Over the past year, I have been searching for a true likeness of the famous 16th century Venetian poet and courtesan, Veronica Franco. With the help of a Research Support Award (RSA), offered by the College of Arts, I was able explore her native city, the ever-alluring Venice, during a 5-day research trip. This award covered my travel and museum admission costs and enabled me to conduct object-based analyses of key artworks that remain in situ, and to closely inspect alleged representations of Franco, including a striking figure of a lavishly dressed woman in Doge’s Palace.
Who is Veronica Franco?
A key part of my research aims to offer a deeper examination of unnamed female figures in 16th century Venetian art. Currently, I am exploring the disputed identity of a female portrait in the Worcester Art Museum that several scholars suggest is of Franco. Gathering supplementary examples of anonymous female figures in Venetian visual culture (for the purposes of comparison) has demanded my direct contact with works in Venetian collections, such as Andrea Michieli detto il Vicentino’s Arrival of King Henri III (1593) in Doge’s Palace, a painting that supposedly features the renowned courtesan.
No large or hi-resolution images of Vicentino’s work are immediately available, which made my analysis of this figure and the work extremely difficult to assess. I had a tough time envisioning and situating its display within the Sala delle Quattro Porte, one of the palace’s many antechambers, as well as its relation to the building’s other pictorial cycles and iconography. Luckily for most Venetian scholars, many artworks remain in their original locations, and so I’m able to consider their surrounding environment, context, and early modern reception.
When I first saw the work at Doge’s Palace, I was struck by its large and prominent place in the Sala delle Quattro Porte. Visitors to the palace must pass this room and the painting in order to access the building’s key state rooms. I was also surprised and delighted by the work’s many details, its sense of life and sound, and its diverse cast of characters who densely populate and enliven it, including the French king, the Doge, and the unnamed female beyond the triumphal arch.
The work depicts the arrival of Henri III to Venice in 1576. The Venetian government spared no expense in making his visit one of the most elaborate and sumptuous events in Venetian history. Regattas, musical performances and lavish banquets were all held in his honour. He even spent some time with Veronica Franco, as she herself describes in two sonnets and a dedication letter to the king, published in 1580. Due to this connection, scholars have been compelled to associate this female figure with Franco.
I was able to be in close proximity to this unusual figure and compare her likeness to other reputed imagery of Franco that I brought with me. Most importantly, I was able to ask myself key questions concerning her identity. Is it really Veronica Franco, and if so, what are the implications and significance of representing a courtesan within Venice’s most important state building? As an alternative, I consider this figure to be Venetia, the personification of Venice, an allegorical figure omnipresent throughout the palace. Or perhaps she is merely an irrelevant detail; another figure in the crowd. She is, nevertheless, another example of the many enigmatic female figures found in 16th century Venetian art, and one that possesses a fluid and multifaceted nature; figure that expresses the complexity of 16th century Venetian viewing habits.
I would recommend any College of Arts’ research students to apply for a RSA. It proved invaluable to my research and provided a much needed boost and spark for my writing. It also allowed me to become more familiar with the artistic resources and institutions of Venice, and, more generally, with the city itself. I look forward to returning soon to continue my search and understanding of Franco.