the beloved adopted daughter / of
 the French disease?"]

Pocky, stinky, encrusted with boils that she picks and sells for fertilizer, Veronica is a one-woman "guerra contra la sanita" [a war against public health] and a "[m]are del morbo" [a sea of pestilence]. Maffio has gone from complaining about her high fees in the first poem to attempting to destroy her business and her reputation with a syphilo-gynephobic tirade.

Maffio imagines alternately the corrupted exterior and the frightening interior spaces of Veronica's body. Her external body is a frightening spectacle and a public nuisance; her interior is a public space, an open grave into which hapless men may find themselves buried. With unabashed, folkloric gynephobia, Maffio recounts the story of a certain client from Treviso who met his end when accidentally suffocated by one of Veronica's pendulous breasts. To hide the deed, she buries the man inside her body. (22) In another tercet, her box is bigger than a boat; her anus bigger than a washtub; she is the queen of the bordello:
 Potta pi larga, che no xe un battello,
 Bus de culo pi largo d'un mastello,
 Rezina del bordello. (Dazzi 38)

What is interesting about this poem, if we may call it that, is that Veronica's virtual body expands in Maffio's fantasy far beyond the borders of her physical frame. Sometimes immense and engulfing, other times diffuse and formless, she threatens to contaminate her neighborhood and indeed the city "con el putrefar l'aer d'intorno" [by putrifying the atmosphere, Dazzi 40]. With that line and others Maffio compares Veronica to the plague, which, in fact, would claim one quarter of the population of Venice between the years 1575-1577. (23) It is worth noting that Maffio's verse and Veronica's edition of the Terze rime would have been circulated and/or published shortly after the onset of the plague in the fall of 1575. Veronica is "el summario d'ogni malattia": syphilis, plague, leprosy, and every other disease, for that matter (Dazzi 40). Alas, there exists no remedy--"no val recetta / Ne medesina eletta" to defend against the contagion she spreads (Dazzi 39).

The poem ends strangely. The speaker calls Veronica a cliff ("un precipitio"), a depth ("un profondo"), an abyss ("un'abisso"), and a chaos ("un chaos") (Dazzi 40). Though Maffio claims mastery over his subject matter, Veronica's body, he seems dwarfed by the abyss, the chaos, that threatens to engulf him. Veronica's malignant force is far greater than his own, and that is the problem and irony of the poem.

The poem Veronica, ver unica puttana must have elicited a complicated response from its audience. The speaker forces his listeners or readers to confront the reality of syphilis, as well as plague and other diseases, while enabling them to envision that threat as contained within the virtual body of a scapegoat. The poem does not contain that threat, but implicitly requires the containment or exile of the source of contagion. Most likely these repulsive images of Veronica Franco inspired not only laughter, but also fear or dread, among members of her coterie.

It is also possible that the largely male audience of Domenico Venier's salon may well have identified with the reviled body of the courtesan--at least on some level--while consciously maintaining a psychological and emotional distance from a pollution that was, after all, confined to prostitutes--or so they might have wished.

Veronica contra Maffio: Veronica herself was called upon for a rebuttal. Interestingly, nowhere in Franco's replies to Maffio Venier does she deny that she has syphilis. As noted below, the evidence for her illness is inconclusive, though suggestive. But regardless of whether she did or did not suffer from that professional hazard, her virtual counterpart did. In other words, the abject body in Venier's poems had a life and reality of its own, tapping into the syphilitic imaginary of the culture. Franco chooses not to address her virtual counterpart directly, but rather to envision an alternative body for herself and for her audience. The body she portrays is healthy, beautiful, and exceedingly strong.

In Capitolo XXIII of the Rime, Veronica asks an unnamed patron, perhaps Domenico Venier, for advice on handling her problem: "un certo uomo indiscreto" [a certain indiscreet man]. (24) She seeks advice from her friend "expert in duelling":
 voglio, prima ch'io giunga al trar de l'armi,
 il mio parer communicar con voi,
 e con voi primamente consigliarmi;
 e se determinato fia tra noi
 che con gli effetti io debba risentirmi,
 non saro pigra a pigliar l'armi poi. (232-33)
 [I want before I come to pull out weapons, / to communicate
 my opinion to you / and above all to ask you for counsel, /
 and if between us we should decide / that I should express my
 resentment in deeds, / then I won't hesitate to take up arms.]

