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Feminism, Sex and Power: The Life and Music of Barbara Strozzi

Hello everyone and welcome to my new column on unsung women in the history of the arts! I’m Francesca, a second-year undergrad here at The Courtauld, and each week I’ll be highlighting a new woman whose work has gone un- or underacknowledged due to her gender. I’ll also try to highlight sources from which you can access her work and the scholarship on it. Hopefully it might even inspire you to do some research of your own!

Eine Gambenspielerin (Barbara Strozzi [1619-1677]), Bernardo Strozzi, C. 1640, Oil on Canvas, 126 x 99 cm, (Image: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Estel/Klut)

Today’s subject is Barbara Strozzi, a seventeenth-century Venetian virtuoso singer and composer who was one of the only women during the Baroque period to publish her own compositions. Born Barbara Valle in 1619, she was adopted by the poet Giulio Strozzi, although, given that her mother was a servant in his household, it is more than likely that she was, in fact, his natural daughter. A member of the Venetian group of intellectuals known as the ‘Accademia degli Incogniti’ (Academy of the Unknowns), Giulio used his connections there to further Barbara’s career, starting when she reached the age of sixteen in the latter half of the 1630s. Whilst the Accademia was an early proponent of Venetian opera, it did not include musicians and so Giulio started the ‘Accademia degli Unisoni’ (Academy of the Like-Minded – but also a pun on the word ‘unison’), a subset of the original Academy that permitted musicians to join. It was presided over by Barbara herself from the Strozzi family home and provided her with an opportunity to display her singing talents (likely including some of her own compositions) as well as suggest topics for debate. She was the dedicatee of the publications of several group members, but such a high profile meant that she also became the subject of an anonymous manuscript which denounced her as a courtesan (probably written by another member) and gave rise to several other unsavoury and explicit slanders by critics. It is unclear as to whether any of this was ever true, however some scholars, including Anna Beer, have taken a portrait (see title image) of her by Bernardo Strozzi (no relation) to suggest that, because he lacked sufficient funds to provide her with a dowry, Giulio, far from silencing the rumours, was setting Barbara up in the guise of musician, courtesan and composer. In doing so, he was following the age-old (and indeed Classical) notion that only an ‘impure’ woman could be an intellectual, at the same time as providing the family with a regular stream of income.

Bernardo Strozzi, who had painted sombre portraits of Venetian intellectuals, including the famous portrait of Monteverdi, presented a very different picture when it came to Barbara. She is shown wearing a very low-cut dress, which entirely exposes one of her breasts; on the desk which she is leaning against, lies a violin; sheet music is draped over the back of a chair and, in her left hand, she clutches the neck of a viola de gamba (a pre-cursor to the modern cello). The curved shape of these instruments is intended to evoke the hourglass shape of a woman’s body. The most striking aspect of this portrait is the sitter’s expression; it is, as Anna Beer puts it, a ‘world-weary gaze’ which lands, unfocused on the viewer. The young (here, she is not yet twenty) Barbara’s glazed-over eyes are in sharp contrast with her sexualised portrayal and, to modern eyes, evoke a sense of exploitation that leads to an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Rather than a courtesan, it would seem that Barbara was actually a concubine, a midway point between being married and unmarried. Whilst, at this point in the 1640s, the Venetian government had begun to put pressure on men with concubines to either find them a husband or marry them themselves in order to save the women’s reputations, it usually turned a blind eye to those who did not as long as the children were adequately provided for. Count Giovanni Paolo Vidman, Giulio Strozzi’s patron, was one of the men who did neither of these things and Barbara continued to preside over their household and four children. It is difficult for the modern historian not to read into the fact that their two daughters were placed in a convent – there, untethered to husbands, they would be free to pursue artistic and intellectual pursuits without the ridicule, indignity and probable exploitation that they would have faced by becoming prostitutes.

After the birth of their third child, Barbara released her ‘Il Primo Libro de’ Madrigali’ (First Book of Madrigals) in 1644. Despite her resolute assertion in one song that she is the new Sappho (saró Saffo novella), she retains a keen sense of apprehension, “Being a woman I am concerned about publishing this work. Would that it lie safely under a golden oak tree and not be endangered by the swords of slander which have certainly already been drawn to do battle against it.” (Anna Beer) It was a period during which many members of the Incogniti were rallying against women such as the nun Archangela Tarabotti (“a proto-feminist writer as well as an early political theorist” (M.K. Ray)) and Il Primo Libro seems have been a conscious attempt by Barbara and Giulio (who may have written the lyrics) to wade into this debate or, at the very least, take advantage of it. In 1644, Barbara remained primarily known as a singer and Il Primo Libro, containing no solos, appears to be an attempt (her own, Giulio’s or both of theirs) to rebrand as a composer. This coincided with the period during which Giulio began to avidly promote his new protegee, the singer and rising star Anna Renzi, while Barbara was away having her children. Perhaps this rebranding was in part, therefore, Barbara’s plan to stay relevant in her father’s eyes and retain his patronage and support.

Unfortunately for Barbara, her attempt failed. If mentioned at all, it was as a singer and even then, it was her beauty, rather than singing ability, that was highlighted. Having been expertly used for their own ends and then discarded by the men in her life, Barbara, showing great strength of mind and character, did not give up, but rather published seven further volumes of compositions between 1651 and 1664. Each built on the last, becoming ever more expressive and requiring greater levels of technical skill to perform. With only one of her publications (the fifth) being religious, most of her works revolved around the topics of love and desire. But even as the text, such as that of ‘Moralità Amorosa’ (Opus 3), denounced women as wily manipulators who tricked men into desiring them through makeup and dress, Barbara’s music utilised strategically placed ornamentation to its fullest advantage with a mastery rarely seen in other works of the period. It was because of music like this, that her compositions were banned from being performed in churches and why, even as recently as 2015, they were excluded from concert programming for being ‘too sexy’ (Anna Beer).

To envisage what Barbara’s life might have been like, had she been born a man, we can consider the life of Francesco Cavalli. Cavalli, born Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni, came under the patronage of the Venetian nobleman Federico Cavalli. In 1616 he enrolled as a singer in the choir of St. Mark’s, Venice, where the true perk was the opportunity to study under Claudio Monteverdi. Living in Cavalli’s house, having applied for a part-time position as an organist and married a wealthy widow, he changed his surname to honour his patron and promptly began working on an opera, a brand-new and exciting genre of music that Barbara never got the opportunity to write in. Subsequently, he became “the most performed composer of opera in the quarter-century after Monteverdi” (Anna Beer). A tantalising glimpse indeed, at what might have been for Barbara Strozzi.

Explore Further:

Marking the 400th anniversary of her birth, Hannah French presents a profile of Barbara Strozzi. Part of Radio 3's programming for International Women's Day 2019.

‘Building a Library’ is a Saturday morning programme on BBC Radio 3 which explores recordings of a work, or works, by a composer. Although a top recommendation is eventually proffered, it is actually a great opportunity to listen to excerpts from a wide variety of recordings and figure out what you like.

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer – An excellent book that includes a chapter on Barbara Strozzi.

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