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A 15th-century depiction of a brothel. To make matters worse, Italian men seemed uninterested in repopulating the peninsula, struck by a sin worse than death—same-sex attraction. Italian cities responded by encouraging prostitution. In , the government of Florence opened an office to promote prostitution in order to prevent the worse sin of sodomy. Venice legalized prostitution in and created a brothel district in the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto.
Prostitution was a reality of life in Renaissance Italy. But in spite of its legality, Renaissance Italians had a mixed opinion of the profession. Prostitutes, then, served as receptacles of sin, protecting the rest of society from male lust. And, in particular, they kept male passions focused on women, rather than other men. But legalization did not mean prostitution was an esteemed profession. It was heavily regulated, as cities passed laws to ensure that honorable citizens could avoid the corrupting influence of prostitutes.
Venetian prostitutes had to wear a yellow scarf in public. In , Florence passed a law forcing prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, gloves, and high-heeled shoes. These heels could be up to twenty-four inches high and I thought four inch heels were tricky! Those efforts failed. Renaissance prostitution was meant to channel male lust in appropriate directions, and as such, prostitution reinforced gender norms.
Venice, for example, encouraged women to run brothels, because men relying on the earnings of prostitutes inverted normal gender relations.
Expensive, educated courtesans were also able to use their position to enhance their independence. Another famous courtesan, Veronica Franco of Venice, was a published poet of great distinction. These two women were widely admired for their works, and had a degree of freedom unmatched by their married cousins. Legalized prostitution reinforced gender norms, but in limited cases it provided opportunities for women to assert power.