Seminar | La bella sirena: Portraits of female musicians in seventeenth-century Italy, Mark Shepheard

La bella sirena: Portraits of female musicians in seventeenth-century Italy

Mark Shepheard

PhD Candidate in Art History in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Bernardo Strozzi, 'A Viola da gamba Player (Barbara Strozzi)', c. 1640, Gemäldegalerie (Dresden, Germany)

The portrait of the musician in early modern Italy was intimately linked to the status of music-making as a profession. The confined role of women in public life denied many of them the opportunity to pursue music as a professional practise. Ecclesiastical institutions, one of the principal sources of employment for musicians, were firmly closed to women. Instead, female musicians were usually engaged at secular courts as musically gifted ladies-in-waiting rather than as professionals. Even after the establishment in the mid-seventeenth century of commercial opera houses, some of which employed female singers, women continued to endure an ambiguous relationship with professional music-making. The female singer was often seen as a woman of low moral standing, little better than a courtesan. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that identifiable portraits of female musicians from early modern Italy are extremely rare. Musical skill was a necessary accomplishment for a courtly lady, just as it was for a courtly gentleman, but to depend on this skill for one’s livelihood was a sign of low social status. This paper looks at two very different portraits of female musicians from the first half of the seventeenth century: Fabio della Corgna’s Portrait of Leonora Baroni and Bernardo Strozzi’s Portrait of Barbara Strozzi. It discusses these against the background of earlier Renaissance images of female musicians and explores the extent to which they negotiate or enshrine the equivocal status of women as professional musicians.

Mark Shepheard is currently completing his PhD in Art History at the University of Melbourne. His thesis is titled ‘Facing the Music: The portrait of the professional musician in Italy, 1500-1790’ and is a study of the way in which the changing status of a profession is revealed through the portraits of its practitioners; it is particularly concerned with the portrait of the creative artist in a period when such artists were more often seen as servants and craftsmen than as the inspiring genius of post-Romantic thought. Mark is on the editorial board of the online art history journal emaj and is a director of the Melbourne Art Network. He is also a broadcaster for Melbourne classical radio station 3MBS 103.5 FM, for which he produces the weekly programmes The Early Music Experience and Recent Releases.
Date: Thursday 6th September, 12:10 to 1:45 pm.
Venue: Library Seminar Room,  Level 1, Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Bundoora Campus
For more information contact: Dr Adelina Modesti Adelina Modesti, or Dr Robert Kenny (Convener) Email:
All Welcome RSVP not required