A Sexual Tour of Venice: Mapping a Sixteenth-Century Catalogue of Courtesans

By Hannah Johnston

Sometime around 1565, a price-list of Venice’s cortigiane oneste, or “honest courtesans,” who served the city’s upper echelons, was published in Venice.[1] Titled Il catalogo di tutte le principali et più honorate cortigiane di Venezia (“The Catalogue of All the Principal and Most Honored Courtesans of Venice,” hereafter “the catalogue”), the catalogue was a list of two hundred and twelve courtesans in two hundred and ten entries; they were each identified by name, location, those of their pieza or go-between, and a price in scudi ranging from “dar quello si vol” (give whatever you like) to the whopping sum of 30 scudi.[2]

Figure 1. The first page of the catalogue, as reprinted in Leggi e memorie venete sulla prostituzione fino alla caduta della Republica (Venice, Italy: Published privately by the Count of Orford, 1870-72). Public domain, via Google Books.

At first glance, the catalogue seems almost mundane; scholars have largely only taken notice of it for its inclusion of famed courtesan, poet, and humanist Veronica Franco (#204). However, the catalogue contains a wealth of data that, when analysed more closely, can offer insights into how early modern readers may have viewed and used this document, as well as how the Venetian sex industry functioned in the sixteenth century.

There has been some debate over the exact intentions of the catalogue’s compiler, but, taking it for the moment at face value, its primary purpose was ostensibly to guide its reader in finding and purchasing the services of a courtesan on the list (or all of them, as a note at the end of the catalogue suggests!).[3] However, a curious reader — in the sixteenth century or today — could look at this catalogue in other ways. A vast majority of the locations listed in the catalogue can still be found in Venice today, allowing us to imagine the sex industry spatially, in almost the exact same manner in which a premodern person might have.

This snapshot, “bird’s-eye” view of the catalogue can show us patterns and trends in the Venetian sex industry that the sixteenth-century reader on the ground might have missed, but can also show us how the very real locations and individuals listed in the catalogue would have become a part of a reader’s imagined Venice.[4] Whether or not a reader was familiar himself with its winding streets, canals, and open spaces, viewing this catalogue would allow him to construct a “sexual map” of Venice, adding an additional air of fantasy to his understanding of the already myth-steeped city.

Figure 2. The courtesans of the catalogue, mapped by location. Size of points is relative to the number of courtesans listed at a single location, the largest being thirty and the smallest being one. Three courtesans’ locations could not be pinpointed because they were too vague: Franceschina Zaffetta (#103) at wooden bridge next to a baker in Cannaregio, Lugretia Mortesina (#149) somewhere in Castello, Lugretia (#160) at the head of the hall of the Visentin, and Pasqua Misocca (#194) at the “two bridges.” Rendered by the author with Palladio. An interactive map, also rendered by the author, can be found here.

Two hundred and twelve courtesans (#s 32 and 33 were double entries, advertising the “Baffe Sorelle” (Baffa sisters) and “Betta Facchina et sua Sorella,” her sister, respectively) and one hundred and twenty-eight go-betweens were spread throughout the city, along the canals and bridges, within numerous campi (squares), and around churches big and small. Just under half of the listed courtesans, around one hundred, were situated in Cannaregio, with the remaining sestieri, or districts, each holding between fourteen and twenty-five courtesans.

One woman, Chiara Buratella (#57), seems to have held something of a monopoly on the island of Giudecca. She was the only courtesan on the catalogue located there, and had two piezi, perhaps to ensure her success: a boatman named Anzolo, and Laura Grassa, herself a courtesan (#143) based at the Church of San Luca in San Marco. In stark contrast to this rather solitary worker, one could find a bustling community of over thirty-four courtesans — roughly sixteen percent of the city’s total — and thirteen go-betweens situated at and around the convent church of Santa Catarina in Cannaregio.

Figure 3. 1729 map of Venice by Homannsche Erben showing the city’s six sestieri, or districts. The pink district is Cannaregio, which held more courtesans than any other sestiere at the time of the catalogue’s publication. The orange districts are, from west to east, Santa Croce and San Marco. The yellow districts, from west to east, are San Polo and Castello, and the green district is Dorsoduro. The orange island south of the main part of the city is Giudecca, which was not one of the main sestieri but which was home to a single courtesan, Chiara Buratella (#57). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond these notable outliers, most of the courtesans were situated in groups of two to six within a single location, although they were occasionally alone. These groupings were somewhat evenly spaced, concentrated around the busier, more central areas of the city but with enough space surrounding each group to allow them a “territory” of their own. The locations listed in the catalogue centered these women around easily identifiable landmarks throughout the city, including churches, bridges, and campi, although it is likely that their exact locations would have differed somewhat from the listing.

Observing this map defines our understanding of the “center” and “periphery” of the city with respect to sex work. Even discounting Santa Catarina, Cannaregio still held around two to three times as many courtesans as any other sestiere. These women were mostly concentrated in the central part of the district, with several groups spaced at regular intervals along what is now known as the Strada Nuova and other larger roads. Throughout all of the city, more clusters of courtesans tended to emerge in areas closer to the Canal Grande. In the “center,” one might find a group of courtesans every few blocks. The periphery, on the other hand, which here included the far eastern end of Castello and the western ends of Cannaregio, Santa Croce, and Dorsoduro, as well as Giudecca, might have only one or a few courtesans, and large areas where there would be none at all.

