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Emblems of Eloquence

Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Wendy Heller
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 405
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    Emblems of Eloquence
    Book Description:

    Opera developed during a time when the position of women—their rights and freedoms, their virtues and vices, and even the most basic substance of their sexuality—was constantly debated. Many of these controversies manifested themselves in the representation of the historical and mythological women whose voices were heard on the Venetian operatic stage. Drawing upon a complex web of early modern sources and ancient texts, this engaging study is the first comprehensive treatment of women, gender, and sexuality in seventeenth-century opera. Wendy Heller explores the operatic manifestations of female chastity, power, transvestism, androgyny, and desire, showing how the emerging genre was shaped by and infused with the Republic's taste for the erotic and its ambivalent attitudes toward women and sexuality. Heller begins by examining contemporary Venetian writings about gender and sexuality that influenced the development of female vocality in opera. The Venetian reception and transformation of ancient texts—by Ovid, Virgil, Tacitus, and Diodorus Siculus—form the background for her penetrating analyses of the musical and dramatic representation of five extraordinary women as presented in operas by Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli, and their successors in Venice: Dido, queen of Carthage (Cavalli); Octavia, wife of Nero (Monteverdi); the nymph Callisto (Cavalli); Queen Semiramis of Assyria (Pietro Andrea Ziani); and Messalina, wife of Claudius (Carlo Pallavicino).

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91934-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    Opera in Venice developed during a period in which the position of women, their rights and freedoms, their virtues and sins, their responsibility for the fall of man, their membership in the human race, and even their possession of immortal souls were under constant debate. This polemic was waged in a variety of formats—catalogs of women, biographies, and theological arguments about the relative culpability of Adam and Eve, manuals on behavior, domestic life, or the art of love, and pornographicnovelle—all testifying to the contradictory notions about women and sexuality that characterize seventeenth-century thought. Much of the controversy,...

  9. Chapter 1 The Emblematic Woman
    (pp. 27-47)

    In mid-seventeenth-century Venice, opera was introduced to a public that was already accustomed to examining the position of women in society.² As residents of one of the major European publishing centers, the citizens of Venice could read a vast array of books concerning the training and education of women, their appropriate behaviors, their virtues and vices, and their position within early modern society. Some of these writings were overtly anti-female, but many treatises took the defense of women as their ostensible goal. These writers rarely argued for any social change in the modern sense; instead such defenses of the female...

  10. Chapter 2 Bizzarrie Feminile: Opera and the Accademia degli Incogniti
    (pp. 48-81)

    With the Venetian Accademia degli Incogniti, the ambivalent views about gender that characterized seventeenth-century thought intersected with the developing genre of opera. Founded in 1630 by the writer and Venetian patrician Giovanni Francesco Loredano, the Incogniti included nearly all the prominent intellectual patricians of Venice, along with many non-Venetians who were to become active in the Venetian literary-intellectual world.¹ The Incogniti dominated literary life in Venice in the middle part of the century, publishing extensively on topics that ranged from the serious to the seemingly frivolous: histories, poems, letters, plays,novelle, and travesties of the classics. They also played a...

  11. Chapter 3 Didone and the Voice of Chastity
    (pp. 82-135)

    In the central portion of Catullus’s poem on the wedding of Peleus and Thetis,Carmina64, the narrative is interrupted by an ekphrasis. The attention of the readers and guests is drawn to the scene embroidered on the wedding couch, depicting the abandonment of Ariadne. In this well-known tale, Ariadne had betrayed her family by helping Theseus conquer the Minotaur and escape from its labyrinth, and Theseus rewarded her by cruelly abandoning her on the island of Dia. Catullus places Ariadne’s lament at the center of the poem, fashioning for her a kaleidoscope of shifting, disordered emotions. In this special...

  12. Chapter 4 “Disprezzata regina”: Woman and Empire
    (pp. 136-177)

    In theargomentoto the libretto ofLa Didone, Busenello defends his revision of history by reminding the reader of Virgil’s own poetic license in the fashioning of theAeneid. His explanation, as is now evident, fails to account for many of his most blatant changes to history and myth. The happy ending—the primary focus of the apology—may have needed some mention, although it was all but required indrammi per musiche, even by 1641. But he does not even mention the more obtrusive distortions of his sources, such as Iarba’s madness and Didone’s self-punishment. Busenello’sargomentoprovides...

  13. Chapter 5 The Nymph Calisto and the Myth of Female Pleasure
    (pp. 178-219)

    La Calisto(1651) takes place in two essentially inaccessible and uncivilized realms: first, the cosmos, wherein the nymph Callisto will achieve immortality as a constellation; and second, the land of Arcadia, inhabited by the half-goat deity Pan, Diana and her nymphs, the shepherd Endymion, and a host of satyrs in the service of an absent Dionysus.² Even in the ancient world Arcadia had always been understood as a place that belonged to the time before time, a land whose inhabitants witnessed the first rising of the moon and placement of the stars. The Arcadian myths intertwined in the opera by...

  14. Chapter 6 Semiramide and Musical Transvestism
    (pp. 220-262)

    The confusion of gender characteristics implicit in Jove’s adoption of Diana’s identity inLa Calistois played out somewhat differently in the Venetian operas that focus on female warriors. Women warriors present a special opportunity for heroic self-definition. Whereas the abandonment of sensual, foreign women usually protects the hero, freeing him to pursue a glorious destiny away from feminine influence, battle with a warrior woman is also an important means of proving male prowess. In grappling with the great warrior queens or the amazons, the hero’s conflict moves from the realm of Venus to that of Mars. These women provide...

  15. Chapter 7 Messalina la Meretrice: Envoicing the Courtesan
    (pp. 263-294)

    In 1687 Bonaventura Tondi, an abbot and the royal chronicler of the town of Gubbio, published a book entitledLa femina origine d’ogni male; overo, Frine rimproverata. Tondi’s slim volume, the opening passage of which is cited above, is perhaps one of the most virulent contributions to the debates about women published in seventeenth-century Venice. Written nearly a century after Giuseppe Passi’sI donneschi difettiand some fifty years after the height of Incogniti influence in Venice and the arrival of public opera there, Tondi’s treatise surpasses nearly all of his predecessors in its brutality and unequivocal anti-female message.


  16. Conclusions
    (pp. 295-300)

    Seventeenth-century Venetian opera presented to its public an extraordinarily diverse group of heroines who embodied in both sound and deed those qualities most admired and feared in the female sex. Created in the ancient world and refashioned in early modern times to suit a variety of political and social purposes, these women are our witnesses to the enduring significance of ancient texts and images in opera, that most dramatic and baroque manifestation of the humanist project. These were not frozen, static images to be treated with reverence and caution; rather, like the many classical statues whose broken appendages were imaginatively...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 301-352)
    (pp. 353-370)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 371-386)