From Footnotes to A Feature Film
HOLLYWOOD OFTEN MAKES movies out of real-life events, novels, comic strips, – even television shows – but rarely does an academic study come to the screen.
A scholar’s award-winning book will nevertheless be released Friday, Feb. 20, as the Warner Brothers feature film Dangerous Beauty. The book, by Margaret F. Rosenthal, an associate professor of Italian, chronicles the life and literary work of Veronica Franco, a celebrated poet and courtesan of Renaissance Italy.
Rosenthal, who was born in Rome, became intrigued with Franco’s life while a graduate student of Italian literature at Yale University. Her book, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (University of Chicago Press, 1992, reprinted in 1997), carved its way out of her doctoral dissertation.
While the film takes liberties with Franco’s life story, it captures the spirit of Renaissance society and is informed by the scholarship of Rosenthal’s book.
As with many Hollywood stories, the film originated at a party. Rosenthal was describing the book to an acquaintance who turned out to be a producer.
Her acquaintance called her later to ask if she planned to do anything with it. “I told her that when I was a graduate student, I had thought it would make a wonderful movie,” Rosenthal said in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about her book becoming a movie.
Rosenthal was contacted by the producer’s agent and asked to write a 10-page synopsis for International Creative Management. The Bedford Falls Co. optioned the book and turned it over to screenwriter Jeannine Dominy. Warner Brothers made Dangerous Beauty, directed by Marshall Herskovitz and starring Catherine McCormack as Veronica Franco and Jacqueline Bisset as her mother.
Rosenthal’s book and the film version of it portray a world in which marriages were often loveless contracts made for political and financial reasons. An unmarried woman had few career choices in 16th-century Italy: she could enter a nunnery or she could become a courtesan, trading sexual favors and sophisticated companionship for money.
Self-educated in literature, writing and history, Franco was both a courtesan and a poet. She was painted by Tintoretto and wooed by the future king of France. As a poet, Franco used her sharp wit as much as her beauty and charm to gain power and independence in a male-dominated society. Indeed, she was one of the few courtesans to rise above her station by making an honest living through writing poetry and offering literary advice to some of the most influential men of her day.
The Honest Courtesan has won numerous awards, including the Howard Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association. For more information about the book, see the Mar. 27, 1995, issue of USC Chronicle.
IN THE MOVIE, the poetry recited by Franco is actually rhymed verse in the Shakespearean tradition, cleverly written by Dominy. Rosenthal said that Franco’s own poems are difficult to translate because of their structure.
The courtesan’s poems were often highly erotic, dramatizing her connections with men and celebrating her skill in sexual and poetic contests, or “duels,” with male poets and adversaries. In Dangerous Beauty, Franco and her male adversary, another poet who is both jealous and desirous of her, act out these duals literally as they trade poetic barbs.
One of the themes of Dangerous Beauty is Franco’s open enjoyment of sexual pleasure in a world where good women of high social standing did not speak of such things. While shunned by married ladies (except for one loyal childhood friend), Franco was a strong voice for women’s rights, using her poems and letters to seek equality and justice for women. As the movie notes in a final tagline, Franco used her resources to establish a halfway house for needy courtesans and their children.
While the film shows Franco opting to become a courtesan and enjoying the freedom such a life brings, Franco never had a choice, Rosenthal said. “Her mother, also a courtesan, needed her to be a
courtesan to support her,” Rosenthal said. “In reality, Veronica was married once to a doctor at an early age, but it was a loveless, arranged marriage. She later had six children with different men.”
The movie concludes with Franco successfully defending herself against witchcraft charges. But it does not show how she used poetic language in her defense, nor how the trials began the downward spiral of her life. While the film may leave viewers believing Franco lived happily ever after with her lover, Rosenthal’s book documents how the poet-courtesan’s house was ransacked during her exile. With the death of her patron, Venier, in 1582, she was left with little financial support.
Rosenthal could find little documentation about the last 10 years of Franco’s life, but the “honest courtesan” probably died in poverty in 1591.
Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, a professor of comparative literature at Smith College, recently translated Franco’s letters and poems into English for a volume to be published by University of Chicago Press in 1998.