It is International Women’s Day on Sunday 8th of March and we are very excited about it, so we’re featuring a film about a woman who was far ahead of her time: Dangerous Beauty (1998, directed by Marshall Herskovitz). It is the true story of Veronica Franco, a courtesan who lived in Venice from 1546-1591. While the film is not strictly accurate, it is a lush costume drama that shines a spotlight on a brilliant and often-forgotten historical woman.
In Dangerous Beauty, Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is a clever young woman who has fallen in love with a nobleman called Marco (Rufus Sewell), but he has to marry someone of as rich as him, and she is the daughter of an ex-courtesan. Her mother trains her to become a courtesan in her own right as it is the way a woman in 16th-Century Venice could have relative freedom: courtesans were sex workers, but they were also required to be educated, witty and talented at things like music and singing. Veronica thrives in a situation where her poetry is valued (and published) by her wealthy patrons, and she learns about politics and the noble court. When Venice is threatened by an invasion by the Ottoman Empire, Veronica uses the lessons she has learned about politics and people to seduce the King of France, persuading him to send troops to help defend Venice. However, all is not well, as plague descends on the city and the Catholic Church claims that it is because of the Venetians’ sins. Veronica is brought before the church’s Inquisition and accused of witchcraft, a common way in that time of targeting powerful women.
Veronica Franco did indeed publish her poetry and letters, was for a while the lover of the King of France and was brought before the Inquisition – the charges were dropped because of her connections to influential nobles. She managed to have a vibrant life where her intelligence was valued rather than just her beauty and obedience, but the film never pretends that she was not still at the mercy of the male-dominated society she was part of. While the love story between Veronica and Franco is a little clichéd and it presents a rose-tinted view of life as a sex worker, Dangerous Beauty is also a strongly feminist film. In a remarkable scene with her childhood friend Beatrice (Moira Shearer), Beatrice asks Veronica to train her daughter as a courtesan, seeing the independence and success that Veronica has. Beatrice does not want her daughter to end trapped in a marriage as she is, but Veronica tells her that she is also in a cage, just a bigger one. Being a courtesan was not freedom in 16th Century Venice: it was another way of depriving women of their power, since they relied on wealthy patrons for their lives and could easily be condemned as sinners.
Veronica constantly talks about the importance of female power, and encourages women to not to allow their intelligence to be suppressed by their husbands. However, she has no sooner provided information to her female friends about whether their husbands are alive or dead (with her political sway allowing her more insight that most women would be given) than they reject her because of her occupation. She wins a duel with a male poet, only to find that years later he is the one presiding over her trial by the Inquisition. We do not know what happened to Veronica Franco in real life, but while the film suggests that she will live happily with Marco, the real Veronica is more likely to have died in poverty, her wealthy patrons now gone. A depressing end for such a brilliant woman, but thankfully modern women have much more freedom than Veronica and others of her era. Dangerous Beauty reminds us why things like suffrage and equality are important. It also means that stories of brilliant women are still being told, and even if Veronica had a difficult life, her poetry and political works survive her.
If you’re interested in learning more…
There are lots of events going on for International Women’s Day. CCN is holding a networking event on Monday 9th March with guests like the Lord Mayor of Norwich. On International Women’s Day itself, Sunday 8th March, Words and Women is hosting a showcase of short prose by women writers in the East. Words and Women is a local organisation which supports and inspires female writers in East Anglia.
We’ve featured lots of great female writers on the blog – have a look at some of these reviews and borrow a book by a female writer:
…plus plenty more elsewhere on the blog!