Hotel Palazzo Vitturi KEEP MY MEMORY ALIVE
by Maria Rosa Giacon ♦
Interviewer: Madame Franco, tell us about your birth. I’ve read that you came from the cittadini originari of Venice caste, but with the best will in the world, I do not exactly understand what that means…
Franco: Native-born citizens were a class above the common people, their ties with the illustrious city since time immemorial giving them higher social status. Anyway, I was born in Vinegia in 1546 to Francesco, who actually came from there…
I.: Oh, I see now! But tell me about your mother. Was she also a native-born citizen? Was she also a courtesan?
F.: My mother Paola was not of the same class. And yes, she had been a courtesan in her youth. Being such was not considered disreputable in Vinegia, unlike the street whores, who were a completely different case to ours. When I reached adolescence, she initiated me into the same profession in the Santa Maria Formosa district where I then lived, and under her guidance I practiced the profession for a fee of 2 ducats.
I.: Excuse me, but were not 2 ducats very little for the excellence of your services? Were you not perhaps one of the most beautiful and desirable courtesans in all of Venice?
F.: Vulgarly speaking, yes. But you must remember, dear Sir, that I was neither greedy nor mercenary. Money? I cared nothing for it except for taking proper care of the beauty bestowed on me by Nature. Besides, the many gentlemen, prelates and magistrates, artists and intellectuals who were graced with my favours showered me with such generous gifts that I never needed to raise my price.
I.: In conclusion, unlike the common prostitutes, you were rich…
F.: Without a shadow of doubt! And within a short time I was able to become the owner of the prestigious Palazzo Vitturi, right there, in Campo Santa Maria. I chose it for its jewel-like ancient Byzantine elegance. When the sun shone on it, it sparkled with golden wall decorations! I was enchanted by the four-light window jutting out from the piano nobile, adorned with ceramic phiales and marble tiles. I had always stopped to admire it and fantasize that one day I would be able to look out and, envied by all who saw me, contemplate the fervid comings and goings in the quarter and the view of Church of Santa Maria. And then there was the delightful mezzanine, another jewel, with its discreet three-light window. I used to think to myself it would be a place to reserve for the most intimate affairs and the very greatest depths of passion.
I.: Vitturi… What a strange name, though!
F.: Strange? You think so? Perhaps because you do not know Latin, in which it means destined for the victors. Believe me, the name of the palazzo was one of things that most fascinated me. I was convinced that in making its walls mine, I would have shared its fate and celebrated glorious victories… in the battles of love, of course! Why such a bemused look? Such an expression really does not become you, believe me!
I.: But I’m truly a little at a loss… that fact is, you are one surprise after another!
F.: Come now, my dear Sir! Who did you think you were dealing with? But I pity you and forgive you. I am well aware that my status would be incomprehensible and alien in your material society, where the oldest profession is considered despicable. You should know that the honest courtesans of Vinegia lived in respectable dwellings, and washed daily in scented water with salutary effects, and were much cleaner than gentlewomen who adopted the French fashion for disguising body odours with sickly-smelling perfumes. Their poor husbands! And as far as culture was concerned, we benefited from a refined education, and mine was particularly so, since I was truly a cut above as they say nowadays. I knew Greek, spoke French fluently, and sang in a trained, well-modulated voice, accompanying myself on the lute. I was a connoisseur of the fine arts, and more than anything else, I loved poetry, as evidenced by the verses I left, among the loveliest of the Italian sixteenth century. Only Gaspara Stampa, the Paduan, could rival Veronica Franco.
I.: It’s true, they are beautiful. Was it not you who wrote: «Female beauty was given by Heaven to be the delight of men»? However, wasn’t your mother being blasphemous when she called you Veronica? Doesn’t this name mean the true icon or image of Christ’s face?
F.: Oh, how badly you’ve put it! Among the many faults that could be ascribed to my lady mother, blasphemy is certainly not one of them, because the image of our Lord Jesus has nothing to do with it. Yes, Veronica means true icon, but of Love and Beauty.
I.: Isn’t it a little reductive though?
F.: You think it is of no significance? Then you haven’t understood anything, not even the verses you have just quoted. In my days, Love and Beauty were everything, not only for me, but also for those who received the gift of my favours, you can be sure of that!
