According to a census completed in Venice in 1509, 11,164 women were working as prostitutes at the time – roughly equivalent to a fifth of the entire Venetian female population. Far from being outlawed, the profession was actively encouraged by the Venetian government; the city’s prostitutes had their own guild, and they traded under the auspices of the department of public health. The reasons for this toleration had more to do with money than morality, as taxes from the prostitutes helped to line the Republic’s coffers, and encouraged what might now be called the tourist trade; Venetian prostitutes were a source of international fascination and fame.
There were certain areas of the city devoted to venality, with the majority of trade taking place in a district near the Rialto known as Carampane – the name deriving from a particularly infamous brothel called Palazzo Ca’ Rampani. Today you can still walk down Rio Terra de la Carampane, with a wall lined with topless female statues leading to the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Tits); if you’re in the area, be sure to seek out Trattoria Antiche Carampane, one of the finest restaurants in Venice.
In order to keep the profession under control, various decrees were passed by the government; to distinguish themselves from Venetian noblewomen, ladies of the night had to ride in gondolas with red lights on their prows, making the Rialto area – where they plied their trade – a literal red light district. Just next to the Rialto Bridge, by the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, you can still find a place known as the Traghetto del Buso (Ferry of the Hole) – a reminder of the location from which the gondolieri transported clients to the prostitutes on the other side of the Grand Canal; the word buso refers to a specific coin used to pay for the crossing, which had a hole in the centre. The Rialto Bridge itself was also once decorated with explicit representations of the female sex – but these have, unsurprisingly, long since been removed.