Big Echo

Critical SF

Three Ladies of the Evening: 
An Abbreviated List of the Ladies of Pleasure Along the Grand Canal

Z. Finch & Co., Publishers

Excerpted from The Renaissance In Your Pocket: A Gentleman's Guide to the Earthly Pleasures of Sixteenth-Century Europe. Volume 12 of the guidebook series Temporal Rogue, dist. Roué & Sons, 2060 3rd Ave., New York, New York. Reproduced with permission.

From Section XVI.xi, “The Republic of Venice”:


… And of course no Late-Renaissance trip is complete without a stop in Venice. In the sixteenth century, the Serenissima Repubblica was a city of not only fabulous wealth and lethal political machinations, but also the most highly developed courtesan culture west of Lahore. Why, in this century, even the French came to Venice for the courtesans. And you, diachronic connoisseur, will soon understand why.

All hobbyists have whims, but in Venice you have options. If seized by a desire for the rough, you can seek out a cortigiana di lume — a “lady of the streetlamp” — on the Rialto or other bridges. You’ll get what you pay for, but the risk of being nabbed by the Night Watch adds the frisson of danger many amateurs love.[1]

But no one would travel to Venice for that alone. And we guess that that’s not why you're really here, either. The Rogue knows its readers, and if you’re reading this, it’s because you're an epicure of the sensuous. You’re a traveler of taste, resources and means — an explorer in the mode of Burton, not of Saint Paul. You take it as your sacrament, your honor and your pleasure, to spend, travel, and exert yourself as required in order to reap the finest vintages history has to offer: the priceless, irreplaceable unique experience.

You’re in search of what is no longer available, or permitted, in our drab, flattened, overprotective culture. You, reader, seek a souvenir in the truest sense: a memory that can be carried back across the centuries of explorations no longer possible today. Is this not the only true treasure – the only real luxury? Not subject to duties or embargoes, to moralistic sanctions or narrow-minded judgment, a moment plucked out of time, preserved from decay as if in amber, to be relished in the private theater of the mind or shared with the select few who can understand…  

For you, time-conquering cavalier, the only worthy goal in Venice is a cortigiana onesta.

Splendid as deities, wealthy as aristocrats, these “honest,” honored courtesans are the single greatest attraction of Venice in her prime. Forget the bridges, ignore the Carnival — for the genuine picaro, these must be the goal.

Witty, refined, and past mistresses of the arts of pleasure, these ladies embody a uniquely beautiful form of aesthetic philosophy no longer found in our days. They incarnate, as the philosopher put it, “that generous loyalty to rank and sex… that proud submission… that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive… the spirit of an exalted freedom.”

Most people think this spirit was lost when we lost when we lost the glories of the past.  But you, inspired traveler, you can reclaim it, here in the heyday of that noble city “under which vice itself lost… its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

Practical Considerations:

The traveling Rogue, equipped with his usual advantages (nanofactor, language and culture plug-ins), and under disguise of a nobleman from lands ambiguously remote, will be a welcome guest at the international saloni hosted by the cortigiane oneste. Even so, a wad of ducats will not guarantee the private appointments you seek.[2] For access to the intimate company of the flowers of the Republic, you must secure proper introductions locally (for this, see Appendix 2.i). We suggest allotting at least three weeks to “stake position”: to establish your respectability, integrate yourself into the city’s social circles, and ingratiate yourself with the target of your desire. 

This demands a commitment of resources, to be sure. But consider this adventure as a big-game hunt – the chase is part of the thrill. Would you scant your efforts while following Roosevelt or Hemingway to Africa? Venice offers a similar challenge, a worthy test of audacity and courage, and an indispensable box to tick off your bucket list. After all (as the bold youth of today say), you only live once.

The Rogue’s starred recommendations have been drawn from our decades[3] of research in the calli and palazzi of the City of Bridges. They derive from personal adventures, reliable local informants, and the Repubblica’s own official catalogo of the city’s most popular courtesans.[4] With us as your guide, you’re ready to set out on your own Venetian picaresque. Buon appetito, and remember, the best vacation is a Rogue’s vacation!

Starred Recommendations:

1. Maddalena Francesca da Venzone; also called Cecca, or la Ondina: 1563–1580[5].

There’s no better place for the first-time visitor to Venice to start that here. The private apartments of Maddalena — known as Cecca — may not be among La Serenissima’s most exclusive, but they provide a fine introduction to the range of this most playful of arts, in this most intriguing of capitals.

 (At left, see Cecca presenting her merchandise, to whose firmness and excellent proportions more than one enamored poet or painter has dedicated a portrait or a rhapsodic trattato d'amore (see App. XII).)

