You may have read the review on the Veniceinfosite of the ‘Antiche Carampane’ of the ‘Old Prostitute’ as the name translates, which more than hints at the historic red light district. This article looks at how the red light district grew rapidly and where it was concentrated.
The growth of the red light district
Prostitution had existed in some form or other from the very founding of Venice in 421 AD. But the trade took a very interesting turn in the 15th century.
Fornication of course was frowned upon by the Catholic church, but by the late 14th century, Venice’s rulers were particularly perturbed by what was described as an ‘eastern habit’, in fact a growing tide of homosexuality that was sweeping the city.
In 1358 the first city brothel was licensed, paving the way for a new class of prostitute, or courtesan as they would become known.
The first city brothel was set up near the Caramapane area, and tightly controlled. Six guards ensured the tarts kept to their night curfew and prevented them working on holy days or religious festivals. A Matron collected fees from the clients and paid the girls their monthly salaries. We cannot ascertain whether tax was deducted at source or not, but the tax is said to have funded the excavation of Arsenale, in 1519
The authorities attitudes towards prostitution waxed and waned
The authorities tried to contain the spread of prostitution by, for example, banning it in public bars and trying to concentrate it into the city brothels but with mixed success.
In 1482, a law was passed outlawing sodomy, and those caught and prosecuted were executed and then incinerated between the two columns in St.Marks Piazzetta-that is the small square where you leave St.Marks square towards the lagoon. This coincided with a more tolerant attitude towards prostitution again.
In 1535 it was recorded that there were 11,000 registered prostitutes in Venice, or 25% of today’s population! As well as servicing the locals, Venice’s growth as a mercantile power ensured a steady flow of seafarers and its increasing architectural development ensured a further source of clients. Among the latter group were pilgrims, who satisfied their carnal desires in tandem with their devotional duties.
In 1608, Thomas Coryat, an English writer claimed that there were 20,000 prostitutes, in Venice, ‘outnumbering nuns and patrician women better than 10 to 1’.
Venice’s tolerance of prostitution waned somewhat in the later 17th century and certain restrictions were placed on them. They were no longer permitted to prosecute non paying clients for example. But by that stage, Venice’s pleasure zone reputation was established and visitors continued to arrive to sample the courtesans and gambling dens and high life.
Where the red light district was concentrated
The first official brothel was close to the Carampane di Rialto, and the carampane and surrounding areas were the focus of activity. The windows and doorways alongside the Rio di San Cassiano were a popular location, as were the areas the Grand Canal from Traghetto del Buso and the area around the famous Bridge of Tits (Ponte delle Tette). Ponte delle Tette is part of Casanova’s old stomping ground, and reptedly near where he seduced a nun.
Prostitutes were encouraged at various times to expose their bosoms and spread their legs publicy, all in the name of reducing homosexuality, and the Ponte delle Tette, was a famous location for baring one’s breasts.
The area became known as ‘Castelletto’ or little castle, and is not to be confused with Castello, another area of Venice. The Sotoportego del Casin dei Nobili, in Dorsoduro, was also a centre for courtesans, even though its raison d’etre was as a gambling house only open to nobles.
Origins of Carampane
While carampane came to mean and still means prostitute, it’s origins are prosaic. It derives from Ca (sa) di Carampani, a local family whose house reputedly later became a brothel. The word is also used these days as the English might use the word tart. The carampane di Rialto stretches away from the Bridge of Tits towards Rialto.
The original common tart or cortigiana continued alongside the growth of the more upmarket cortigiana or cortigiana onesta, as they became known as. These were women from middle class families who were educated in the arts and languages. The cortigiana career path offered them an escape from home, possible wealth, and the chance to mix with nobility. No doubt, this was an exciting alternative to joining a convent!
Many of these became famous in Venetian society, and were able to choose and limit their clients. A guide was published that listed their names and addresses and rates, and the rate became a mark of prowess and fame.
The 1998 film ‘Dangerous Beauty’ charts the story of Veronica Franco and how she was trained from an early age to be able to catch a wealthy husband. She did have a short-lived marriage to a doctor, before becoming one of Venice’s most famous courtesans to wealthy men and royalty.
The film is based on a book ‘The Honest Courtesan’, by Margaret F. Rosenthal. Another book you may like to check out is ‘In the Company of the Courtesan’ by Sarah Dunant.
Venice and prostitution feature in other books, plays, films and opera. These range from Casanova, The Merchant of Venice, to Verdi’s La Traviata, among others. Casanova will feature in a separate article here shortly.
See Veniceinfosite for other articles on Venice, maps and features