Marietta’s act of kindness, in which she pays Antonia’s fine to the Office of Decency, may have saved her friend from imprisonment. Unable to pay the fine herself, Antonia ran the risk of ending up in the debtors’ prison or one of the city’s reform houses that aimed to convert women of the ‘mala vita’ (wicked life). The oldest of these was the San Elisabetta delle Convertite convent— the house of ‘The Converted’. Inside the convent prostitutes were supposed to imitate Mary Magdalene, purging their bodies and souls of sin and dedicating themselves to Christ. Paradoxically, a portion of the fines gathered by the Office of Decency funded the Convertite convent. Civic and religious authorities aimed to lift precarious women out of prostitution but relied directly on incomes from sex work to do so.

Florence’s approach towards prostitution shifted dramatically under the rule of Cosimo de’ Medici. In previous centuries prostitutes had been officially banned from the city, save for particular days. As part of his sweeping reforms, Cosimo restructured the Offices of Decency. In 1547 the city legislated eighteen streets where prostitutes could legally live and work. Like in the case of Antonia however, many women broke these rules and lived and worked throughout the city.

The Office of Decency both helped and punished sex workers. Fees lined the pockets of civic magistrates. These financial demands functioned only to further entrap sex workers in cycles of poverty. Wealthy courtesans often avoided civic interference by paying extra to have their names hidden from the public record books. The Office also provided some protections for registered prostitutes. Women could bring forward cases of assault and harassment they faced on the job. Sometimes the Office of Decency levied punishments against violent clients, though often these sentences were disproportionately mild.

Marietta and Antonia began life together as abandoned children in the Innocenti. As they moved through adolescence and adulthood they shared many similar experiences. Both women relied on a combination of charity, resourcefulness, and tenacity to keep their heads above water. Marietta’s tour introduces us to the unique varieties of female experience in the early modern city and to the places and activities that brought Florentine women together.

Julia Rombough

To cite this essay, we suggest:
Julia Rombough, ‘Prostitutes and Poverty’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further Reading:

John K. Brackett, “The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 24:2 (1993): 273-300.

Nicholas Terpstra, “Sex and the Sacred: Negotiating Spatial and Sensory Boundaries in Renaissance Florence,” Radical History Review 121 (2015): 71-90.

Sherill Cohen, The Evolution of Women’s Asylums since 1500: From Refuges for Ex Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.