Sunday, November 18, 2018

November Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: DANGEROUS BEAUTY

St. Paul said (Corinthians 11:3), 
The head of every man is Christ, 
the head of every woman is her husband.  

In tune with DANGEROUS BEAUTY’s 20th anniversary and the surge of women in public life, Netflix is playing this somewhat true tale of a courtesan poet, writer, and political advocate for women in mid-to-late 1500’s Venice. I say “somewhat true” because this version of the life of Veronica Franco is a bawdy, gorgeous melodrama about star-crossed amour rather than a portrait of her life and contributions to feminism; it is the skeleton of the real in fairy tale form — lavish, romantic, ugly in turns. Veronica lived in Shakespeare’s era and the movie has something in common with Shakespeare in Love, the latter a more magnetic version of star-crossed-ness. Marshall Herskovitz, below, now a prolific producer, directed ‘Beauty’ in 1998 and Bojan Bazelli’s spectacular cinematography swoons over dazzling Venice – a character as much as the players.

Catherine McCormack (above), fresh off of her role in Braveheart as William Wallace’s young wife, plays Franco (1546-1591) and dashing, ubiquitous Rufus Sewell (Tristan + Isolde, The Holiday, Victoria) her true love, Marco Venier. The Venier’s were nobility including uncle Dominico (Fred Ward), a retired senator and poet who had his own salon of courtiers and artists and was a supporter and protector of Franco until his death. Marco, who rises slowly to prestige in Venice’s senate, was ordered to marry someone of his own station whose connections could advance his rise. His love for Franco could be enjoyed, but not in marriage. This, we are told, is why she chose to follow her mother Paola’s path of becoming a courtesan, supporting the household with her earnings (her mother played by Jacqueline Bisset, below r).

A third Venier to affect Franco’s life dramatically was Maffio, another nephew of Domenico and cousin to Marco, played with sleazy relish by Oliver Platt. Maffio like most of the nobility in Franco’s circle, salivated over Franco’s beauty and sought her services. She tells him no — they are alike in having to sing for their supper; he can’t afford her. Jealous of Marco and Franco’s own rising fame, Maffio’s rage emerges in their sparring with swords (below) and poetic exchanges, ratcheting up to vicious accusations of her when the Inquisition came to town. The Maffio situ is born out in Franco’s writings.

I sought out historical sources to put some meat on the bones of Veronica's life: academic text, The Honest Courtesan (the film’s inspiration), by Margaret Rosenthal (1992), and another co-written by Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones (both are professors, Rosenthal at USC, Jones at Smith) called The Letters and Poems of Veronica Franco ( HERE).

Quoted material below comes from these sources. Rosenthal and Jones discuss the poet’s work in detail but provide nothing more than sketchy details of her life and almost nothing at all about hers and Marco’s relationship. (Tintoretto, 1518-1594, painted the portrait of Franco used on Rosenthal book’s cover below.)

The film takes you through her late adolescence, her affair with Marco, and the period of her career as a courtesan that made her rich and famous. According to Dangerous Beauty, in 1574, King Henri III of France visited the city and met with her, cementing her prestige, as he agrees, fresh from her bedroom, to fund Venice’s war with the Turks.

The plague arrived in Venice followed by the Inquisition in 1580 to punish Venice for its sinfulness, especially the famed courtesan culture that had made it a tourist mecca. The trial is a major plot point, in which Maffio unloads on her. His most vile insult appears in their verse to each other equating plague with syphilis and blaming it on Franco:

Veronica, veritably unique whore, id est foxy, flighty, flimsy, flabby, smelly, scrawny, scrimpy, and the biggest scoundrel besides… A woman reduced to a monster made of human flesh: plaster, chalk, cardboard, leather, and wooden board, a grisly spook, a scabby ogre, a crocodile, a hippogriffe, an ostrich, a knock-kneed mare. To sing of all that is wrong with you, your flaws, your faults, would take a hundred concepts, thousands of pens and inkwells and countless poets…. 

Franco survived the trial with her own eloquence and the support of her patrons; she was reprieved from the silly charge of performing magical incantations. An end note in the film reports that she cared for aging and ill courtesans in her home and remained Marco’s lover until she died.

Although the biographical information is scant in the works I looked at, the few facts that are there show her as a woman who had the heart and mind of a social worker bent on positive change for women and who carried the world on her shoulders. Except for one decade of real prosperity during which her poems and letters were published, her life was short (dead at 45) and not quite the “Dynasty” soap suggested by the film. Franco married at 13 and quickly separated, she had 6 children of which a few of her boys (of different fathers) survived, one the son of a politician, the other of a wealthy merchant. She took over the care of her brother’s children orphaned by the plague and supported a large household on her earnings until Dominico Venier died, his death ushering in hard times. She is documented at half a dozen addresses, dying in a neighborhood of prostitutes, although she is said not to have been destitute.

Her prose and verse, however, speak to dilemmas and opposition women still face. But Franco, unlike us, was on the cutting edge of change. Women of the Renaissance, inspired by humanist thought, began to openly contradict the misogynist view of their sex from ancient and medieval times. Women carried the burden of ‘original sin’, were controlled by the dowry system, the lack of legal rights, and the requirement of chastity and silence. Silence required domestic skills but ignorance of the world; in Franco’s Venice, few women were educated. The celebrated courtesan (distinct from prostitutes) evolved as an antidote; this cultivated set educated themselves in history, languages, and the arts. The repression of noble women is underlined in the film through Marco Venier’s vapid wife Giulia (Naomi Watts, below), and Marco’s sister (Moira Kelly) who is married off to a rich old man and begs Franco, years later, to train her daughter to be a courtesan, so unfree did she perceive her own life.

Franco, the unchaste courtesan, redefined herself in emotionally mature terms by intellectual pursuits, companionship, and sexual equality — love as a struggle for self-discovery, love and friendship as complimentary, true friendship as antithetic to misogyny. “…even if we are not as strong as men, we nonetheless, like men have a mind and intellect… Nor does virtue reside in bodily strength but in the vigor of the soul and in the mind, through which all things are known.”

As for Dangerous Beauty, watch it for pleasure rather than verity, but remember the Veronica Franco of history — dangerous beauty to the establishment but a wise and generous forerunner of 21st century women’s freedom.

The above post is written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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