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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 13 (2007) No. 1

Music and Women of the Commedia dell’Arte in the Late Sixteenth Century. By Anne MacNeil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. [xii, 360 pp. ISBN 0-19-816689-3. $85.]

Reviewed by Kelley Harness*


1. Overview

2. Feigning Gender

3. Questions of Priority

4. Interacting With the 1589 Intermedi

5. “… Talk Like a Man”

6. Politics of Description

7. Conclusion


1. Overview

1.1 Scholars of seventeenth-century music and theater will welcome Anne MacNeil’s important study of commedia dell’arte actresses and their music, for, despite the book’s title, three of its five chapters focus on seventeenth-century events. MacNeil provides a meticulously researched and thoroughly contextualized look at four actresses from what she terms the golden age of commedia dell’arte performance (i.e., ca.1559–1612): Vincenza Armani, Vittoria Piisimi, Isabella Andreini, and Virginia Andreini. The theoretical framework by which MacNeil seeks to explain how contemporaries viewed these exceptional women might usefully be extended to later generations of female performers and a variety of theatrical styles.

1.2 MacNeil’s approach relies on interpretive, but also archival methodologies. Despite the degree to which improvisation was crucial to commedia dell’arte troupes, the comedians’ travels and performances generated significant documentation, and MacNeil publishes the most important of these primary sources in full at the end of the book, many provided with an English translation. Others are scattered throughout the text and its footnotes and are also summarized as part of the lengthy and extremely helpful chronology, which follows the final chapter and accounts for nearly one fourth of the book’s length.

1.3 The overall organization of the book is roughly chronological, with each chapter (beginning with Chapter 2) taking as its point of departure a year or an event that helped define one or more of these actresses. Individual chapters are structured much more loosely, in a manner that resembles the commedia dell’arte’s own style of presentation. Interwoven within the threads of the argument (the scenario) are entertaining diversions and relevant bits of amplification, sometimes looking ahead to an upcoming chapter and other times recalling an earlier one. The end result is sometimes difficult to follow.

2. Feigning Gender

2.1 Due in part to the extant manuscript and print sources, the book’s principal focus is on Isabella Andreini (1562–1604), an actress whose contemporary fame undoubtedly contributed to the nature of this surviving documentation. Andreini’s renown rested on both her acting abilities and her literary output, and her publications distinguish her from the actresses of her own and previous generations. That Andreini viewed these two activities as interrelated is apparent from the sonnet with which she began her first collection of poetry, the Rime of 1601. The sonnet (transcribed by MacNeil in its entirety and translated into English on page 121) will fascinate scholars interested in issues of women’s self-fashioning, constructions of gender in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and relationships between art and nature, all of which MacNeil explores throughout her book. The closing tercets attest to Andreini’s self-conscious adoption of characters and styles of both genders in her performances, as well as in her poems:

E come ne’ Teatri hor Donna, ed hora Huom fei rappresentando in vario stile Quanto volle insegnar Natura, et Arte. Così la stella mia seguendo ancora Di fuggitiva età nel verde Aprile Vergai con vario stil ben mille carte.

(And as in the theatre I have played now a woman, now a man, in varied style, as Nature would instruct, and Art as well, thus, following once more my star of fleeting years, in green April, with varied style, I have penned a good thousand pages.)

In the quatrains that precede these verses Andreini distances her true self from the poems in the collection, claiming that their ardors, like those she depicts on stage, are feigned. Through word choice she makes this point explicit: nearly every line in the sonnet’s opening quatrains contains some reference to falsehood (“finti ardori,” “imaginati amori,” “bugiardi,” “finti detti,” “falsi miei dolori,” and “falsi miei diletti”). MacNeil adopts a similar approach in her analyses, that is, she concentrates primarily on the cultural roles these actresses played, rather than on the women themselves. Indeed, the rarity of such self-revelatory utterances in print probably renders these women essentially unknowable. Instead MacNeil focuses on how these actresses’ musical and theatrical activities intersected with early modern ideas of gender and creativity, drawing her evidence from contemporaneous descriptions of their performances.

