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