In this poem, the duel in question is fantasized as physical, rather than verbal; Veronica imagines doing violence--even killing--her adversary. However, she is not sure that she wants to "bruttar di quel sangue queste mani, / ch'e di malizia e di viltate infetto" (240-41; [soil] these hands of mine with that blood, / infected with malice and cowardice both). (25) Significantly, she imagines taking on the masculine role of duelist or warrior, though she seeks the permission of her male patron while doing so.

Franco's most pointed response to Maffio, entitled D'ardito cavalier non e prodezza [It is not a brave knight's gallant deed], appears as Capitolo XVI of the Rime. She opens by claiming the moral high ground. The author of the scurrilous poems has acted in an ungallant fashion by dealing "gravi colpi di mortal ferute" [blows that meant her death] to Veronica, an unarmed woman (160-61). Many times he has struck her naked female breast ("feminil petto ignudo"), and pulled his bloody weapons out of her side. (26) He wounds her so gravely that she is uncertain of her survival.

Veronica emphasizes her extreme vulnerability, only to point out that her vulnerability has diminished: "quella piaga acerba s'e saldata" (160-61; the bitter wound has finally healed). Her infected wound has healed, thanks to bitter medicines and the power of steel and fire:
 e cosi ancor le medicine amare
 Rendon salute; e'l ferro e'l foco s'usa
 le putrefatte piaghe a ben curare. (162-63)
 [And bitter medicines likewise bring health, / And we
 make use of steel and fire / To clean and cauterize infected

Here she indirectly counters Maffio's depiction of her as a scabby and infected mess by presenting an alternative virtual body that is healthy, strong, and no longer wounded. What wounds there were had been caused not by disease, but by one vindictive man.

This virtual Veronica only looks "moll[e] and delicat[a]" [tender and delicate]. She presents the seductive, feminine qualities of her body, while simultaneously emphasizing her will to combat with Maffio. She has studied the art of arms and is now prepared to do battle with the cowardly poet:
 vi mostrero quanto al vostro prevalglia
 il sesso feminil; pigliate quali
 volete armi, e di voi stesso vi caglia,
 ch'io vi respondero di colpi tali,
 il campo a voi lasciando elegger anco,

 ch'a questi forse non sentiste eguali. (164-65)
 [I'll show you how far the female sex / excels your own. Arm
 yourself however you please / and take good heed for your
 survival, / for I will answer you with blows / (though leaving
 the choice of field to you) / unlike any you've ever felt
 before.] (27)

Diberti Leigh remarks that Franco presents herself as a heroine worthy of Ariosto or Tasso (162), though she quickly clarifies that her weapons are really words, not swords. Likewise Rosenthal notes that in the ten-zone "wordplay is her weapon in the struggle for dominance over her accuser" (Honest Courtesan 180). Virtually speaking, words are swords with which the phallic and now invulnerable Veronica will cut down the virtual Maffio, whose manhood is under attack.

Specifically she charges him with a lack of interest in the female sex:
 Certo d'un gran piacer voi sete privo,
 a non gustar di noi la gran dolcezza;
 ed al mal uso in cio la colpa ascrivo. (164-65)
 [It is certain that you miss great pleasure, / By being unable to
 savor our sweetness, / and I blame your bad habits for being the

In homophobic Venice, Franco's reference to her adversary's "mal uso" was a blow that Maffio may have felt sharply. In this way Veronica attempts to turn the tables, probably in an effort to make him the audience's scapegoat.

Much has been made of the conclusion of Capitolo XVI, in which Veronica alludes to her attacker's poem and attempts to commandeer it. She does not, in fact, go beyond Maffio's first line, sticking with the phrase "ver unica" [verily unique].
 Quella di cui la fama e gloriosa,
 e che 'n bellezza od in valor eccelle,
 senza par di gran lunga virtuosa,
 "unica" a gran ragion vien che s'appelle.... (168-69)
 [A woman whose fame makes her right to be proud, / Who stands out
 for beauty or for courage, / And far exceeds all others in virtue--/
 Such a woman is rightly called "unique"....]

To sum up her argument, Maffio doesn't speak proper Venetian, or he wouldn't misuse the word "unique," which is actually an appropriate epithet for a woman such as herself--a woman of fame, beauty, glory and virtue.

