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Francesca Caccini (1587-1641)

Recognizing 4 Outstanding Italian Women in History

The contributions of Italians and Italian Americans are countless and extensive, but often lost in the parade of accolades are the accomplishments of Italian and Italian American women. More than just a loving ‘mamma’ or an all-recipe-knowing ‘nonna,’ Italian women are dynamic, adventurous, compassionate and heroines for young Italian women today.

March is Women’s History month and as in years past, the Italian Tribune features the accomplishments of Italian and Italian American women in history, highlighted in pink, throughout the month. Over the past decade, we have brought you many influential women; this week we look at four women who made their mark from early 16th century to the late 18th century

Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554): Italian Renaissance Poet

Born in Padua, Italy, Stampa moved to nearby Venice with her mother and siblings after her father died. It was her mother who educated Gaspara in literature, music, history and painting. Early on, the Stampa household became a gathering place for enthusiasts of the arts and visited by many well-known Venetian writers, painters and musicians.

Gaspara’s brother died in 1544, which caused her much pain. After a long period of crisis, she came back to la dolce vita in Venice and was believed to have been involved in a love affair with Count Collaltino di Collalto. It was to him that she eventually dedicated most of the 311 poems she is known to have written. The relationship broke off in 1551, leaving Stampa devastated.

She went into a physical prostration and depression, but the result of this period is a collection of beautiful, intelligent and assertive poems in which she triumphs over Collaltino, creating for herself a lasting reputation. It should be noted that Collaltino’s reputation is only remembered because of Stampa. She makes clear in her poems that she uses her pain to inspire the poetry, hence her survival and fame.

In 1550, Stampa became a member of the Accademia dei Dubbiosi under the name of “Anaxilla.”  Between 1551 and 1552, she enjoyed a period of relative tranquility; however, in the following year, her health worsened and she spent a few months in Florence hoping that the milder climate might cure her. She then returned to Venice, became ill with a high fever and died on April 23, 1554 at the age of just 31. Later that year, Pietrasanta published the first edition of Stampa’s poetry, edited by her sister Cassandra. Her posthumously published poems were included in the collection “Rime.”

Gaspara Stampa is considered the greatest woman poet of the Italian Renaissance and is regarded by many as the greatest Italian woman poet of any age. A highly skilled musician, Stampa produced some of the greatest musical poetry in the Italian language. Her sonnets of unrequited love speak in a language of honest passion and profound loss.

Francesca Caccini (1587-1641): Composer and Singer

Francesca Caccini, often called “La Cecchina” – The Songbird, was born in Florence, Italy, to Giulio Caccini, a well-respected and prolific composer and singer Lucia Gagnolanti. After Lucia’s premature death while Francesca was still quite young, Giulio married another singer, Margherita della Scala. With her father’s influence and with the talents that ran in the family, a career in the musical arts was inevitable for Francesca.

Her training began at an early age and she was known to have played the keyboard, lute, guitar and harp, but it was due to her singing that she became most famous. In addition to her practical music skills, she was also well-trained in composition and made her living as a performer as well as a composer. Her talents did not go unnoticed by the important musical figures of the day. Claudio Monteverdi, one of the founders of the early Baroque movement, heard her perform and subsequently praised her voice in letters to a friend.

In 1605, Francesca received an offer to become a court singer for King Henry IV of France. However, Grand Duke Ferdinand of Florence refused to release Francesca from his service, the same court that employed her father. Much as she tried to get the permanent independent position, it was to no avail and Francesca was to remain at the Florentine court.

Francesca’s first music for the stage, La Stiava, was performed in 1607, at the Florentine Carnival. Unfortunately, the music has not survived. Over the next few years, she contributed incidental music to various compositions by other composers. Her first surviving independent work, Il Primo Libro delle Musiche, was not published until 1618, which also happened to be the year of her father’s death. Only a few of her works have survived, one of which is the opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina.

Francesca continued to perform, compose and teach until 1637, when she resigned from the Medici court. Francesca is known as the first female composer of opera and although few of her works have survived, she is considered to be one of the most prolific female composers of her time.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684): Scholar

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born into a noble family in Venice, Italy. Her father, Giovanni Baptista Cornaro, was the Procurator of San Marco and a highly-esteemed Venetian. Elena’s father spent his life establishing the Cornaro name, which will be forever associated with his daughter’s remarkable intellect.

Beginning at age seven, Elena received tutoring in the classical languages of Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. In addition to speaking both languages fluently, Elena also mastered Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic. She also exhibited marvelous reasoning powers and became a student of the sciences, studying mathematics and astronomy, in addition to philosophy and theology. In 1672, her father sent her to the distinguished University of Padua to continue her studies.

Elena did not seek degrees from the University; she simply wanted to continue her learning. However, her father insisted that the world recognize his daughter’s incredible knowledge. At his insistence, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree from the University. Her application was met with resistance. Officials in the Roman Catholic Church refused to confer the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman. She then applied a second time and the Church, recognizing her outstanding capabilities, conferred on her a Doctor of Philosophy.

Piscopia’s examination for her doctorate was to be held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, but due to the number of spectators, students and faculty alike who wished to hear her eloquent proposals and defenses, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678, a Doctor of Philosophy degree was conferred, making Elena Piscopia the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree.

Elena died at 38 and her last wish was to be buried in the Church of Santa Giustina at Padua. In 1685, the University of Padua had a medal struck in honor of its greatest student. Today, Elena’s statue sits in the esteemed University. She is remembered in the United States by a stained glass window at Vassar College which depicts her defending her theses at the Cathedral of Padua.

Laura Bassi (1711-1778): Scientist and Professor

Born in Bologna, Italy, into a wealthy family, Laura Bassi was privately educated and tutored for seven years by Gaetano Tacconi. She came to the attention of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini who encouraged her scientific studies.

Laura was appointed Professor of Anatomy in 1731 at the University of Bologna at the age of 21, becoming the first woman to officially teach at a university in Europe. She was later elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences in 1732 and the following year, was given the chair of philosophy. Laura’s teaching opportunities were restricted during her early years and she gave only occasional lectures. In 1738, she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic. After this, she was able to lecture from home on a regular basis and successfully petitioned the University for more responsibility and a higher salary to allow her to purchase her own equipment.

She was mainly interested in Newtonian physics and taught courses on the subject for 28 years. She was one of the key figures in introducing Newton’s ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy. Bassi carried out experiments of her own in all aspects of physics and during her lifetime published 28 papers, the vast majority on physics and hydraulics.

In 1745, Cardinal Lambertini, now Pope Benedict XIV, established an elite group of 25 scholars known as the Benedettini. Bassi pressed hard to be appointed to this group but there was a mixed reaction from the other academics with strong support from some, but others taking a negative point of view. Ultimately, Pope Benedict did appoint her to the final position, the only woman in the group.

In 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Institute of Sciences, with her husband as a teaching assistant. Two years later, she died having made physics her lifelong career, while breaking new ground for women in academic circles. Bassi is remembered in Bologna with a high school for language, social sciences and music, as well as one of city streets named in her honor.