Aristocratic women exerted unprecedented political and social influence in Florence throughout the late 16th and early 17th century; during this period convents flourished and female members of the powerful Medici family governed the city for the only time in its history.
These women also helped to shape the city’s aristocratic life, commissioning works of music, art, and theater that were inscribed with their own concerns and aspirations, promoting a vision of their world and their place in it—a worldview that differed significantly from that of their male counterparts.
The musical construction of female characters in the developing operatic realm became especially important and increasingly politicized. Court sponsorship of the arts began underwriting a new image of legitimate authority, presenting Florentine audiences and influential visitors with numerous examples of virtuous and powerful female leaders.
For example, in Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, commissioned and produced by the archduchess Maria Maddalena (above) for a diplomatic celebration, the benevolent sorceress Melissa single-handedly defeats the evil enchantress Alcina, freeing the heroic Ruggerio from the bonds of illicit sensuality. Alcina’s fatal excesses are depicted in musical passages that surpass the normal harmonic vocabulary of early 17th-century Florentine opera, demonstrating her defiance of the boundaries of acceptable behavior; Melissa’s superior power is portrayed in music that avoids harmonic and melodic extremes, indicating her rationality and control as she restores the hero’s sanity. Such heroines symbolically asserted both women’s political rights and the moral and spiritual basis for their legitimacy.
This according to Echoes of women’s voices: Music, art, and female patronage in early modern Florence by Kelley Harness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-4451).
You’ll find Harness at this year’s Boston Early Music Festival on Friday, 9 June, 10–1pm EDT, where she will participate alongside several other leading women scholars in Women at Work: Composers, Musicians, and Scholars, a discussion session dedicated to the history of women making music.
Below, excerpts from La liberazione di Ruggiero’s Australian premiere in 2012.