This virtual body is not only virtuous, but in some sense private, as well. If Maffio had insisted that Veronica Franco's body was a public body, as well as a space open to the public, Veronica withdraws her virtual self from the public sphere--the streets of Venice--and places it within a quasi-mythological setting, out of time and history. Moreover, Franco represents the exterior of her body only, closing its interior spaces to public view. This Veronica, of fixed rather than floating dimensions, impenetrable and inviolable, offers a striking contrast to Maffio's version. The Veronica of his third poem was described as having "nessuna parte intrega" [no whole part, Dazzi 39]. This Veronica has integrity in the moral, and especially in the physical sense. Her body is discreet, whole, strong, defended, and autonomous. In a sense, she embodies the Renaissance self as some today would imagine it: an individual free to control her own destiny.

This was a complicated assertion of female subjectivity and authority in the male space of Domenico Venier's academy. In making this assertion, Veronica sought to negotiate the ambivalent desire or outright hostility directed toward her, asserting control over the representation of her own public-private body. Interestingly, she accepts the epithet of prostitute ("meretrice") that Maffio has applied to her, rather than insisting on the higher status label cortigiana. However, she imagines that Maffio has redefined the label through "unica."
 E se ben "meretrice" mi chiamate,
 o volete inferir ch'io non vi sono,
 o che ve n'en tra tali di lodate.
 Quanto le meretrici hanno di buono,
 quanto di grazioso e di gentile,
 esprime in me del parlar vostro il suono. (168-71)
 [And though you call me "prostitute," / either you imply that I'm
 not one of them / Or that among them some merit praise. / Whatever
 goodness prostitutes may have, / Whatever grace and nobility of
 soul, / The sound of your word assigns to me.]

Unica implies, in other words, that prostitutes are, or can be, good, gracious, and kind; by turning Maffio's words against him, she attempts to replace one virtual body with another. It is highly significant that in these stanzas Veronica identifies with other women of her trade-those who have "some goodness"--an identification to which I shall return later on in this essay.

She closes by challenging her adversary to another verbal duel and threatens: "Voi non avrete incontro a me refugio" [You will have nowhere to run from me, 170-71]. She offers him peace, but only on the condition that he leaves off his attacks. It appears, in fact, that he did, for we have no record of any further attacks by Maffio contra Veronica.

The Outcome: Who won this contest of words? Though we cannot answer this question with any certainty, the answer must certainly have depended on the persuasive force of competing virtual Veronicas. Would the audience have been more unsettled by a representation of a syphilitic prostitute or by a woman warrior thrashing a man not inclined to women? Was the image of a polluted monster more powerful than that of a phallic amazon--or vice versa? One might imagine that the identifications of the audience members at the Ca' Venier moved in sometimes contradictory directions.

I have already suggested that they would not have been disinterested spectators of a humorous quarrel. They may have participated in the jokes made at Veronica's expense, if in fact they knew from the beginning who had written the poems and protected the author's identity with their silence. But Maffio's attacks, though targeting Veronica, might well have been felt by most of the men in the salon--those who had slept with Veronica or with any other courtesan, or with any woman or man. The virtual Veronica of Maffio's third poem may well have posed a psychological threat to the entire audience, to the extent that they were confronted with the specter of disease and mortality-Veronica's, as well as their own--and by the indisputable link between sex and death in Venice.

In truth, both poems, both sets of corporeal images, were comic and grotesque, appealing and unappealing. The syphilitic imaginary was a space that men might like to visit, but not for long and mainly for laughs. One might say the same about Franco's stylized fantasy of male-female armed combat. The depiction of Veronica as virtual amazon may have facilitated her audience's denial of the deeply unpleasant reality of syphilis. However, in order to engage that fantasy of corporeal invulnerability, they would have had to identify with a female virtual body. This was Veronica's subversive challenge to her audience, as well as her attempt to salvage her reputation and career.

In an interesting case of "what goes around comes around," Maffio Venier, like thousands of his countrymen, contracted syphilis (reputedly in Constantinople, in 1580) and died from it in 1586 at the reasonably early age of 36 (Rosenthal 49). He did not ultimately prosper in his career as a poet or a prelate (Rosenthal 49-50).

