[(essay date 2003) In the following excerpt, Robin presents an overview of Tullia's life and works, commenting on her importance to and influence on women's writing and sixteenth-century print culture.]
Sixteenth-century Italy saw a boom in the manufacture of printed books. The florescence of the publishing industry, whose capital was Venice, can partly be attributed not only to the technological advances in printing made in this century and the increases in production and sales thereby possible but also to the new practice of publishing books in the vernacular rather than in Latin. There were nearly five hundred registered printers, editors, and booksellers in the city of Venice during this first century of commercial printing; and between seventeen and eighteen million books, it is estimated, were produced by Venetian printers alone.1 Such publishers as Pietrasanta, Valvassori, Sessa, and the leviathan among the new Venetian presses, Giolito, regularly produced between five hundred and one thousand copies of each new title. A number of these publishers' first-time authors were women, some of them courtesans--or such was the word on the Rialto. This paper explores the literary self-presentations of three sixteenth-century Italian writers typecast as courtesans (cortigiane), in the context of the intersecting institutions of prostitution, the salon (ridotto), and the publishing industry in Renaissance Venice.
Modern historians have been careful to distinguish between the high-end, so-called courtesans and women soliciting on the streets. "Institutionalized prostitution," Margaret King has written, "flourished in the lush cities of Italy. A population of nearly 12,000 prostitutes made up a robust fraction of the 100,000 residents of Venice in 1500.2 In the slums off the Rialto bridge lived the common whores. In splendid apartments lived the 'honored courtesans,' elegantly dressed, skilled poets and musicians, who entertained gallant travelers and Venetian patricians."3 A pamphlet printed in 1570, Catalogo di tutte le principali e piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia (Catalog of All the Principal and Most Honored Courtesans),4 advertised the names, prices, and street addresses of Venice's most notorious courtesans as if they were tourist attractions. In his 1988 book, historian of medieval prostitution Jacques Rossiaud embellished the myth of the glamorous Renaissance courtesan in a way that the sobering testimony of a sixteenth-century woman like Veronica Franco renders absurd:
The courtesan was richly attired and lived in a respectable street; ... she received her admirers and paid "visits" to important personages. Accompanied by her serving women or, on occasion, followed by a matronly lady's maid on her way to a sermon or a respectable inn, nothing in her bearing set her apart from a woman of estate. She was untouched by the violence of the young because she enjoyed effective protection. ...5
In a recent article in Renaissance Quarterly, Cathy Santore detailed the lavish style in which one Venetian prostitute lived. Julia Lombardo's apartment had three richly furnished bedrooms, a reception room, a study, kitchen, and storage rooms where, according to Lombardo's own inventory, she stockpiled linen, rugs, clothing,...