Paul Johnson

The decline and fall of the femme fatale

The decline and fall of the femme fatale

My old friend Peregrine Worsthorne was deploring the other day the decline in the quality of courtesans. And it is true that those who get themselves into the headlines today, either by the voracity of their sexual appetite or their status as mistresses of prominent men, do not strike one as notably interesting or desirable. But were they ever? And what is a courtesan anyway? A lady of easy virtue with court connections? A royal whore? Nell Gwyn did not hesitate to use the word, calling herself ‘the Protestant whore’ to an angry mob hunting for well-connected papists. There is in the Correr Museum in Venice a suggestive panel painting, done by Carpaccio in 1495, and known to Ruskin and Proust, who loved it, as ‘The Courtesans’. The well-dressed ladies, rather decolleté, sit on a Venetian balcony surrounded by pet dogs and birds, done in the loving detail which was the painter’s speciality. I remember thinking, when I first saw this work in 1948, ‘so that’s what courtesans look like’ — rather dull, not jolly, bored perhaps. Alas, modern research has established that these two were ladies of the noble Preti family, whose impeccable virtues are attested to by the symbolic image of pearls, lily and handkerchief, myrtle, orange, turtledoves, parrot and female peacock, and the red pattens of the younger woman — the older one is not a procuress but simply her mother. The ladies are expecting their menfolk to return from a lagoon-hunt, shown on the companion panel, which has been rediscovered and is in the Getty. The painting is now known, boringly, as ‘Waiting’.

To descend into tedium is the destiny of most femmes fatales. St Mary Magdalen, one of my favourite female saints and the patron of courtesans, escaped this fate by becoming a holy camp-follower of Jesus and thus the heroine of painters for two millennia.

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