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Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court

January 11th, 2011 1 comment

Suzanne Cusick has graciously provided the following essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberazione di Ruggiero. The essay is an adaptation of remarks made on February 3, 2006 at Smith College on the occasion of a performance of La Liberazione directed by Drew Minter. The essay benefits from Professor Cusick’s lifelong research into this remarkable woman and much of the material became part of her extraordinary monograph published earlier this summer: Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power (2009, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-13212-9).

Francesca Caccini

Francesca Caccini

Francesca Caccini was born in mid-September 1587, the first-born child of two singers then on salary to produce chamber and theatre music for the Medici court–Lucia Gagnolandi, and Giulio Caccini (who was himself the second son of an ambitious wood dealer from Pisa). By 1587 Giulio was already one of the best-known singers and singing teachers of his generation, and the one professional singer known to have regularly participated in the conversations at courtier Giovanni de’Bardi’s Fiesole villa (known as La Camerata) that are supposed to have led to the two most stunning musical innovations of the 17th-century–the invention of a new kind of solo song, and the closely-related invention of new ways of setting plays to music that led directly to the emergence of opera as a genre.

At 13 Francesca sang in the first more-or-less publicly performed opera, L’Euridice, joining her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margerita, and various other pupils of her father to sing the female and the choral parts of the show that had been assigned to Giulio’s composition. At 17, she so impressed the King of France, Henri IV, with the literary sensitivity of her singing in French that the King asked to have her as a musical servant to his household. In the winter before she turned 20 she composed her first theatrical work for the Medici court–a kind of mock sword fight preceded by musico-dramatic dialogue called a barriera. The show’s success seems to have led directly to her hiring by the Medici court as a musica (an all-round musical servant) two months after her 20th birthday; in keeping with local custom, she was married to another musical servant the same week she appeared on the court’s payroll (although, contrary to the prevailing custom, her dowry was paid by her father, not by the court).

According to a biographical sketch penned between 1627 and 1630 by a man who had then known her as a court colleague for 15 years, Cristoforo Bronzini, the adult Francesca was an industrious, talkative woman who compensated by talent, charm, cheerfulness and gracious manners for the fact that, in his words, “she had not been well endowed by nature”.  Francesca had been alone among her father Giulio’s 10 children in receiving something close to a humanist education. This “girl of the sharpest intelligence”, as Bronzini called her, was taught Latin, some Greek, rhetoric, grammar, and languages well enough that she was remembered for writing, as a 12-year-old, a commentary on books 3 and 4 of the Aeneid, and for her adult ability to improvise songs to poetry in Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and several Italian dialects. Constantly eager to learn new things, Francesca seems to have been especially interested in mathematics–arithmetic, geometry and astrology–in the occult sciences, and in philosophy, which, Bronzini says, “she would have studied further had she been able, like Astenia and some others, to wear boy’s clothing to attend the public schools”. Her musical studies, he tells us, were at first a minor part of her education, pursued as a pastime, and “to please her father”.

By the time she impressed the King of France, she was known as much for her skills on the harp, harpsichord, lute, theorbo and guitar as for her singing, and she was said to be able to play any stringed instrument well. Sometime before she was 20, Tuscan Granduchess Christine de Lorraine noticed her talent, and arranged for her to study counterpoint, to marry a handsome, impoverished, respectable tenor on the court’s staff, Giovanni Battista Signorini, and to be hired as a musician of the Granducal court.

In the 20 years that followed, Francesca Caccini performed regularly for the private pleasure of the Medici family–that is, for two Grand Dukes, and for their wives, children, cousins, nephews, nieces, and guests. Annually, during the last three days of Holy Week, Florentine melophiles could be sure of hearing her publicly, when she participated in the poly-choral performances of “the Offices”, singing from the balcony, and behind the grate where the ruling family themselves sat–as if her voice, mixing with those of her own family and pupils, sang in the place of the rulers’. Witnesses to her performances reported that:

“…whenever it suited her, this same woman …could by her singing and playing kindle astonishment and boldness in the breasts of her listeners, so that they would agree to any undertaking, no matter how burdensome…with the soft sound of her playing and the sweetness of her song she invited every breast (even if opposed to chaste intentions) to pure self-containment and integrity…as matched her own…”

In addition, Francesca composed hundreds of songs and duets in the new style her father claimed to have invented, all but 36 of them lost; she taught the daughters of Medici servants or of Florentine professionals who aspired to musical positions at court, paid for her work either by the court or by the girls’ parents, and she taught music to the Medici children, to the daughters of their favorite government ministers, and perhaps to the daughter of Galileo (in whose home conversazione she is known to have participated); and, often collaborating with colleagues Marco da Gagliano and Jacopo Peri,  she composed some of the music for at least 17 court-based entertainments–balli, comedies for Carnival, mascherate, sacred operas–many of them shows authored by  and little shows put on by and for the households of the two Medici Grand Duchesses (that is, their dame and donne, their children, and such professionals as were needed to serve as ‘ringers’ or onstage coaches–these last were usually Caccini herself, along with some of her artisan-class pupils).

