Rome – Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries

The "Triumph of Galatea", a fresco painted on the ceiling of Villa Farnesina in Rome by Raphael.  At the center is a figure based on the Roman Courtesan Imperia.
The “Triumph of Galatea”, a fresco painted on the wall of Villa Farnesina in Rome by Raphael. At the center is a figure based on the Roman Courtesan Imperia.

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.

Massimo De Filippis shows photos of two paintings by Raphael where he used the famous Roman courtesan Imperia as a model. "The Triumph of Galatea" and "Sibyl". Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 16, 2014
Massimo De Filippis shows photos of two paintings by Raphael where he used the famous Roman courtesan Imperia as a model. “The Triumph of Galatea” and “Sibyl”. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 16, 2014

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.


Piazza Fiammetta Rome.  The piazza in Rome where a famous Roman Courtesan, Fiammetta, had her home. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014
Piazza Fiammetta Rome. The piazza in Rome where a famous Roman Courtesan, Fiammetta, had her home. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

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.”

The home in Rome of a prominent Roman courtesan named Fiammetta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014
The home in Rome of a prominent Roman courtesan named Fiammetta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

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.

Caravaggio's "Madonna and the Serpent", a painting in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.  The model for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute named Magdalena Antoinetti and the model for the Christ child was her son Paolo Antoinetti.
Caravaggio’s “Madonna and the Serpent”, a painting in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The model for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute named Magdalena Antoinetti and the model for the Christ child was her son Paolo Antoinetti.

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.”

Portrait of Young Woman with the Unicorn by Raphael at Borghese Gallery in Rome.  The model was the young beauty Giulia Farnese
Portrait of Young Woman with the Unicorn by Raphael at Borghese Gallery in Rome. The model was the young beauty Giulia 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.

Detail from Raphael's "The Transfiguration" in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums.  Model for figure was Giulia Farnese
Detail from Raphael’s “The Transfiguration” in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums. Model for figure was Giulia Farnese


If you are interested, check out Massimo’s website:

21 thoughts on “Rome – Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries”

  1. Oh Trisha – Thanks so much for this interesting post. When I saw your first photo, I knew right away you were taking us to Villa Farnesina. The frescoes there are simply breathtaking and I find myself going back there each time I visit Rome. There are some other places that you mentioned that are new to me though, and I will seek out Massimo when I’m in Rome next month. Did he walk you past the home of “La Fornarina” in Trastevere, that’s now a restaurant?
    That last Raphael portrait in your post of a young woman grabbed me the first time I saw it at Galleria Borghese and I ended up buying a replica necklace at the museum of the one in the painting. I sometimes wear it knotted just as in the painting and it never fails to draw compliments. Maybe we can meet for a drink again near the end of next month if you’re around. Now I’m off to check out Massimo’s site. Thanks for the tip.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Linda — I am so glad you liked this post. You must look up Massimo and go on his tour, and you must call me when you come to Rome so we can get together for an aperitivo. I can’t believe you recognized the fresco from the Villa Farnesina– isn’t that Villa amazing –and remember how many lemon trees there were in the garden? We did not go by the Fornarina’s house (although I’ve done that before). There were so many things we did see and talk about -the Doria Pamphilj gallery and the tragic story of Anna Bianchini, a prostitute who was in several Caravaggio paintings –“The Penitent Magdalene”, “The Rest on the Flight to Egypt” –she was eventually found drowned in the Tiber River. I must do a separate blog post on her. There was also Madame Lucrezia– whose statue I have passed by for years near my office and never knew what it was about. She was a courtesan who once owned a castle on Ischia and owned Mount Vesuvius for awhile, then used all her money to help poor prostitutes– an incredible story. Before I forget, thank you for the nail decals that arrived today for Chiara. She is not home from school yet but I am sure she will be thrilled when she sees them. That was so sweet of you!!

  2. How intriguing! This is a wonderful post. I am an avid reader of Italian history, so this is right up my alley. I’d make the trip to Rome just to go on Massimo’s tour. Didn’t these women lead remarkable lives? They could be masters of their own destiny in a way – albeit only if they were popular with men. Surely it was not easy, but looking at the whole of life then, it was, as the song goes, nice work if you could get it. If successful, she could have a pretty remarkable and strangely powerful existence. These are the stories that make the study of history so very wonderful and utterly compelling. Thanks!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Adri — I also love history and I am sitting here right in the middle of so much of it and wondering why I haven’t dedicated more time and energy to blog posts about the amazing people and events in this city. I have actually begun work on a blog post (which will also be an AP television report) on Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus. August 19th is the 2000th anniversary of his death and so I figure it is a good time to do some research on his controversial wife. I bet you have read some books about her. I am trying to get permission to film in some of the archeological sites that are closed to the public — Liva’s house on the Palatine Hill and her Villa at Prima Porta.

