Objects and bondes in the homes of courtesans: erotism and
social distinction in seventeenth-century Rome
The importance of the role played by furnishings in the creation of a luxurious and erotic mise-en-scene in the homes of the courtesans was already a literary and visual topos in the early decades of the sixteenth-century. This article starts with a discussion of the way in which the material culture of their domestic interiors is used in these texts to articulate ambiguities and ambivalences about courtesans, especially issues pertaining to the relationships between courtesans, prostitutes and their clients. It then moves on to explore the domestic goods owned by prostitutes and courtesans in seventeenth- century Rome, and the relationships between objects, courtesans and their clients, as revealed in the legal and judicial documents of the period. Furniture facilitated the kind of group sociability around courtesans which was popular at the time, and contributed to the creation of an erotic ambiance, as well as signalling the status of the clients as much as of the women. Despite this, the author suggests that it would be mistaken to believe that these objects articulated a particularly “female” aesthetic and that on the contrary, certain objects were clearly linked to the world of men, connoting a certain gender ambiguity and thereby neutralizing a space which was otherwise perceived as being too “female” and therefore too dangerous for men.