Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Advantage: courtesans

In 1985, Gore Vidal wrote a book, and starred in a documentary, about Venice -- if I ever find both out-of-print tapes, I'll post them on YouTube. He makes a very Vidalesque observation, about the origin of the practice of Venetian courtesans, to keep their breasts bare. "... their principle competition: transvestites from the mainland." In response, the courtesans became advertisements for their gender, using the only advertising weapon, breasts, that the tranvestites, no doubt very prettily dressed, lacked.

In the 16th century there were apparently some 12,000 registered and taxed courtesans in the city. That's nearly a quarter of today's complete body of Venetian citizens. According an excellent chapter in Venice: The Tourist Maze, courtesans began to flourish during the pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which set sail from Venice. They did well during the heydays of the Carnival and the Grand Tour ... but now there are none in the city. The Museo d'Arte Erotica, provocatively near to that former street-walking hot-spot, Piazza San Marco, is trying to remind visitors of the Venetian Republic's spicier past. However, the museum's website is down, as I write this. Perhaps the museum itself is closed? When I visited, this summer, at the height of tourist season, it was nearly empty, although the giftshop was doing decent business. Their building is huge ... so someone is subsidizing this museum. I'm sure it has an interesting story in its own right ... [12/21/06 note: I was right, the musuem has closed. UPI's article.]


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