I.: Forgive me, Madame. I have only seen Tintoretto’s portrait of you, and am unable to form a real idea of your beauty.
F.: Well then, I will make it clear to you with this brief description. I was naturally tall, without the need of any strategems. I never made use of, in fact I detested, those bejewelled chopines that other women, whores, courtesans or virtuous patricians, wore to tower over others or protect themselves from the mud on high water days. My supple gait, like the agile stride of a greyhound, meant I was able to avoid all the filth in the streets. When I went out in my moiré taffeta dresses, with sparkling silver discs at my neck (since we were forbidden to wear pearl necklaces in public), and a thin, silk zendado, or veil, pinned to my hair, I was an object of envy and admiration. My golden braids, held at the sides of my head by a double mass of interwoven flowers and silver threads, could be glimpsed through the sheer veil. I never went out with my hair loose, only whores wore it hanging round their faces, with a great quiff, like a man.
I.: Braids on both sides? I don’t understand.
F.: Of course not! You don’t have anything to compare in your fashions.
I.: Did you always wear your hair up like that?
F.: Not at all, dear Sir! You ask the most extraordinarily naive questions. I also loosened my hair of course, but only when making love. Then a coppery blonde mantle fell below my waist to cloak my nudity. There a little artifice did come into play, and Venetian women had known about it since ancient times – it was called la bionda…
I.: La bionda? And what might that have been? A kind of dye?
F.: Yes, a mixture of herbs and egg yolks to spread on the hair and leave to dry in the baking sun on the roof terraces. It was a somewhat uncomfortable procedure to be honest, but it was worth it. The result was that seductive colour you see in all the portraits of Venetian women, including that one of me by Tintoretto. And you should have seen the effect on my lovers! Admiring me covered in that red-gold mantle, they were overcome with a kind of reverential awe, almost as if they found themselves before the Virgin Mary…. Then I had to persuade them instead that I was Woman, namely a special creature to caress, kiss with inexhaustible hunger and possess with the sweetest words in the world: “Oh, Veronica, my one and only true love!” I aspired so much to hear them say this to me that I wrote
«So sweet and delicious do I become,
when I am in bed with a man
who, I sense, loves and enjoys me,
that the pleasure I bring excels all delight».
All the while knowing deep down that those words were nothing but a splendid lie. But then isn’t love as a whole?
I.: Uhm… I’m not really sure if I grasped that last concept. Tell me, what did you do to encourage your lovers to get over that shock? I would have felt it too, I’m sure!
F.: I didn’t do that much to tell the truth. It was enough to point my finger at those soft rosebuds on my snow-white breasts, of that pink that cherries also become as they ripen, et les jeux étaient faits. Their overwhelming lust would be unleashed, and I triumphed, as victorious as the name of the noble palazzo where I welcomed them. I remember as if it were yesterday that was how I won over Marco Venier. He had come to my house on the recommendation of his brother Domenico, a patron of the arts and my illustrious benefactor. He had come with a somewhat mocking air, but when he saw me in all my splendour under my cloak of hair, he was transfixed. My usual gesture not being enough to encourage him, I had to come to his aid with loving words, running my fingers again and again through the dark hair which grew thickly above his forehead. It was certainly no problem – the young Venier was so handsome! So much so that he immediately inspired great love in me, one made up of passion, but also of that tenderness that only we women know how to instill in men’s hearts. On our second meeting I led him to the mezzanine, where I had arranged a white lace-canopied bed covered with the finest sweet-smelling linen. And there, in those airy rooms, with aquamarine-coloured walls decorated with subtle flower and fruit motifs, I fell hopelessly in love with his slim, muscular body as much as with his fine, noble soul. From the morning to night to dawn the next day, we fed upon each other, touching no other food than our flesh, and drinking only from our kiss-wet mouths. We came to know each other for what we really were – two elect spirits that fate had brought together in spite of overwhelming odds, I a courtesan, and he a patrician, destined for the highest offices of the Most Serene Republic and to wed a virtuous gentlewoman.