It is highly likely that Veronica, like her nemesis Maffio, was also afflicted with syphilis. Certainly this was the one of the key risks of her profession, as she notes in a letter to a woman about to prostitute her own daughter. To join the ranks of the oldest profession, in Veronica's eyes, was to "[rush] toward the shipwreck of your mind and your body," as she so candidly stated to the unnamed recipient of that letter:
 It's a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason, to
 subject one's body and labor to a slavery terrifying even to
 think of. To make oneself prey to so many men, at the risk of
 being stripped, robbed, even killed so that one man, one day,
 may snatch away from you everything you've acquired from many
 over such a long time, along with so many other dangers of
 injury and dreadful contagious diseases; to eat with another's
 mouth, sleep with another's eyes, move according to another's will,
 obviously rushing toward the shipwreck of your mind and your
 body--what greater misery? What wealth, what luxuries, what
 delights can outweigh all this? Believe me among all the world's
 calamities this is the worst. And if to worldly concerns you add
 those of the soul, what greater doom and certainty of damnation
 could there be? (Poems and Selected Letters 39) (28)

There is, in sum, nothing to recommend the career of a courtesan. No amount of money can offset the damage afflicted on a woman's body, as well as her psyche. The author speaks as one who knows.

In the undated Familiar Letter 44, Veronica asks her patron Domenico Venier, uncle to the hated Maffio, for the use of a wheelchair. She claims to have hurt her knee by piercing it with a hair pin, creating an injury that has nearly caused the loss of her leg. (29) In its later stages, syphilis begins to eat away at the bones of the body, especially at the knees or on the tibia, and often causes excruciating stabbing pains. Perhaps Veronica's reference to being pierced with a needle was a metaphoric description of her illness--what she felt, rather than what actually happened to her. Though it is difficult to determine from this letter the true nature of her malady, Veronica may be describing obliquely the symptoms of secondary or tertiary syphilis.

Veronica's literary and economic fortunes may also have waned after this controversy, though the evidence is ambiguous and difficult to interpret. Arguably she was at the zenith of her career in 1575, the year that witnessed some portion of this debate, the publication of her Rime and a collection of poems that she edited, and the onset of the plague in Venice. In 1580 she published an edition of her letters and also battled the Inquistion. (30) She seems to have left her profession(s) at about that time. By 1582 she was impoverished and seems to have remained so until the time of her death in 1591 (Rosenthal 176). The tenzone may well have represented the turning point in her career.

As for the audience of the tenzone, the spectators at the Ca' Venier, their voyage into the cultural imaginary of the verbal duel was ostensibly brief. These spectators could and probably did retreat into the safety of their own imagined health and well-being, away from the liminal figures who fought a verbal/virtual battle in the Ca' Venier. However, such fantasies of corporeal security could not have been sustained for long; the plague, a cure for habitual denial, brought Venice back to reality in that very year.

Veronica and Maffio's conflict faded into the background as this much larger drama took center stage. Yet the virtual bodies they created would remain emblematic of their century. Maffio imagined a virtual scapegoat for all bodily anxieties--especially syphilis--to be abjected by Venier's circle of writers and intellectuals, and by Venice in general. Veronica's response took the form of an androgynous, erotic, and invulnerable virtual body designed for maximum freedom and autonomy. Incompatible and mutually exclusive, these competing visions of the corporeal attest to the unresolved social and psychological conflicts within the hedonistic culture that entertained these fantasies.


As modern readers of the tenzone, we seek to understand not only the individual circumstances that led to this conflict, but also the collective mentalities from which it emerged. Increasingly, historians and psychologists are willing to set aside the notion of "an ahistorical and universal psychic reality" (31) in favor of a hermeneutics of the mind that allows for differences and variations, as well as constants and continuities, in the structures of human mental life across temporal and geographic distances. A great deal more work will be required in order to understand this changing paradigm more fully as it applies to the early modern period. Hence the conclusions I shall draw here are necessarily speculative. (32)

In this essay I have explored paired sets of fantasies that were circulated or performed before the members of the Ca' Venier. I have argued that the tenzone was not just a power struggle between two rivals seeking status within their group, each at the expense of the other; rather, their conflict was one in which the audience, as well as the performers, had a stake. Modern readers may have a stake in the argument, as well, though not necessarily for the same reasons. Certain features of that argument were specific to the cultural milieu of Cinquecento Venice, and it is those differences that I highlight next. There are many variables in that equation, many factors that helped form the social and psychological backdrop for these literary expressions. Three significant and interconnected contexts are the following: 1) the outpouring of eros represented by the vast sex trade of the Republic, manifested in the visual arts, (33) in clothing, and in other material aspects of culture, and refracted as the Venetian ethos of social tolerance or libertinism; 2) the sequestration of women, especially of the patriciate, in their homes, and the exclusion of virtually all women from public life; and 3) the blight of syphilis, which linked eros and thanatos in the cultural imaginary in new ways, and which was simultaneously conflated with other, more devastating plagues--especially the Black Death. These three contexts help shed light on the social organization of that city in the sixteenth century, revealing the particular vulnerability, the vibrancy, and also violence of that culture. This violence was the obverse of libertinism--namely, its fear, repression, and the assignation of blame. The emergence of a terrifying disease directly linked to sexuality generated a reactionary pressure to control, to scapegoat, to blame--precisely as a means of containing a threat that could not be cured, contained or fully understood.