3. Questions of Priority

3.1 Foreshadowing the important role frames play in MacNeil’s understanding of the cultural messages actresses delivered, she fittingly titles her first chapter “Prologue,” which, within commedia dell’arte performances, “served to explain the reasons for the performance and to contextualize its plot and metaphors” (19). She acquaints readers with the four prime donne and gives an overview of some of the activities of their troupes—companies known as the Gelosi and the Fedeli—establishing along the way that actresses were highly proficient musicians and also politically astute courtiers.

3.2 An important theme of this prologue, one that returns in all subsequent chapters, is the close, but sometimes overlooked relationship between commedia dell’arte—at its heart a style of performance that values the appearance of spontaneity and improvisation—and other, more thoroughly written-out, or composed genres. MacNeil rightly views any boundary between these two activities as highly permeable, and she stresses the avant-garde nature of commedia dell’arte performances, which often featured musical genres and styles that anticipated their later appearances in print. At times this insistence on granting chronological priority to the commedia dell’arte troupes seems a bit forced. For example, MacNeil offers convincing documentary evidence in support of her assertion that members of the commedia dell’arte troupes performed not only spoken plays, but also the music that accompanied—and often overshadowed—them (17). Not only did the Gelosi perform visible intermedi (“intermedi apparenti”) in 1594as part of the festivities celebrating the wedding of the Count of Harò, but, according to the printed libretto of Cornelio Frangipani’s Tragedia (Venice, 1574), Vittoria Piisimi and members of the Gelosi troupe performed solo and ensemble music by Claudio Merulo in a performance of that work on 24 July 1574, demonstrating that comedians participated in the historically important sixteenth-century practice of theatrical solo singing.1 But the degree to which Frangipani’s Tragedia should be understood as a set of intermedi seems debatable, and this genre designation is crucial to MacNeil’s assertion that “the Gelosi had been performing intermedi for nearly a decade” (19) before 1583, the date she assigns as the beginning of “the most lively period of grand court spectacles in Florence” (19). This view takes insufficient account of not only the Florentine courtly intermedi of 1539 and 1565, but also the intermedi performed in that city’s confraternities, convents, and academies—often with members of the grand ducal family in attendance.2 I would argue that comedians’ participation in an already established genre in no way diminishes their contributions to it.

4. Interacting With the 1589 Intermedi

4.1 Musical intermedi return in Chapter 2, “Turn About is Fair Play.” Here the temporal locus is Florence in the spring of 1589, in particular the dramatic and musical festivities celebrating the marriage of French princess Christine of Lorraine and Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici, son (not grandson, as stated incorrectly on p. 47) of the first Medici grand duke, Cosimo I. While scholars have tended to treat the festivities as synonymous with the spectacular set of intermedi organized by Giovanni de’ Bardi, featuring poetry by Ottavio Rinuccini and musical settings by composers such as Luca Marenzio, Jacopo Peri, and Giulio Caccini, MacNeil shifts our attention to other dramatic works performed for the occasion. In particular she examines two comedies staged by members of the Gelosi troupe: La cingana, a comedy starring Vittoria Piisimi, and La pazzia d’Isabella, a dramatic vehicle for Isabella Andreini, both of which interacted—literally and symbolically—with Bardi’s highly worked out intermedi. MacNeil’s interpretation relies on the published diary of Giuseppe Pavoni, an important source known but underutilized in previous analyses of the 1589 festivities. Pavoni’s account reveals the competitive atmosphere surrounding the comedies’ performances, and he confirms that both were staged with Bardi’s intermedi, whose second intermedio also features a singing contest between women, in this case groups of them, namely the Muses and the Pierides.

