Renaissance Venetian society recognized two different classes of courtesans: the cortigiana onesta, the intellectual courtesan, and the cortigiana di lume, lower-class courtesans (closer kin to prostitutes today) who tended to live and practice their trade near the Rialto Bridge. Veronica Franco was perhaps the most celebrated member of the former category, although Franco was hardly the only onesta in 16th-century Venice who could boast of a fine education and considerable literary and artistic accomplishments.
The daughter of another cortigiana onesta, Franco learned the art at a young age from her mother and was trained to use her natural assets and abilities to achieve a financially beneficial marriage. While still in her teens, Franco married a wealthy physician, but the union ended badly. In order to support herself, Franco turned to serving as a cortigiana to wealthy men. She quickly rose through the ranks to consort with some of the leading notables of her day and even had a brief liaison with Henry III, King of France. Franco was listed as one of the foremost courtesans of Venice in Il Catalogo di tutte le principale et piu honorate cortigiane di Venezia.
A well-educated woman, Veronica Franco wrote two volumes of poetry: Terze rime in 1575 and Lettere familiari a diversi in 1580. She published books of letters and collected the works of other leading writers into anthologies. Successful in her two lines of work, Franco also founded a charity for courtesans and their children.
In 1575, during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city, Veronica Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. On her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity in an Inquisition for witchcraft trial (a common complaint lodged against courtesans in those days). The charges were dropped.
There is evidence that her connections among the Venetian nobility helped in her acquittal. Her later life is largely obscure, though surviving records suggest that although she won her freedom, she lost all of her material goods and wealth. Eventually, her last major benefactor died and left her with no financial support. Although her fate is largely uncertain, she is believed to have died in relative poverty.
In 1565, when she was about 20 years old, Veronica Franco was listed in Il Catalogo di tutte le principale e più honorate cortigiane di Venezia, which gave the names, addresses, and fees of Venice's most prominent prostitutes; her mother was listed as the person to whom the fee should be paid. From extant records, we know that by the time she was 18, Franco had been briefly married and had given birth to her first child; she would eventually have six children, three of whom died in infancy.
As one of the più honorate cortigiane in a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, Franco lived well for much of her working life, but without the automatic protection accorded to "respectable" women, she had to make her own way. She studied and sought patrons among the learned. By the 1570s, she belonged to one of the more prestigious literary circles in the city, participating in discussions and contributing to and editing anthologies of poetry.
In 1575, Franco's own volume of the poetry was published, her Terze rime, containing 18 capitoli (verse epistles) by her and 7 by men writing in her praise. That same year saw an outbreak of plague in Venice, one that lasted two years and caused Franco to leave the city and to lose many of her possessions. In 1577, she unsuccessfully proposed to the city council that it should establish a home for poor women, of which she would become the administrator. By then, she was raising not only her own children but also her nephews, who had been orphaned by the plague.
In 1580, Franco published her Lettere familiari a diversi, "Letters written in my youth," which included 50 letters, as well as two sonnets addressed to King Henry III of France, who had visited her six years earlier. We have little information for her life after 1580. Records suggest that she was less prosperous in her later years but was not living in poverty. However, she published no more writings.
Franco's life was recorded in the book The Honest Courtesan, by author Margaret F. Rosenthal. It is claimed that this book "draws a compelling portrait of Veronica Franco in her cultural, social, and economic world. Rosenthal reveals in Franco's writing a passionate support of defenseless women, strong convictions about inequality, and, in the eroticized language of her epistolary verses, the seductive political nature of all poetic contests. It is Veronica Franco's insight into the power conflicts between men and women — and her awareness of the threat she posed to her male contemporaries — that makes her literary works and her dealings with Venetian intellectuals so pertinent today."