Veronica of Venice

Throughout junior high and high school, I was quite the vocabulary geek. When I wasn’t cutting chemistry class and doodling “I <3 Paul” in my spiral notebook, I was compiling word lists on my own time for my own personal study. I used to scribble stars next to the ones I had trouble remembering. But once in a while I’d gloss over a word I encountered and just presumed to know what it meant by its written context; something like “18th century courtesans enjoyed lives of social freedom and financial stability”. So a courtesan is just a high class society woman, right? Not exactly.

When I eventually looked up the word “courtesan” I was a little taken aback by its straightforward definition: “a woman who has sex with rich or important men in exchange for money”. So in other words, a prostitute. Wait, what? I was confused. Courtesans were written about in a way that conveyed glamour and high repute. Keep in mind that I grew up in New York City – pre-Guiliani New York City that is – and my understanding of prostitutes was the short-skirted women with bad skin who loitered on street corners on the west side, soliciting men with “you lookin’ for a date?” and leaning into open car windows.

Naturally, I came to learn that some words are history-specific, and that New York City circa 1982 was a world apart from Venice circa 1570. (Or was it? Hmm…) No one uses the word “courtesan” in ordinary conversation anymore, but it came back to me recently when I started to research this extraordinary portrait by either Jacopo Tintoretto or one of his protégés:

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The woman in this painting, with red hair and peek-a-boo nipple, is Veronica Franco, one of the most celebrated and respected courtesans in Venice during the 16th century, a time when that city was a thriving, cosmopolitan commercial and cultural center. Franco was a member of the cortigiane oneste class of courtesans: educated, sophisticated women who provided companionship, sexual or otherwise, to wealthy men who served as benefactors. These courtesans hobnobbed with the elite and often had careers of their own in fields like the arts, even business. Interestingly, they enjoyed social and professional freedoms that were not as easily available to traditional wives.

Veronica Franco was born 1546 into a family of native Venetians – a class of people who were referred to as cittadini originari or “original citizens”. This stratum of society was bestowed with certain rights and privileges and only ranked below the nobility in terms of social standing. Franco’s mother was a courtesan herself and provided all her children, Veronica and her three brothers, with private tutors and a well-rounded education. After a failed marriage to a physician at an early age, Veronica Franco embarked on her career as a courtesan and, more impressively, a published poet and literary editor.

From the collection of Museo del Prado  this is another portrait believed to be of Veronica Franco, this time by Jacopo Tintoretto’s son, Domenico. It’s appropriately titled Lady Baring her Breast. Veronica liked showing those off it seems. And the pearl necklace is a nice touch :-)

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Franco collaborated with her male counterparts to compile poetry anthologies. She forged an especially close relationship with Domenico Venier, poet and head of a prominent literary academy in Venice. “Terze Rime”, Veronica Franco’s volume of poetry, was published in 1575. Her voice is frank, insightful, passionate, often defiant. In this excerpt of her verse, Franco challenges the misbehaving men of her day with the spirit of a feisty early feminist:

Look with the eyes of your good sense
and see for yourself how unworthy of you
it is to insult and injure women.
Unfortunate sex, always led about
by cruel fortune, because you are always
subjected and without freedom!
But this has certainly been no fault of ours,
because, if we are not as strong as men,
like men we have a mind and intellect.
And virtue does not lie in bodily strength
but in the vigor of the soul and mind,
through which all things come to be known;
and I am certain that in this respect
women lack nothing, but, rather, have given
more than one sign of being greater than men.
But if you think us inferior to you,
perhaps it’s because in modesty and wisdom
we are more adept and better than you.
And do you want to know what the truth is?
That the wisest person should be the most patient
squares with reason and with what is right;
insolence is the mark of the madman,
but the stone that the wise man draws from the well
was thrown in by a foolish, imprudent man…….

Not long after the the publication of Franco’s poetry, Venice was hit with a devastating outbreak of the plague. A port city with a mercantile economy, Venice was particularly vulnerable due to infected rats and other disease-carrying vermin entering the city via trade ships. Veronica Franco, like thousands of others, fled Venice to escape the Black Death. The city was ravaged, and its strict caste system now meant nothing as rich and poor alike, nobleman and laborer, succumbed equally under the outbreak. Epidemic disease doesn’t care who you are or who your parents were.

The Grand Canal, Venice, by Franz Richard Unterberger:

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When Franco returned to Venice, her home and possessions had been looted, and her life entered a second chapter marked by poverty and other difficulties. In 1580 she was brought up on bogus charges of witchcraft. An inquisition was held and she was exonerated. But the damage done to her reputation was irreparable. Then in 1582, her dear and loyal friend Domenico Venier died which left Veronica with no significant ally in Venetian social circles.

