Rome is a city that simmers with sensuality. It comes to a boil in the torrid summer months, when the intense Roman heat encourages its citizens to dress scantily and breath heavily.
Moving to Rome from Puritan Boston, all this over-heating was new to me. In Boston, winters are long and cold, houses are big and expensive to heat, so we cover up from our heads to our toes — hats, scarves, mittens, turtle-necks, tights, under-shirts — not easy to whip off for a quick tryst, and not particularly seductive either. But it is not just the temperature, it is the Mediterranean character– everyone. whether it is the barista, taxi-driver, florist or postman, is ready to flirt with a woman of any age. (Hear about flirtatious butchers in the Blog Post “The Fine Art of the Christmas Broth” and my husband’s techniques in “Italian Men: Masters in Seduction“)
Roman women dress to seduce — no slouching around in sweatpants (see blog post “Sweatpants at the Supermarket” and “Linguini and Luscious Legs.”) American author Alan Epstein had me rolling with laughter with his descriptions of being seduced just looking at women in cars while standing on a curb in Rome in his best-selling book, “As the Romans Do.” Here is a bit of it:
“As I was waiting for the light to turn, various motorists were driving past and turning left almost directly beside me onto the bridge I had just crossed. The last car was about to go into the turn, and the window was wide open. I could plainly see the driver, a woman, mostly likely in her thirties. She was well attired, nothing out of the ordinary, but, of course, in Rome that means “decked out.” Her thick hair was done in a modified flip, hennaed a startlingly compelling shade of red. She had spangled earrings that glittered in the sunlight, and a light, open, green linen jacket over a scooped-necked, cream-colored silk blouse that revealed a lot more of her curvaceous bosom than the average woman in America would ever contemplate. For Rome, however, especially in warmer weather, a show of cleavage is standard operating procedure. ….So here I was, slowly moving my head from right to left as her sunglassed visage was darting past. She was cutting the corner even more sharply than usual to make sure she made the yellow. As she did so, her tiny Fiat Panda, passing over a series of small bumps, shook for a few moments, jostling the driver as well. The effect was to provide me with a nanosecond’s worth of exceedingly soft-core eroticism, as the tops of her well-developed breasts jiggled ever so slightly above the soft demi-bra she must have been wearing underneath, a seductive act she might have wittingly performed for her husband or lover in the sanctity of a bedroom but that she unwittingly performed for me as she whipped the Fiat around the curve and disappeared into Trastevere.”
I think ever since Alan Epstein wrote that book there has been an unusually large number of American men hanging around Roman street corners peering into cars.
All this chat about simmering sexuality has distracted me from the point of this post.
This post is about a fantastic tour I took this week called “Courtesans of Rome.” It is a three hour tour given by Massimo De Filippis that delves into some of the most famous Roman love stories, visiting the villas of some of the city’s prominent courtesans, and learning about the women who seduced Cardinals and artists and whose faces can be found on the walls of the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.
The tour focused on seven prominent Roman women among them courtesans, prostitutes and the mistress of a Pope. I will just mention a few so as not to steal the show.
First some fascinating background I learned on the tour, based on courtesans in Rome in the Renaissance period. What is a courtesan? She was a woman of the court –beautiful, voluptuous, often educated and talented. According to Massimo De Filippis, in the late 1400s, Rome had 7,000 registered Courtesans, out of 50,000 citizens, nearly one-fifth of the population. Why so many Courtesans in Renaissance Rome? Because there was a surplus of men. The Vatican was the center of Catholicism, the Vatican army allowed only bachelors, there were priests, Cardinals, Bishops, merchants and a constant flow of pilgrims. Courtesans were registered in the Vatican State and they paid taxes to the Holy See. According to Massimo De Filippis “the dome of St. Peter’s was built with money earned from “the world’s oldest profession.”
Back in the Renaissance, there were a lot of advantages to being a courtesan — in that time a married woman was not supposed to be educated, and was not supposed to feel any sexual pleasure. A married woman was to obey her husband and have children, she was forbidden to learn to read and write, and she was not allowed to dance or participate in any form or art. In contrast, a courtesan could read, write and dance, and she could live on her own and handle her own finances. I find it hard to believe, but Massimo said that a top courtesan could earn the equivalent of 25,000 euro (roughly 34,000 dollars) in one night.
Many beautiful women came from Sicily and Tuscany to Rome eager to work as courtesans, their goal to become the mistress of a powerful, wealthy Cardinal. Some made it, some did not. The life of a courtesan was in sharp contrast with a lower class prostitute. Prostitution in Rome was illegal. According to Massimo De Filippis the majority of the street-walkers were actually married women, desperate to earn a little extra money for their family. These poor women announced their availability by wearing clogs. A woman walking the streets in clogs, “zoccole” in Italian, was recognized as a prostitute. To this day, the word “zoccola” is one of the worst insults you can give to a woman in Italian.
