Courtesans and their Surprises

You remember the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale about the Princess and the Pea? She can’t sleep because there’s a pea under her 20 mattresses and yet she still feels it. Though the thought seems sacrilegious, I couldn’t help but think about this children’s story when I was reading about Venetian courtesans’ beds.

I’ve been reading lately about Venetian courtesans, of which there’s quite a wealth of information. But today I’ll share a few fun facts.

I’ve come across two old paintings or engravings of courtesans’ beds that show them having from 3 to 6 mattresses. I guess if the bed is where you practice your profession, you’ll invest in a good work space. These pictures were in the book Private Lives in Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown; I couldn’t find the images available to download and post here, though you can see one of them at this link:

In 1578 the Venetian government received a complaint because courtesans were dressing as men and promoting sodomy. That’s partly why the city later encouraged courtesans to stand at their windows and bare their breasts to drum up business; it was supposed to help suppress homosexuality.

They were also forbidden to dress like men, though some of them did it anyway. Here’s their trick:



Surprise! Big skirts hide all kinds of fun details, like breeches and high heeled shoes, called zoccole, pianelle, chopineys, or calcagnetti. (What’s that old saying about Eskimos having 100 words for snow? Guess what’s important to courtesans.) There’s a pair of these shoes on display at the Correr Museum in Venice:


Courtesans were often admonished for their dress–against the Sumptuary Laws, they dressed like noblewomen, flouting the rules about not wearing pearls and such. Books came out that showed how various Venetian women dressed: the dogaressa, a noblewoman, a virgin girl, and a courtesan. Only the virgin is identifiable because she’s veiled.

Back to the Princess and the Pea. Supposedly she’s a real princess because she’s so sensitive that she feels the pea through all those mattresses. Certainly she has nothing in common with those courtesans.


About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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One Response to Courtesans and their Surprises

  1. Nancy says:

    You find the most interesting details and the “snicker=snicker” tone is “way” appropos.

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