Not for one moment did I nurture the hope that Veronica Franco could take the place of that young noblewoman. So I held no grudge against him, but just felt a great, bitter pain on the day he came and told me “My splendid, only love of my life, you, the true image of my soul, today is our last encounter. In three months I shall wed ….” And here he told me a name. I had heard of her, blessed with every quality to keep him tied to her forever – virtue, beauty, a lively mind and of the highest birth. How could I blame him? It was life that required me to step aside, to stay in my class, in my world which, despite all mutual understanding and sharing of soul and senses, was so distant from his. So I never saw him again, except at some public meeting, satisfying my hunger with a glimpse of him from behind the mask that we courtesans were obliged by the Magistrature to wear. And I was deeply wounded the day I saw the signature M. Venier beneath a sonnet which began: «Veronica, a verily unique whore»…
I.: What a cheek, that Marco of yours! He should have been ashamed of himself!
F.: No, no, don’t interrupt me, dear Sir! It was not my Marco, but his nephew, Maffìo, a despicable young man, who by writing insulting verses about me, sought to wreak revenge for my having thrown him out of my house following his violent, vulgar behaviour towards me. Fortunately, the misunderstanding was cleared up, and I was able to preserve my treasured memories intact, the only good thing left to me.
I.: So as far as I understand it, this Marco Venier was the love of your life. Were you able to recover from the cruel blow of his abandonment?
F.: Never, to tell the truth. That love was an open wound that time could not heal, but only soothe.
I.: Nevertheless, history says that you still knew great success. What can you tell us about your meeting with Henry III? It must have been exciting to be loved by a king! Is it true, though, that they asked you act as a spy?
F.: Indeed, while I was praised almost everywhere for my virtues as a poet, I also experienced an event which, at the age of twenty-eight and at the very height of my beauty, would make me famous in all assemblies. Among the magnificent honours with which our Republic welcomed Henry of Valois…
I.: So it was Henry of Valois? Not Henry III?
F.: Please, my dear Sir, do a little history revision! Your interruptions are most annoying. Give me patience! I have to explain everything the way one does with little children… So, having given up the Polish crown for the French throne, Henry visited Venice, welcomed, as I said, with the greatest honours. And among such honours was I, chosen by the Magistrature. And to answer your second question, these high ranking gentlemen said «Madame, you who are the most honoured courtesan will be treated with the highest favour by our Most Serene State if, quick-witted and discreet as you are, you report to us the secrets that Henry lets slip while in your arms”. Naturally, I promised I would. I then made ready to welcome the royal personage to the piano nobile of Palazzo Vitturi, which I had recently had frescoed by Veronese’s workshop. In the end, since the palazzo was too much in the public eye, I was persuaded by the same Magistrates to receive the future king in my other residence, in San Giovanni Grisostomo. And so everything took place there. Henry was much too wary to let anything be elicited, and moreover, he behaved like a great gentleman, to the extent that I would have been very reluctant to act as a spy. Fortunately, it was not necessary. The king was gallant, but very much in control of himself. I especially enchanted him with my manners as a woman of the world, «worthy», he declared, «to be received at the court of France! ». We discussed and conversed for the entire duration of our encounter. In short, no spark of passion was ignited, if not in extremis, and that was extinguished velociter… However, he left satisfied, showering me with generous gifts, and I reciprocated with some verses and an enamel miniature of myself.
I.: Ah! So the whole affair should be put into perspective…
F.: Yes, like all earthly things that glitter only to inexpert eyes. Excuse me, but I am a little tired and should like to leave now.
I.: One last question. I beg you, dear lady! It is said that you wanted to leave a conspicuous part of your fortune to found an asylum for fallen women, and many saw this noble gesture as a sign of your repentance.
F.: Yes, as if I had been converted, repented and mended my ways. Oh human heart, how small you are! How much pettiness is yours! No, my intention sprang only from compassion and a desire to redress the injustice of destiny. My heart bled for those unhappy creatures, prostituted by their mothers from a young age, who had conducted their business in the most wretched dives and alleys, sinking further and further into degradation. But I felt no repentance at all. What should I have repented for? For having shared always and only love? Even as I sold my favours I was directed by nothing but the generous instinct of my nature as a woman. I had worked my magic and performed all the rites our poor flesh affords us on the bodies of my lovers, always giving extreme pleasure. Was that a sin? «No, Veronica, yours was not a sin but a gift from the gods» – was how Marco comforted me, appearing through the mists of the fever that took my life at the age of 45.
Now, farewell, gentle Sir. I pray you, preserve the memory of me, Veronica.