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Archive for the tag “Venice”

Barbara di Santa Sofia

It’s been a busy couple of months, working through the suggestions of my editor, Sam Carter, at Oneworld – which can be satisfying (‘God, that bit was clunky – thank goodness he spotted it’); humbling (Sam suggested a bonfire of the howevers, and he was right – it’s an academic tic that is, nine times out of ten, completely unnecessary); and anxiety-inducing (every time I change a phrase, I sense that the whole book, or at least the whole paragraph, has lost its coherence). But it is done.

Leaving a gap in life, of course. I promptly filled it by heading, with my rucksack, to a dirty, beautiful city: this time, Sarajevo – more of which another time. Getting there took around three days by train – broken by a pastoral idyll in Slovenia at Lake Bohinj – but any journey which starts with the night train to Venice is a good journey in my book. Passing through the city, and indulging in my favourite Venetian past-time (sitting at the back of a vaporetto) I snapped a picture of Santa Sofia, the church in Canareggio which Barbara Strozzi was christened back in 1619. On my return to Oxford, there was just time to add in a few more sentences to the book, sentences which simply could not have been written (at least by me) unless I had been to the place itself.

Santa Sofia’s date of foundation is hazy, perhaps as early as 886, perhaps not, no matter, myth is powerful in Venice, but by Strozzi’s own lifetime the records show that it had already been rebuilt twice, first in the early thirteenth century, and then again in the composer’s great-grandparents’ generation. Now, in the late seventeenth century, Strozzi saw her baptismal church once again restored. Santa Sofia would then burn to the ground; be rebuilt; suffer suppression under Napoleon; be sold to the Jewish community; and re-open as a church. Despite or because of all the re-buildings, the church’s façade remains unfinished. Not only that, it is hidden, now by the priest’s house, but as early as 1500 by the encroaching buildings. The campanile, once taller and more elegant according to the evidence of a woodcut of 1550, is now chunky and the interior is plain by the standards of Venice, not least because on its suppression most of the church’s riches were dispersed, amongst them a Veronese Last Supper. Santa Sofia, half-hidden by the buildings that crowd around it, stripped of its glories, such as they were, and with little obvious beauty to it, is hardly a tourist magnet, but it endures, rising from the ashes again and again.

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to travel to see the past. There are other ways to get that sense of lived experience, to catch glimpses of the environment in which writers and musicians and artists do their work. In recent weeks, I’ve been searching for illustrations that would bring this out, and, when it came to the chapter on Francesca Caccini, I didn’t want another classic, ostensibly timeless view of Florence – although the terrace at San Miniato happens to be one of my favourite places on the entire planet, and when one is tired of looking down on Florence, and beyond to the Appenines, one is tired of life. I wanted an image that would act as a reminder of a living city, in which music, amongst other recreations, happened on the streets, just as much as behind closed doors. I came across a painting of a calcio Fiorentino (Florentine kick game): a early form of football (still called calcio of course in Italy) being played in the square of Santa Croce in Florence, just a few days after the performance of Caccini’s opera up at Poggio Imperiale.

calcio fiorentina

The most striking features of the sport (gleaned from Wikipedia – where it is somewhat unclear as to whether this is how the game is played now, or was played then, but so be it) is that it is/was played on sand, had a narrow slit for a goal which ran the width of each end, and that each team comprised 27 – twenty-seven?! – players who were allowed to use both feet and hands to pass and control the ball. Goals (or cacce) are scored by throwing the ball over into the netting at the end of the field. (I cannot resist, at this point, linking to a quite brilliant piece of satire produced by Norway Women’s Team – 2:30 mins is particularly relevant…)

I love this image of seventeenth-century street sport because it’s a reminder of just how blurred the boundaries between everyday life and sport/games were all those years ago – and I think the same was true for music-making.

Next stop: Sarajevo.

Too sexy for church?

Urban myths start like this. A smiling, earnest young man (possibly connected to the church in which I am sitting, possibly not, impossible to tell, but that’s all part of the modern Anglican way, because we don’t want to put people off, do we?) is introducing a lunchtime concert of religious music in the heart of the City of London. The featured composer is Barbara Strozzi. The young man offers us an anecdote. He has it on good authority that the Handel Festival had rejected a similar programme because it was – pause – ‘too sexy for church’. It’s a great line, and there’s now no doubt in the audience that right here, right now, at St Stephen’s Walbrook, we can handle too sexy.

It’s a great line, and might even be true, but once again the shadow of the courtesan is being used to sex up the dossier.

I was at St Stephen’s Walbrook to hear Ursula’s Arrow ( play four works by Strozzi, interlaced with a couple of instrumental pieces by her contemporaries. It was thrilling, rare stuff and Sarah Dacey and C N Lester Sarah Dacey C N Lester  gave compelling performances. The four pieces were taken from the only religious collection published by Strozzi, her opus 5 of 1655, which she dedicated from ‘the motives of my heart’ to Anna de Medici, the Archduchess of Innsbruck, here pictured with a cute dog.

