Women’s History Month 2016: Courtly Renaissance BrassChix

This is the second installment of Women’s (Brass) History Month 2016. See here for previous posts.

This week, let’s take a look at what role women musicians had in the courts of the Renaissance, and in particular, shift our focus to the music-mad court of 1590s Mantua, where Duke Vincenzzo I cultivated a lively court. He paid lavishly for his female singers, asking his musical director, Claudio Monteverdi (yes, that Monteverdi), to find the best (and cheapest, apparently) performers to entertain him (1).

Among the roster of musicians in the register, two sisters, Lucia and Isabetta Pelizzari, appear as singers and instrumentalists in their father’s family band. The instruments they mastered? Cornetto and trombone (2). The Pelizzari family likely was middle-class, solidly placed enough to justify musical education for all their children, but not nobility, for whom giving a woman a brass instrument to blow into would have been an unsightly disgrace. Such a family would need all capable bodies to lend their talents to the business. They made their living from their craft, and they delivered it well. By all accounts, women in Italy had risen above courtier status (trained musicians whose education was intended to give them access to higher courts and power) and emerged as regarded performers in their own right (3).

Many female musicians are listed in the books of Italian Renaissance courts, mostly vocalists who would accompany themselves on lute or harp, but Lucia and Isabetta surely set a precedent for aspiring performers going into the 17th century. There was already a strong tradition of portraying women holding all variety of instruments, including sackbut, in works of art depicting the muses and other mythological scenes. It’s not a far leap to guess that women saw themselves represented in art and thought, “I ought to give that a try.”


Image: Detail of a tablecloth featuring musicians (both male and female) in the court of a German duke. 1560s.

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