The desire to ascribe blame to a person or group for the spread of a disease was, of course, not unique to the syphilis epidemic of the early modern era. Susan Sontag has analyzed the metaphors that attach to certain maladies, highlighting continuities, as well as dissimilarities, in the representations of various plagues:
 The most feared diseases, those that are not simply fatal but
 transform the body into something alienating, like leprosy and
 syphilis and cholera and (in the imagination of many) cancer,
 are the ones that seem particularly susceptible to promotion
 to "plague." Leprosy and syphilis were the first illnesses to
 be consistently described as repulsive. It was syphilis that,
 in the earliest descriptions by doctors at the end of the
 fifteenth century, generated a version of the metaphors that
 flourish around AIDS: of a disease that was not only repulsive
 and retributive but collectively invasive. (Sontag 45-46)

Repulsive, retributive, and invasive are qualifiers not only of these diseases, but also of the bodies that carry them. We can observe these metaphors operating in Maffio Venier's projections of a virtual Veronica, laden with multiple plagues and contaminating in the extreme, a vehicle for the collective fears of that time and place. But which was the greater plague for Maffio? Was it a lethal and corrosive physical illness, which he pinned on Veronica Franco, a convenient and proximate scapegoat? Or was the illness Veronica herself, a public woman contaminating a male public space with her presence--in which case syphilis and other plagues served as metaphors for the threat posed by Veronica Franco, figured as an embodiment of lethal alterity that Maffio sought to abject from the domain of the Ca' Venier.

Feminist critics from Joan Kelly forward have questioned whether women had a Renaissance, observing that the suppression or exclusion of women seemed to have been on the up swing in the sixteenth century. (34) The syphilis epidemic was but one variable--yet a significant one--in this complicated and perplexing equation of early modern misogyny. In my reading of the tenzone, the gynephobia of Maffio's poem was not random misogyny, but the distillation of a heightened sense of male vulnerability particular to that historical moment, as well as to Maffio himself.

Undoubtedly that same historical moment also produced a heightened and differential sense of female vulnerability. Veronica Franco coped with the general economic, social, physical, and psychological risks of her life as a courtesan, as well as the specific vulnerability induced by Maffio Venier's aggression toward her, in a variety of ways. One strategy was to resist Maffio's abjection by embracing it. In assuming the derisive epithet "meretrice" in Capitolo XVI, Veronica Franco offered a radical performance of her gendered subjectivity. By accepting that title, she also identified, at least to a point, with a large caste of female sex workers I the thousands of ordinary prostitutes from whom Franco had, as a cortigiana honesta, built a career out of distinguishing herself. (35) Maffio Venier's vicious attacks provided her the opportunity, painful as it must have been, for a more visible mode of "coming out" as a public woman--i.e., as a prostitute and as a woman writer. We might compare her self-assertion to that of gay activists in the early years of the AIDS epidemic--those who reappropriated the term "queer" as their epithet; in doing so, they too laid claim to public space. A certain "meretricious" female subjectivity in the Renaissance, (36) like queer subjectivity later on, may have solidified, slowly but surely, as a direct and differential response to the blame placed upon it. That is to say, a new model of public female agency began to crystallize during the early modern era around the combinate notions of sexual deviance and defiance, and around a set of corporeal vulnerabilities, real and imagined. Of a highly particular intersection of desire and fear I have attempted a reconstruction, while also proposing that we view this strange crossing as a microcosm of much larger forces of social and psychological change. It is by recognizing the body as the locus of such changes, and the battleground, that we can arrive at a deeper engagement with this history.


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University of Texas at Austin


* I would like to thank Marilyn Migiel and Irene Eibenstein-Alvisi, as well as my editor and readers of Italica, for their help and suggestions for this essay. Students of my "Did Women Have a Renaissance" graduate seminar at the University of Texas at Austin provided valuable feedback. Finally, a K. Garth Huston and Fletcher Jones Foundation Fellowship from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, enabled me to conduct some of my research for this essay. To all of you I express my gratitude.

