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Courtesans in art: Olympia (1863/1865)
Lais (1526) - Hans Holbein
DefinitionA courtesan is a person paid and/or supported for the giving of social companionship and intimate liaisons to one or more partners. The word is generally reserved for those who enjoyed the most social status for such services. Although the term has been applied to people from several cultures and historical periods, it is most applicable for those to whom it was first given: the women of Renaissance Europe who held a socially recognized, if not quite socially accepted, position as well-compensated companions.
The role of courtesans should be neither overly romanticized nor offhandedly scorned. On the positive side, they had freedoms that were extremely rare for other women at the time. They were not only financially comfortable (when business was good) but financially independent, with control of their own resources rather than dependency on male relatives. They were very well-educated, compared even to upper-class women, and often held simultaneous careers as performers and artists.
On the negative side, courtesans were, as a means of survival, dependent on upper-class "protectors" to provide them with shelter and support. They were required to provide charming companionship for extended periods, no matter what their own feelings might be at the time. They were also, because of the sexual aspects of their profession, subject to lower social status and religious disapproval. They were sometimes limited in their apparel by various sumptuary laws and were restricted in where they could appear at social functions. Periods of overt religious piety in a city would often lead to persecutions of the courtesans, up to and including accusations of witchcraft.
Compare with: prostitute, geisha, escort, tawaif. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtesan [Sept 2004]
Famous courtesans* Ninon de l'Enclos * Veronica Franco * Marie Duplessis * Sarah Bernhardt * Harriette Wilson
The School of Whoredom(1500s) - Pietro Aretino [...]
The School of Whoredom - Pietro Aretino [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Bawdy and thoroughly risqueacute;, this 16th–century masterpiece is the work of Pietro Aretino, widely regarded as the originator of European pornographic writing. With a Foreword by Paul Bailey. Determined that her daughter should not be ignorant of the ways of men and love, Nanna seeks to “educate” the naïve Pippa. She tells of women—whores, housewives, and nuns all being essentially the same; and of how to win men—discreetly and with good manners. But mostly, she reveals to Pippa the secrets of her art as a courtesan. The ensuing dialogue, laden with satiric twists and naughty puns, offers a fresh and lively example of the harlot’s world, displaying a frankness that confides in today’s reader as shrewdly as it was intended in 16th–century Rome. Italian satirist and poet Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) was one of the most versatile writers of the 16th century; the author of plays, poetry, and letters, he is now principally remembered as the originator of European pornography. --Book Description via Amazon.com
Grandes Horizontales (2003) - Virginia Rounding
Grandes Horizontales (2003) - Virginia Rounding [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
A fascinating portrayal of the lives of the great nineteenth-century courtesans.
Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Païva and La Présidente, the four women whose lives and legends are examined in this fascinating book, were all representatives of the golden age of the French courtesan. In the reign of Emperor Napoleon III the opulent and pampered demimonde became almost indistinguishable from the haut-monde, with mythical reputations growing up around its most glittering and favored celebrities.
Marie Duplessis became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan when Alexandre Dumas Fils portrayed her as Marguerite Gautier in La dame aux Camélias. Apollonie Sabatier, known as La Présidente, put men of letters and other arts at ease amidst the gracious manners and bawdy talk of her salon and was immortalized by sculptor August Clésinger and poet Charles Baudelaire.
To prejudiced eyes, the Russian Jew La Païva appeared intent on exploiting the rich young men of Paris. Covetous onlookers resented her ability to amass and display great wealth, most notably in the design and building of her opulent hotel in the Avenue of the Champs Elysées. The English beauty who called herself Cora Pearl was another "foreign threat", with her athletic physique, sixty horses and ability "to make bored men laugh", including Prince Napoleon.
Virginia Rounding disentangles myth from reality in her lively, thought-provoking study. Nineteenth-century Paris comes to life and so do its most distinguished and déclassé inhabitants.
The four women whose lives I examine in 'Grandes Horizontales' - Marie Duplessis, La Paiva, Apollonie Sabatier and Cora Pearl - were all representative of the demi-monde in 19th-century Paris - that is, of that half-world midway between respectable high society and the low life of the common prostitute. 'Demi-monde' is a term suggestive of twilight, of a world of shifting appearances and shadow, where nothing is quite what it seems, a world between worlds. --http://www.virginiarounding.com/horizontales.html [Dec 2004]
The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (2001) - Susan Griffin
The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (2001) - Susan Griffin [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Poet and writer Susan Griffin is famously provocative, though her provocation takes very different forms, ranging from her classic feminist treatise, Women and Nature, which linked patriarchy with the oppression of women and nature, to her well-received A Chorus of Stones, which weighed in on the nature of war. But in The Book of Courtesans, Griffin is downright scintillating. Courtesans, she writes, were not prostitutes nor even kept women, though certainly they used their sexuality to financial gain. Rather, they were personages and celebrities, friends to royalty and the most famous writers and artists of their time, the subjects of gossip, the charismatic epicenter of the Second Empire, the Gay Nineties, the Belle Epoche, "Gay Paree." Their faces were immortalized in paintings by the Renaissance masters, by Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec, their lives by Proust, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert. They lived in splendor, set fashion standards, owned fabulous jewelry collections. And they were talented authors, poets, actresses, and singers. In a time of prescribed roles for women, they turned the tables, creating lives of remarkable intellectual and financial freedom.
Griffin sings the praises of these women and enunciates their virtues, which, ironically, are the sort popularly thought to be made anachronistic by feminism. With her impeccable timing, the French dancer Mogador achieved legendary status the first time she danced on stage and later became a countess. Harriet Wilson seduced the Duke of Wellington with her cheek, and delivered him from boredom. Marion Davies' gaiety enlivened all those who saw her, Madame Pompadour was the embodiment of grace, and Sarah Bernhardt exuded so much charm she acted her way straight out of the role of courtesan. Griffin imagines herself into her subjects lives with sensitivity and sensuality--the rags to riches stories that characterized them and their creative responses to often dire circumstances. In the end, she not only immortalizes these feminist precursors, but reminds us that "the capacity to take pleasure in life is no less a virtue than any other." --Lesley Reed for Amazon.com
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