The show that Magnificat will present October 16-18, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is the only one of these  to survive nearly intact (excerpts from several others exist). When she got the gig to compose it (probably working from a barely-sketched libretto and scenic plan), Francesca was the highest paid musician at the Medici court, an intimate of the royal’s domestic spaces (though always a servant in their eyes), and a person whose special gifts to the court were her ability as a composer to make her patrons “laugh from the heart” and her ability, as both a singer and musician, “to make her listeners do whatever she wanted…”

By the time Caccini’s first husband died in late December 1626, she had borne him only one child, Margerita, born 14 years after her parents married. Left only with the property her own dowry had bought, the household goods her husband’s will specified had all been purchased with her salary, and a nice collection of jewels given to her by those who admired her performances, she arranged immediately to remarry.

Two weeks after her 40th birthday, she married a minor nobleman from Lucca, Tomaso Raffaelli, a man about whom others noted his intense melophilia, the richness of his instrument collection, and his Ganymede-like manner. When Raffaelli died three years later, Francesca had borne him a son. As Raffaelli’s widow and the guardian of his noble son, Francesca enjoyed the lifelong usufruct of his estate and something even more precious–a tenuous but plausible hold on the noble status for which her education but *not* her 20 years of hard work had prepared her. She returned to Florence in 1634, where she again served the Medici women (never singing again in public, but apparently making music and teaching the princesses in their convent home) until her daughter Margherita was settled in life–life as a virtuosa musician in a convent that adjoined the principal Medici palace–in 1640.

In May, 1641, Francesca left Medici service forever, and disappeared from the public record.

Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero and the Culture of Women

September 24th, 2009 No comments

(This is the third of a three part essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberzione di Ruggiero, which Magnificat will perform on the weekend of October 16-18. The earlier posts were: “About Francesca” and the second “What is La Liberazione di Ruggiero about?“.)

One could hear these scenes as representing the truth of women’s experience, and of woman-to-woman exchanges; moreover, one could hear them as purging the stage not of effeminacy but of an idea of femininity constructed by male fantasy.

caravaggio-lute-player-c-1600-detailLa liberazione di Ruggiero fits into the Tuscan court’s long-term pattern of representing powerful women. Its setting at Villa Imperiale, its nearly all-female cast, and its plot focus on the contest between two women over the sexual and political destiny of a young man all invited its first audience to imagine they were being given a glimpse of the gynecentric, feminizing world they feared. It invited them to confront and resolve their anxieties about local women’s sexual and political power in an entertaining way, by inviting them to suspend temporarily the boundary separating representation and reality, in the very space most associated with that power. It invited them, too, to a resolution in which they could imagine themselves liberated from effeminacy (or from unreasonable gynephobia) through the agency of an unnaturally powerful but benevolent female, the sorceress Melissa.

The show is quintessentially Baroque–full of doublings; scenes that mirror each other formally; scenes that entangle listening spectators in momentarily perplexing forms so as simultaneously to give pleasure and provoke surprise (but that go by so fast we cannot quite think about them); and scenes that look and sound like parodies of contemporary chamber or theatrical performances. Shows within shows within shows, and reminiscent of the very kinds of entertainments Caccini and her troupe performed all the time at the women’s court, these scenes are all performed for Ruggiero, and they are all aimed at controlling his behavior (whether toward entrapment on Alcina’s island or liberation from it).

Moreover, the show’s scene rhythm is disquietingly asymmetrical. A good 2/3 of the La liberazione, including much of the post-liberation material, takes place in a single setting, Alcina’s island, where the concatenation of shows within shows within shows easily seduces any spectator to complacency. Once Alcina’s rage (figured as verbal and musical excess) sets her world on fire, the scene changes rapidly, first to a dry, landlocked space whence first the women and then the men imprisoned in the bodies of plants emerged to dance, and then to a piazza whence the entire audience was exhorted to move, with the cast, to a courtyard for the shows’ final number, a ballet for 24 horses and riders, led by the triumphant Melissa who circles the field in a centaur-drawn cart.

