Semester of Graduation

Fall 2020


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



Invectives against the courtesan—a more educated, erudite, and socially elite version of the ordinary prostitute—were commonplace in early modern Venice. A metropolitan center by the sixteenth century, Venice had become one of the most tolerant cities in Europe, allowing the courtesan to rapidly rise far past her social standing. The courtesan, through strategic self-fashioning and self-promotion, blurred the boundaries of gender roles, class roles, and the conventional social hierarchy. This precipitated attacks from critics seeking to provide clarity of the courtesan’s place and protect the interests of their patriarchal society. This thesis examines representations of the sixteenth-century Venetian courtesan in Italian Renaissance texts, in consideration of their corporeal language.

Considered here are the Ragionamenti by satirist Pietro Aretino, the malicious verses of poet Maffio Venier, and works by courtesan-poet Veronica Franco. The texts share a preoccupation with the courtesan’s body and use body-centric language to shape and reflect notions of social placement. In investigating the texts in consideration of social placement and of the body, male anxieties about the subversion of social status and gender boundaries become apparent. The courtesan represents a body doing things that it should not do and, as such, gives us insight into the bodily consequences of crossing social boundaries. In a society where the distribution of power and of privilege depended on categorizing people, courtesans, and other groups on the margins of society, fueled male anxieties by penetrating prohibited spaces.

This thesis shows that the courtesan successfully rescues herself from her marginality, creating instead a liminal space by masterfully presenting herself in accordance to circumstance. The inability to place the courtesan provides her with agency and with the capacity to control her own body—her greatest weapon.

Committee Chair

Kooi, Christine