The Dangerous Beauty of Helen and Veronica

Throughout different time periods and cultures the theme emerges of an independent nature and limited autonomy spanning thousands of years.  The theme to the movie Dangerous Beauty and one view of the character of Helen is about beauty and how the main female characters use their beauty for their own advantages and to get them power within a male dominated society.

Although Helen of Troy was a Spartan princess and Veronica Franco, the lead character in Dangerous Beauty, was a 16th century courtesan the theme on using their beauty to their own personal advantage in male dominate worlds ties them together. Women during the time of Helen and Veronica Franco were seen as purely trophies and not equal by any means to the status of a man.  The first line of the movie of Dangerous Beauty attests to this fact, “Venice, 1583 – the richest, most decadent city in Europe.  Its women were treated like property – few even knew how to read.  But there were some who enjoyed a different fate . . .”[1] Just like Helen during the time of the Trojan War, courtesans in Venice were able to use their beauty to manipulate their social standings and further political interests.

First of all, Helen ultimately was valued for her beauty; the courtesans in the 16th century, especially in Venice, were also prized for their attractiveness and how much they appealed to the male population.  Just like with Helen in Homer’s Iliad the appeal to arouse men’s eros was essential for the courtesans’ survival in the Middle Ages.  The mother of Veronica Franco, Paola, who was once a courtesan herself tries to give Veronica advise on how to deal with her situation and what is to be expected of her, “In order to choose your lovers wisely, you need to understand men. No matter their shape or size . . . position or wealth . . . they all dream of the temptress. The irresistible . . . unapproachable Venus . . . who quickly turns pliable maiden when they’ve had a hard day.”[2] The gods are deities of the immortal realm but also representative of human power and a representation of human nature; so in the case of Helen, Aphrodite is the representation of what Helen really is: lust; just as Paola is telling Veronica what she should be.  Both Helen and Veronica can use their beauty to get what they want out of life.

Their beauty represents the only power they can hold over a man in a time when they were thought of as being possessions and unable to comprehend what was going on around them. People assume that there is nothing else to Helen as in the ‘dumb blonde’ motif of being passive and submissive.  Helen is trying to fight against the stereotype and is constantly rebelling against the idea.  She is seen on multiple occasions as being smart, clever, and manipulative, even going so far as to be on par with a man of Odysseus’s stature.  Contrary to this with the story of Veronica Franco, the men around her know and respect the knowledge she has. Domenico Venier, an influential nobleman of Venice, was also her patron and allowed her to publish a book.

In the movie Dangerous Beauty Maffio is a poor writer that is related to a rich uncle, which allowed him to join in the festivities of the noble men but making him unable to afford any of the entertainment presented to him i.e. the Venetian courtesans.  Throughout the beginning of the movie Veronica Franco and Maffio spar with their wits and words creating desire within Maffio; however, he is unable to afford her price.  A preacher tries to help Maffio curb his desire, “it is your desired that makes you weak.”[3] Ultimately telling him that since Maffio desires Veronica so much and cannot have her that he is doing stupid things and giving her power over him, if he were to get rid of that desire for her he would once again have the power over her.  Helen holds power over all the men, when she is standing on the walls of Troy in Homer’s Iliad looking out at the battle taking place before her the elders of Troy discuss why they are holding on to her still and not giving her up when so many men have perished because of her.  Also, at the end when Menelaus finally gets her back and keeps saying that he is going to kill her.  Helen knows of this and uses the power of her beauty to once again charm him so that he desires her instead of wanting to kill her.