4.2 The literary and cultural meaning assigned to such contests emerges as the larger issue of this chapter. Not only did the very idea of the singing contest recall classical literary traditions (e.g., Virgil’s Third Eclogue), but MacNeil proposes that such competitions, which appear to have formed a stable part of the commedia dell’arte repertory since at least 1567, allowed actresses to display not only their vocal and dramatic prowess but also their ability to emulate appropriate classical and modern models, thus demonstrating their intellectual capabilities. Within the aesthetics of the contest, the performer who chose literary and musical models most appropriate to the event’s contexts, including its patrons or political ramifications, emerged as the winner (34). In the case of the contest between Andreini and Piisimi, MacNeil argues, Andreini’s decision to portray a madwoman allowed her to demonstrate not only her facility in a number of languages but also her awareness of the Florentine humanists’ association of divine madness and poetic inspiration. Her choice aligned her performance not only with the Neoplatonic messages promoted by Bardi in the intermedi, but also with more pervasive themes within Medici self-fashioning. Pavoni also took care to relate Christine of Lorraine’s pleased reaction to Andreini’s inclusion of canzonette pure alla francese in her performance, and he concluded by praising Andreini’s “sane, and learned intellect,” demonstrated by means of her performance of madness (“mostrando nel recitar questa pazzia il suo sano, e dotto intelletto” [51, n. 31]).

4.3 Although the theme of madness does not appear in Bardi’s second intermedio, the nature of that competition and, in particular, its judges’ determination of the winners, would have provided additional support for MacNeil’s persuasive argument. Rinuccini’s texts reveal precisely the same sort of criteria for success (and failure) that MacNeil proposes for the Piisimi/Andreini contest. In the Pierides’ madrigal “Chi dal delfino” the human singers make two egregious miscalculations. First, within a set of intermedi designed to illustrate by means of classical examples music’s role as both cause and evidence of the bonds linking the natural and celestial worlds, they impugn two of mythology’s best-known singers (Orpheus and Arion, the latter of whom returns in Intermedio 5 and disproves the Pierides’ claims). Second, unlike Isabella Andreini’s canzonette pure alla francese, which were so well received by the French bride, the Pierides dismiss those “who, singing, beg for help in their travails from the dolphin” (“Chi dal Delfino aita,/Nelle tempeste sue, cantando, impetra”), a possible pun on the French term for the heir apparent (dauphin) potentially interpreted as an unfortunate political faux pas, given Grand Duke Ferdinando’s intent to use this marriage to help reinvigorate Florence’s ties to France.3 The Muses make much better choices in their polychoral madrigal, whose opening lines—“If in our voices resound word[s] or sound[s] of sweetness, it is the gracious gift of the heavens, from which comes everything good heard and seen by the world”4—affirm unambiguously their song’s affinity with cosmic harmony and thereby the intermedio’s indebtedness to Florentine Neoplatonism.5

4.4 Returning to the commedia dell’arte performances, Pavoni’s praise of Andreini’s well-chosen canzonette allows MacNeil to hypothesize as to the nature of the music the actress performed in 1589. MacNeil demonstrates that Andreini’s musical choices placed her in the vanguard of the proponents of the French-influenced canzonetta style, which is most commonly associated with books of scherzi published later by Gabriello Chiabrera (1599) and Claudio Monteverdi (1607). The inclusion of Andreini’s scherzo, “Io credèa, che tra gli amanti,” in an anthology that preserves several songs from the commedia dell’arte tradition (Remigio Romano, Prima raccolta di bellissime canzonette musicali, e moderne, di autori gravissimi nella poesia, & nella musica [Vicenza, 1618]) suggests to MacNeil (68–71) that this canzonetta, and, she later argues, the canzonetta genre as a whole might have had its origins in the theater.6

5. “… Talk Like a Man”