Franco was a prolific letter-writer, and her surviving correspondence provides compelling insight into her values and attitudes. In one letter, she strongly discourages an advice-seeking mother from allowing her daughter to become a courtesan. Using blunt language, Franco warns the woman that the life of a courtesan is not glamorous but tainted with degradation and stigma, and that she, as the girl’s mother, should be more protective of her daughter’s welfare and well-being. Franco urged her not to “slaughter in one stroke [her] soul and [her] reputation, along with [her] daughter’s”. So the life of a “courtesan” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And my vocabulary confusion over that word wasn’t so crazy after all.

In her last years, Veronica Franco tried to establish a shelter for the destitute women of Venice and former prostitutes. At the time of her death in 1591 at the age of 45 (younger than I am now) she was not intestate. Franco had left a detailed will that demonstrates thoughtful instructions for the distribution of her limited assets and custodial care for her children. Though she ended up falling into obscurity, Veronica Franco’s fascinating life is worthy of a revival for anyone interested in topics of Venetian history, poetry, or women’s rights. The 1998 film “Dangerous Beauty” was based on Veronica Franco from Margaret Rosenthal’s biography The Honest Courtesan

Tidings

Warm thanks to Museworthy readers who expressed concern about my ear troubles and shared their own conditions and treatment tips. You’ll be happy to know that I’m feeling a great deal better and am almost at 100%! But the doctor said that I won’t be completely in the clear until allergy season has passed. So I’ll just have to handle it day by day and try not to get hooked on saline nasal spray. Seriously, have you tried this stuff? It’s so good. All-natural and very refreshing.

I’m also still very much an art model, in case I gave the false impression I’m considering giving it up. I’m not! However, it is taking its toll and I’m not getting any younger. At Spring Studio the other day when I was straightening up after doing a ten minute pose with a deep backbend, I let out an audible “Ah ah ah ah .. ow.” A guy who had been drawing close to the platform heard me and grinned. “Tough one?” he said. I laughed and said, “Maybe I’m getting too old for this!”. A yoga class this weekend might be in order. Once upon a time I used to be good at these. I’ll get it back, hopefully!

Speaking of modeling, I had a thought about the next Museworthy Art Show while I was doing a long pose at the 92nd Street Y yesterday. In a sitting twist on a low stool the idea came to me. Let me know what you think. It’s Portraits and Pets! Share your opinions/questions in the comments!

Some charcoal sketches of me by Joan Stevens created Monday night at the National Art League in Queens. Thanks Joan :-)

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The Blogger is Here

Dear friends, I am so terribly sorry for my missing-in-action behavior with the blog lately. I don’t know what ‘s wrong with me these days :( I guess a confluence of worries, anxieties, writer’s block, laziness, missing someone, still keeping my fingers crossed about an opportunity I hope works out, and now an ear ailment that’s affecting my hearing. I had to model yesterday with this constant loud whooshing and whirring in my ear and it was not exactly pleasant. When my timer went off I couldn’t even hear it! Okay that’s enough. :orders self to stop complaining:

I’m doing my best to snap out of this funk. Well, actually I’m not doing my best but I’ll get on it! After I sit for a portrait pose tonight I have a few days off and I’ll try to get my shit together. Plus I have Jessie the cat to cheer me up, and she does a fine job of that, my little roly-poly angel :-)

Girl with Dove, 1914, Henri Lebasque:

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The Brooding Battle

Of all the personal items that were stolen from my house during the burglary last year, I’ve felt the loss of my camera most severely. A Nikon D5000 Digital SLR. Actually, let me correct that. The thief’s stealing of a silver bracelet that had great sentimental value for me (it was a gift my from my ex-boyfriend) was the most emotional loss. The police, by the way, never recovered it or any of my stuff. But the camera, which I loved, is something I miss even more than I thought I would. My other blog, The Salt Marsh, has suffered greatly because of this as it is highly dependent on nature photography. If I can’t take interesting pictures, I can’t post. So I’ve been a little bummed out about this, not to mention the other issues going on these days that never seem to improve no matter how much time passes; family strife, plus the financial strains of living in a pricey, impractical city. I could really use a vacation.

It seems like every year at this exact time – mid-spring with summer just around the corner – I get hit with impulses to make changes in my life and feel mildly tormented (is “mild” torment a thing? haha) about my future. I become consumed with contemplating the direction of my life, the interests I once wanted to pursue but never did, the relationships I wanted to preserve but was unable to, and the experiences I wanted to know but haven’t yet encountered. But surely, I still have time, don’t I? I refuse to think otherwise. And I refuse to fret 24 hrs a day when I am a living, healthy, fortunate individual who still, after 46 years, has options at her disposal.

Sketch of me by Fred Hatt created at Figureworks:

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I am keenly aware that I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Some of my friends are in the same boat and we commiserate often about our frustrations. I suspect it’s natural for those of us in the “mid-life” stage to reflect and reconsider our choices throughout the years, and be eternally grateful for some while regretting others. What can you do? This is life. It’s an old story.

