By Mauricio Roman
In the early 1600s, Florence witnessed two very talented women artists: Francesca Caccini (1687-1641) and Artemisia Gentilieschi (1693-1656). Francesca was a composer, singer, poet and lute player; Artemisia was a painter. In this article, I will highlight their similarities and present some of their work in connection to Michelangelo’s grand-nephew, with whom both worked closely; in fact, all three were colleagues at the Medici court.
Francesca and Artemisia
Both Francesca and Artemisia were figlia d’arte — an Italian expression for someone raised in an artistic family.
Francesca’s father, Giulio (called “the Roman”), was a composer who co-created a new style of monodic music — the recitative style — which lies at the heart of the opera genre. Her mother and siblings were singers, and her sister Settimia was also a composer. As a family, they formed a musical group which visited France and different cities in Northern Italy, to wide acclaim.
Artemisia’s father, Orazio, was a painter who knew Caravaggio in Rome and borrowed from his style, while also adding his own innovations, such as a certain golden glow in his colors which can be appreciated in a recently found painting. It is claimed, but not proven, that Francesca was the model for Orazio Getilieschi’s “The Lute Player”, shown below.
The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi (1612-26), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
While the dark background and directional light evokes Caravaggio, the soft frontal light on the lute player is Gentileschi’s own style. The lute player is no ordinary one: at a time when most players learnt their art by ear, she has two books with music and can also play other instruments — and do so without looking at the notes. The composition draws our attention to her head and her ear, as if to emphasize the source of her talents.
As teenagers, both women were already performing their art in public. Francesca rose to fame at only thirteen years of age when she performed in scenes of the opera Euridice by Jacopo Peri, earning the nickname ‘La Cecchina’ (Little Francesca). Artemisia produced her first professional work by age seventeen: a depiction of the biblical story of Susanna.
Francesca was the first woman to write an opera, and was also a superb singer, praised as such by the King of France, Henry IV, who stated that she had the “best voice in France”. Monteverdi praised her instrumental performance skills and the expressive quality and agility of her voice in a letter of 1610.
Artemisia did not have an easy transition to adulthood, yet was able to overcome tragic events in her life to launch a successful career. In her self-portrait, we see her in action while carrying a memento mori around her neck. Her hands and wrists are dyed with the colors from her art. In comparison to her father, she uses in her painting a softer light with more subdued tones.
Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (1638-39) by Artemisia Gentileschi, Royal Collection, Windsor
Francesca and Artemisia married artists in their same field (but lost their first husbands), and were also mothers: Francesca had two children and Artemisia, five. They both had artistically inclined siblings, yet were the most talented among them.
Their talents were also recognized in their lifetime. At the Medici court, Francesca was the highest paid musician of her day. When Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissioned six painters to decorate the Casa Buonarroti’s gallery ceiling, Artemisia was by far the highest paid among them.
Raising the profile of the feminine was important for both artists. Artemisia painted women with a soft delicacy unique to her style. As a composer, Francesca wrote the first opera composed by a woman: the “Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina” (1625), based on the epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516), with the plot transformed to enhance the role of women.
These early operas were usually produced only once, though court chroniclers preserved them for posterity with detailed descriptions that appeared in print. At the Medici court, this job was held by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (1568-1646).
Collaboration with Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger
Both Francesca and Artemisia had a productive collaboration with Michelangelo’s grandnephew, who was about twenty years older than them, and whose character was noble and spotless. According to Elena Lombardi, “he professed for his entire life a true and proper devotion for his great ancestor, demonstrating being worthy of his memory; he was a lover of the arts and a patron of artists himself’.
This was not the case with other writers associated with Francesca. For instance, she was critical of Andrea Salvatori. According to the Florentine chronicler Andrea Cavalcanti, she began publicly ridiculing Salvadori for casting whatever female singer he was pursuing at the time. In reply, he wrote the misogynistic poem “Donne musiche parlano dall’Inferno” (Women musicians speak from Hell).
Bust of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger by Giuliano Finelli (1630), Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Michelangelo, who always thought of himself as Florentine, wanted an “honorable home” in Florence. For this purpose, he bought five adjacent properties in the city, and asked his nephew Lionardo (1519-1599) to transform them into a family palace, a task which he did not complete. Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, one of Lionardo’s sons, later rearranged the buildings into a unified structure, with four monumental rooms dedicated to the celebration of his great-uncle and of his family and a Gallery for displaying the works of art in his collection.
Ceiling of the Gallery at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence
Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissioned Artemisia to paint the Allegory of Inclination on oil on canvas for the ceiling of the Gallery at the Casa Buonarroti, with the theme of “inclination”, or inborn creative ability (one of the many virtues of Michelangelo). Artemisia painted a nude female in the mode of Michelangelo’s frescoes, but with softer lines.
