“…for what philosophical reasons do men consider women to be less worthy and less perfect than men?” This was the question posed by Tullia d’Aragona in the sixteenth century along with many other women, who were all united by a few similar characteristics.
We now use the modern title of ‘prostitute’ to describe those who, at the time, were called ‘courtesans’. These courtesans all strove to live life as free spirits independent from familial obligations, capable of gaining power thanks to their beauty, intelligence, cunning charm, culture, and—of course—their bodies.
We’re talking about women who were considered to be intellectuals, who wrote poems, painted, and composed music. They not only demonstrated that art could be a way of life, but they proved how that same art—according to the Renaissance style—could be the source of all pleasure. In this case, it’s difficult to say whether or not we can talk about women’s emancipation as we know and understand it these days. What is clear, though, is that the ideas surrounding prostitution and the selling of one’s body have changed across the centuries.
It’s necessary to premise this with a reminder that people like Tullia d’Aragona were not exceptions to the rule. In fact, it was the other way around. There were many women who became famous for their artistic productions, above all in Rome and Venice, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among these women, I would be remiss not to mention Veronica Franco (the so-called “intellectual harlot”), Veronica Gambara, and Gaspara Stampa.
It’s a well-known fact that in those days, Venice was the best place to be for “sexual tourism” and sexually transmitted diseases. It got to the point where many found their way to Venice for the sole purpose of beginning their own sexual journeys, or even for those of their children.
When referring to figurative art in a more general sense, there are many examples of representations of prostitutes, not only from original perspectives, but also through depictions of religious figures. Just think about the designs of the ruins of Pompei (fifth century BC) or Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin” (1605-1606), a painting which displays the Virgin as a prostitute (made clear by her orange clothing), who drowned and was left bloated with a belly full of water. Other examples include Goya’s critique in “Maja and Celestina on the Balcony” (1808-1812), Manet’s “Olympia” (1863), the young prostitute who fled from poverty featured in Henri Gervex’s “Rolla” (1878), Picasso’s “The Young Ladies of Avignon”(1907), and Kirchner’s “Five Women on the Street” (1913). We can also include other examples, such as Massimo Campigli’s recent depictions, Mapplethorpe’s scandalous photos and finally, the fashion of Elio Fiorucci, inspired by prostitutes in New York.
Historically speaking, it seems that both the counter-reform, and secondly, the Renaissance, have played an important part in changing the idea surrounding the selling of a woman’s body.
In the centuries prior to the reform, the idea of a woman as someone who was in charge of herself and aware of her own body was prevalent. Then, this idea changed, transforming the courtesan into a witch, stained by sin and, consequently, punishable to death by burning at the stake.
These days, despite living in an apparently more democratic situation (à la ‘live and let live’), this basic idea comes to light: when talking about a prostitute, whether she does it voluntarily or is forced to do so by situations and/or people, we tend to demonise the act, regardless of the woman selling her own body. It goes without saying that there are many reasons that push a woman to prostitute herself, and in most cases, it’s an obligation rather than a choice. One thing is clear, though: it’s the oldest profession in the world, it still ‘arouses’ a lot of excitement, and it gives way to many discussions.
This time, however, I don’t want to end on a personal reflection. Rather, I’d like to leave you all with a few questions.
Let’s ask ourselves if this shift in which women are viewed – from being deciders of their own destinies to becoming witches burning at the stake, rejected by society – still exists in our society today. Further, let’s ask ourselves how it’s possible that women have become slaves to the commercialisation of their own bodies, killed by the hands of people – or put more simply – by their judgments.