Monday, February 3, 2014

Green & Yellow & Courtesans

This is something I've been working on for a while but I think I should share my research.   Basically, it's well known that in various city states throughout Italy, there was some sort of sumptuary law declaring courtesans should wear a scarf or veil of yellow.  Also, there is the old poem "Marry in Green, Ashamed to be seen" with green being associated with taking a roll in the hay.   I was curious as to what truth there was behind these color associations - particularly in the early 1500's.   What I found is a bit surprising - to me at least.

Anea already has explained some of the sumptutary laws regarding prostitutes or courtesans being ordered to wear yellow scarves but here are a couple more sources.

[Tullia D’Aragona] was held in high esteem and respect. When, in 1546, Cosimo, Duke of Florence, ordered all prostitutes to wear a yellow veil or handkerchief as a public badge of their profession, Tullia appealed to the Duchess, a Spanish lady of high character, and received permission to dispense with this badge [sic]. (G. Biagi, “Un’ Etera Rmana” Nuova Antologia vol. iv, 1886, pp 655-711, S. Bongi, Rivista critica della Letteratura Italiana, 1886, IV, p 186) From Studies in the Psychology of SexBy Havelock Ellis

However, since many of the portaits I found of ladies with some sort of yellow scarf are before this date, I also found this footnote:

Starting in at least 1416 with the injunction that prostitutes and procurers should wear yellow scarves to identify themselves, sporadic laws throughout the 16th and 17th centuries also attempted to limit their wearing of silk, gold, silver, lace, and pearls.From Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 2 edited by Melissa Hope Ditmore

So there is some connection of yellow veils/scarves and courtesans - one that wasn't always followed based on the numerous complaints of the day. However, what about green? Green, it turns out, doesn't have a negative association in the 16th Century. Rather, it stands for chastity according to Lisa Jardine's book Worldly Goods (page 15). This could be seen two ways - the portraits I'm seeing particularly in the 1520's and 1530's of what I believe to be courtesans are all just playing a practical joke (very, very period. It was so common that several individuals lamented at the time that courtesans were dressed up as noblewomen or widows -even nuns- causing the actual noblewomen of Venice and Rome great distress)or it's just a coincidence that these ladies are wearing the same shade of green with a yellow scarf. I think it's the former rather than the latter.

Green also stood for one of the three cardinal virtues. But it could also mean love which makes a lot of sense in the context of it being worn by a courtesan. The idea of it being a symbol of love is re-enforced much later during the Baroque era.

With this in mind, here are some of the portraits I've been looking at.

The Magdalen, Bernardino Luini c 1520s

Mary Magdalen is easy to spot in any period painting as she is normally shown with a perfume jar, as in the painting above. She is also commonly accepted to have been a prostitute prior to admonishing her ways and following Christ - therefore, she is often painting wearing flashy to somewhat scandalous clothing for the time. Knowing that, I realized that the yellow scarf might be the yellow scarf of the courtesan. However, I didn't think about the green dress until I kept seeing this kelley green and a yellow scarf together in multiple paintings.

The Conversion of the Magdalene or An Allegory of Modesty and Vanity, oil on panel painting by Bernardo Luini, c. 1520

Again, Mary Magdalen is pretty easy to spot. She's wearing a dress more closely associated with southern Italy in this painting, however.

Giulio_Campi_-_The Chess Players c 1530

The lady, not having a bodice to her gown in the same kelley green as both the Mary Magdalen's, is most likely a courtesan. She is shown, surrounded by men, playing a game - very much what a courtesan would do. Her scarf is a harlequin of yellow and white - probably acceptable enough to pass for any law.

Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress, 1530

Again, the yellow scarf with the same shade of green.

 photo innocenzofrancucci1530sbolognaborghese.jpg
Innocenzo Francucci da Imola, Portrait of a Woman c1530s

This green is a bit lighter - however that may be due to age. Still, she has the yellow scarf about her shoulders.

Portrait of a Lady C 1530/1540

It looks like she has a light yellow scarf about her shoulders. Again, the bright green dress.

Of course, it is possible that this was simply a fashion statement - however, there are paintings of Mary Magdalen wearing a yellow scarf with a green dress, known laws at the time instructing courtesans to wear yellow scarves, and evidence that green meant love.

I'll keep a look out for more paintings from this era to see if I can find anything more solid - but I do believe that at least around the 1530's in most of Italy, there was something to green being worn by courtesans.


  1. This was a very illuminating read, thank you!

    1. Thanks!!! I've been playing with this idea for a couple of months and I figured it was about time to get my idea down on paper, so to speak. :-)

  2. that was super interesting. I've never heard that before. My Saints day is Mary Magdeline, and even though Im not Catholic I've always been kind of fascinated by her.

    1. She was quite the lady. It's now believed that she might have had some form of mental illness prior to meeting Jesus and she wasn't a prostitute. However, in the early Church history, she was confused with the prostitute who poured a jar of perfume on Jesus' head and cried at his feet. Hence, why Mary Magdalen is often shown with a jar of perfume. :-)