It is possible that this distribution of courtesans reflected the spatial patterns of everyday life for these women’s clientele, that the men who sought their services tended to live and work in the areas where we find concentrated groups of courtesans. It is also possible that the Canal Grande itself allowed for a mobility which shifted the distribution of courtesans towards other factors, such as the availability of open space or lodging as well as distance from their go-betweens. This can also lead us to consider to what extent the courtesans were consciously carving out spaces for themselves within the larger topography of the city and their trade.

A reader of this catalogue, particularly one who was familiar with the city (which could include Venetians as well as frequent visitors or any traveler who could access a detailed map), would have immediately recognised most of the locations listed in it. Even if he could not afford to purchase the services of one of these women, many of whom could out-earn some of the wealthiest men in Venice, reading this list would allow him to overlay an imagined “map” of sex and luxury onto his understanding of the city.[5]

Mapping this catalogue allows us to further visualise early modern Venice’s sex industry in a way the catalogue’s readers could not, and brings forth numerous valuable questions about the structure of these women’s work and daily lives, as well as the connections they might have had to each other and the broader Venetian economy and society.

A custom Google Map of the catalogue, rendered by the author, can be found here. The author’s translation of the catalogue can be found here.

Hannah Johnston is a PhD Student in the Department of History at Stanford University. Her work focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and labour in early modern Italy. Her most recent project, titled “A Catalogue of Courtesans: Labour, Space, and the Sex Industry in Sixteenth-Century Venice,” examines the above-mentioned catalogue and the ways in which it represented Venice’s sex industry from the perspectives of those who worked in it, those who engaged with it, and those who marveled at it from afar.

You can follow Hannah on twitter @norellehan.

[1] The date of the catalogue’s publication has been continually debated, with scholars dating it mostly based on known facts about Veronica Franco’s (#204) life, as well as the date of a heresy trial for a likely printer of the catalogue, Hieronimo Calepino. See Margaret F. Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 274; Giuseppe Tassini, Veronica Franco: Celebre poetessa e cortigiana nel Secolo XVI (Venice, Italy: Alfieri Venezia, 1969), 9; Alvise Zorzi, Cortigiana Veneziana: Veronica Franco e i suoi poeti (Milan, Italy: Camunia editrice, 1986), 6.

[2] The catalogue has been reprinted numerous times. Works which have reprinted the catalogue include: Antonio Barzaghi, Donne o cortigiane? La prostituzione a Venezia, documenti di costume dal XVI al XVIII secolo (Verona, Italy: Bertani editore, 1980); Rita Casagrande di Villaviera, Le cortigiane Veneziane nel Cinquecento (Milan, Italy: Longanesi & C., 1968); Catalogo di tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venezia (Venice, Italy: I antichi editori Venezia, 2013); Leggi e memorie Venete sulla prostituzione fino alla caduta della Republica (Venice, Italy: Published privately by the Count of Orford, 1870); Giuseppe Tassini, Veronica Franco; E. Volpi, Storie intime di Venezia Repubblica (Venice, Italy: Fratelli Visentini-Editori, 1893).

[3] Regarding the debate over the catalogue’s purpose, see Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan, 274; see also Paul F. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977).

[4] I draw here, and in my larger project, upon Filipo de Vivo, “Walking in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Mobilizing the Early Modern City,” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 19, no. 1 (2016): 115–41. His work looks at walking as a central part of sixteenth-century Venetian social and economic life and identifies several ways in which walking was portrayed, understood, and performed within the city, viewing Venice from above as well as from the street perspective.

[5]A single scudo had a similar value to one ducat; in the sixteenth century, Venetian patricians in state offices often earned a few hundred ducats per year. See Richard Lachmann, Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 257, n65; Brian Richardson, Printing, Writers, and Readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), xi

Translation of the catalogue and rendered map are copyrighted to Hannah Johnston and not to be reproduced without permission.

Cover Image and Figure 3. 1729 map of Venice by Homannsche Erben. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1. The first page of the catalogue, as reprinted in Leggi e memorie venete sulla prostituzione fino alla caduta della Republica (Venice, Italy: Published privately by the Count of Orford, 1870-72). Public domain, via Google Books.

Figure 2. The courtesans of the catalogue, mapped by location. Rendered by Hannah Johnston, December 2021.

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2 Comments on “A Sexual Tour of Venice: Mapping a Sixteenth-Century Catalogue of Courtesans

  1. Here are some previous studies on the topic

    “Decostruzione disgustosa e definizione di classe nella Tariffa delle Puttane di Venegia”, in Rivista di Letteratura Italiana, 2010, volume XXVIII, 1, pp. 29-49.

    “Camilla Pisana, la perfetta moglie?: tentativi di affermazione personale di una cortigiana del Rinascimento,” in Italica, 2011, volume 88, 4, pp. 565-586.


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