Despite a delayed start to her career — by her own account, she never entertained a client before the age of fifteen — Cecca has swiftly shot to rarefied heights of fame. Her palazzo is a favorite of city connoisseurs throughout the ranks of the upper classes. By ’66, she is employing a number of hand-picked assistants, all as hard-working and as pneumatic as herself.

The house is renowned throughout the Veneto for Cecca’s speciality, the amusements termed acquatici, or “wet.” Cecca advertises herself as being happier “when caressed in the arms of Poseidon[6] than when lain on sheets of cloth-of-gold”  — a claim to which her omnipresent bath turban may lend some support.[7] 

Among the amenities of the house are an enclosed garden, where guests may join the staff[8] in swimming and sunbathing au naturel, as well as a central cloister — fabled throughout the city — devoted to the watery sports in all forms. Reserved for favored clients, it is rumored to be fitted with spurting fountains, gushing waterworks, and the latest in self-heating erotic statuary from the court engineers at Urbino, which explains what Leonardo da Vinci has actually been doing with his time.

Specialties of the house:  Once admitted to the famous cloister, it’s difficult to choose among pleasures. Don’t miss the “milk bath” (a service notoriously difficult to describe; we can, however, specify that it involves plenty of hot water, spices of the Orient, and what the house euphemistically refers to as “steeping”).

Cultural notes: Cecca comes from humble origins. This divides opinion among cotemporal connoisseurs. Some refuse to patronize her on the grounds that contact with a farmer’s daughter[9] would be degrading.

Others, however, take the more pragmatic approach that all cortigiane — however artistic — enter the field because even beautiful women must eat. They further reason (soundly, in the Rogue’s experience) that a young woman who’s had a first-hand taste of poverty is likely to work much harder than the frail, colorless, abandoned noblemen’s daughters who make up so much of her competition.

We record no complaints from her clients about either Cecca’s energy or her health. Indeed, some patrons greatly enjoy the frisson of class transgression, and her French sponsors are said to be insatiable a scenario known by the misleadingly anodyne name of “The Farmer’s Daughter and the Seigneur.”

Hours/Dates: Cecca opens her doors in May 1563, and is listed in the catalogo a brief two years later. We recommend visiting her at any point up until 1580 (an inconvenience with the Black Death). ’71–’73 is vintage.

2.  Filippina Constanza Sofronisba Foscari da Canal; called Pippa: 1550–1585.

By her own account, Pippa was born to nobility and reared as befits a lady. She subsequently pursued an independent education, and qualified as the first cortigiana of her brilliant line.

At Pippa’s salons, you’ll find her equally at ease entertaining her guests on the spinet or lute, reciting her own compositions (in Latin or the vulgate), or debating the finer points of Plato, Catullus, or — some nights, with specially invited friends — Sappho.

Some visiting Rogues have professed themselves surprised, even intimidated, by Pippa’s erudition. This betrays a sad confusion about the erotics of the host culture. Let us clarify: In the Serenissima, the cortigiane advertise their ability to provide stimulating conversation, as well as more carnal intercourse. For a woman like Pippa, her intellect constitutes a great part of her appeal. To frame it in modern terms: it is as transgressive for a woman to speak Latin in the salon as to exercise her special arts in the boudoir.

The Renaissance, after all, constituted a rebirth of knowledge for men, but not for ladies. And – to paraphrase the tracts handed down through generations — the formula for success in this field has remained essentially unchanged since the days of the hetaerae of ancient Greece: i.e., a man is less likely to pay for what he could get free by staying home with his wife.

Hence, we may readily see why ambitious cortigiane commit themselves to acquiring not only the physical but also the intellectual knowledge that the Renaissance imposed upon its gentlemen, but considerately spared its ladies.  But you, connoisseur! consider it a challenge of cultural adaptation; and see if, by the end of your visit, you can understand why Pippa’s depth of conversation is at least as titillating as her knowledge of other classical techniques.

Specialties of the house:  Regulars are drawn by Pippa’s ability to offer the most refined levels of conversation and fornication, sometimes both at once. To the curious beginner, we recommend the performance titled “Carnal Knowledge, with Recitation of Ovid.” 

Other highly-rated offerings include “Playing the Spinet” (she has exquisitely long fingers); the role-playing scenario “The Anchoress and the Priest,” with optional deployment of rosary beads; and, for the spiritually inclined, “The Sermon to the Creatures” (with her pet ferret — not for all tastes).

Pippa comes recommended at any point during her long career, between May 1550, when she opens her practice, and October 1585, after which we do not suggest visiting unless you are intrigued by the details of a witchcraft trial.