5.1 Andreini first published “Io credèa, che tra gli amanti” in part one of her Rime (Milan, 1601). The collection was one of two important career milestones that the actress celebrated that year, the other being her admission to Pavia’s Accademia degli Intenti and the ensuing correspondence with fellow academician Erycius Puteanus. These achievements are the subject of Chapter 3 (“Behold, Now There are Amazons of Learning”). While both text and music are lost for Andreini’s 1589 performance, so that any sort of reconstruction or interpretation must rely on contemporaneous descriptions, the survival of the literary sources of 1601 allows Andreini’s own voice to emerge (even if, as she playfully warns the reader, she sometimes lies). Placing Andreini’s voice in counterpoint with contemporaneous articulations of gender norms and gendered behaviors, which, MacNeil cautions, were often at odds with one another, she proposes that Isabella Andreini self-consciously and fluidly adopted both masculine and feminine personae as part of her self-fashioning as an artist. Andreini quite literally “performed gender,” long before the concept found its way into twentieth-century feminist criticism.7

5.2 Certainly vivid examples of Andreini’s self-fashioning can be found in the actress’s correspondence with Puteanus, which MacNeil transcribes in full and provides with English translations (305–23). I would encourage readers to examine these fascinating documents closely. As MacNeil notes, they provide clear evidence that Puteanus ascribed masculinity to Andreini’s intellectual accomplishments, a category in which he included performance. In short, her virtù made her a man (306). Yet in another letter he implored her to become as prolific an author as she was a mother (“Bring out more, so that fertile with children as you are, you may also become fertile with books” [311]). Puteanus seems completely capable of constructing an image of Andreini that is at once male and female. By contrast, Andreini’s letters to Puteanus do not strike me as evidence of the sort of self-conscious hermaphroditism which MacNeil locates in the actress’s compositions and performances (89). For example, in her letter of 14 November 1601 Andreini adopts the stereotype of the ornamented, acquisitive woman when she describes Puteanus’s letters as gold and gems, which she naturally covets as a woman (307). In her letter of 19 November, clearly in response to the etymologically driven reasoning that had allowed Puteanus to conclude that she was a man, the actress first asserts that Puteanus’s virtù makes him the man then compares herself to other learned women (307–9). Of the two correspondents, Puteanus seems to be the more willing to separate biology from actions. For example, in his letter of 9 November—the same one in which he baldly concludes “Therefore you [i.e., Andreini] are a man” (306)—he clearly acknowledges that biological men needed to shore up their own masculinity by means of appropriate activities when, at the conclusion of his admission that, compared to Andreini, he himself spoke in public only with great reluctance and difficulty, he states “I shall screw up my courage, however, and attempt to retain the name of man among a few persons at any rate” (306).

5.3 Andreini’s poetry, as exemplified by her Rime, provides much clearer evidence of the hermaphroditism proposed by MacNeil. Furthermore, Andreini, speaking as both an actress and a poet, expresses from the outset an awareness of her own playful adoption of male and female styles, in the self-defining sonnet that begins the collection, mentioned above. The sonnet is striking, as MacNeil notes, especially for the nonchalance with which Andreini treats early seventeenth-century gender practices as garments an individual might wear or shed at will. This in turn allows MacNeil to approach Andreini’s poetry not from the standpoint of male or female voice, which, the author asserts, is often determined by the tacit (and sometimes erroneous) presumption of a heterosexual relationship between author/narrator and auditor/object (95), but through what she sees as dominant and submissive styles, determined through relative power within an unequal relationship. MacNeil’s adept analyses reveal that Andreini adopted both styles in the poems of her Rime.8

