‘Face-veil’ in Renaissance Rome was considered ‘the mark of a courtesan’

It is funny how different cultural traditions can ascribe different values to equivalent things:  in this case, the face veil.

We have come face-to-niqab (if you will excuse the expression) with the Islamic tradition of the face veil and are familiar with it:  Muhammad imposed ‘the veil’ on his wives but not on his concubines.

Some people think ‘Muhammad’s veil’ was worn on the front of the throat, but did not cover the face. This can be seen in some Pakistani dress traditions.

Others think it was based on the Slavic  headscarf, as he is reported to have first seen this garment on the Christian slave girl gifted to him by the patriarchs of Constantinopole.  He became so enamoured of it, he imposed it on all of his wives.  If you look at the linked illustrations, it is possible to think that the hijab could have evolved from it.  (This is, in my never-humble-opinion, the most likely the root of the Islamic ‘veil’, because there is a direct reference in the Hadith to the ‘Christian slave girl’.  Historically, Slavs were hunted by the Mediterranians , in order to be sold to Arabi harems – that is the origin of the word ‘slave’.)

Yet others suggest that the veil Muhammad imposed on his wives was meant to cover their whole face – the niqab.  Some people trace this to ancient symbols of prostitution – perhaps.

But, in our culture, the connection between women covering their faces with a veil while in public and prostitution exists in less distand history.  One need not go further than Renaissance Rome.

For reasons that are not exactly clear even to myself, I have been reading a biography of Lucrecia Borgia by Sarah Bradford.  (It is, perhaps, the worst-written book I have ever tried to chew my way through.  The author is completely absorbed in the minutiae and unless you are familiar with not just the ‘big picture’, but also the ‘medium picture’, you might find – like I did – that without frequent outside references, it is difficult to follow the significance of all the rigorously supported details she has managed to cram into the book.  It is precisely the rigorous support – extensive quotes from numerous letters – of what she writes which has kept me slogging through it…even though her analysis of the letters themselves and of their implications is often flawed, to say the least.)

One of the things I learned (supported by a quote from a letter written in that period), she indicates (though she does not dwell on the subject) that in Rome during the time of the Borgias, the high-class prostitutes – courtesans – would wear a veil that covered their face while they rode through the streets or were in public areas.  Not being well versed in the history of this period, I have not verified this assertion in  another publication – if anyone can suggest books I should check out for this, I would greatly appreciate their help.

While I would like to find further corroboration, the fact that this was a direct quote from a period letter, along with the fact that this was an extraneous detail which simply got in because it was part of a letter focused on another subject altogether, convinces me that this likely was the custom of the day. (The lette-writer complains how low Rome had sunk, as so many of the women one could see about were courtesans, which one could see from the fact that they covered their faces with a veil…)

Married women and mistresses – as well as umarried women and girls – did not veil their faces in public, as there was no need for ‘discretion’.  The lower class prostitutes also did not have a need for ‘discretion’, though for the opposite reason.  It was only the high-class prostitutes, the courtesans, who would cover their faces when on their way to visit ‘clients’.

So, the wearing of the face-veil was a ‘class’ thing:  it signified a higher class status among prostitutes.

Which is very curious, because in the Islamic tradition, ‘the veil’ also carries a very definite class distinction:  because Muhammad had imposed it on his ‘wives’ – but not on women who were his slaves, whether workers or concubines, women who wore ‘the veil’ were of a higher social status than women who did not.

It is the view of some current Muslims (and Muslimas) that wearing the veil is a symbol of membership in a socially superior class: the woman wearing the veil is demonstrating her class superiority over bear-headed women.  This explains why some of the Muslimas wearing veils seem to be doing it as an ‘in-your-face’ aggressive gesture.  Far from representing morality or religious piety, this particular set of Muslimas is wearing the veil as a symbol of their superiority.

I am continously fascinated by how, at different times and in different cultures, the same items symbolized different things.  In one time and place, the face veil represents a higher social status woman.  In another, it denotes a higher social status prostitute.