Compare and contrast courtesans in Renaissance Italy, Japan, and India
A courtesan originally means a courtier, a person who takes care of the powerful people in society. There are two traditions of courtesan, which include honest courtesan and the lower class of courtesan. The honest courtesan was portrayed as an intellectual and was often treated and romanticized almost like the women of the nobility. The art of courtisanerie is mainly associated with honest courtesan. They were well educated even than the upper classiest women, which made them hold careers such as artists and performers. They were chosen depending on the social and communication skills as well as their physical appearance. Therefore, they were prostitutes because sex was their obligation, but alike a lower class of courtesans, sex comprised of a facet of the courtesan’s array of service. This is so because they were expected to engage in other activities such as politics, music and art among others. In contrast, the lower class of courtesan was better than the average prostitute and their obligation were sex.
The Indian courtesan pervades precolonial art, pleasure, polity, rituals and literature among others. They captivated and eluded because their actions; character and mystique were relayed to powerful people and Indian tradition. What is clear is that the option for power was open to the precolonial Indian woman either sexually liberated and educated courtesan or the honest, sexual controlled and uneducated wife. There were courtesans who sustained the high culture at the kingdom’s capital and Lucknow. They kept alive the distinctive manners of Lucknow society and were instrumental in the development of the Hindustani music and Kathak dance ( Feldman and Bonnie 168). In India courtesans were exceptionally civilized public women, good in arts and endowed with winsome qualities.
The power in India was associated with the sexualized female. Therefore, Courtesans, especially the ganika and Devadasi had extraordinary customers such as kings and Brahmans. These are men from the two highest castes in India. For instance, Brahmans belonged to the top or priestly caste and emphasized learning, especially ritual knowledge while kings and lesser royalty formed the second or ruling caste. The sexual jibes were the right, which was supposed to promote fertility. The procreative benefit was given to the ascetic who got involved with a seductive female which is a frequent motif in Indian mythology.
Meanwhile, Renaissance Italy is associated with Venetian courtesans who played an artfully with the visual boundaries separating women into distinct groups. These courtesans selected clothing from a variety of diverse groups of women both as a tool for collective identification and to establish individualized styles. Some of them not only negotiated social freedoms as writers and musicians, but also managed as a collective to attract foreign visitors who came to witness annual festivals (Rosenthal 54). This is so because the foreign visitors mainly bought the visual representations of courtesans’ dress in the Venetian fashions of both women and men. Therefore, these courtesans were able to attend the powerful people from foreign countries.
The courtesans fashion presented social identities in Italy. Therefore, they took advantage of the fact that clothing was useful, but highly deceptive tool for social differentiation. Unlike the women of the upper social ranks who presented their social identities based on their marital status, courtesans in Italy were free to pick and choose from the clothing available to them and enhanced their personal identities. This was made easier with the fluid social structure of the 16th century in Italy, where wealth no longer belonged as it was in the 14th and 15th centuries where there was a privileged social register which controlled what was produced and traded. Therefore, the courtesans in Italy wore cloth to advertise not only the city’s splendor but themselves as individuals.
On the other hand, the courtesans in Japan were mostly referred to as a Geisha whose profession was to entertain men by dancing and singing. Many Geisha in Japan regarded themselves as professional artists who took part in the traditions of Japanese art and culture. However, they were not highly educated as other honest women in Japan because many performed the same service as prostitutes. There brought great tension between the sex work that many Geisha performed and their denial of it. They denied being prostitutes due to the social stigma that marginalized Geisha and kept them from being seen as self-supporting and skilled workers. They lacked social identities because of their ignominy as entertainers and sometimes prostitutes, which made them be exploited by the state and oppressed by society. However, currently they hold prestige, status because they represent the artistic tradition of the same state and society which oppressed them.
A geisha was regarded as women whose performances bridge the arts and sexual labor. The court recognized the skill of female performers who were considered to have shamanistic ability to communicate with spirit and gods (Matsugu 52). The court rewarded their skills in religious performances by designating their skills as professional. Therefore, the emperor gave these women special privileges such as freedom to travel and exemption from taxes because they played a significant role in Japan cultural activities.
Geisha was very close to the emperor because they were involved in the court activities. In the 14th century, the female sexuality started to be commercialized as the market economy developed. Therefore, the sexual labor of courtesans became legally subject to economic exploitation and their profession came to be viewed with disdain. They also played a significant role of entertainer. The Japan authority purposely legitimated the hierarchical division of elite and lower classes among these underprivileged sex workers. Geisha played a double role as art and sexual labor. The lower class Geisha was expected to provide sex service while the high-class Geisha capitalized on the artistic skills such as entertainment. However, under the law, they were both seen as potential prostitutes. They were deployed as figures of cultural authenticity in imperial Japan who helped in energizing wartime nationalism (Bonnie 53). They provided sexual-cultural entertainment to soldiers and workers so they contributed to the project of militarist, capitalist, modernization and empire building among others. Therefore, just like the courtesans in Italy and India, the high class Geisha in Japan had easy access to the powerful men in society.
The film “Dangerous Beauty” romanticizes Veronica Franco in the 20th because it demonstrates how a Venetian courtesan became a hero to her city, but later criticized by the church for witchcraft. The film shows how courtesan try to fight for social identity in their societies. This is so because a woman who had easy access to members of the royal court or men deserved a high social standing. Veronica Franco is portrayed as an adventurous and curious woman in Venice, who became a courtesan in order to secure the financial problem in her family. She became a highly paid and cultured prostitute just like her mother. She had ability to access powerful men because of her beauty, compassion and humor, which gained her reputation as a top courtesan. She acquired proper education, which made her participate in literary and political issues. For instance, she was used to seduce the king of France in order to secure a military alliance. She composed poems as well as epistolary work that gave her prestige. Therefore, she holds a reputable social standing despite her job as a courtesan.
In a recap, I think the courtesans institutions were compromised because they were highly exploited by their states and oppressed by society. Although they contributed to the cultural, social and economic development, they were viewed as prostitutes without social identity. I find courtesans institutions, inspiring because of their enthusiasm to provide a new sense of their path to becoming national symbols. Since they highly contribute to economic growth, they deserve equal rights from state and society.
Feldman, Martha, and Bonnie Gordon. The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-cultural Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lesley, Downer. The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes? New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Matsugu, Miho. In the Service of the Nation: Geisha and Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country. York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Rosenthal, Margaret, The Fashions of Venetian Courtesans in the Illustrated Albums of Early Modern Travellers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006