Justus Sustermans 011.jpgThe motives of her heart aside, Strozzi was, as always, looking for a patron, and therefore the most significant work in the collection is the astonishingly powerful motet for solo voice ‘Mater Anna’, which, of course, honours both the Archduchess and Santa Anna/Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and patron saint of Christian mothers. Scholar Robert Kendrick has noted that Strozzi would have been well aware of the nature of Anna de Medici’s devotion to her namesake saint. At the age of thirty (in other words, very late for the time), the Medici princess had been married to a man of eighteen, and although she did successfully breed three daughters for him, a son remained elusive through a relentless series of miscarriages and stillbirths.

I’d read that ‘Mater Anna’ culminates in a final prayer, the voice ascending over a walking bass, in a heart-rending plea for mercy and succour, reminiscent in its intensely emotional religiosity of works such as the sculptor Bernini’s ‘Teresa in Ecstasy’. To be honest, I’d wondered if this was a touch of musicological hype. Not a bit of it. In ‘Mater Anna’ all of Strozzi’s ambition as a composer (and she had bucketloads of it) is evident.

But is it too sexy for church? Well, it depends on what you think should happen in church – I was moved by Strozzi’s evocations of ecstatic religious intimacy, and not just in ‘Mater Anna’. I hope to have another chance to sit in a church and hear music composed by women, if I can get to St Peter’s in Rome for 9 May, when a Missa Pro Terrae Humilibus written by ten female composers will be celebrated, a ground-breaking event driven by the campaigning work of the well-connected, Italy-based, Donne in Musica (

Returning to Strozzi, what’s more surprising, and also perhaps more telling than her absence from church is her absence from the opera house. Strozzi lived and worked in Venice, the city for opera in the mid-seventeenth century, but despite being the – possibly adopted – daughter of one of the leading librettists of the era and despite her music often being thoroughly operatic in nature (‘Mater Anna’ is a case in point) she stood about as much chance of having her secular work performed at the Teatro Novissimo as she had of hearing ‘Mater Anna’ performed at the Basilica of St Mark.

Opera’s loss is our gain, however. Strozzi had more music in print, in single-authored volumes, than any other composer in the seventeenth century, perhaps precisely because of her exclusion from the traditional arenas for (traditionally male) composers.

Here’s what I wonder towards the end of my chapter on Strozzi:

Is it fanciful to see her publication programme as a quest for professional recognition, part of her self-definition as composer first, singer second? Could she have been seeking a fourth way, beyond wife (impossible), nun (implausible) and courtesan/concubine (only too plausible)? As a professional, published composer she could bypass the prince, not to mention the prince’s bedroom, and go straight to her public.

The audience’s engagement at St Stephen’s Walbrook in 2015 proved, powerfully, that not only did Strozzi reach her public back in 1655, but that she still does – 360 years on.

The heart is not for sale


This image, of the fish market, has stayed with me from my trip to Venice, some weeks ago. My first morning in the city, I tried, and for the moment failed, to visit the church of Santa Sofia in Cannaregio, where Barbara Strozzi – father incerto, mother perhaps a courtesan, certainly a servant – was baptised back in 1619. Strozzi didn’t just live and write music in the shadow of the courtesan. She was a courtesan. (Well, actually, as ever, it’s bit more complicated than that, but it will all be explained in chapter two. Probably.) Cannaregio was Strozzi’s territory. She lived and worked in the neighbourhood, plying her two trades, music and sex.

So, when I turned from Santa Sofia, and looked across the Grand Canal to the Pescheria’s red awnings, the words I saw scrawled there seemed to speak across the centuries. I think the words mean, in Venetian dialect, that ‘the heart is not for sale’. Brave, defiant words but they don’t carry much weight in Venice now, and they certainly didn’t for Strozzi.

It’s impossible to wander around Venice without beginning to question one’s own sense of time and space. (It’s also impossible to write about Venice without stumbling over clichés). My grip on reality was not helped by running into a film crew

venice film recreating a vision of fifteenth century (?) Venice nor was it helped by seeing young naval officers lined up in their finery, a triumphant expression of la bella figura, overlooked by the lion of St Mark. It was hard to imagine them at war.


Fortunately, reality can always be restored with an aperitivo. Go to the square of San Giacomo dell’ Orio, look for ‘Al Prosecco’ – but don’t have prosecco, have one of the well-kept, beautifully-served big northern Italian reds, and watch a more mundane world go by. In a city where you can pay an awful lot for terrible food, you can enjoy a plate of lovely cheeses, complemented by home-made chutney, for, well, still a lot more than Palermo, but it is Venice. Kids play football, people talk, buy groceries at the Co-op. When I briefly lived in Venice, this was ‘my’ bar, and I am still very, very fond of it and its owners.

I stopped off there before taking the night train to Vienna. A glass of nebbiolo, a plate of cheese and salad, a few minutes of ordinary life, Venetian style, and I was ready to say goodbye, at least for a while, to Strozzi and her city.

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