Cultural notes: Upon returning from Venice, travelers sometimes contact us privately to ask about Pippa’s origins. They have learned through the grapevine (which thrives vigorously in the Serenissima, as it can only in the most refined civilizations) that there is an inconvenient sparseness of verifiable information regarding her family of birth.

We can confirm this is true. Please let us further add, however, that to worry about it is to miss the point completely.

In this water-mirrored city, in this gilded age, illusion and reality are intertwined. Separating them is a fool’s task. What is the creation of a glamorous deception but the stock-in-trade of these ladies of the evening?

What matters, and what will set you tingling in her presence and thrilling at your memories, is that Pippa appears to marry the elegance of a born noblewoman to the skill of a trained courtesan.  And that, illusion or not, is all you need to know.

3. Giovanna Agnola d’Estina da Molin, known as Gianna: 1549–1557.

If Pippa’s origins are shrouded in mystery, no such doubt hovers over Gianna. This lovely girl was most certainly born, in June 1538, to a nobleman of great estate… but not, of course, to his noble lady.

Gianna’s loss, if such it was, was our gain. For, like so many other “natural” daughters of the nobility — blessed with blue blood, barred from physical labor, but, dowry-less, quite unmarriageable — she was sanctified from birth with a vocation as immutable as that of any nun: to serve Venice in the capacity of solace, comfort, and joy. Thus did she join the Serenissima’s wreath of flowers, a rosebud eternally (for the Rogue) ready to be plucked.

Trained and turned professional as early as possible, Gianna’s appeal is readily evident. It is visible in her small stature, her fresh cheek and her dewy eye; but what sets her apart from other and similar hirondelles comes through in a host of other ways. There is something unnameable, a certain je ne sais quoi, in her clear, sad gaze, her pliability, her startlingly well-maintained air of naïveté. These qualities are amply illustrated in the picture at left (commissioned, incidentally, by her mother, who is also her manager).

When you visit the ladies at their gracious apartments, the mother – a charming woman, also born to the art – will be glad to have Gianna demonstrate her charms in the flesh, before you commit to a contract and at no extra charge. This sweet amuse-bouche will demonstrate that the flawless skin of her portrait is no exaggeration (and, also, that the fairest skin is not confined to the face).

As Gianna is still so inexperienced, one might expect to have to forgive her for the occasional gaucherie. But experience seems to have accomplished that which time has not, for she almost never offers reason for complaint. (Unless, of course, your avocation is administering discipline. In which case, worry not! At Gianna’s, every visitor will be served.)

Indeed, you may be struck by the almost frightened depth of her willingness to please, especially when her mother has departed the bower. If you wish to truly win her heart, you might bring her a gift of a songbird — you will see her collection housed in pretty cages throughout the perogo — or of a doll, a ribbon, or a sweet. We know she likes pistachios, sugared fruit, and meringues. The latter, especially, is best to offer her if she is crying; it has been seen to have an excellent effect.

Specialties of the house: The drawback of Gianna’s special appeal is that she has not been established long enough to develop fortés. Most patrons, however, find this more than compensated by her flexibility, her anxiety to please, and her manager’s readiness to incorporate clients’ interests into the girl’s educational discipline. Indeed, the house offers a range of implements for the purpose, placing it, in this sense, among the most forward-looking in the Veneto.

(Gianna is also a great favorite of those Mentors who enjoy administering improving discipline.  In case of doubt — e.g., regarding visible or permanent marks — please consult beforehand with the mother — a question of manners.)

Gianna is available from late October of 1549 through early April of 1557. We consider her most unspoiled, quivering, and ideal from the late winter of 1550 through the end of 1553.

By no means visit after mid-1556.

For the connoisseur making a targeted trip, our very favorite day is the 8th of November, 1551. The weather is misty. The sky outside the piano nobile’s great windows will reflect in Gianna’s green eyes. Their trembling depths will suggest the deep lagoons. You will see her comforted by taking her among the songbirds. Bring her a meringue.

Cultural Notes: The experiences on offer in Gianna’s palazzo – like those of most specialists anywhere – are not for everyone. Her tender skin has a specific flavor; savoring it requires a specific taste.

Generally, the patron who seeks her out knows his own palate. However, it does occur that the infrequent traveler writes to us to let us know that, once in Gianna’s rooms, he found that, on the brink of realizing his desire, he was “slightly uncomfortable.” 

De gustibus non est disputandum. However, we would feel ourselves remiss in our avowed duty if we did not pause a moment to examine this predicament.

First, we suggest remembering that Gianna is no sheltered schoolgirl[10]. She is a professional, with a future ahead of her[11], to which all experiences constitute a valuable addition.

