Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

With the persecutions in France, some of the troubadours fled to Italy, and already in the thirteenth century there was a flourishing school of Italian poets engaged in propagating the romantic conception of love. Petrarca was living in Avignon when he first saw the divine Laura and conceived his passionate attachment. Humble reverence for women was exalted to a new pitch by Dante, whose reverence for Beatrice was such that his poems in her honour can scarcely be distinguished from his poems in praise of the Virgin. In the ‘Paradiso‘, Beatrice appears in an increasingly abstract form, and becomes assimilated to Wisdom or Divine Knowledge. This is a typical matrist symbol, in contrast with the patrist symbol of a mere deity representing authority. A thousand years earlier, the Gnostics had worshipped divine wisdom under the name Sophia (from the Greek word for wise) and the Cathars similarly worshipped the Virgin as Our Lady of Thought.

The period soon became one of enhanced status for women. They were given an education similar to that of men, and were regarded as their equals, even if it was held to be proper for them to work by influencing men rather than to engage directly in politics. In other fields, such as the management of vast estates, they might take full responsibility and often did: a “virago” was a woman who was as good as a man — it was a term of praise. Clearly, a period in which women are praised for resembling men is not yet fully matrist: yet it is far removed from the patrist conception of woman as a source of contamination and one whose duty was to be submissive to men.

As is general in matrist periods, women were free to enhance their attractiveness with rich and colourful clothes, with cosmetics and false hair. The patrist taboos on nudity were forgotten, and the famous “espoitrinement a la falcon de Venise” was developed, rouge being applied to the naked breasts as well as to the cheeks. Perfume was used extensively — so extensively that even money, pack-mules and domestic articles were drenched with it: some of these retain their odour to this day. (178) Firenzuola wrote a book on the care of appearance, “Della bellezza delle donne” (he preferred blondes) and gave useful rules: for instance, finger nails should be trimmed so as to show as much white as the thickness of the back of a knife-blade.

It is part of this trend that we find emerging, for the first time since the days of the Greeks and the Romans, the courtesan — the lady of charm and intelligence, education and manners, living in her own house, holding court, the friend of men of influence both in politics and art. Such was Veronica Franco, hostess by inclination, courtesan by profession, the friend of Tintoretto, a lady whom Henri III went out of his way to visit, honoured by men of distinction such as Domenico Veniero and the Veronese prelate Marc’ Antonio della Torre. Tom Coryate made a point of visiting Margherita Emiliani and records his astonishment at the respect with which she and other courtesans were regarded. There were many others—Cornelia Griffo, Bianca Saraton and the Roman Tullia d’Aragona, for example. (178)