Prostitution in England during the 17th century was most popular in port cities and more densely populated metropolises. It is thought that as many as 63,000 prostitutes worked in London in the 1700s, meaning that 1 in 5 women were “harlots.” With such large numbers, these London prostitutes were able to generate an enormous amount of profit each year, with an average gross annual profit of approximately £20 million, or £1.5 billion today.
England in particular attracted prostitutes of various nationalities from all across Europe. The Venetians, however, were considered too expensive for most sailors and were typically only patronized by aristocrats and members of the royal court.
A story in painting’s of one man’s descent into debauchery (painted in 1733): http://www.soane.org/collections-research/key-stories/rakes-progress
“Italian courtesans knew freedom like no other prostitutes of the Renaissance period.” – Hayley Virgil
Italian prostitutes in this period had the unique opportunity to educate themselves freely, while other more “honorable” women were confined to convents if they wished to pursue an education. Courtesans were able to maintain a sense of security and stability similar to those of married women at the time, while still free to explore their sexuality without being attached to a single man. These women were widely considered to be the most educated and cultured women of their time and they were known for holding philosophical conversations and discussing poetry with their clientele, in addition to their sexual services. These women, in some cases, were even able to affect politics through their conversations with powerful and politically connected men.
Unlike many other European nations, Italy permitted and even defended prostitution for far longer. In 1358, the Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be “absolutely indispensable to the world.” Additionally, government-funded brothels were established in major Italian cities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. It was not until 1586 that Pope Sixtus V finally spoke out against prostitution, calling for all women engaged in prostitution to be put to death. There exists, however, no evidence that this was ever carried out in the Catholic nations of Europe.
Another restriction was set upon prostitutions following the failure of Pope Sixtus’ decree. The clothing that prostitutes were allowed to wear became increasingly limited, preventing them from wearing finer items such as silks, lace, and pearls. Some cities went as far as to force prostitutes to identify themselves with a specific article of clothing, such as a black cloak, a yellow scarf, gloves, or even bells on their hats.
Women in Italy in the 17th century were typically categorized in one of two ways: “honorable” or “indecent” before they could be wed. It was prostitutes masked during Carnival time, however, that began to blur this line.
Similar to Italy, almost every large city or town in Spain had official established brothels by the 16th century, ranging from single buildings to vast complexes on the verge of becoming their own ghettos. Some municipal governments would even regulate prostitute fees, and send doctors to call on the brothels on a regular basis. Prostitution continued to be tolerated until the reign on King Philip IV. In 1623 the king issued a decree closing all brothels, forcing women out onto the street. It was not until the reign of Isabel II several hundred years later that more moderate regulations were introduced in place of the outright ban.