Allegory of Inclination by Artemisia Gentileschi, Casa Buonarroti, Florence
It is well known that Michelangelo’s Last Judgement’s nude figures were covered over by Daniele da Volterra after the artist’s death. What is not so well known is that Artemisia’s female nude at the Casa Buonarroti was also covered over, as the grand-nephew of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, Leonardo di Buonarroto, found it offensive. The artist who in 1684 covered Artemisia’s work happened to also be from Volterra.
The younger Michelangelo also wrote several plays. Francesca composed the music for three of them: La Tancia (1611), Balletto della Cortesia (1614) and La Fiera (1619). He also wrote the lyrics to some of the songs composed and published by Francesca.
Francesca Caccini’s Sacred and Profane Music
Francesca published Il Primo Libro delle Musiche a Una e due Voce (1618). As we can see in her table of contents below, she classified her works as Spiritual and Temporal (the temporal ones are currently in print).
Francesca Caccini: Il Primo Libro delle Musiche a Una e due Voce (1618)
Writing for one or two voices, Francesca used the style pioneered by her father — a style which reacts against the complexity of polyphony as it often obscures the comprehension of the text. This style, called “recitar cantando”, is a form of monody (or accompanied solo song) which became the foundation of opera, and which would later unfold into three ramifications: arioso, aria and recitative.
We will analyze a couple of Francesca’s songs — a spiritual and a temporal one (in each case, the third down the list from the above table).
Maria, Dolce Maria
With text by Michelangelo the Younger, the music for the madrigal Maria, Dolce Maria is written for one voice and basso continuo. Caccini was very careful as to the correspondence of the harmony with the syllables of the words, so that they were clearly understood.
One of the main things that Caccini took from her father’s music was the use of vocal ornaments to embellish the melody. Giulio uses a technique called ‘gorgheoggiaio’ which consists of stopping the vocal sound by the quick opening and closing of the vocal folds whilst air is passing through — a technique which requires a lot of breath and vocal control. The desired effect is a ‘trembling of the voice’ which lies on a single note.
With respect to the text, in the first stanza, Michelangelo the Younger uses a remarkable Italian verb: imparadisare. In English, it is translated as “to imparadise” (from the French “paradiser”). Its origin lies with Dante, the father of the Italian language, who uses it in the figurative sense to “take something to paradise”, or to fill something with a joy or sweetness similar to that of paradise. For example, Dante calls Beatrice, his personal angel, “she who imparadises my mind” (28.1).
|Maria dolce Maria,|
Nome soave tanto
Che’n pronunziar t’imparadis’il core.
Nome sacrato e santo,
che’l cor m’infiammi
di celeste amore
|Mary, sweet Mary|
Name so gentle,
That pronouncing it imparadises my heart.
Name sacred and holy,
That it inflames my heart
with celestial love
Listen to this rendition of Maria Dolce Maria by Dutch soprano Wendy Robool with Arjen Verhage on the theorbo, which marks the bass lines in support of the melody.
As we hear the song, the text is not only eminently clear, but certain words are emphasized, for example, “nome”, “canto”, “parola”; that is, it is not so much the object (Mary) that is underscored by the music, but the proclamation of her name through the sung word.
|Maria mai sempr’io canto.|
Ne può la lingua mia
più felice parola
trarmi dal sen gia mai
|Mary, never as long as I sing|
Can my tongue
a happier word
Pull from my breast
than to say:
While Francesca “paints” the words of the song through her music, Michelangelo the Younger uses repetition to highlight importance: the word “ogni”, or “every” is repeated in each of the four last lines, as if to emphasize the universality of Mary’s name: no one is excluded from pronouncing it. The music places emphasis on the effect of doing so — the serene heart and the content soul.
|Nome ch’ogni dolor tempra e consola|
ch’ogni affanno acquetta
Ch’ogni cor fà sereno
|Name that tempers and consoles every sorrow|
Voice so tranquil
That it calms every worry
That it makes every heart serene
Every soul content
As we listen to this short yet uplifting song, I invite you to also contemplate Artemisia’s Annunciation. While Francesca painted with music, Artemisia’s painting exudes music — it is so vivid that we can almost hear the words: the eye of the viewer is guided to the mouth of the angel, and then to Mary’s attentive face, as if following the words that were spoken — or sung.
The Annunciation by Artemisia Gentileschi (1630), Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
We do not know many details about the friendship between Francesca and Artemisia; it is possible that the vast archives of the city of Florence contain some information (a set of Artemisia’s letters was discovered only ten years ago). As Francesca also composed the poetry for her songs, it is possible that she could have had Artemisia in mind in some of her composition — a topic worthy of further research. For example, “lasciatemi qui solo” (soften my weeping) is a song that could echo moments in her painter friend’s life story.
Lasciatemi qui solo
Classical music blogger Alex Burns stated that “this hauntingly beautiful aria is one of many incredible vocal works by Caccini….Full of vocal melismas, Lasciatemi Qui Solo powerfully communicates every single word that Caccini has placed. The beautiful harp/lute/continuo accompaniment is a mere harmonic tool, so that the voice can stand out and take centre stage.”