Underneath the beauty of these two women they have a very calculating side to them to get what they want and influences the outcome of events. In Euripides’s Helen, Helen asks Menelaus, “Listen to this, if a woman, too, can make a clever suggestion: are you willing to have a false report spread that you are dead?”[4] In this passage Helen is being very clever and passive in her motives, a complete reversal of the Helen portrayed by Homer. Helen knows what she has to do to survive, just like Veronica, as she has to live being a courtesan to support her family.  Helen is willing to lie and disguise Menelaus and to defeat a suitor all for her goal of getting back home.  She tries sacrificing one thing for the betterment of them both.  Helen at this point lets Menelaus thinks that he is in control of everything and she is just suggesting something to him.  Helen is humbling herself for Menelaus and supporting him in what he says while kindly making constructive suggestions.  Veronica is able to do the exact same thing when she is trying to convince the King of France to supply a fleet of ships to Venice to defeat the invading Turks at Malta.  She is then even referred to as a “national asset”[5] because she was so successful in seductively manipulating the king of France to get the ships.

Helen is putting on an act; she is pretending to be the faithful wife with Homer showing her with a loom in both the Iliad and the Odyssey while in reality she has this whole different side to her that the male population does not take into account.  Courtesans did the exact same thing, pretending to “make him believe that he is the only man in the universe.”[6] Marco Venier’s wife is sitting at home embroidering in Dangerous Beauty, she is representing how a woman of the time was supposed to behave and stay to the respectable standards of convention and the church; the women in the classical period used the loom as a symbol of faithfulness.[7] It is the opposite of what a courtesan represents just as it is ridiculous for Helen to be shown weaving.  The parallel exists from Marco Venier’s wife to Veronica and the other courtesans just as Helen would be as compared to Penelope, Odysseus’s wife in Homer’s Odyssey waiting for her husband to come home and being faithful to him for more than twenty years.

But the life of a courtesan is a dangerous one, just as Helen is living in a delicate situation.  She needs her beauty to maintain her power, without it she would be lost on both sides; the Trojans would throw her out and Menelaus would have probably just ended up killing her.  Just like with the courtesans beauty was a very precious thing to them; as a courtesan could end up on the streets if careless or betrayed and hurt by a jealous or spurned lover.  In one scene a former courtesan had a scar on her face from a jealous lover and could not be a courtesan anymore because her face was marred and no one wanted her anymore.  She was forced to live her life out on the streets taking whatever she could get and trying to find a way to survive.[8]

Towards the end of the movie Veronica is put on trial as a witch, the case being she is bewitching people with her charms and spreading the disease throughout the city.  The plague has struck Venice killing more than 50,000 people while the church at this time took the opportunity to blame the courtesans who they felt were corrupting God’s people and making them do sinful things.  She says, “You… all of you… you who hunger so for what I give, but cannot bear to see such power in a woman. You call God’s greatest gift… ourselves, our yearning, our need to love… you call it filth and sin and heresy.”[9] Even the people that wanted her so much in the beginning calling her a national asset to the state and congratulating her for what she was were now condemning her for the same thing; her beauty does not make her any friends or allies to support her.  Veronica is hated most of all by all of the wives of her suitors leaving her without any friends to rely on.

There was no other profession left up to her, so she had to make a life for herself using her beauty as a tool with which to accomplish that.  Also, when the plague strikes killing many people in Venice, the church targets the courtesans with spreading the disease and no one stands up for them in their defense.  This fact is even seen in Homer’s Iliad with Helen in Troy because everyone was blaming her for the war and all of the Trojan men were dying trying to fight for her.  Hector is the only one that defends her to his family and the people of Troy.

By knowing the myth of Helen and the struggles with her beauty and what she had to go through being at Troy the viewers of Dangerous Beauty can look past the fact that Veronica Franco was just a courtesan and see the complex view of her character and exactly what power she had; unavailable to most women anywhere at that time.


[1] Dangerous Beauty, Marshall Herskovitz, 1998.  0:50.

[2] Dangerous Beauty, 24:36.

[3] Dangerous Beauty, 59:54.

[4] Euripides, lines 1049-1051.

[5] Dangerous Beauty, 1:15:25.

[6] Dangerous Beauty, 24:09.

[7] Dangerous Beauty, 1:1:35.

[8] Dangerous Beauty, 1:22:19.

[9] Dangerous Beauty, 1:40:03.

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~ by wolfangel87 on November 18, 2010.

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