Book, Diuersar

Book, Diuersar. nationum habitus / nunc primum editi à Pe. Bertellio quib. addita sunt ordo Romani Imperii ab Othone II. institutus pompa regis turcarum & personatorum uestitus uarij, quorum est in Italia frequens usus


16th century


Victoria & Albert Museum



Book Diversarum nationum habitus

Public Access Description:

Pietro Bertelli’s Diversarum nationum habitus (The Habits [i.e. clothing] of Different Countries), first printed in 1589, was an example of the popular sixteenth-century genre of costume books, which gave readers a guide to the typical clothing of various classes and professions in different countries. They were popular both as tourist souvenirs, and as vicarious travel for those unable to visit other nations.

Plate 7 of this book is titled Cortigiana Veneziana (Venetian courtesan). As well as being included as part of Bertelli’s book, similar lift-the-flap prints were sold loose as tourist souvenirs. This image was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.

The plate shows a Venetian courtesan (high-status sex worker) wearing a skirt, which can be lifted up to reveal breeches underneath. This mix of male-coded and female-coded is an accurate depiction of what Venetian courtesans typically wore; many also wore men’s shirts. Venetian authorities worried that male-presenting courtesans would stimulate men’s appetites for sex with other men (which was punishable by death), or for transgressively non-procreative sexual practices associated with sex between men.

Gender nonconformity – and particularly the idea of women, or people assigned female at birth, wearing men’s clothes – was associated with sexual availability in the early modern imagination, largely because male-coded clothing was more tight-fitting and revealing in areas such as the legs. This is likely to have been the main motivation for the Venetian courtesans’ conventional dress. However, given that there were 10-12,000 courtesans working in early modern Venice, it is reasonable to assume that not all of them experienced this gender nonconformity in the same way. For some, the clothing was likely just part of the job; for others, the fact that it was conventional for courtesans to dress like this represented an opportunity to present their gender in a way that felt most comfortable to them. People who desired masculine or nonconforming gender expression could seize the opportunity that was provided by the role of a courtesan to dress the in the way they wanted to. In cases like this, where large numbers of people all engaged in gender nonconformity, it is important not to homogenise their individual motivations.

Book Diversarum nationum habitus reveal Book Diversarum nationum habitus

Curatorial comment:

Plate 7 from this book (titled Cortigiana Veneziana) was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia. This project aimed to recover the complex gender dynamics that made objects meaningful to early modern people, and to increase the visibility of women and LGBTQ people in museum collections. Research on the V&A objects was carried out by Dr Kit Heyam.

In addition to the findings noted in the Public Access Description, research on this object revealed the following:

Flap prints like Bertelli’s were very popular in sixteenth-century Europe, and were sold as single sheets as well as within books. Some enabled the consumer to lift a person’s skin and inspect their internal organs; others uncovered a skeleton beneath a beautiful woman, functioning as a memento mori; others were political, such as those that revealed a devil hiding beneath the image of the Pope. All of them encouraged tactile engagement. In this case, the consumer – probably a tourist wanting a souvenir of Venice’s famous courtesans – is able to participate in the erotic process of undressing the figure.

The gender nonconformity shown in this print was transgressive for several reasons. It was important in early modern culture that clothing accurately represented – that is, conformed to the expectations associated with – the sexed body beneath it; clothing was frequently spoken of as a ‘second skin’. Authorities worried that male-presenting courtesans would stimulate men’s appetites for sex with other men or anal sex with women: in 1480, a law was passed forbidding courtesans from having short haircuts on the basis that it served to ‘conceal their sex and strive to please men by pretending to be men, which is a form of sodomy’; and in 1580, a woman named Rada de Jadra was sentenced to death for arranging for men to be able to have anal sex with female sex workers. The specific image of a woman wearing breeches was also used to symbolise unruly women who disrupted gendered hierarchies and power relations.

Demographic pressures and food shortages in sixteenth-century Venice pushed many people of all genders into the sex trade. The erotic descriptions of travel writers meant that Venice was well-known for its courtesans, who became a tourist attraction and made a significant contribution to the economy. Courtesans worked hard to create an illusion of virtue and to provide a luxury experience for customers, advertising their services with improvisatory song and presenting themselves in immaculately decorated apartments.

Sex work enabled some women, particularly those who worked as courtesans rather than lower-status sex workers, to gain economic independence and provide for their families. Many brothel-keepers (matrons) were also female, and mothers sometimes became procuresses for their daughters. However, this should not be taken as evidence of a sisterly utopia within the Venetian sex industry: matrons did not always act ethically towards the women in their brothels, with many ending up trapped in the sex trade by a cycle of debt for clothing, rent and other expenses charged to them by the matron. Similarly, courtesans should be distinguished from ordinary sex workers, who did not enjoy such luxurious clothing or dwellings, or earn such substantial wages.

(Dr Kit Heyam, August 2019)



Key references

  • Judith M. Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey, ‘Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London’, History Workshop Journal, 77.1 (April 2014), 1–25
  • Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, eds., The Clothing of the Renaissance World: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas: Cesare Vecellio's Habiti Antichi et Moderni (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008)
  • Bette Talvacchia (ed.), A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Renaissance (Oxford: Berg, 2011)

Further reading

  • Paula C. Clarke, ‘The Business of Prostitution in Early Renaissance Venice’, Renaissance Quarterly, 68.2 (Summer 2015), 419-464
  • Gianfranco Crupi, “‘Mirabili visioni’: from movable books to movable texts”, Italian Journal of Library, Archives and Information Science, 7.1 (2016), 25-87
  • Joanne M. Ferraro, ‘Making a Living: The Sex Trade in Early Modern Venice’, The American Historical Review, 123.1 (2018), 30-59
  • Laura Gowing, ‘Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London’, History Workshop, No. 35 (Spring, 1993), pp. 1-21
  • Lynne Lawner, Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance (New York: Rizzoli, 1987)
  • Margaret F. Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (University of Chicago Press, 2012)