chapter  6
18 Pages

Locating the sex trade in the early modern city: space, sense, and regulation in sixteenth-century Florence


In 1547, the Florentine magistrates of the Onestà (or Office of Decency), charged with regulating and policing prostitution, devised a list of eighteen streets where prostitutes could register to live and work. They identified some by street name, such as Via Palazzuola, and others by a set of landmarks, such as: ‘From the corner of Monteloro beginning below the bakers’ ovens of the Orbatello for 40 braccia to the convent of S. Maria di Candeli, and then around the corner to Via Fiesolana and on for 40 braccia to the house of Bettina Strozzina, and including within this boundary the house where the two prostitutes are’. 1 The first leg of this ‘L’-shaped zone was the well-known Via dei Pilastri, though the officials never gave the name. Their referents were all spatial and social, starting from a large shelter for widows and old women (the Orbatello), turning at a corner marked by an Augustinian convent, and then continuing down to a private home owned by the well-known courtesan Bettina Strozzina. Whether using street names or a shorthand set of relational referents, the magistrates assumed close knowledge of the city, its institutions, and its inhabitants. The Onestà described the city as a Florentine might walk it and pegged the coordinates of the prostitutes’ zone by reference to some familiar uses. In the example, these are all female: a widows’ shelter, a convent, and a courtesan’s house. With other zones the landmarks included ‘the tavern of the Marmerucola’, ‘the bakery of San Paulo’, and ‘the fortress of his Excellency’. In fact, relatively few of the zones licensed for prostitution were identified by street name alone.