Tracing Music Patronage and Commissioning by Women in Early Modern Rome


This year is the centenary of Japan's gift of cherry trees to Washington. Photo credit: 44a.CherryBlossoms.TidalBasin.SW.WDC.23March2012 by Elvert Barnes.

I spent Saturday in Washington, DC catching up with fellow scholars attending the Renaissance Society of America annual meeting (I wasn’t presenting). I received some really useful input for my fellowship project and for smaller writing projects. I was able to have a lengthy conversation with one senior colleague, who encouraged me to look at art collecting and literature too, in case there are shared erotic resonances between different art forms associated with particular people. It is clear, too, that the avvisi di Roma (news and gossip about the papal court and Roman families) will probably be an important source of information. The nearest collection is in the Vatican Microfilm Library housed at St. Louis, Missouri, so I am planning a trip there in the coming months.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk much with Christine Jeanneret (University of Geneva), which is unfortunate because her current project on Marenzio’s madrigal dedications to women relates in some ways to my fellowship research. Her paper surveyed Marenzio’s dedications to Lucrezia d’Este, Bianca Cappello, and Margarita Gonzaga d’Este (all associated with Ferrara), and the Roman noble women Clelia or Cleria Cesarini and Vittoria Accoramboni (second wife of Paolo Giordano Orsini, both mentioned in my post on UCLA’s Orsini archives ). Jeanneret suggested that there is little evidence of women’s patronage because women had restricted access to the public sphere, and therefore women drew upon a male network to do things like  commission compositions. One piece of evidence Jeanneret cited was a letter from Cardinal Luigi d’Este to Luca Marenzio, enclosing a poem and revealing that a group of women known to Marenzio but not identified in the letter would like him to set it. These women were most likely the Ferrarese concerto delle donne (women’s ensemble) who sang in the exclusive, invitation-only concerts held most evenings at the Ferrarese ducal court from the 1560s. Jeanneret correctly concluded that women did have musical expertise, and were able to exercise their judgement in selecting poetry and commissioning settings.

I’ve been interested that most dedications to women appear to be to married women, presumably for reasons of decorum, and perhaps also because at this stage some women may have access to their own resources to be able to give reciprocal gifts. There appear to be more dedications to women in the latter half of the sixteenth century than in the first half. I wonder, too, to what extent there are particular patterns in Ferrara and Rome: Isabella d’Este, a famous daughter of Ferrara who married into the Gonzaga family and lived in Mantua, is well-known as a music patron. In Ferrara, successive duchesses—Lucrezia Borgia, Renée de France, and Margarita Gonzaga—were music patrons (Renée de France also had at least one music book dedicated to her), as were Lucrezia’s daughters. I don’t know offhand whether there are the same patterns in other Italian courts. In comparison, if memory serves, Rome didn’t really see a significant number of music print dedications to women until the 1570s. It is possible that the social mores were different, and I suspect status and rank will be significant. Certainly, I think social standing is an important consideration when it comes to the ways different women operated in the public sphere. Some elite women may have had to rely upon male go-betweens to conduct certain transactions, but many poorer women worked outside the home and had considerable autonomy (even transacting their own marriages). So, it’s important not to generalize from the situation of a small group of women and presume their circumstances applied across the board.