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Telesilla, the Warrior Poet
Imperia Cognati, the Queen of the Courtesan - Amazing Women of the Ancient World
152    Dibyendu Banerjee    27/06/2024

Born on the 3rd of August 1486 in Rome, near the Church of Santa Maria del Carmelo in Traspontina, Imperia Cognati, also known as Imperia La Divina, which means Imperia, the Divine or the Queen of Courtesans, was a Roman courtesan, considered the first celebrity of the class of courtesans. Her mother was Diana di Pietro Cognati, a Roman prostitute, while his father was called as Paris by name or De Paris by surname. It has been often speculated by many that Paris de Grassis, Master of Ceremonies to Pope Julius II, could have been her father when he was young. Nevertheless, eventually, her mother married a much older man, a member of the Sistine choir and they built two houses along the Via Recta, a new and fashionable street, since by that time, Imperia who was 17, started offering her body after the birth of her daughter and her patrons included Giacomo Sadoleto and Agostino Chigi, the wealthiest bankers in Rome.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan

The courtesans owed their origin in the 15th century, when the European kings, aristocrats and the nobles began hiring female escorts or courtesans, to accompany them in court life, with whom they had a sexual relationship but were not married to. The courtesans were professional mistresses, prostitutes of the highest rank, providing services and companionship to wealthy nobles or rulers. They were educated, knew the etiquette to converse and participate in formal court life.

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Although by usual custom, they kept a main client as a steady supporter, additionally they also openly entertained others as temporary clients and often their marriages were arranged for the political or financial gain of their families. Charming, intelligent, equipped with a certain degree of literary education and refined manners, Imperia was the first famous representative of this new type of prostitutes.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan

Cognati gave birth to her daughter when she was only fourteen years of age and it was presumed that she became a courtesan, after the birth of her daughter. However, most historians attributed the paternity of the little girl to Agostino Chigi, the wealthy banker, who was her regular and main client. Nevertheless, soon she achieved an unprecedented excellence in her profession, which cannot be attained only by the possession of the skilled amateur arts. She was even known to be courted by the men of the Papal court, but she diplomatically remained exclusive and accepted only few selected clients, while being surrounded by courtiers from noble families.

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In her house, she was the centre of a circle of men of letters and experts in the fields of arts and literature, whom she could inspire and motivate at various levels. Her suitor, admirers and lovers included poet and librarian Filippo Beroaldo, poet and architect Blosio Palladio, Jacopo Sadoleto, who later became a cardinal, Angelo Colocci, papal secretary under Leo X, papal librarian Tommaso Inghirami, and many more.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan
Raphael’s Galatea

Raphael, the famous artist, best known for his large figure compositions in the Vatican, was also an admirer of Imperia, for whom she posed as a model on a number of occasions. It is maintained by some art historians that the nymph Galatea depicted in the frescoes the Triumph of Galatea, created by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, built by Agostino Chigi, is actually Imperia. She was also identified as Sappho and Calliope in his painting Parnassus and both the creations evidence her exotic physical beauty, fair skinned, blonde, with a sweet round face and a graceful ample body. Imperia’s beauty was legendary. While her depiction like a ‘beauty, crowned with golden hair’ seems to be insufficient, lines like ‘her neck was long and her breasts were ample and delicious’, leave more of a mystery.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan

There was a saying that Rome was blessed by the Gods twice, while Mars gave them the Empire, Venus gifted Imperia. Initially, she used to live in a house in the Borgo, but in or around 1506, she shifted to another house, owned by Del Bufalo, the magnificence and richness of which was depicted by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello in one of his novels Le novelle. There are several anecdotes evidencing her juicy and erotic wit.

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It was alleged that the head of her doorstep had an inscription inviting only those who would bring spirit, energy, wit and good mood and leave money or an appropriate gift before parting.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan

Imperia as Sapho (on the left) , in the Parnassus, by Raphael

Unfortunately, Imperia Cognati, the first celebrity of the courtesans, known as the Queen of Courtesans, died in 1512, at the tender age of just 26, apparently from poisoning, thought to be self-administered. Although several theories have been put forward as to what might have prompted her to take her own life, it is maintained by many that her heart was broken, when Angelo di Bufalo, her longtime client with whom she had been genuinely in love, decided to end their relationship. However, it is also argued that she felt harshly insulted and pushed out when her mentor Agostino Chigi took a new, younger mistress. Nevertheless, despite being a courtesan, Imperia was given a stately funeral in Rome, financed by Agostino Chigi, which is fit for a noblewoman, and was buried at the church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio in Rome, although the monument erected in her name destroyed long back.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan

It is believed that, the character of a courtesan called Imperia in Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 story La Belle Impéria, was inspired by the real life Imperia and Balzac's figure of Imperia was later portrayed by the German painter Lovis Corinth in 1925. The legendary story of Imperia also inspired the installation of a larger-than-life statue of voluptuous Imperia on a rotating pedestal at the entrance of the harbour of Konstanz, in Germany in 1993, created by German sculptor Peter Lenk, known for the controversial sexual content of his public art.

imperia cognati the queen of the courtesan
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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