The overall experience of the show for its audience, then, is of a prolonged, if entertaining stasis, concocted of shows within the show that suddenly unfurls toward uncontained, rapid change that eventually engulfs everyone present. Brilliantly (given the trope of liberation), it is a show that evades closure–even in its published score, as much a product of the court’s propaganda campaign as the show itself, which lacks music for the final dance numbers. Whatever might be understood to go on emotionally in the stage area never quite receives closure–at least not there. Read more…

What is Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero About?

September 20th, 2009 No comments

(This is the second of a three part essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberzione di Ruggiero, which Magnificat will perform October 16-18. The first part, a biographical sketch of Francesca, “About Francesca“, was posted here earlier.)

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

On February 3, 1625, sometime in daylight, 160 gentildonne and their husbands, and an unknown number of foreign guests rode in carriages out the southeastern gate of Florence, and half a mile up a tree-lined avenue to a villa atop the nearest hill that had very recently been renovated as the personal palace of Tuscany’s regent, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Leaving their carriages in a grassy courtyard guarded by two squadrons of armed cavalry, the Archduchess’ guests were welcomed into the palace by a military commander, and led to bench seats in a temporary theatre built in the villa’s loggia, to hear a new commedia in musica based on a well-known plot (two sorceresses struggling over the sexual and military future of a hapless young man). The commedia was to be followed, seamlessly, by two balletti danced by members of the court, by a ballet for horses and riders in the paved courtyard, and by a reception at which the gentildonne were served by the men who rode in the final horse ballet (while their husbands watched from above). It was the first performance of Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero.

So what could La Liberazione possibly have seemed to be about in 1625? First, a bit about the plot, since the story on which it’s based is not nearly as well known now as it was then.

The show opens with a prologue sung by Neptune (a figure for Medici power) and a Polish river, The Vistola, meant to praise the guest of honor in 1625, Maria Maddalena’s visiting nephew, Wladyslaw, the crown prince of Poland. Immediately afterward, the “good witch” Melissa sails up on a dolphin’s back to explain that she has come to rescue Ruggiero from the “bad witch” Alcina’s sexual spells, restoring him both to his military duty on behalf of Christian armies and to his dynastic sexual duty as the fiancée of the woman warrior Bradamante. At Melissa’s exit, Ruggiero arrives with Alcina and her retinue of singing and dancing minions. The lovers exchange perilously mis-communicated vows, and then Alcina leaves to manage government affairs while her retinue lulls Ruggiero to sleep. Dressed as his aged African teacher Atlante, Melissa returns, awakening Ruggiero with an exhortation to return to the battle for Libya. Previous victims of Alcina’s power, turned into plants by her mind-numbing spells, beg the pair to liberate them, too. After promising to return for them, Melissa leads Ruggiero away.

When Alcina and her retinue return to find him gone, a female messenger explains that Melissa has broken Alcina’s spell. Alcina confronts Ruggiero in a long scene mixed of lamentation and ire, to no avail. Enraged at her loss of power, she calls on monsters for aid. The stage is engulfed in fire, as the now monstrous Alcina rides offstage on a dragon’s back, after which creatures who had been trapped in the bodies of the island’s plants emerge to dance. One such creature pleads with Melissa to liberate the men who are plants as well as the women. They dance, and then everyone–the players and the audience–adjourn to the courtyard to watch the horse ballet, over which the triumphant Melissa presides from a centaur-drawn chariot.

My sense is that like the other comedies on which Francesca had worked La liberazione was meant to be both entertaining and serious–to give the audience the impression they were glimpsing into the ‘real’ entertainment life of the women’s court, and at the same time to engage a particular set of anxieties about that court’s relationship to public power during the regency of the 1620s.

Archduchess Maria Maddalena

Arch Duchess Maria Maddalena

When Grand Duke Cosimo II died in late February, 1621, the intermittent de facto regency of his mother Christine de Lorraine was replaced by a de jure regency she was to share with his widow, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Christine had quietly ruled Tuscany since late in 1606, first during her husband Grand Duke Ferdinando I’s final illness and then during her son’s long, losing struggle with what seems to have been several forms of tuberculosis. According to all diplomatic accounts, Christine had been Tuscany’s absolute ruler in this period, yet the same accounts report that she had shared decision-making with her son when he was up to it, and that she had systematically arranged for her daughter-in-law to be trained for what seemed like the inevitable regency of the 1620s. (One possible interpretation of La liberazione’s plot about the struggle of two women over a man, then, would be to imagine Ruggiero as the ailing Cosimo, his wife and his mother as the sorceress antagonists: but all diplomatic accounts also agree that the three worked well together.) Read more…