The Venice of my imagination is a mysterious place. A place of watery reflections, swirling fog and twisting canal-ways. I have visited twice, both times in summer, and I didn’t find this Venice. But fortunately, there are other versions of the city, more like those of my dreams. One of these is the Venice of Victoria Blake. Victoria’s novel: The Return of the Courtesan (published previously in hardback as Titian’s Boatman) has just been published in paperback. The story weaves together the lives of an intriguing array of characters in 16th Century Venice, modern day New York and London. The Venice depicted here drips with atmosphere: plague-ridden but opulent, beautiful but corrupt. Its characters are as well-drawn and evocative as the city. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and encourage you to read it. If you like history, art, Venice or just a good story well told, this book offers it. So I’m very pleased to welcome Victoria Blake with a taster to whet your appetite.
Now over to Victoria to introduce the courtesan of the title…
In the sixteenth century, Venice was notorious for its courtesans. So notorious that when Shakespeare had Othello say to Desdemona, “ I took you for that cunning whore of Venice,” everyone, from the groundlings up, would have understood the allusion. In the early part of the century there were said to be roughly 11,000 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people and the writers of the time were obsessed with them. Here is Tomaso Garzoni in 1585: ‘More menacing than a lightning bolt, more horrifying than an earthquake, more venomous than a snake …’ That’s an immense amount of power to hand over to a working woman! But it also clearly shows male fear of women’s ‘unbridled’ sexuality.
My courtesan Tullia Buffo is modeled on the real life courtesan Veronica Franco. She was a woman who single-handedly supported three children, a large extended family and a household of servants. She was a respected poet and member of one of the leading literary salons of the day. She was a great supporter of other women and she tried to encourage the authorities to set up a refuge for women fallen on hard times. She was a 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 literacy amongst women was only 10-12 percent. Her intellectual life began by being privately tutored with her brothers and then continued when she was taken up by the patrician and celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, who ran a literary salon at his palace, Ca’ Venier. He not only encouraged her he also published her and by her mid twenties she was well known as a poet.
Her prominence however generated great jealously from Venier’s nephew Maffio, who in 1575 wrote a series of misogynistic verses, mocking 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…’
Oh, Maffio, really!
But Franco refused to be shamed or silenced. These outrageous slurs spurred her on and she came out all guns blazing, 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 …”
What a wonderful response! This is not a woman who would have been driven off twitter by trolls.
In the aftermath of the plague of 1575-1577 she was put on trial by the Inquisition. She survived – just, but her reputation was damaged. She died at the age of 44 in a poorer part of Venice. But through her poetry 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.
Although I used Franco as the basis for Tullia Buffo, the courtesan in my book, I give Buffo a much 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 hope Franco would approve. And I very much hope you enjoy reading my book.