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Dangerous Beauty: The Trial of a Courtesan

By Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (May 1998)

The film Dangerous Beauty is about Veronica Franco, a Venetian courtesan who lived from 1546-1591. The movie is loosely based on The Honest Courtesan (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), a scholarly book by Margaret F. Rosenthal, who is a professor of Italian at USC. The film is interesting to law and popular culture junkies because it culminates with Franco’s witchcraft trial before the Inquisition.

But before we get to the trial, let’s talk about 16th Century Venice and the real Veronica Franco (played by Catherine McCormack in the film). Venice, founded in myth by Venus rising from the sea, always featured two closely linked iconic visions of the goddess—as pure and inviolate virgin and as symbol of love and pleasure. And at the time everybody associated Venice with love and pleasure. Some historians believe that there were an astounding 11,000 prostitutes in 16th century Venice out of a total population of about 100,000 (Rosenthal finds the figure exaggerated but even half that number would be amazing).

Essentially, a young Venetian women who aspired to a decent lifestyle could enter a convent, marry a rich man (which required the woman to come up with a substantial dowry), or become a courtesan (essentially a high-priced prostitute). Although not shown in the film, Franco did in fact marry a physician as a young woman, but that marriage soon ended. Somehow her parents came up with the necessary dowry (which Franco fought for years to reclaim from her husband). Franco then became a courtesan (as her mother had once been).

Franco acquired rich and powerful patrons, such as Dominico Venier. As a result, she achieved astounding upward mobility. She acquired an excellent education, although how she managed it is unknown. She had a successful career as a poet. Tintoretto painted her portrait, which is featured on the front of Rosenthal’s book, which shows that she was quite fetching.

The film correctly reflects the difference in lifestyles between successful courtesans and wives of rich men. Wives were cloistered creatures without education or financial independence, their life devoted entirely to home and family. Courtesans, on the other hand, could mingle freely with the rich and famous, acquire education and wealth of their own, participate in literary, political and intellectual circles, and even publish their work.

Franco was incredibly successful in this milieu; between 1570 and 1580, she edited works of various authors and published books of her poetry as well as epistolary works. She was greatly concerned with the plight of younger women who lacked dowries; her published letters often refer to their plight and her wills left money to help poor women.

Franco’s success inspired extreme jealousy from male courtiers and poets whose position and patronage she greatly threatened. As in the film, a particularly venomous rival was Maffio Venier, a nephew of Franco’s patron Domenico Venier. Maffio repeatedly attacked Franco by name in satirical and often obscene verse. Franco’s poems and letters effectively strike back at Maffio and defend the role of courtesans in Venetian society.

Although the film does not show it, Franco struggled to raise a number of children; she had six, all by different fathers, of whom three sons survived infancy. She suffered ruined relationships and, especially late in her life, severe economic difficulties. The love story between Franco and Marco Venier (Domenico’s other nephew), which is central to the film, is apparently greatly exaggerated (although there is evidence that the two were intimate in real life).

As in the film, Franco really had an erotic encounter with King Henri III of France when he arrived in town (Franco was evidently a major tourist attraction). Because the patronage of the King of France would be exceptional valuable, Franco wrote poems about Henri and dedicated works of poetry to him. However, their actual relationship did not have the historic importance ascribed to it in the film. In the movie, after a delightful night of machistic lovemaking with Franco, Henri makes French naval power available to Venice in its war with the Turks.

The first two thirds of the film are basically a fun sex romp with poetry contests, beautiful costumes, and stunning views of Venice. I, for one, found the film lacking in emotional resonance, although a majority of those I’ve asked about it (particularly women) really liked it and empathized strongly with Franco’s character. One student remarked that she found the film incredibly empowering.

The last third of the film turns dark. The plague (and numerous other misfortunes) savaged Venice from 1575-77 and many women, especially courtesans, are placed on trial by the Inquisition. The theory is that the tragedies that befall Venice resulted from its licentious lifestyle. Thus prostitutes are set up to take the fall. In the film, Franco is accused of witchcraft, since she had obviously bewitched legions of men. She makes a stirring statement on behalf of women, however, and is saved from certain death when her many clients are shamed by Marco into standing up for her.

In real life, Franco was in fact tried twice by the Inquisition in 1580 for the alleged offense of performing heretical incantations in her home. Chapter 5 of Rosenthal’s book contains a wealth of interesting and valuable information about the various inquisitorial trials for heresy and witchcraft that occurred around this time in Venice and about Franco’s trials in particular. Nobody in Venice was condemned to death or severely tortured as a result of these trials, but conviction would mean public humiliation and severe penalties such as banishment.

Franco was denounced anonymously by Ridolfo Vanitelli, her son’s tutor. Vanitelli’s denunciation may have been intended as revenge, because Franco had earlier cast suspicion on him when she reported a theft of various precious items from her home. She was then robbed again, and Vanitelli may have feared that she would accuse him of being the thief; thus his denunciation of Franco may have been a preemptive strike. Vanitelli accused her of performing incantations that were designed to discover the identity of the thief (and also to inspire various merchants to love her). His accusations also dwelt on her behavior as a prostitute and reflected his intense envy at her wealth and powerful friends. And for good measure, he accused her of eating meat on Fridays. The charge of performing heretical incantations was potentially quite serious because of the risk that she might be invoking the power of the devil.

The trials were strictly in the inquisitorial mode; there were no witnesses or defense counsel. The trial consisted of Franco being interrogated by the inquisitor. Fortunately, Franco was very experienced in defending herself against invective from rivals such as Maffio Venier; she used this experience to good effect in her trials. Once again, Domenico Venier’s patronage was invaluable; Rosenthal believes that Domenico’s influence resulted in the failure of the Inquisition to proceed against her after the initial interrogations.

In both of the trials, Franco admitted performing superstitious rituals in her home, but claimed she did not take them seriously. She tried to shift blame, by saying the rituals were the idea of her neighbors and her servants, including Vanitelli. At the right moment, she was contrite. She emphatically denied eating meat or other forbidden foods on Friday, except when she was seriously ill or pregnant (which was often). She steadfastly denied that diabolism was involved in any ritual. She remained composed at all times, despite the peril of the situation. The trials were suspended without findings and no witnesses were ever called against her. Despite the ambiguously favorable conclusion of the trials, events did not go in Franco’s favor. By 1582, Domenico Venier was dead and Franco was impoverished. She never recovered the stolen articles.

Although Franco’s inquisitorial trials lacked the high drama ascribed to them in Dangerous Beauty, the actual events were nevertheless quite fascinating, particularly Franco’s skill in parrying a determined inquisitor. Franco’s life is truly inspiring. Lacking any money or familial influence, she capitalized on her intelligence and talent, as well as her brilliant personality, physical beauty and erotic skills. Overcoming powerful legal and literary adversaries, she attained fame as a published poet and author and became a participant in the intellectual and political events of her time. She is a historic figure worthy of our attention and admiration more than four hundred years after her death.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through


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