6. Politics of Description

6.1 With Chapter 4 (“The Politics of Description”) MacNeil moves to 1608 and to the next generation of female performers, namely Virginia Andreini, Isabella’s daughter-in-law, who sang the title roles in the two Monteverdi works staged as part of the festivities celebrating the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy, Arianna and Il ballo delle ingrate. MacNeil argues that any interpretation of these two works must take into account two lesser known theatrical works performed for the occasion: the intermedi performed with Guarini’s L’idropica and Alessandro Striggio’s ballo entitled Il sacrificio d’Ifigenia. In one of the book’s strongest chapters, her analysis of the four entertainments reveals a cohesive whole linked by shared themes of laments, water, marriage, and death, which she interprets as symbols of the transition between childhood and adulthood enacted in the marriage ceremony, following a tradition inherited from Greek tragedy and studied by Rush Rehm.9 Establishment of this expanded allegorical frame in turn warrants reevaluation of the perceived messages of individual works. Here MacNeil singles out Arianna’s lament for special emphasis, since that work’s cultural messages have already been the subject of much musicological scholarship.10 As have previous scholars, MacNeil turns to the only contemporary description of the audience’s reaction in 1608, Federico Follino’s Compendio, published the same year as the performance, in which the author reported that “there was no lady who did not shed some small tear at her plaint” (127, n. 1). Rather than taking Follino’s words at face value, MacNeil argues that, far from being an unbiased description of the events of 1608, Follino’s narrative must be read as a court-sanctioned publication, charged with disseminating a proper interpretation of the festivities. That is, as with other, similar accounts, Follino’s narrative falls somewhere between description and propaganda. This requires a recontextualizing of Follino’s comments about weeping. MacNeil points out that the tears that Arianna’s lament elicited were not isolated and unmediated emotional responses experienced only by female members of the audience but, rather, dominated Follino’s accounts of audiences’ reactions to all four works, and they were shed by men, women, and inanimate objects alike (143). She goes on to note that tears would have been understood as evidence of catharsis, that is, the proper end result of tragedy, according to Aristotle. This, combined with Rinuccini’s decision to designate Arianna a tragedy, allows MacNeil to propose the following, revised interpretation of Follino’s account of the opera’s first performance: haunted by the fierce genre debates that had followed the Mantuan performance of Guarini’s Il pastor fido in 1598, court corago Follino was determined to head off criticism of what was an admittedly atypical and problematic example of tragedy by stressing its conformity to Aristotelian dicta. That is, the court ladies’ tears demonstrated that catharsis had been achieved (149).

6.2 Expanding upon Tim Carter’s observation that the casting of Virginia Andreini in the role of Arianna may have been partly responsible for Rinuccini’s inclusion of the famous lament in his libretto, MacNeil suggests that Andreini’s performance style might also have influenced Monteverdi’s musical setting (130–3).11 The influence of commedia dell’arte performance styles on later, published works and genres is a theme that runs throughout the book. It is especially crucial to the fifth and final chapter, titled simply “Epilogue,” which focuses on Giovanni Battista Andreini’s Lo schiavetto, a play published in 1612 but, according to its publisher, performed for several years before that, in which Virginia Andreini sang the title role. The publication (and, presumably, the previous years’ performances) featured extensive borrowing of music associated with Florence, undoubtedly in part as “homage to Medici patronage” (167), as MacNeil asserts, but possibly also representative of on-going competition between the Medici and Gonzaga courts for cultural preeminence. Shared texts include the two-stanza canzonetta, “Tu ch’hai le penne Amore,” part of a longer poem set musically by Giulio Caccini and first published in his Le nuove musiche et nuova maniera di scriverle (Florence, 1614), suggesting to MacNeil that the aria’s text and, possibly, its music, had its origins in theatrical performance.12

7. Conclusion

7.1 In the concluding pages of Chapter 5, MacNeal isolates the four thematic strands she views as those with “the most comprehensive significance” (184) for the book as a whole: the commedia dell’arte’s envoicing of women, manifestations of divine madness, competition, and the concept of the structural frame. I would add several others, which to me transcend the specific arena of commedia dell’arte performance to address issues central to a variety of seventeenth-century genres and styles. MacNeal’s book offers a welcome destabilization of notions of authorship that rely solely on attributions in manuscript and print sources, and she provides plenty of contemporary evidence to support this more nuanced understanding of the creative process. She never loses sight of the commedia dell’arte as a genre only fully realized in performance, and she makes every effort to reconstruct plausible musical soundscapes for the works she describes. And she insists that commedia dell’arte performances must be viewed as part of a complex web of allusions that encompasses humanistic education, the societal roles of women, the dictates of decorum, and the political and cultural goals of court rulers. The end result is a richly contextualized and highly sensitive study of the commedia dell’arte actresses and their music. This complex subject results in a complicated book, one that requires multiple readings but in turn yields new insights each time.


