by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 1998, A.S. XXXIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Recently I went to see “Dangerous Beauty”, a movie about a 16th century Venetian courtesan. As usual, I wondered how close to the truth did they get, particularly since the movie states up front that it is a true story. It even supplied a book title, “The Honest Courtesan” from which it got its material. I decided to check it out, and sure enough, the WSU library had a copy. The following is a review noting the difference between the history as reported by the book and as shown by the movie. A more standard movie review I leave to others.
While it is always dangerous solely on a single book, but on minor points of history, absent access to primary sources, it is the only thing that can be done. I have found references to Veronica Franco (the heroine of the movie) in the others sources.
The move makers did a good job recreating 16th century Venice. While watching the movie I saw nothing jarringly out of place. It is only when you look more closely that the discrepancies begin to appear. However most of these would be missed by those not familiar with the period. For example, the one detail I noted while watching occurred when Veronica was taken to the library, and she peruses the books. The volumes shown have very worn leather bindings, the stereotypical appearance of an old library. The scene was very likely filmed in such a library. But in Veronica’s time these books would have average less then fifty years old and would be considerably less worn. While Gutenberg invented the printing press a century earlier, mass production of book did not start till after 1500.
A larger discrepancy, though typical of movies, is time compression. The movie starts with a year, 1563 if I recalled right, but then does not further give any clue as to the passage of time. But as it builds to the climax, it has the plague striking Venice while they were fighting a war over Cyprus. The plague causes Venice to turn on its courtesans which leads to Veronica’s trial. In reality, the war occurred in 1570, the plague from 1575 to 1577 and the trial in 1580.
Events were also rearranged to suit the rising dramatic tension. Veronica’s mother did not die from the plague, but by some other cause prior to 1570. The movie has Veronica publishing a book of poetry prior to the war when it was actually published in 1575. More glaringly was the visit of Henri III of Valois which occurred in 1574, while the movie puts it just prior to the war.
This visit is the most historically distorted event in the movie. In the move, the purpose of the visit is whether the French will support Venice in their war against the Turks. In reality, Venice would eventually ally with Spain and Rome to form the Holy League which would go on the win the great victory of Lepanto, though in the peace treaty that followed Venice gave up Cyprus. The real reason Henri was in Venice was that he was King of Poland and inherited the throne of France. To avoid going though Protestant Germany, he looped down through Italy on his way to France. While in Venice, he spent much of his time sampling her attractions, one of whom happened to be Veronica. Henri choosing Veronica out of a crowd of courtesans in the middle of court is dramatic fiction.
Another common occurrence in conflation of characters. There is only one case of this in the move. The movie has Maffio Venier accusing Veronica of witchcraft. In actually her accuser was Redolfo Vannitelli whom she employed as a tutor for her children. The underlying conflict has to do with stolen property. Redolfo made his accusations to head off Veronica accusing him of thief. The thief went undiscovered. Maffio did join the church as a bishop in 1583, but more to secure an income then religious conversion implied in the movie.
Another departure from actual events is the trial itself. The book has the transcripts of the trial. Actually, the proceedings were more like a preliminary hearing. The proceedings did not take place in the Senate chamber. While the flavor of Veronica’s defense was kept intact, the prosecutor was not nearly so vehement, and appeared to be taken off stride by Veronica’s answers. Marco Venier’s passionate defense did not occurred. And rather than the Inquisitor’s explicit “punt” of the case, the matter was simply dropped. The suspicion being that her main patron, Domenico Venier, used his political influence to end the matter.
And other aspects of the movie I found entertaining was the number of details that were put into the movie. One was the platform shoes that Veronica had so much trouble with initially. Those things actually existed and were unique to Venice. In another scene the members of Domenico’s salon
are viewing a picture of a nude lady reclining on a couch. The picture appears to be of Veronica, and is so implied by the offhand remarks. While there were plenty of such pictures painted, Veronica’s actual portraiture is conventional. What is more interesting in this scene is that it has Marco looking a small portraiture of his intended. This is typical of how upper aristocracy married. The most notorious of such marriages was that between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves whose portraiture much favored her and the marriage quickly ended.
On a non-historical note: there is a scene that has the Venetian galleys heading to the docks after hearing of the plague. It is a beautiful matte shot with the galleys tailing a large wake. The problem is the galley would not be traveling a speed to create such wakes so close to the docks. But then a more realistic rendering would have worked against the dramatic tension building.
The movie ends right after the trail implying the Veronica lives a fairly happy life thereafter. Again, reality isn’t so kind as she died in 1591 broke. I wrote this review not because I thought it was a bad movie. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable. But to make two points. The first is a cautionary note that Hollywood can severely distort history to enhance a story. But more importantly to show how it is possible to use such movies as a stepping off point to further explore history. There are many layers of details of these movie I have not touched upon above. I leave these explorations to the reader.
Rosenthal, Margaret F. The Honest Courtesan : Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
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