If I sound like I’m being cagey, or withholding “news” of some kind, well that’s somewhat true. While there is no actual “news” I am trying to make it happen. But I don’t want to jinx it. And if it doesn’t happen then I’ll simply try again, and will certainly share any new developments here on Museworthy.

I apologize for the less-than-cheerful blog post! Just needed to vent a little. I’ll try to compensate for the kvetching with some pretty pictures of my early garden plantings and blooming flowers around my house. And if it’s true that the “little things” in life can lift one’s spirits, I”ll tell you that one of these guys is visiting my bird feeder almost every day and it’s pretty awesome. Cheers friends! I’ll see you soon :-)

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Still . . .

i carry your heart with me –

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
.  … . . . . . . . . . . . . i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

— e.e. cummings

Nude from Back on a Background of the Sea, Francis Picabia, 1940:

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da Forlì’s Angels

If the walls of my modest home weren’t already covered with framed artwork featuring one model – yes, that would be me :-) – I would want to time travel back to the Renaissance and commission one of the great Italian fresco painters of the 15th and 16th centuries to paint my home’s interior. He could adorn these plaster walls with stories, allegories, figures and faces, depicting themes of theology, philosophy, poetry, and the human condition. I couldn’t afford to pay him, mind you, but perhaps he’d be willing to barter his services for some art modeling.

For today’s Music Monday we have some surviving fragments of a fresco painted by Melozzo da Forlì for the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles in Rome in the late 1400s. Today they are on view at the Pinacoteca Gallery in the Vatican Art Museums. These are “music-making angels”, celestial and beautiful with their lutes, drums, violins and tambourines. The third one would look lovely in my bedroom. Anyone up for a decorative house painting gig? ;-)

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DaForli-Angel

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Glass, Granite, and Urban Awakenings

New York City is, and always has been, a study in stark contrasts. The route of the IRT Lexington Avenue subway line, which travels from some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city (the Bronx) through the highest income neighborhoods (upper east side) exemplifies such a contrast. And it seems rather fitting that the Lexington line continues south to make a stop at – where else? – Wall Street in the Financial District.

This week, the new Whitney Museum has opened with much fanfare, and I do mean MUCH fanfare. After many years in the making, the plans for a new Whitney have finally come to fruition. With a $422 million price tag, the museum’s new digs were designed by the architect Renzo Piano. The 200,000 square foot structure of steel, concrete and glass sits along the West Side Highway in downtown Manhattan in what is known around here as the “meatpacking district”. But don’t let that historical reference to New York’s long gone turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses and packing plants fool you. The meatpacking district is, today, one of the trendiest, “hottest” neighborhoods in the city, replete with high end boutiques and restaurants. The planners for the new Whitney chose their real estate wisely, as “location” is everything in this town. Flanked by the High Line and Gansevoort Street, the Whitney is the sleek spanking new jewel of New York City. With a glass-enclosed lobby and a panoramic view of the Hudson River, it is the new home of the museum’s American art collection of Hoppers, Warhols, Pollocks, and company.

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Just a few miles north of the new Whitney, an art space of a different sort also held an opening, but with significantly less fanfare and without the First Lady, the New York elite, glitterati, or art magazine critics in attendance. The old Bronx Borough Courthouse, which had been abandoned, neglected, and boarded up for 35 years, has been rescued from its squalid, dilapidated state by an organization called “No Longer Empty”, which avails community engagement to “revive underutilized properties” according to their mission statement. Constructed in 1905, the four story Beaux-Arts building would have been most likely demolished had it not secured historic landmark status in 1981. But though it remained standing, the structure still fell into disrepair, its cavernous interior and stately architectural features sealed off from the public. Now, as debris is cleaned away and the light is let in, the Bronx Courthouse is experiencing a renewal as a space for art, installations, and symbol of the neighborhood’s heritage. You can read all about it on CurbedNY.

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O Henry once said that New York “will be a great place if they ever finish it”. What O Henry didn’t know, presumably, was that New York will never be “finished”. Ever. Those of us who have lived here our entire lives can attest to the fact that the city will do whatever the hell it wants, and as New Yorkers our famously held skills of adapting and improvising are only strengthened in the process. Make no mistake, this is a town of deaths and births and reincarnations, relentlessly so. This town makes decisions that will either boggle the mind or thrill the spirit. This town will break your heart and ignore your tears. Some salivate over new constructions and state-of-the-art modernization, while others bemoan losses, cling to relics and shadows of the past. New York has certainly not thrown off its history, but its dogged impulse to surge forward will never be subdued. Nor should it be.

In the spirit of this diverse, crowded, maddening metropolis of contrasts and confounding changes, I offer a warm welcome to the new Whitney, and an equally warm welcome to the “new” old Bronx Courthouse.