A courtesan in mid-16th century usage referred to a mistress or trained artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for companionship. In Renaissance Europe, courtesans played an important role in upper-class society, sometimes taking the place of wives at social functions. As it was customary during this time for royal couples to lead separate lives—commonly marrying simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances—men would often seek gratification and companionship from a courtesan.
The cortigiane oneste were usually well-educated and worldly (sometimes even more so than the average upper-class woman), and often held simultaneous careers as performers or artists. They were typically chosen on the basis of their "breeding"—social and conversational skills, intelligence, common-sense, and companionship—as well as their physical attributes. It was usually their wit and personality that set them apart from regular women. They were prostitutes in the sense that sex was one of their obligations, but unlike the average prostitute, sex constituted only a facet of the courtesan's array of services. For example, they were expected to be well-dressed and ready to engage in a variety of topics ranging from art to music to politics.
In some cases, courtesans were from well-to-do backgrounds, and were even married – but to husbands lower on the social ladder than their clients. In these cases, their relationships with those of high social status had the potential to improve their spouses' status – and so, more often than not, the husband was aware of his wife's profession and dealings.
Courtesans from non-wealthy backgrounds were expected to provide charming companionship for extended periods, no matter what their own feelings or commitments might have been at the time, and had to be prepared to do so on short notice. They were also subject to lower social status, and often religious disapproval, because of the immoral aspects of their profession and their reliance upon courtisanerie as a primary source of income. In cases like this, a courtesan was solely dependent on her benefactor or benefactors financially, making her vulnerable.
Often, courtesans serving in this capacity began their career as a prostitute, or were passed from one benefactor to another, thereby resulting in them being viewed in society circles as lower than both their benefactor and those of wealth and power with whom they would socialize. Often, in instances of this sort, if the courtesan had satisfactorily served a benefactor, that benefactor would, when ending the affair, pass them on to another benefactor of wealth as a favor to the courtesan, or set them up in an arranged marriage to a semi-wealthy benefactor. In the event that the courtesan had angered or dissatisfied a benefactor, they would often find themselves cast out of wealthy circles, returning more often than not to street prostitution.
Those from wealthy backgrounds, either by birth or marriage, and who were only acting as courtesans for the social or political advancement of themselves and/or their spouses, were generally treated as equals. They were more respected by their extramarital companions, both placing one another's family obligations ahead of the relationship and planning their own liaisons or social engagements around the lovers' marital obligations.
Affairs of this sort would often be short-lived, ending when either the courtesan or the courtesan's spouse received the status or political position desired, or when the benefactor chose the company of another courtesan, and compensated the former companion financially. In instances like this, it was often viewed simply as a business agreement by both parties involved. The benefactor was aware of the political or social favors expected by the courtesan, the courtesan was aware of the price expected from them for those favors being carried out, and the two met one another's demands.
This was generally a safe affair, as both the benefactor's spouse and the courtesan's spouse usually were fully aware of the arrangement, and the courtesan was not solely dependent on the benefactor. It, rather, was simply an affair of benefits gained for both those involved. Publicly and socially, affairs of this sort were common during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the early 20th century, and were generally accepted in wealthy circles.
Prior to the Victorian era, courtesans were sometimes limited in their apparel by various sumptuary laws and were restricted in where they could appear at social functions. Periods of overt religious piety in a city would often lead to persecution of the courtesans, up to and including accusations of witchcraft. In many cases prior to the 18th century, women leading the life of a courtesan in a royal court, with romantic relationships with kings, achieved wealth and status, but eventually it would lead to many of them being executed following very public trials that often left them appearing to have been evil, or power-hungry, when in fact they more often than not were nothing more than a lover and mistress to the king.
Very often, courtesans would betray one another in acts of political intrigue in attempts to climb into higher positions of power within royal courts. There are many cases throughout history where one courtesan would attempt (sometimes successfully) to supplant the mistress to a king or emperor. This was typically preceded by her discrediting the ruler's companion, often by divulging secrets that could lead to her rival being cast aside and replaced by her. However, this was a delicate process, and if a courtesan of lower status attempted to replace a courtesan who wielded a substantial amount of power within the court, it would often result in the lower courtesan being exiled from the royal court, or married off to a lesser noble in an arranged marriage, or even murdered. There are also many examples of courtesans who took advantage of their involvement with powerful individuals, which usually ended in their downfall
In later centuries, from the mid-18th century on, courtesans would often find themselves cast aside by their benefactors, but the days of public execution or imprisonment based on their promiscuous lifestyle were over. There are many examples of courtesans who, by remaining discreet and respectful to their benefactors, were able to extend their careers into or past middle age and retire financially secure. By the late 19th century, and for a brief period in the early 20th century, courtesans had reached a level of social acceptance in many circles and settings, often even to the extent of becoming a friend and confidant to the wife of their benefactor.
More often than not, a woman serving as a courtesan would last in that field only as long as she could prove herself useful to her companion, or companions. This, of course, excludes those who served as courtesans but who were already married into high society. When referring to those who made their service as a courtesan as their main source of income, success was based solely on financial management and longevity. Many climbed through the ranks of royalty, serving as mistress to lesser nobles first, eventually reaching the role of mistress to a king or prince. Others were able to obtain such a high position early on, but few lasted long, and after serving a prince or king there was nowhere to go but down.
Pietro Aretino, an Italian Renaissance writer, wrote a series of dialogues (Capricciosi ragionamenti) in which a mother teaches her daughter what options are available to women and how to be an effective courtesan. The French novelist Balzac wrote about a courtesan in his Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838–47). Emile Zola likewise wrote a novel, Nana (1880), about a courtesan in nineteenth-century France.
The term "courtesan" has often been used in the political context to damage the reputation of a powerful woman, or disparage her importance. Particularly striking examples of this are when the title was applied to the Byzantine empress Theodora, who had started life as a burlesque actress but later became the wife of the Emperor Justinian and, after her death, an Orthodox saint; the term "courtesan" has also been disparagingly and inaccurately applied to influential women like Anne Boleyn, Madaline Bishop, Diane de Poitiers, Mathilde Kschessinska, Pamela Harriman and Eva Perón.