Tag Archives: florence

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.



A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Florence as enlightened by Professor Emerita Nerida Newbigin

The second lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series is a time-travel through Nerida Newbigin’s expertise into the Renaissance world of Florence where mystery and miracle plays, and processions, were de rigueur.

One of my first acquaintances with Florence came so many years ago when reading one of my now favourite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Set in England’s Edwardian era in the wake of The Grand Tour, Miss Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence for cultural enlightenment where she meets the gorgeous, but lower-class George Emerson, who is searching for life’s hope and meaning.

At one point George says, ‘… you are NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me … we shall simply drift.’ And further into their drifting exploration, ‘The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things.’

Founded in 59BC as a settlement for Julius Caesar’s former soldiers, the city name was Colonia Florentia, meaning flowering colony. How apt was that to become when during the Renaissance creative experimentation was flourishing.

One of my own hand-painted cards bought while in Florence

Even after my own explorations of Florence and the nearby hill town of Fiesole, where during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci used its slopes as a launching pad for his flying machines, I was enriched by the layering of Nerida Newbigin’s lecture.

Florence at the time was the city of creatives: the Medici family, Petrarch, Giotto, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli et al. It was the centre of drama where performance spaces included barges on the river Arno, churches, piazzas and cloisters.

Nerida Newbigin enlightening us about Machiavelli

Public and private performances were everywhere. Many of the paintings and frescoes seen today reflect these experiences.

Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance: the blossoming of the arts, humanism, technology and scientific discoveries. All of which melded into the performance space.

Weddings were celebrated with liveried musicians where trumpeters were hired or poached from visiting princes. Professional poets – canterini – accompanying themselves on violas would sing of saints and battles.

Feast days (like today in Italy) were scenes of great entertainment for the people. Churches had extensive ‘stage’ equipment built into their domes where Christ or the Virgin Mary would ascend into the heavens. Children from the orphanages dressed as angels and boy sopranos were given red stockings as payment for singing.  They can be seen in many of the church’s paintings.

From Nerida Newbigin’s slide show showing the hoist used for the Feast of the Annunciation

Haloes on the performers were packed with gunpowder – a dove was attached to a line with a light that would fly along the row of halos igniting them to represent the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. What a spectacle! That is until a fire in Santo Spirito burnt it to the ground.

It was a time of processions and horse racing and betting as part of the celebrations, as were processions of drummers and flag throwers – much like I saw recently in Siena.

Flag throwers and drummers in Siena

Art and pageantry evolved into performing troupes travelling from city to city in the form of the Commedia dell’arte.

My own collected postcards of Commedia dell’arte performers

This and so much more was gleaned through Nerida Newbigin’s extensive and richly-sourced lecture; a renaissance of its own in offering an awakening to those on the other side of the zoom screen.

And to once again look at Florence through the eyes of George Emerson in A Room with a View … ‘Italy … it gave her light, and – which he held more precious – it gave her shadow.’

  • This was the 2nd in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series. Look out for archaeology; women composers and utopias.
  • https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures