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 de