Barbara and Three Women

Posted by ich on March 10, 2015

Congratulations to Barbara Swanson, our post-doc, for being awarded a two-year SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at York University with Prof. Leslie Korrick. Here’s the title and the project description:

Painting the Concerto delle donne: Female Vocal Virtuosity in Early Modern Italian Art

The Concerto delle donne (1580–1597) was the first professional female vocal ensemble, comprised of three virtuosic singers at the court of Ferrara, Italy. Envied by courts across Europe, the Concerto delle donne quickly inspired a craze for female singers and sound. Prestigious courts in Mantua, Florence and Rome established rival ensembles within a few years of the Concerto delle donne’ s debut. No images are known to survive of the three core singers—Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini, and Livia D’Arco. This is despite their riveting vocal virtuosity as described by leading contemporary writers like Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini; their pioneering status as professional women at court, often perceived as dangerously close to that of courtesan; and their profound influence on secular song and opera. The lack of visual representations is likely the result of their carefully guarded images—the virtuosic female voice commonly signified sexual virtuosity as well, and the court at Ferrara needed to project a virtuous image for the women in order to safeguard the court’s own status.

This project is the first to demonstrate that visual signs of Concerto delle donneperformance survive. By developing new strategies for examining well-known paintings, the project will demonstrate the impact of the Concerto delle donne and female vocal virtuosity on works including Jacopo Tintoretto’s Women Making Music (c. 1580) and Bernardino Poccetti’s Parnassus (c. 1600), drawing attention to the overlooked significance of important details: the recurring depiction of three women singers, three texted partbooks strewn carelessly about, and a palpable sensuality among the women. The project furthermore demonstrates the significant creative force of performing women in early modern culture by using an innovative approach emerging from recent art historical scholarship that connects visual image with sound (Korrick, 2003; McIver, 2012).