* Kelley Harness (Kelley.A.Harness-1@tc.umn.edu) is an Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence (2006) and is editor of 17th-Century Music, the newsletter of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music.

1 For a thorough study of sixteenth-century theatrical music, see Nino Pirrotta and Elena Povoledo, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi, trans. Karen Eales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

2 See, for example, John Walter Hill, “Florentine Intermedi sacri e morali, 1549–1622,” in La Musique et le rite sacré et profane: Actes du XIIIe Congrès de la Société Internationale de Musicologie, ed. Marc Honegger and Paul Prevost, 2 vols. (Strasbourg: Association des Publications près les Universités de Strasbourg, 1986), 2:265–301.

3 Roy Strong, Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450–1650 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1984), 128. I have used the versions of the texts published in Bastiano de’ Rossi, Descrizione dell[’] apparato e degl’ intermedi fatti per la commedia rappresentata in Firenze nelle nozze de’ Serenissimi Don Ferdinando Medici, e Madama Cristina di Loreno, Gran Duchi di Toscana (Florence: Anton Padovani, 1589), 39.

4 “Se nelle voci nostre/Risuona di dolcezza accento, o suono / [È] grazioso dono/Del Ciel, da cui procede / Quanto di bello il Mondo intende, e vede.” In Cristofano Malvezzi’s publication of the music two years later, the word “Ciel” replaces “Mondo” in line 5, weakening the poetic meaning (Intermedii et concerti, fatti per la commedia rappresentata in Firenze nelle nozze del Serenissimo Don Ferdinando Medici, e Madama Christiana di Loreno, Gran Duchi di Toscana [Venice: Giacomo Vincenti, 1591]). I thank Nina Treadwell for double-checking this for me.

5 Barbara Russano Hanning has suggested that the contest also alludes to contemporary debates over the relative merits of ancient and modern music; see her “Apologia pro Ottavio Rinuccini,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 26, no. 2 (Summer 1973): 258.

6 Here MacNeil expands on Massimo Ossi’s work on the canzonetta’s contributions to both large-scale architecture and plot development in Monteverdi’s dramatic works. Ossi, “Claudio Monteverdi’s Ordine novo, bello et gustevole: The Canzonetta as Dramatic Module and Formal Archetype,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 45, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 261–304, esp. 279–90.

7 See, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

8 MacNeil notes the homoeroticism latent in single-sex theatrical performances (111) but does not clearly extend this reading to the Rime. The use of female homoeroticism to titillate male readers and viewers has a long literary tradition; see, for example, the discussion between Leaena and Clonarium, part of the “Dialogues of the Courtesans” in Lucian, Lucian in Eight Volumes, trans. M. D. MacLeod and K. Kilburn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968–79), 7:378–85. Perhaps Andreini, an actress highly adept at giving members of her audience what they wanted, continued to do so in her poetry.

9 Rush Rehm, Marriage to Death: The Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

10 See, for example, Suzanne G. Cusick, “‘There was not one lady who failed to shed a tear’: Arianna’s Lament and the Construction of Modern Womanhood,” Early Music 22, no. 1 (February 1994): 21–41.

11 Tim Carter, “Lamenting Ariadne?” Early Music 27, no. 3 (August 1999), 401–2.

12 The stanzas included in the Andreini play begin “Tu c’hai le penne Amore,” undoubtedly a typographical error. See Laura Falavolti, ed., Commedie dei comici dell’arte (Turin: Unione Tipografico Editrice Torinese, 1982), 160.

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