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:

Tintoretto-VeronicaFranco

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 :-)

Tintoretto-VFranco

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:

Unterberger-the-grand-canal-venice

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

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:

Lebasque-GirlwithDove

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:

francis-picabia-nude-from-back-on-a-background-of-the-sea_nude-dos-fond-mer

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? ;-)

DaForli-Angel2

DaForli-Angel

daforli5

DaForli-Angel3

Tangerine

Well hey there gang. How’s everyone doing? I’m enjoying a couple of days off from art modeling after a busy few weeks. Gotta say, it’s quite nice to sleep late, catch up on reading, tend to my houseplants, and get started on spring cleaning. Rather than bore you with the details of propagating succulents from stem cuttings (yes, I love it!) I’ll just subject you to more Led Zeppelin, because as loyal Museworthy readers it’s mandatory that you indulge my love for the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Just kidding, it’s not mandatory. But it is recommended ;-)

With spring rolling along nicely, summer is around the bend. This groovy song by Zep has always mad me think of warm, unhurried summer evenings, with bare feet in the grass, the fragrance of night blooming jasmine in the air, and stars in the clear night sky above. From the album Led Zeppelin III, this is “Tangerine” for Music Monday. Enjoy, and I’ll catch you soon!

 

Nude Blond Woman with Tangerines by Felix Vallotton, 1913:

Vallotton-NudeWomanTangerines

Fullness of Heart

“I firmly believe that the moment our hearts are emptied of selfishness and ambition and self-seeking and everything that is contrary to God’s law, the Holy Spirit will come and fill every corner of our hearts; but if we are full of pride and conceit, ambition and self-seeking, pleasure and the world, there is no room for the Spirit of God. I also believe that many a man is praying to God to fill him, when he is full already with something else. Before we pray that God would fill us, I believe we ought to pray that He would empty us. There must be an emptying before there can be a filling; and when the heart is turned upside down, and everything that is contrary to God is turned out, then the Spirit will come…”

– D.L. Moody

Christ in the Wilderness, Moretto da Brescia, Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Brescia-ChristWilderness

Easter blessings to my readers. May we all walk in love, light, and understanding, each and every day.

Claudia
xoxo

Love and Grape Juice

I bet you never thought that choosing a Welch’s Grape Juice from grocery store shelves with your Mom could be a heartwarming experience. But I’m here to tell you that it can be. At 79, my mother is an extraordinarily active person. She loves to drive, travel, go to museums, socialize, and experience new things. Whenever I tease her with “old lady” jokes she’s not amused :lol: So when Mom, a few weeks ago, was afflicted with a case of the shingles, her active lifestyle and normally robust health was temporarily sidetracked.

Mom’s shingles have fortunately cleared up, but now she’s struggling with nerve pain, a common aftereffect of shingles, and it’s causing her a great deal of sadness and discomfort. One minute she’s fine, and the next minute the neuropathy flares up, causing excruciating pain. Even though it passes quickly, the constant imminent threat of a nerve attack is an unsettling way to live, especially for someone like my Mom who can’t bear the idea of being “disabled” in any way. Having her independence taken from her is Mom’s worst nightmare.

A pastel drawing by Edgar Degas:

DegasCombing

Shingles is the virus that causes chicken pox when it erupts again after lying dormant in the body for decades. I had chicken pox as a child and recall that it sucked. Shingles also sucks. But my mother is having a much harder time with the neuralgia than the shingles.

With Mom now on a steady regimen of B-Vitamins, Omega-3 oils, alpha-lipoic acid (and ibuprofen when she needs it), she’s on the path to recovery. But like the doctor said, each individual is different. For some the neuropathy goes away in four weeks, for others four months. We have no way of predicting. Mom just has to take it one day at a time.

Another pastel by Degas, Rest:

DegasRest

Mom has avoided driving alone which is understandable, so I’ve been doing her grocery shopping for her. With the exception of me picking her up and taking her to a couple of doctor’s appointments she’s been fearful of going out in public or even leaving the house. Not to the beauty parlor, not to the bank, not even to a friend’s house in the neighborhood. This is all so contrary to her nature. I’ve tried to persuade her to come with me for a little shopping, or lunch, or just running errands, but she’s consistently been saying no. Until today.

After a doctor’s appointment this morning she agreed to let me take her to Fairway Market. There we were, strolling through the aisles, Mom totally relaxed, cheerful, and leisurely pushing our shopping cart as we collected our goodies; I tossed in a box of quinoa, some swiss chard, and a one pound bag of freshly ground coffee, Mom put in some cucumbers (her favorite) and two bagels. With great happiness I watched her as she selected a piece of salmon from the fish counter, and took three small yogurts from the dairy section. And then came the moment of Welch’s Grape Juice! Remember when there was only regular Welch’s Grape Juice, for years? Today we have options; fortified with calcium, fortified with Vitamin C, organic, “Farmer’s Pick”, blended with black cherry. As I knelt down and read the choices aloud to Mom we shared a warm, lighthearted moment and were reminded of our old Armenian relative, Aunt Araxi, who lived to be 100 and attributed her longevity to, yes, a daily glass of Welch’s Grape Juice. That was her theory and she stuck with it! Hey why not? And Mom, by the way, ended up choosing the plain old Welch’s “Original”.

DegasTorso

A visit to the market doesn’t usually make for a watershed moment in a person’s life, but if you knew how tormented my mother has been lately due to pain, anxiety, and depression, you would understand the indescribable joy I felt at the sight her smiling, talking to people, and carrying out a routine activity for the first time in weeks. Mom’s comeback is underway. Oh yes it is :-)

All artworks in this post have been pastels because it’s Mom’s favorite medium, and Degas because he’s Mom’s favorite artist.