Furthermore, we might question what right the traveler from the future has to impose his views upon this young woman, and the world that has produced her. After all, this is the age at which her culture views her as old enough to work; so what business have we thinking we know better? Surely, if her own mother believes it beneficial to receive early exposure to the great gentlemen who will be her lifelong support, it is not for us to criticize. Let yourself be guided by the beliefs of the place you’re in: as ever, this is the key to being no mere tourist, but a true traveler.

Remember, finally, that Gianna is barely younger than was Juliet, at the opening of Shakespeare’s famous romance. And who condemns Juliet?

We here at the Rogue are passionate about travel – indeed, passionate as missionaries.  So we say to you, in one of our rare moments of exhortation:  Fellow and future Rogues, shake off your fears. Set aside your cultural preconceptions. Try something here that you would find impossible – or, by its label, “improper” – at home.  It is only so doing that we can truly enter into other cultures, engage with them on a profound and intimate level, expand our appreciation of life… in short, that we can share with them the essence of our common humanity. 

From earliest recorded history, it has been the desire for the novel – for this intimate and penetrating human contact – that has sent explorers abroad in search of the exotic. Lucian and Hakluyt, Burton and Marco Polo… would they have dithered and stalled?

No, Rogue. Honor their memories, and your own manhood. Step forward, as the thousand generations of travelers before you have done, and embrace the spirit — and flesh — of the time and place. The quintessential meaning of travel calls you. It has been thus for millennia; it is to be honored, not questioned, altered or diluted. There is no need to doubt it. Don’t try.

A Short Appendix

While the Rogue has no need to trouble about such matters, the writers and editors of the benighted past sometimes had to pay attention to matters of copyright. They would have been delighted to know that all the images and quotations used here are in the public domain, and freely available online for reprinting and re-use.

References and Citations:

On pp. 2–3, the Rogue is pleased to quote Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) on the subjects of gender, submission and obedience, though perhaps not quite in the context the philosopher had in mind.

The Rogue operates in a long tradition of catalogs of this kind. Its most immediate inspiration is Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh (1775), a practical book for the tourist that provides precisely the information promised.

For the city in question, temporal research would hardly be possible without such invaluable historico-cultural resources as the “quasi-official” Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia (“Catalog of all the Main and Most Honorable Courtesans of Venice”), published about 1565.

In the late twentieth century, this kind of information moved into abundant online forums and self-published guidebooks, where the community of hobbyists is happy to continue to share abundant information about where and how to best enjoy their avocation, particularly among the young, the beautiful, and the very poor.[12]


"Cecca" bears a certain resemblance to the "Portrait of a Young Woman," also called "La Fornarina," which was painted by Raphael in about 1520, and is believed to depict his Roman mistress Margherita (known as “the bakeress”). The picture now hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

"Pippa" shares an air de famille with the "Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1485), thought to depict Cecilia Gallerani, the favorite mistress of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza. Renowned for both learning and beauty, Cecilia presided over the saloni where Milan’s intellectuals gathered. The portrait now hangs in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.

"Gianna," for her part, almost breaks one’s heart with her likeness to Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of the 11-year old noblewoman Maria de' Medici, painted in 1551. The subject died at 17. The “Portrait” now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.


[1] Carry enough ducats for the bribe, and double-check your inoculations.

[2] This was a test. A ducat cannot be wadded: it is a gold coin. If you failed to notice the anomaly, re-take the Culture Test in Appendix 12.

[3] Relative-objective.

[4] An invaluable form of tourist information upon which, alas, in our censorious times, cities no longer see fit to expend their tax dollars.

[5] All dates are given in O.S. Your nanofactor, of course, will perform the Julian conversions.

[6] Obviously, a sexual metaphor for water. If this left you confused, brush up your classics. You’re expected to know these things. (We recommend the Neptune passage of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, the entirety of the Decameron, and Apuleius’ Golden Ass, as a start.)

[7] Also, cloth-of-gold is in fact scratchy.

[8] More politely referred to as “artists,” “mermaids,” or, if you absolutely insist, “naiads.”

[9] Or a miller’s? A baker’s? A gypsy’s? She refuses to verify; the mystery itself becomes, tantalizing.

[10] Not that there are any schoolgirls in Renaissance Venice. If you require these, see Addendum 3: “Vice and Victorians.”

[11] At least, until 1557. Of course, one great convenience of temporal tourism is that, while perhaps Gianna’s tastes and desires might change over the course of her tender life, the patron from ahead need not trouble himself with these Schrödingerian questions. From the purely Roguish perspective, her future matters not at all. The Gianna we know need never get any older.

[12] As cf., e.g., ,
inter alia.

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