Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, September 18, 2015

Francesca Caccini, Composer, Singer, Poet, Teacher

Francesca Caccini (born 18 September 1587)

Francesca Caccini was born into a musical family: her father, Giulio Romolo Caccini, was a performer and composer for the Medici court, particularly supported by Francesco de' Medici, grand duke of Florence; Francesca's mother, Lucia Gagnolanti, her younger sister, Settimania, and, eventually, her step-mother (Giulio's second wife), Margherita della Scala, were also noted performers, the women sometimes performing together, at times referred to as "le donne di Giulio Romo[l]o."

A cameo engraving of 
Francesca Caccini
Francesca Caccini not only received an excellent and multi-faceted musical education--as a virtuosa singer and performer, who played guitar, lute, harp, and keyboard--but also a literary education. She studied the classical languages, modern languages and literature, and mathematics. 

In 1604, she traveled with her family to the court of Henry IV of France--the queen, Marie de' Medici, offered Francesca a place as an official court singer, which included a salary and a substantial dowry.

However, Francesca was not released from the service of the grand duke, so, along with her family, she returned to the Florentine court, where she remained as a performer, composer, and teacher until 1627.

In Florence, she was also able to enjoy the patronage of two powerful women, the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine and her daughter-in-law, Maria Maddalena of Austria. Christina of Lorraine was the granddaughter of the French queen Catherine de' Medici, Maria Maddalena the granddaughter of Anna Jagiellon, queen of Poland. The two women together, as the "Tutrici," were acting as regents of Tuscany following the Francesco's death.

At the Medici court, Francesca Caccini married Giovanni Batista Signorini in 1607, giving birth to Margherita, named after Caccini's stepmother, in 1622. In 1626, after the death of her husband, Caccini left Florence for Lucca, where she married again and where, in 1628, gave birth to a son, named Tomaso Raffaelo, after his father. 

Widowed in 1634, Francesca and her children returned to Florence, where she again entered the service of the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine. Although Maria Maddalena had died in 1631, and her son, Ferdinando II had married in 1633 (making Vittoria della Rovere the new grand duchess), Christina of Lorraine remained very influential at the Medici court until her death at the end of 1637.

Caccini and her daughter performed together at the court of the grand duchess, but in 1638, worried about the effect it might have on her daughter's reputation, Francesca refused to allow her daughter to perform publicly in a commedia; in 1642 Margherita Signorini became a nun in the Franciscan convent of San Girolomo in Florence, a convent known for its music and, despite edicts of the Inquisition, for public performances by the convent's inhabitants.

There, according to one contemporary observer, "crowds raced to hear her sing divine praises by herself, and sometimes in ensemble with other skilled virgins who are her companions, notwithstanding the church's inconvenient location on a steep hill."

(In the 1660s and 1670s, Margherita Signorini taught many young women being educated in the convent, including her niece, Maria Francesca Rafaelli, as well as several young women who would go on to serve in the court of the Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere. Margheriti Signorini died in 1689.)

Francesca Caccini is "the most prolific composer of her time," and the first woman known to have composed opera. In 1618 she published The First Book of Music for One and Two Voices (II primo libro delle musiche a una e due voci), a collection of thirty-two solo songs and four duets for soprano and bass voices. But only one opera survives, The Liberation of Ruggiora from the Island of Alcina (La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina), commissioned by Maria Maddalena of Austria and first performed on 3 February, 1625. 

Francesca Caccini's date of death is unknown, though guardianship of her son was transferred to Girolomo Raffaeli, her husband's brother, in February 1645, suggesting a likely date for Caccini's death.

For Francesca Caccini's biographical entry in The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, click here. This entry includes a comprehensive list of Caccini's known works, including those that have not survived, as well as an excellent bibliography.

Nate Zuckerman's biographical essay, from Italian Women Writers, is available here. But long before the Internet made information available with the click of a mouse, I discovered Francesca Caccini in Diane Peacock Jezic's Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found, first published by The Feminist Press in 1988.

There are also a couple of excellent performances available on YouTube, such as this one or this, an instrumental featuring guitar, violin, harpsichord, and viola da gamba.