A common feature of the higher echelons of eighteenth-century society was the presence of the courtesan (often described, more politely, as a mistress). The courtesan was essentially a high-class prostitute, many of whom were actresses. In fact, quite a number of women became stage performers with the specific aim of attracting an aristocratic patron. Casanova was a big fan of such ‘kept women’ and his memoirs give a fascinating insight into their place in society. He did, in fact, help a number of women become successful courtesans. This extract comes from a section in his memoirs when he recounts how in Paris he helped a young but penniless Venetian beauty called Mademoiselle Vesian find a noble lover to take care of her:
There were, at that time at the opera, several figurantes, singers and dancers, ugly rather than plain, without any talent, who, in spite of it all, lived in great comfort; for it is admitted that at the opera a girl must needs renounce all modesty or starve. But if a girl, newly arrived there, is clever enough to remain virtuous only for one month, her fortune is certainly made, because then the noblemen enjoying a reputation of wisdom and virtue are the only ones who seek to get hold of her. Those men are delighted to hear their names mentioned in connection with the newly-arrived beauty; they even go so far as to allow her a few frolics, provided she takes pride in what they give her, and provided her infidelities are not too public. Besides, it is the fashion never to go to sup with one’s mistress without giving her notice of the intended visit, and everyone must admit that it is a very wise custom.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter 8)
Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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