Cover image: Portrait of Barbara Strozzi painted by Bernardo Strozzi (no relation)
What little is known about Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) is from the context her family and from her lyrics for her music composed for her soprano voice and lute. Her adopted father, Giulio Strozzi (1583–1652), most likely her biological father, was a famous Venetian composer of the first operatic librettos, even collaborating with Monteverdi. Her mother, Isabella Garzoni, lived as a servant in Giulio’s house. Barbara took on the family name Strozzi at age 18: in Florence, the Strozzis were second only to the Medici. After the Medici-influenced republic was overthrown in 1530, Filippo Strozzi, declining to support the Medici, left Florence for Venice.
Giulio was also a poet: his epic Venetia edificata was a tribute to Venice, but, also as Crystal Hall writes in  “More than a decade after Galileo’s departure from the Veneto to Florence, Strozzi cites from Galileo’s early works, creates a character inspired by Galileo, incorporates the principles of Galileo’s science into the organizing structure of the poem, and answers one of Galileo’s loudest complaints…”
Barbara, as a teenager, was introduced to the highest Venetian intellectual circles. She followed her father into the “Academy of the Unknowns”, which met to discuss literature, ethics, aesthetics, religion, and art. Another circle, organized by Giulio, was the “Academy of the Like-Minded”: it included musicians, with Barbara hosting the group and most likely performing. However, Barbara’s role as lead of this group and her public music performances were criticized in an anonymous manuscript in which the author equated her status as a musician with licentious behavior, implying that she was a courtesan.
She must have known that her first work would be the subject of ridicule because of her sex and immediately she defends herself. In the dedication of her volume of madrigals (1644) to Vittoria della Rovere, duchess of Tuscany, Strozzi writes : “I reverently consecrate this first work, which I, as a woman, all too ardently send forth into the light, to the august name of Your Highness, so that under your Oak [ed: Rovere in Italian] of Gold it may rest secure from the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.”
The lyrics in this first volume, attributed to Giulio, address female suffering in the “The Nightingale”. They tell the mythical story of Philomela in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”: Philomela is raped and then has her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law, the King of Thrace. Philomela later becomes a nightingale, while her sister, who rescues her and kills her son serving him to the King, becomes a swallow. It is unclear if the lyrics are written in a female or male voice:
“not singing of love
but with a wrathful voice
calls upon Heaven to exterminate traitors.
Who would think that a voice
so sweet and pleasing
would be inspired to sing by anger ?
We too, o avaricious beauties,
While the rewards for our gentle affections are few,
We sing more from vexation than from delight.”
“Song from a Beautiful Mouth”, also in this first volume, obviously in the male voice, praises a female singing voice (perhaps an advertisement for Barbara’s):
“That harmonious breath
from a sweet-voiced throat
revives and restores you,
sanctifies your soul.
You’re foolish, Thyrsis, if you don’t rejoice and don’t begin,
while imprisoned here below in this mortal veil,
to enjoy the melodies of paradise.”
Many of the lyrics written by Barbara herself describe romantic love and its perils, including the ideal of constancy or faithfulness. Living with her parents until they died, she bore four children, all most likely fathered by a married Venetian nobleman Giovanni Paolo Vidman, from whom her first-born son later inherited. Vidman was a patron of the arts and Giulio’s associate: the nature of Barbara’s relationship with him, ranging from professional concubine to romantic lover, or anything in between, is a subject of debate. This debate is further fueled by her portrayal either as a bare-breasted mother or a courtesan in her only known portrait, painted by Bernardo Strozzi (no immediate relation).
Her own words on the ideal are contained in her last secular volume (1664) in “Constancy Is No More”:
“Convicted of treason,
it was consigned to torture by love,
and a rival has put it to death.
Put on mourning,
it’s a time
for tears and lamenting.
let all be heir
to afflictions and torments.
Constancy is no more…”
In the same volume, in “You Can Say What You Like”, her lyrics appear to even apologize for faithfulness:
“Listen, inexorable Lilla,
monster of cruelty
as I am of faithfulness:
furrow your brow, shoot hard glances,
wound my breast, kill my soul;
I’ll adore you; my steadfastness
and constancy to you will not change,
though love consumes itself without hope.
It’s all true but I want to be enslaved,
you can say what you like….”
Finally, “My Heart is Crazy”, also in this last volume of her work, might address her feelings late in life about her relationship with Vidman :
“My heart is crazy,
since it keeps deliriously
adoring a face
that is all severity.
But although it dwells in pain
for one who disdains it,
it’s completely enchained,
and since that’s the way Love keeps it bound,
My heart is crazy…”
In comparison, the lyrics for “Beautiful Ladies”, written by noted poet, Sig. Brunacci in a male voice, purports to give women advice about love:
“Beautiful ladies, it’s foolish
to say that the heart
has no remedy
Some put their faith in hope,
others swear allegiance to time,
and others realize
that separation is not a solution.
I, who know from experience,
in sympathy will tell you:
the remedy for love is inconstancy,
and believe me, that’s how it is.”
And with this song, her last volume of secular music closes. Altogether, Barbara Strozzi published eight volumes of music, making her the most extensively published composer of secular music in her time. Her life remains an enigma.
Lyrics translated by Richard Kolb
Hall, Crystal, Galileo, Poetry, and Patronage: Giulio Strozzi’s Venetia edificata and the Place of Galileo in Seventeenth-Century Italian Poetry, Renaissance Quarterly , Volume 66 , Issue 4 , Winter 2013 , pp. 1296 – 133, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/675093
Luciana Messina is a woman of science and technology with a voracious mind that taps into the mysteries of literature, art and society. The Dreaming Machine owes her many an interesting and varied piece.