Barbara Strozzi:

Portrait as Gossip, Rumor & Innuendo

È giungerà pur mai (1664)

What occurs when a person’s legacy is heavily informed by a portrait? What if this portrait became the singular image to validate their appearance, and therefore partly, their existence? And what if their existence, or certain details of it, were defined by the fact that their breast was partly exposed?

 

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a Venetian singer, composer, and lutenist. Probably the illegitimate child of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, an exclusive society of all-male Venetian intellectuals, Barbara was well-educated and excelled in music, studying composition with Francesco Cavalli. Her father supported and publicly promoted her work. In 1637, he founded the Accademia degli Unisoni, a society dedicated to music at the Strozzi home. At the Accademia’s meetings, Barbara would often premiere and perform her newest works. From 1644 to 1664, she published eight volumes of compositions. Notably, Barbara published under her own name, which was highly unusual for a woman of her day.

 

The majority of her compositions, such as È giungerà pur mai (1664), were written for female voice(s) with continuo and occasional obbligato instruments. She was particularly adept at illustrating the emotional drama of her texts, often highlighting specific words with highly dissonant harmonies and unexpected harmonic progressions. In È giungerà pur mai, Barbara set text by Giuseppe Artale, who employed a playful rhetorical device. Is the object of the narrator’s affections… Barbara? The miserable narrator of Artale’s poem, rejected in love, claims “Troppo Barbara e crudele,” translated as “Too barbarous and cruel” or “Too cruel is Barbara.” Later, the narrator states, “Anco Barbara t’adoro,” translated as “Even barbarous, I adore you,” or “Yet I adore you, Barbara.” These wonderful double meanings are further highlighted by the fact that Strozzi may have performed this piece herself, ensuring that this "'Barbarous-Barbara" allusion was not lost on her audience.

 

Why, though, does Bernando Strozzi’s portrait, Female Musician with Viola da Gamba (1635-1639), which is believed to be a likeness of Barbara Strozzi, matter? It has arguably shaped the public perception of her life, often overshadowing aspects of her work. Due to Barbara’s public role as a scholar, composer and musician, satires were circulated by her contemporaries, labelling Barbara as a courtesan, with statements such as, “It is a fine thing to distribute the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit.”[1] Strozzi’s status as an unmarried woman with four children, probably from a long-time relationship with Giovanni Paolo Vidman, further strengthened the “Strozzi as courtesan” rumors. These rumors began circulating in 1630-s Venice and remain pervasive to this day.

Although there is no explicit historical evidence to prove these claims, musicologists have attemped to validate (or invalidate) their accuracy. Female Musician with Viola da Gamba (1635-1639) depicts a young woman with flowers in her hair, a musical score resting next to her elbow, and a viola da gamba and bow in hand. She seems to be on the verge of making music, and stares unabashedly at the viewer. One of her breasts is exposed from her dress. 

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Interior of the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Germany

Photo: Noelle McMurtry

È giungerà pur mai (1664)

While depictions of exposed breasts have symbolized "woman as courtesan" in Western European visual art history, representations of women’s breasts have also contained a myriad of cultural meanings, including fertility and abundance. It is puzzling that Barbara's semi-nudity, paired with malicious gossip of her day,  seemed to provide sufficient “proof” of her status as courtesan to carry into musicological explorations of her life and work through the centuries. A newer, less sexualized interpretation by Candace Magner, however, suggests that Barbara embodies Flora, the Roman goddess of nature, flowers, spring, and fertility.[2] 

 

In 2018, as I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, I came upon this portrait, unaware that it was part of the Dresden collection. I instantly recognized Barbara Strozzi, not due to the viola da gamba and her musical score, but rather due to her exposed breast. I realized that this narrative about her sexuality, based on rumor, gossip and innuendo, had entered my consciousness. The weight of being pursued through time by a semi-exposed breast, of having one's personal narrative defined by a single detail,  is a larger reflection of the historic judgments placed on women and women's bodies as creative agents in public settings.

 

[1] Magner, Candace A. “A Short History of Barbara Strozzi.” In È giungerà pur mai. Cor Donato Editions, 2015.

[2] Magner, Candace A. “A Short History of Barbara Strozzi.”