Gold Diggers 11 courtesan antique jewelry from the Medieval-Renaissance era. Post 225.
from article by Tessa Storey.
Recently, I borrowed a book from the library. It's called The Biography of the Object in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy. It's a pretty academic and philosophical book of essays on topics related to Renaissance studies and most of it would float well above my head, but chapter 6 discusses : Fragments from the 'life histories' of jewellery belonging to prostitutes in early-modern Rome (- by Tessa Storey). While a few hundred years preceding our focus era, I've made a few notes, which I will relate below since it seems a pity to quibbel over a few hundred years.
We are immediately told that these women were decked in jewels, like queens. Jewelry included diverse gold chains, pearls of enormous proportions, coral, turquoise, gold hair nets, finger rings set with valuable gems and diamonds and earrings. The author explains that sumptuous attire served a) to blur the distinction between courtesans and women of fine birth and b) to attract customers as the jewelry aroused and drew men. Sound familiar?
The author explains that jewelry was a lot more than an expression of greed and social climbing and goes on to discuss the acquisition and 'afterlife' of such jewelry, especially in Rome, where there were numerous records on the topic. Near the Vatican, most influenced by the Church? The article includes clerical customers aplenty, but that is another topic.
In Renaissance Rome, courtesans' jewelry reflected The Catholic Church, local government and marriage. The Church had their reasons to oppose the wearing of much jewelry - by all levels of women. In some cities, sumptuary laws banned the wearing of luxury items such as jewelry by certain classes of people. In Rome, the Pope thought he'd get rid of both prostitutes and sumptuous jewelry in one go, by expelling the former. However, the governing body of the city came right back and demanded a reversal, claiming that these wealthy courtesans were central to the city's economic interests and tax revenue.
The essay discusses the significance of jewelry, it's significance and economic value to women in general, which we discussed in previous posts on this blog. A surprise was how little of the jewelry was actually bought by the women themselves. Much of the jewelry was given to the courtesans in lieu of payment, but it was also given as a symbol of friendship, exactly as we discussed in previous posts. It's also pertinent that many of the records came from the courts. These women, despite protection and wealth, were subject to police confiscations and prosecution by the courts.
A while back, we wrote blog posts about gift-giving. This essay discusses the subtle meanings and binding relationships that gift-giving entailed between men and courtesans. The inequality of what was given is explored, but this topic is beyond my post. It is fascinating to read that the courts relied on gift-giving between people as an indication of the true nature of their relationships. Thus the jewelry owned by courtesans took on a far greater significance. Was it given in friendship or as payment for services rendered or hoped to be rendered?
The author asks why if the above is true, pay in jewelry when coin (money) would suffice. Does this indicate a more personal and intimate true relationship? Jewelry is very personal. It is worn close to the body and it is cherished more than other material posessions.
What then was the difference between jewelry (especially rings), given to a courtesan and that given to a wife?
Of great interest is the theory proposed by the author that regardless of whether a sexual relationship was voluntary or rape, the man gave the woman a ring, which from his perspective sealed the relationship. Did this make rape acceptible? Was this the way women built up their jewelry collections?
Another interesting fact emerged from the study of numerous wills left by prostitutes in Rome. While the women may have left much valuable property, almost none of it was valuable jewelry. What on earth happened to their jewelry and why was it not mentioned in the wills?
The author suggests that as a special and deeply personal category of possession, jewelry was given to friends and family before death. Furthermore, jewelry was kept as an available form of cash reserve or moveable savings and as a means of securing debts. On a professional level, a courtesan wore jewelry to attract men. Practically, there are a host of other symbols associated with the jewelry worn by these women. While we will not arrive at many answers, perhaps we can spare a moment to consider the lives led by courtesans through the ages and for one moment, walk in their shoes.