Courtesans or Gentlewomen?

Associations between words and images in historiography are powerful. In the chapter “The Position of Women” in the 1958 Harper & Row edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), we see the term “courtesans” in the caption of figure 193 (p. 392), and the definition of “public women” as an “unhappy class of women” on p. 395. We know that Burckhardt distinguishes “public women” from courtesans or “kept women” according to his text. However, figure 193 is the only image in this chapter that depicts “women,” while the rest depict either “a woman” or “a woman and two men.” Thus, if there is any image in this chapter that depicts a “class of women,” figure 193, a painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1490-95), is it. Moreover, the women in this painting don’t look very happy: their body language as well as that of the dogs, and the resemblance of both women’s faces and haircuts make them the best candidates for being a visual representation of an “unhappy class.”

Jacob Burckahrdt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1958, pp. 392-93

But, interestingly, the Venetian Museo Correr which holds the painting, titles the artwork “Two Venetian Gentlewomen.” On its website, the museum clearly states that “Romantic art criticism had given this painting the title The Two Courtesans, but the sitters are clearly two gentlewomen, whose elegant garments and hairstyles clearly denote their wealth, their status – and their honesty.” It further elaborates on the symbols in the painting that connect it to modesty, marital harmony, fidelity, vigilance, the Virgin Mary, and the Venetian Preli family. “Hence” it says “the subject-matter of the entire picture becomes clearer, with two noblewomen becoming perhaps slightly bored as they wait for their husbands to return from a hunting trip.”

Well then, we agree that these two women, whatever their status, do not look very happy or interested, but we recognize a conflict between the caption and the women depicted in this painting. Consequently, the semantic connection between the verbal description of courtesans in the chapter and this illustration is questionable. More generally, this conflict illuminates the problem of titling artworks, and illustrating and captioning illustrations in historiography. Any association between verbal and visual components in what could become historical evidence and illustrated historiography, reflects a chain of semantic decisions, that establishes the basis for the epistemological experience. These combinations of words and images that occur in space and time to describe and explain the past, can, therefore, be analyzed as external to the “content” of the text, as what Hayden White defines as “prefigurative” or “poetic acts” (Metahistory x).

 

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