Because prostitution was illegal there were various forms of harsh punishment. Apparently Pope Clement VIII had a sadistic streak and was particularly enthusiastic about seeing prostitutes get publicly flogged. After a flogging, came the public humiliation. The women were left half naked, their backs exposed and their wrists tied behind them. They were then thrown over the back of a donkey to be trotted around Rome, for all to see.
The majority of the courtesans lived between the Spanish steps and Trastevere. Some of them had splendid houses (we visited several on the tour), preferably as near as possible to the Vatican. They would stand on their balconies in sumptuous, low-cut dresses while reading books to show they were courtesans. The competition was so intense that they adopted stage names to build up a reputation– to name a few “Luparella” (litle wolf), Bocca di Leone (Lion Mouth), La Fornarina (Baker’s Daughter — see blog post “Love and Passion in Rome“)
It would be impossible for me to go into the details of the lives of all the courtesans mentioned on the tour, so I will just mention a few. One of the most successful was Imperia, a courtesan who was romantically linked to one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time, a banker names Agostino Chigi. (Just to give you an idea of this man’s longstanding power– the Italian Prime Minister’s office in the center of Rome is in Palazzo Chigi.) Agostino Chigi showered Imperia with money– she had homes in Rome, and villas in the countryside. Chigi had artist Raphael use Imperia as the model for the painting “The Triumph of Galatea” on the wall of his Villa Farnesina on Via della Lungara in Trastevere. She is also the model for Raphael’s “Sibyl” in the church Santa Maria Della Pace. Sadly, Imperia fell in love with one of her suitors and when he left her for a younger woman, she committed suicide by poisoning herself.
The tour stopped in Piazza Fiammetta where there is the gorgeous villa of a rich and powerful courtesan named Fiammetta. She was born in Tuscany and began an affair at age 13 with a 58-year-old Cardinal Piccolomini. When he died, she was his only heir, inheriting the beautiful home on Via Dei Coronari in the center of Rome, villas and vineyards in the countryside. Apparently he left her so much that Pope Sixtus IV intervened to reduce the inheritance. Nevertheless, Fiammetta had gone from rags to riches in a short time. She later became the lover of Cesare Borgia, the man about whom Machiavelli wrote the book “The Prince.”
There is a lovely lemon tree outside Fiammetta’s Roman villa. Massimo De Filippis explained that it was fundamentally important for Courtesans to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently they invented all sorts of forms of contraception but one of the most popular was using lemons as diaphragms– cutting them in half and inserting them prior to intercourse. The lemon would serve as a block, and apparently the juice worked as an effective spermicide.
The tour stops by Basilica of Sant’Agostino in Rome, known as the church of the prostitutes. Apparently during the Renaissance period it was a famous gathering place in Rome because it was the only place where the courtesans and prostitutes could go to church. The women would sit in the front pews and the back would be packed with men ogling them. The Sunday mass became a weekly event with the most beautiful courtesans in Rome parading the steps of the church wearing extravagant clothing and jewels. The priests would give sermons instructing the women to give up on their sinful ways, but there was too much business to be had from the pews at the back for their words to have much effect.
Inside the Basilica of Sant’Agostino is the Caravaggio painting “Madonna of Loreto” or “Madonna of the Pilgrims”. (see blog post Caravaggio’s Women- Check out the Toenails). Although I have written on my blog before about this painting, Massimo De Filippis was able to provide many more details about the woman in the painting. She was Magdalena (Lena) Antonietti, a prostitute who lived on Via Dei Greci near the Spanish steps. She is also in the painting “The Madonna and the Serpent” which hangs in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. These two paintings created an enormous scandal in Rome because Caravaggio used a prostitute as a model for the Virgin Mary and her son Paolo Antonietti as the model for the baby Jesus. De Filippis explained that Caravaggio fought with Antonietti’s pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni and killed him. Caravaggio fled Rome and was sentenced in absentia for the murder.
The final stop on the tour is in front of the beautiful Palazzo Farnese, now home to the French embassy in Rome. There Massimo De Filippis shared with us the life story of Giulia Farnese, the beautiful little girl who served as a model for Raphael and became the mistress of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI. My friend Tiffany Parks describes this story well in her blog post “The Borgia Pope, Pinturicchio and La Bella Farnese.”
After over three hours visiting churches and houses, seeing paintings and gravestones of courtesans, my head was bursting from all the information and yet I was dying to know more about all the women I learned about on the tour. I suggested to Massimo De Filippis that perhaps he should be teaching a university course on courtesans. He told me that he is still offering his walking tour at a very low price (15 euros), because he needs to get a reputation. He explained that people hear the title “Courtesans of Rome” tour and they shun it, perhaps thinking he will be taking them to modern-day brothels. No, I can guarantee, the youngest courtesan met on the tour was at least 500 years old.
If you are interested, check out Massimo’s website: www.storytellingrome.com
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.