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Bartolomeo Veneto : ideal portrait of a courtesan as Flora , Northern Italy around 1520, Städel , Frankfurt

The term courtesan for a woman who is available for love service in aristocratic or upper-class circles, as the name ( French courtisane , via Italian cortigiana ) suggests, originally comes from the courtly area ( French cour , German '[royal, princely] Hof ' , Italian corte ). Like the mistress , the courtesan, as the mistress of one or more men of aristocracy or wealth, was entertained by them and in the 19th century occasionally kept a salon herself , which was also a place for intellectually stimulating conversation; but unlike the mistress, her role was not institutionalized, and her relationships were much more varied. Rome and Venice in the Renaissance and Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries were central locations for courtesans.

Cultural studies of the phenomenon of the Renaissance courtesans have for a long time made uncritical use exclusively of contemporary erotic literature (e.g. Pietro Aretino's Courtesan Talks from 1534), which led to distorted judgments based on clichés. It is only in more recent research that archival sources have been used to portray the courtesan system.

In world literature, the best-known example of a courtesan is Marguerite Gautier, the lady of the camellias in the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas the Elder. J. from 1848. It was the model for the opera La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi . Only a little earlier, from 1838 to 1846, the novel Glamor and Misery of the Courtesans by Honoré de Balzac, also set in Paris, appeared .

For comparable women's roles in antiquity, see Hetaera .