(1) This growing interest in the body is partly the effect of Foucault's body-oriented critiques of power, from Folie et deraison (1961; Madness and Civilization) to Surveiller et punir (1975; Discipline and Punish), and Histoire de la sexualite (1976; History of Sexuality), to name but a few. As Elam has noted, "One of the more striking events in recent critical discourse, especially in the field of Renaissance drama, has been the shift from a primary concern with 'language' to a primary concern with the body.... The reaction against the linguist turn and its prophylactic sterilizing of the body has been what we might term the corporeal turn, which has shifted attention from the word to the flesh, from the semantic to the somatic; or rather has insisted on the priority of the somatic over the semantic" (142-43).

(2) Consider, for example, the post-structuralist, post-Lacanian philosophy of Grosz, as well as Haraway's denaturings of the human body in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women and Stone's provocative study of virtual reality in The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age.

(3) Recent examples of such hybrid theorizing would be The Body in Parts, edited by Hillman and Mazzio; Bynum's Fragmentation and Redemption, and Sawday's The Body Emblazoned.

(4) I am indebted to Bynum's essay, "Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist's Perspective," for her insights into the sources of contemporary corporeal anxieties and of body studies criticism, as well as her analysis of certain continuities between the corporeal identity crises of the past and of the present. The contemporary denaturalization of the body, witnessed in innovations such as cloning and genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics, and virtual reality and the Net, calls into question the very idea of the human. Corporeal identity has never been more ambiguous, but that is the subject for another essay.

(5) Veronica's fame as a courtesan and as a poet and personality extended well outside of Venice. When Henry III of France visited the city in 1574, he made a point of spending a night with her. As Malpezzi Price writes, "The enjoyment of her company became the climax of the king's Venetian stay, and Franco's body became the personification of Venetian beauty and hospitality" (84).

(6) It is difficult to know when these poems by Maffio Venier were written, and likewise Franco's responses to them. In Veronica Franco, editors Jones and Rosenthal place the debate in the 1570s (15). In The Honest Courtesan, Rosenthal states that Maffio's satirical verses against Franco began circulating in Venetian literary circles in 1575, and that they were written in that same year (49, 51). I am inclined to concur with the more precise dating.

(7) Domenico Venier's salon began to develop in the 1530s. It included at various times literati such Girolamo Molino (1500-1569), Federigo Badoer (1518-1593), Sperone Speroni (1500-1588), and many others. The composer Parabosco was also affiliated with the group. See Feldman, "The Academy of Domenico Venier," 477-80. Domenico was also a renowned patron of female literary talent. His proteges included Moderata Fonte, Irene di Spilimbergo, Gaspara Stampa, Tullia d'Aragona, and Veronica Gambara (Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan 89).

(8) Interestingly, the academy at the Ca' Venier, though renowned for the sophistication of its literary discussions, also celebrated bawdy or obscene poetry and songs in dialect. Maffio's work would be a sample of such, and Domenico himself seems to have written risque verses in dialect. As Feldman writes, "This eager simultaneous accommodation of two such opposed stylistic levels, high and low, may seem to us paradoxical; but it was not so in the world of Renaissance styles and conventions, epitomized by the Venetians' practical-minded acceptance of such contradictory modes and their arduous attempts to explain and order them by appeal to Cicero" (497-98).

(9) Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan; Maraini, Veronica Franco; Herskovitz and Milchan, dir., Dangerous Beauty.

(10) Gaspar Torella, Tractus cum consiliis [contra] Pudendagram, seu morbum Gallicum (Rome, 1497) and Dialogus de dolore, cum tractatu de ulceribus in pudendagra evenire solitis (Rome, 1500); Francisco Lopez de Villalobos, Sumario de la Medicina en romance trovado con un tratado sobre las pestiferas Bubas ... (Salamanca, 1498); Jacques de Bethencourt, Nova pen--itentialis Quadragesima, nec non purgatorium in morbum Gallicum, sive Venereum ... (Paris, 1527); Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Verona, 1530) and De contagione et contagiosis morbis (1550) (Qurtel 19-23, 52-53, 56-57).