This poem in octave stanzas has the rhyme structure A-B-A-B-C-C D-D, where the last line is the ritornello.
The imagery of nature at first may appear Romantic, but it rather seems to symbolically represent the interior state of the soul — one “shipwrecked” in its life journey. For instance, the “cold rock” could represent a closed heart; the birds could be the circle of friends.
|Lasciatemi qui solo|
Tornate augelli al nido
Mentre l’anim’e’l duolo
Spiro su questo lido
Altri meco non voglio
Ch’un freddo scoglio,
E’l mio fatal martire.
|Leave me here alone,|
Return, birds, to your nests,
While my soul, and my pain
I give up on these shores.
I want no one else with me
Other than a cold rock,
And my fated death.
Leave me to die
Listen to “Lasciatemi qui solo” sang by soprano Cecilia Duarto with Ars Lyrica Houston (2018).
Music, represented by sirens, is not a remedy for the interior discomfort.
Che’n sì pietoso canto
Raddolcite mie pene
Fate soave il pianto
Movet’il nuoto altronde
I crudi sdegni,e l’ire.
Who with such merciful song
Sweeten my sufferings and
Soften my weeping
Go elsewhere to swim
Dampen the waves’
Cruel scorn, and their ire
Leave me to die.
Only silence and solitude, and the thought of death, provide some comfort.
Tornate al vostro speco
Sol miei duri lamenti
Chieggo che restin meco.
Vostri sospir non chiamo
I miei dolor finire.
Return to your cave
I ask that only my harsh laments
Remain with me
I do not call upon your sighs
Alone I wish
To end my sufferings
Leave me alone to die.
Contemplating human love or the beauty of nature are of no avail.
Tornate al bel diletto
Fere eccels’o notanti
Fuggite il mesto aspetto
Sol dolcezza di morte
Apra le porte
Return to your beautiful pleasures
Wild beasts, whether birds or fish
Flee from this sad countenance
Only the sweetness of death
Should open its doors
To this final languishing
Leave me to die.
Neither human avarice nor pity help overcome the oppressive inner feelings.
Chesu’l morir versate
Tard’è vostra pietate
Già mi sento mancare
O luci avar’e
Tarde al mio conforto
Già sono esangu’e smorto
|Most avaricious eyes|
That on point of death spill
The bitterest of rivers
Your pity comes too late
Already I feel myself fail
Oh eyes, stingy
And slow to comfort me
I am already bloodless and lifeless
The inner state of the soul painted by Francesca in her lyrics is well represented by Artemisia in one of her paintings, shown below. While similar to Caravaggio’s “St Jerome in Contemplation”, here Mary Magdalene goes further by embracing her memento mori, as she longs for death as apparently nothing can uplift her heart. The source of light in the background coming from above, which in Caravaggio is a stylistic device, here acquires a theological meaning: the grace of God touching the soul.
Maddalena Penitente by Artemisia Gentileschi (1627-29), Museo Correale di Terranova
Francesca, Artemisia and Michelangelo the Younger have much in common — one aspect that caught my eye was their deep respect for their elders, not just for family reasons, but truly because they saw them as their masters. In Michelangelo the Younger’s case, he emulated the poetic vein of his ancestor.
Their music, painting and poetry also appears very modern: their message is clear, there are no excesses, and the devices used — the dark background with a single lateral high light in Artemisia’s painting, the basso continuo in Francesca’s music, the repetition and recurrence in Michelangelo’s poetry — provide unity to the work of art without distracting from its main theme.
Fun Fact: The three of them were also acquainted with Galileo Galilei, who liked to write poetry and who had also studied drawing for two years, and whose father Vincenzo was a composer and a friend of Giulio, Francesca’s father; Galileo also had studied mathematics alongside Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger in Pisa. The three artists’ love for simplicity in art is echoed in Galileo’s striving for a simpler explanation of the solar system.
Listen to “Maria Dolce Maria” by Dutch soprano Wendy Robool with Arjen Verhage on the theorbo. I contacted her and she graciously shared her experience in putting together this music — an experience we would like to share in another article.
Listen to “Lasciatemi qui solo” sang by soprano Cecilia Duarte with Ars Lyrica Houston (2018). Cecilia Duarte’s journey with Ars Lyrica began with the role of Daniel in Handel’s oratorio Susanna in 2013, and since then, she has appeared in every season.Watch La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, produced by McGill School of Music in 2018. Two sorceresses, sensual Alcina and moralistic Melissa, battle for the soul and body of the warrior Ruggiero, a character from the epic poem Orlando Furioso. According to this review, the most remarkable music is reserved for the chorus of Alcina’s discarded lovers, transformed by magic into the exotic plants in the garden where she holds Ruggiero captive.