  3. Superb post, fascinating tale, immediately this becomes the tour I most want to take in Rome, because it unfolds real life, rather than droning on about artists’ styles and pigments.
    If I am right, that Saint Agostino is Saint Augustine’s Church, then there is some delightful irony at work, for Augustine’s own story is that he was the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, and from his father he learned the ways of brothels and the life of sexual appetite, he even had a child with a prostitute who was his mistress. Then, in his thirties, he converted and came to regard himself as a sexual addict, helpless, he thought, at the sight and lure of women. He became a priest, chaste (crediting Christ for his salvation, though the theology in this is questionable) and developed the doctrine of original sin, which he astutely promoted politically for years, despite strong opposition from a number of theologians. But he won the Pope with expensive gifts and outlived his opponents, and so we are saddled with this grim and cruel doctrine to this day. The church named for him would have been designated as a place for these women, I presume, but what a delightful irony that they used it as a place for business! No mention is made by Augustine, in his autobiography, of the woman and child he abandoned when he got religion. There is a great book about all this, fairly short, too, called Adam and Eve and the Serpent, by Princeton historian Elaine Pagels.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Nancy, what you write is amazing and fascinating. Actually, I think Massimo did make some reference to the Saint Agostino irony and it flew right over my head. Now it makes perfect sense. Unbelievable! Thank you so much for sharing that. I must read that book by Elaine Pagels, I am sure I would find it interesting.

  4. One more thought: Modern American courtesans are doing pretty well, too: V. Stiviano, the woman whose conversation with Don Sterling, owner of the Clippers, has created such a stir, got a 2 mill luxury condo out of him, plus two BMWs and a third luxury car, I forget the make, and I would think a lot more we don’t know about. On the other hand, Sterling is not the kind of guy you dream of meeting on a sultry day in Rome, so she earned her pay . . .

    1. Trisha Thomas

      That’s hilarious. I had never heard of V. Stiviano until I just read your comment. Yup, indeed there are still modern-day courtesans. And that Don Sterling would give Pope Alexander VI a good run for his money in the ugly category. The world has a long tradition of powerful, rich (ugly) men and beautiful, young women. During the courtesan tour I couldn’t help thinking about a book I finished reading recently on Catherine the Great of Russia by Robert K. Massie. Catherine the Great never married but constantly had a “favorite” man who lived in her palace, in a separate apartment, and was at her beck and call. She would award her “favorite” with titles and properties and after a few years dump him and move on to a new one. As she got older, the favorites got younger and there was plenty of competition for the position. This is the only case in history where I have heard of this role-reversal (although there must be some others).

  5. Welcome back MM. We have missed you; and what an interesting post. Rome certainly is a more romantic, more sensual, more expressive place than Boston. The courtesan story also fits so well with the Berlesconi court. I guess the tradition lives on. Really interesting,


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Dad. It is so true — the modern courtesans are definitely present in Italy. When Massimo was telling us about the various nicknames used by the courtesans– Lion Mouth and Lady Wolf, I could help thinking of Ruby Heart-Stealer, the Moroccan show-girl/call-girl of Berlusconi bunga-bunga fame.

  6. Trish Sigler

    I will be in Rome in about 18 months – I definitely taking this tour. How interesting! Thanks for sharing.


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Trish!! You are coming to Rome!! Well let me know, we must get together!! I am glad you liked the post and you should definitely take the tour.

  7. The nail decals arrived today? They were mailed months and months ago – last year in fact. I can’t believe it took so long! I’ll be in touch later in June.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Yes, they did arrive today and my daughter loves them. There are many marvelous things about Italy, but the postal system is not one of them!!

  8. Hi Trisha, enjoyable post – a certain Ashley Alexandra Dupre comes to mind along with the weakness of the Gubernatorial flesh!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      You got it Alan — New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s high-class call girl, Ashley Alexandra Dupre. But I wonder if she was as classy as the book-reading Roman courtesans. The politicians are still all a bunch of sleaze-balls!!

  9. Joan Schmelzle

    Thanks for an interesting post. And, of course, I have now added a new website and tour idea to my Rome “Favorites” list. While I have seen many of the paintings you mention both in the post and comment above, I am always ready to go back for more. And I find Caravaggio and his work fascinating. I believe I once “did” a walking tour about him with Context. And I thoroughly enjoyed a rather hefty biography about him that a friend gave me. When I am in Rome, I re-do so many favorites that sometimes the new “places to visit” suffer. Fall 2015 is my goal and my planning has begun.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Joan, you must take the tour when you come, but you also need to go visit inside all the galleries, villas and museums where all the artworks are — the Vatican museum, the Borghese gallery, the Doria Pamphilj gallery, the Villa Farnesina– ah, there is just so much to do. I live here and can barely keep up. I suppose it is too much for a short vacation. If you have time, give me a shout and we will have a cappuccino or an apertivo. I would love to meet you in person.

  10. Joan Schmelzle

    I will certainly add a cappucino or an apertive with you to my list of must do items. I will look for ward to it. Thanks

  11. I am so glad you enjoyed Massimo’s tour! We were tour guides in Rome together and he is such a fantastic guide. I cannot wait to return next year and go on this tour, I know how hard he worked on putting it together! Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I loved the tour and I know he put a lot of work into it. Like I said, I think he could teach a university course on the courtesans of Rome.

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