(11) The noted sixteenth-century army physician Ambroise Pare documented how late-stage syphilitics might look: "For some lose one of their eyes, others both. Some lose a great portion of the eyelids, othersome look very ghastly.... Some lose their hearing, others have their noses fall flat, the palate of their mouth perforated with the loss of the bone.... Some have their mouths drawn awry, others their yards cut off, and women a great part of their privities tainted with corruption.... It fairs far worse with these, who have all their bodies deformed by a leprosy arising there-hence, and have all their throttles and throats eaten with putrid and cancerous ulcers, their hair falling off from their heads, their hands and feet cleft with tetters and scaly chinks" ("Of the lues venerea," The Works of That Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey, trans. Thomas Johnson (London: 1649) 465; spellings and punctuation modernized).

(12) The Incurabili was said to be founded by two noblewomen, Maria Malipiera Malipiero and Marina Grimani, in 1522. Within two years of its establishment, it housed eighty individuals, including its staff. The hospital was greatly expanded between 1572 and 1591, with separate wards for men and women (Arrizabalaga, Henderson, and French 165, 179-83).

(13) This estimate, perhaps inflated, is based on reports by the diarist Marino Sanuto and the Catholic-Reformist preacher Fra Bernardino da Siena, who claim that 10,000 to 12,000 prostitutes lived in Venice at the beginning of the century, more than one-tenth of the population. See Lawner 14 and Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan 11.

(14) Winfried Schleiner, among others, has noted that women, rather than men, were blamed for spreading the disease, though female virgins were also thought by some to have the ability to cure the disease--through intercourse.

(15) Diberti Leigh comments on the restricted options for Renaissance women, who were effectively being closed off from public life: "Comunque stessero le cose, sia chela donna fosse considerata come un essere inetto, incapace di badare a se stesso, sia che ella fosse vista come una fonte di tentazione per l'uomo e quindi di turbativa della pace sociale, ella doveva essere rinchiusa, tenuta sotto controllo, protetta forse ..." (41). See also the excellent discussions of the physical and psychological confinement of Venetian patrician women, and of the ambivalent treatment of courtesans and prostitutes, in Malpezzi Price 85-98 and in Wills' chapter on women (157-68).

(16) On Venetian views regarding male homosexuality, see, e.g., Lawner 16-17, Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan 23-24, and especially Ruggiero 109-45). Despite the stigma and penalties attached to sodomy, bordellos for male-male erotic liaisons opened in Cinquecento Venice. One historian has suggested that such sexual practices were viewed by some as less risky than those involving women, precisely because females, especially female prostitutes, were considered to be spreaders of the disease. See Corradi 29-30.

(17) Datta writes that "the equilibrium attained perhaps indicates why Venice won itself an international reputation for nurturing openness and tolerance at the social level" (179).

(18) Rubei Hieronymi, Historiar. Ravennat. cited in Corradi 89: "Superioribus annis cum cruciatus implacabiles cieret, et ulcera, quibus vel ossa misere, ac foede rodebantur, nunc plurimum mitigatus, vel remediorum inventione, vel astrorum imminuta malignitate, in depilationem omni fere ex perte degeneravit."

(19) This phrase I take from a book of the same title, which argues that venereal disease existed in epidemic proportions in eighteenth-century Britain and France, "yet it was the great secret malady of the time" (Merians 1).

(20) Maffio's poems, unpublished until this century, have been edited by Manlio Dazzi in Il libro segreto (chiuso) di Maffio Venier (La tenzone con Veronica Franco) 23. Translations are my own.

(21) The catalogue, which exists in ms. (ca. 1564), gives a price index for "tutte le principal et piu honorate cortigiane di Venetia." The most anyone charged at that time was 30 scudi (Paulina Filla), followed by the 25 scudi fee of Livia Azalina, "princess of all the courtesans of Venice." At that stage in her career, which was quite early, Veronica charged 2 scudi, as did her mother (Masson 153 and Diberti Leigh 17ff).

(22) Ghe xe aviso / Che siando in letto un di co un a Treviso // Ghe ne cazze sul viso / Una d[e]esse, e 'l meschin puoco accorto / Se soffeghette, e ti vendendol morto // No 'l fu si presto acorto / Che ti te 'l sepellise in te la potta / Azzo no se sapesse della botta" (Dazzi 37-38).

(23) preto 124. Some 40,000 people died in this epidemic, wreaking havoc on the Venetian economy (Malpezzi Price 67).

(24) All quotations and translations of Franco's poems have been drawn from the recent bilingual edition, Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal.

