It is not holiness, but arrogance displayed
to take away the greatest gift—free will—
bestowed by God from the beginning of time. – Tullia d’Aragona, Sonnet XXXV
The existence of courtesans is a glaring refutation of neofeminist dogma about objectification, the eternal victimhood of whores, etc; the fact that the most celebrated, successful and highly-paid harlots of all time were often those who were educated and could match or surpass men in intellectual pursuits throws a huge spanner into the catechism that prostitution is a manifestation of male dominance over women, that our clients hate us, and so on. Whenever possible, neofeminist historians deny that courtesans were prostitutes, pretend that accomplished women were not really courtesans, or describe them with circumlocutions like, “she chose to cohabit with several men who supported her financially.” And when all else fails, they simply ignore them. Fortunately neither male historians nor female ones with less parochial views feel the need to dissemble about such women, and among them Tullia d’Aragona is rightfully viewed as worthy of respect and study.
She was born in Rome sometime between 1508 and 1510 to the courtesan Giulia Ferrarese, who was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. Giulia was married sometime before that to Costanzo Palmieri d’Aragona, but the marriage seems to have been a family subterfuge to cover up for Costanzo’s wealthier and more important cousin, Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona (who was the illegitimate grandson of Ferdinand I, King of Naples); since cardinals of the Catholic Church were not supposed to hire hookers, his poorer cousin’s marriage of convenience to his favorite lady gave him excuses to be at their house often. Tullia believed herself to be the cardinal’s daughter and he apparently agreed, because he paid for her education and when he died suddenly in 1519 the family immediately relocated to Sienna (though the exact reason for this is unknown). She was a brilliant girl, and over the next few years her mother trained her to be a courtesan; in Renaissance Italy it was a trade often passed from mother to daughter, with the mother taking over as guardian, housekeeper and advisor once the daughter was old enough to start working (generally in her late teens).
Tullia’s career began when she and her mother returned to Rome in 1526, but unlike most courtesans of her time she preferred to “tour” rather than staying in one place; obviously her stays were much longer than those of modern escorts, but very much shorter than was typical in those less-mobile times. She is known to have resided for periods in Venice (1528 and 1540), Bologna (1529), Florence (1531), Adria (1535), Ferrara (1537), and Siena (1543 and 1545), and when she wasn’t anywhere else she was in Rome. She was able to do this because, though she lacked her mother’s legendary beauty, she had a reputation for intelligence, learning and wit which started literally in childhood, and which had spread throughout northern Italy. Though she had her share of clients who were nobles, bankers and the like, she was always most popular among the cognoscenti, especially poets and philosophers; she held salons at her residences from at least 1537 on, and her clients and guests encouraged her literary development and helped to popularize her work. Chief among these was Girolamo Muzio of Ferrara, a courtier who acted as her editor. Because mind and personality inspire men more than mere beauty (and probably in part because so many of her clients were poets), Tullia’s following was extremely devoted even by a great courtesan’s standards; Emilio Orsini founded a “Tullia Society” of six clients sworn to defend her honor, several men were supposed to have committed suicide for love of her, Filippo Strozzi was recalled from his diplomatic post for divulging Florentine state secrets to her, and Ercole Bentivoglio was said to have gone about carving her name on every tree he could find.
The 16th century was a time of great unrest in Italy; what is now one country was then divided into a number of city-states who were often at war with one another. The Pope, several city-states and France were at war with the Holy Roman Empire during Tullia’s first few years in the profession, and this and the growth of Protestantism in Germany had created a climate of fear in northern Italy. Such times always breed conservatism and usually lead to an explosion of authoritarian laws enacted in the name of “safety” and “morality”; just as in our own era, many of those laws were directed against whores. At that time, nobody was deranged enough to believe that prostitution could be stamped out, so most of the laws merely intended to stigmatize and marginalize harlots by forcing them to live in red-light districts and wear certain kinds of clothes to differentiate them from “good” women. In order to get around these laws, Tullia decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps by entering into a marriage of convenience to one Silvestro Guicciardi on January 8th, 1543. We know practically nothing about this man other than that he died young and one of Tullia’s few enemies accused her of complicity in the death; the whole purpose of the arrangement seems to have been to make her officially a married woman so she could ignore the restrictions on courtesans.
By the end of 1545, the political turmoil was so bad that Tullia returned to Florence and placed herself under the protection of Cosimo I de Medici; there she once again established a salon and entered into correspondence with several poets. But the busybodies just wouldn’t leave her alone; in 1547 she was charged with refusing to wear the harlot clothes demanded by a brand-new law. This time, however, she appealed directly to the Duke and Duchess, and she was granted an exception due to her skill as a poet and philosopher (ah, whorearchy!) Soon afterward she dedicated her new book, Poems of Madam Tullia de Aragona and Several Others, to the Duchess; later that year, she dedicated Dialogue on the Infinity of Love to the Duke. The former was a collection of poems by and about her, many by Florentine nobles and respected literati; the latter was the first neo-Platonic dialogue ever written by a woman.
But despite her comfort and literary success in Florence, she felt drawn back to Rome and returned there in October 1548; she seems to have semi-retired as a courtesan at that point, and devoted her remaining years to writing poetry and to hosting an academy of philosophy in her home. Her son, Celio, was born around this time; like her daughter, Penelope (born 1535), his father is unknown (though some sources erroneously assume it to be her husband, who was already dead). Her last work was an epic poem entitled Il Meschino, altramente detto il Guerrino (The Unfortunate, also called Guerrino), a poetic version of the 14th-century prose tale of a nobleman who is captured by pirates as a baby, sold into slavery, escapes and then wanders the world (even venturing into Hell) in search of his parents. Despite the fact that this is the earliest known epic poem by a woman and that it touches on many strikingly modern philosophical subjects (including gender identity, homosexuality and “otherness”), it has never been translated into English. She died of unknown causes in 1556, and Il Meschino was published posthumously four years later.
Even in a staunchly patriarchal country and era, the genius of Tullia d’Aragona was recognized and respected, and her work has been periodically reprinted in Italian (several times since the early 1970s). She was largely unknown in the English-speaking world until quite recently, however; the only English-language reference to her I could find before 1990 was a chapter in Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance from 1976. Given her intellectual accomplishments, one would think that feminists would be at least as eager to call attention to her as they have to far less accomplished and deserving women…but of course those women were not prostitutes. Like the Italians of the 1540s, neofeminists would prefer to stigmatize Tullia and consign her to a ghetto for her unrepentant whoredom rather than to admit that prostitutes are just as capable of intellectual and social contributions as anyone else.