Women Composers and Performers in Renaissance and Baroque Italy – a virtual guide by Kate Bolton-Porciatti

This time in the limelight-arts-travel series I take the sliding door into the world of female musicians. So much of the limelight has gone to male composers over the eons that it’s a delight to slip into the feminine realm. Guided by Kate Bolton-Porciatti, live from Florence, we Zoomers stepped into the medieval cities of Ferrara, Florence and Venice.

Ferrara, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, was a European capital of culture. The female singing group, Concerto delle Donne (consort of women), was founded there. These ultra-talented musicians and singers were given annual salaries, board and lodging. One virtuoso, Laura Peverara, was paid a salary of 300 scudi – as a comparison, a young (not-yet-famous) Caravaggio was paid 1 1/2 scudi for his painting ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ and 8 scudi for his painting, ‘Fortune Teller’.

Tarquinia Molza, the Concerto delle Donne’s coach was a singer, poet, conductor, composer, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. This extraordinary woman was perhaps the first singer (male or female) to have a published biography of her life. But, after being widowed, a clandestine love affair saw her banished to Modena until the whole business had blown over. So much like Romeo being banished to Mantua after killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This virtuosic group came to an end when soprano and lutenist Anna Guarini was murdered by her husband on his suspicion of her adultery.

While on my travels I collect postcards. This is from the Basilica dei Frari in Venice

Beyond the courts were chapels, convents and nun musicians. A musical ensemble of 23 nuns played cornets, trombones, lutes, double harps, violins, viols, bagpipes, recorders and harpsichords. One can only imagine the extraordinary performances, adding in the nun-singers – female tenors and a singular astonishing female bass.

This reminded me of the renaissance novel, Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Quote: By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched – for a much lesser price – into convents. It is estimated that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns. Not all of them went willingly … the story takes place in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, in 1570 in the Convent of Santa Caterina …

Florence, in the mid 1500s, was home to Maddalena Casulana: composer, lutenist and singer. She was the first female composer to have a whole book of secular music (madrigals) published in the history of western music. This quote below, on one of Kate Bolton-Porciatti’s slides, shows the strength and fortitude of Maddalena.

Meanwhile, Francesca Caccini, wrote some or all of the music for at least 16 staged works. She is widely regarded as the first female to write an opera (although that term wasn’t used at the time). She even wrote music for Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (grand nephew of the famous sculptor). She went on to write 16 works for the Medici court.

Venice, la Serenissima, along with its significant trade & cultural attributes, it was also a city of 20,000 voluptuous courtesans who seduced men with their voices like sirens along with their ‘other’ charms. Many became famous for their literary and musical endeavours … Venus turned into a woman of letters.

Women played stringed instruments as wind instruments were regarded as erotic. Having said that, while I was in Lithgow at Ironfest, the largest historical & cultural arts festival to take place yearly in NSW’s Central West, in the Renaissance area of the festival, one damsel was hand-cranking a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument with a similar sound to that of bagpipes. As she played it on her lap she told me it was popular during the Renaissance as it protected women’s modesty. ‘Raising your arms while playing another stringed instrument sent men into a state of lustful frenzy’.

I shall leave you with that thought.

If you are interested in a complimentary lecture in December to shepherd you towards Christmas, book a zoom spot here. 13th December: The Chapel of the Magi in Florence given by Dr Kathleen Olive.



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