Cozzolani – A “Clear Pearl” of Excellent Musical Invention
This post is excerpted from the notes that will accompany the first volume of Magnificat’s recording of Cozzolani’s complete works.
Over the last twenty years, performances and scholarship have given us some idea of the remarkable musical world of cloistered nuns in early modern Italy. The Cozzolani Project’s recordings of the complete works of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1677), testify to both her own musical creativity and to the high skills of the musicians in her Benedictine house of Santa Radegonda in Milan, across the street from the city’s cathedral (the monastery was razed by the early nineteenth century).
There is evidence for excellent music-making at S. Radegonda as early as the late sixteenth century. Writing in 1674 (while Cozzolani was still alive), the Milanese poet and occasional librettist Carlo Torre praised its singers thusly:
“It can be said that in our own times, Mount Helicon has been transported to this monastery, due to the excellence of its veiled singers, or that spirits from on high fly in this church, since rapturous melodies are heard … So that you readers do not think I am speaking in hyperbole, I will wait for you there on the next feast-day, and you will take away true proof of what I have said”.
A few years earlier, the urban panegyricist Filippo Picinelli named her specfically in his praise of the house’s music: “Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise , Chiara (“clear”) in name but even more so in merit, and Margarita (“a pearl”) for her unusual and excellent nobility of [musical] invention”.
The public fame of S. Radegonda’s singers would also lead to severe problems for the house in the 1660s and 1670s, when the strict archbishop Alfonso Litta attempted to crack down on disciplinary “irregularities”, including music. The archival documents of this battle between the nuns and the hierarchy include both a letter from Cozzolani herself, who was by then the abbess of the house, as well as a description of the two choirs of singers and the instrumentalists of S. Radegonda—this latter in defiance of the many prohibitions on nuns’ playing of melody instruments.
Despite the fame, only some aspects of Cozzolani’s life are evident, even after years of research. Her family were probably well-off merchants who lived in the city center, and—like her aunt before and her sister around the same time—she professed her final vows at the house in 1620. She must have been an active musician, probably a singer, possibly also an organist, from that time into the 1650s, although there are no specific tributes to her own skills until Picinelli’s.