(25) Poems and Selected Letters 240-41. Dazzi, in his edition of Maffio's poems contra Veronica, assumes that Capitolo XXIII is her final response to Maffio, which it may be. Interestingly, Dazzi refers to the "sangue infetto di malattia e di vilta" with which Veronica does not want to dirty her hands (47). If his reading is correct, Veronica is accusing Maffio of having an illness.

(26) As Migiel has suggested in a conversation, Veronica may be positioning herself as Christ, the ultimate innocent victim.

(27) Interestingly, Veronica uses the polite form of address with her adversary ("voi"), suggesting that she is not stooping to his level or acknowledging familiarity.

(28) In Letter 22 Franco urges a mother not to enter her daughter into the profession, partly on the grounds that courtesans were at risk of contracting terrible contagious diseases. Though she does not directly claim to have experienced this problem herself, she urges the mother in the strongest possible terms not to exploit her own child.

(29) Fortune favors me by giving me an ailment of the limbs similar to your Lordship's, having made me almost lose a leg, as if nature and art were opposed and unwilling to make me resemble you in spirit and intellect. May the wound to my body make up for the weakness of my spirit! A welcome offense, since in addition to imitating your Lordship's indisposition in this way I'll also enjoy some of your esteemed cast-offs in my need--for example, on of those wheelchairs of yours, which I beg you to send me by the bearer of this letter, so that I may profit from it in the unlucky accident to my knee, which muscle I've pieced, I don't know how, with a hair pin. And this has kept me from coming to pay you my responses in person, which I constantly do in my heart" (Letter 44, Poems and Selected Letters 44). In this puzzling and intriguing letter, Veronica identifies her ailment with Domenico's, yet says that the injury has been caused by a hair pin (or, in an alternate translation, embroidery needle). She seems to be talking about something other than a topical injury with a sharp instrument.

(30) Accused of sorcery and public prostitution by the disgruntled tutor of her children--a man who may also have been a thief in her household, Veronica was summoned before the Inquisition. Vannitelli, the tutor, urged the Inquisition to punish her severely, so that "non infetti piu questa Citta" [so that she may no longer contaminate this city]. See the chapter on Veronica's Inquisition trial in Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan 153ff. Since there was no official sentence handed down at this trial, the hearings may have been suspended.

(31) As Davoine and Gaudilliere have argued, "The constant changes of scale and the temporal paradoxes we encounter in the examples we give imply precisely that they are located with the greatest exactitude in history, space, and time" (xxvii).

(32) Readers may be perplexed by my rhetoric of "perhaps" and "it may be that" throughout the essay. It is my belief that such conclusions, even concerning our own mentalities, are not and cannot be definitive; rather, they are narratives we construct in order to explain the mysteries of the psyche. Are we asymptotically approaching an authentic explanation of the phenomena of mental life through the various discourses available to us--cognitive psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, sociology and dynamical systems theory, psychoanalysis, history, and/or literary theory? Perhaps. A fairly recent overview of the state of and relation between some of these fields--cognitive psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy--can be found in The Embodied Mind, by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch. This book is of great interest to me, a literary critic, since 1) I am removed from each of these fields or discourses and find them quite provocative, and 2) the authors appear to have no use whatsoever for information about the mind that might be provided by the discourses of the humanities (unless philosophy counts itself as one of the humanities). This is, in my opinion, a problem for further discussion.

(33) For a discussion of Venetian marriage are, see, e.g., Wills 161-68.

(34) There is a vast amount of feminist scholarship on the question of whether women had a Renaissance, but particularly germane to the question in an Italian context is the essay collection Refiguring Woman, ed. Migiel and Schiesari.

(35) Jones and Rosenthal note that meretrice was a comparatively neutral word in sixteenth-century Venice, close to the English word prostitute, and having little of the force of puttana, or whore. "Cortigiana--'courtesan'--had a different meaning. It was derived from cortigiano, meaning a man who served at court, so it had connotations of splendor and technical or at least bureaucratic expertise. The addition of onesta meant 'honored' rather than 'honest,' that is, privileged, wealthy, recognized" (2-3). When Maffio calls Veronica "meretrice," its force is not neutral, but an insult, exposing her pretensions of being someone better or more powerful that she is.

(36) The problem and paradox of being a woman on the public stage during the Renaissance--whether she was the Queen of England or a lady fish-monger--was that the stigma of the meretricious was always awaiting her.
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Title Annotation:Gender Studies
Author:Wojciehowski, Dolora Chapelle
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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