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Kate Meehan, 1

Harlots and Starlets: Case Studies in the Contributions of the Cortigiane Oneste in
Commedia dellArte

The Italian peninsula is credited for nudging Europe into the Renaissance and
infecting the continent with a renewed interest in Greece and Rome, the study of
Humanism, and an increase in education and literacy among the population. Powerful
Italian families like the Medici developed a banking system, providing capital for
industrious entrepreneurs to develop thriving industries. The Italian city-states, wellpositioned to dominate the international trade industry, developed a wealthy middle class
separate from nobility; a structure very different from contemporary cities in England and
France.
Despite these strides toward a more democratic society, the well-being of its
female participants lagged behind. Unlike England and France, the wealth of this
citizenry was predominately based on currency, rather than land. This meant that Italian
dowries (a requirement in polite society) were predominantly cash-based, and between
1450 and 1550, Italian dowries quadrupled1. This reduced the number of daughters a
typical family could afford to betroth. Women were also disallowed from marrying
below their social status (a restriction not enjoyed by men), creating smaller pools of
eligible bachelors from which to catch a suitable husband.2 As the church expected far
less of a dowry than the upper middle class gentleman, convents became a convenient
repository for second and third daughters. In fact, by the end of the 16th Century, over
60% of patrician women joined convents, and only a fraction of these did so voluntarily.
The life of a married woman was not much better. Once married, a woman was retired
1
2

Eds. Robin, Larsen and Levin, Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance, 94.
Sperling, Convents and the Body Politic in late Renaissance Venice, 28.

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to the home, beholden to her husband and allowed out of the house only with
dispensation from their husbands.
The struggle to ascend class boundaries meant that most marriages were
strategically arranged, and most men (particularly in Venice) married later in life. With
pre-marital affairs out of the question for well-bred women and a decade or more of
bachelorhood for men of money and privilege, this created a need for a new sort of
woman outside of the current societal structure. It was improper for a courtier to find
solace with an ordinary prostitute. A courtesan (cortigiane), however, provided a sexual
outlet without societal stigma.3
These cortigiane required skills beyond the boudoir to differentiate themselves
from common prostitutes. Cortigiane frequently spent as much time perfecting their
musical and literary abilities, knowledge of current politics and world history, and other
avenues of social refinement as they did with their clients. Their customers became
increasingly noble, and the price for their services increased accordingly, creating a new
class of wealthy, independent women free of the familial structure. Their children were
increasingly bastard offspring of nobility, and their influence spread into fashion and
politics.
Venices courtesans became so famous they become one of their chief tourist
attractions. At one point, Venice boasted a population of 10,000 cortigiane for their
100,000 inhabitants, and directories of their most famous were provided to visiting
nobility and wealthy merchants. 4

3
4

Feldmen, Gordon, The Courtesans Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, 18.


Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, 13-14.

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Chief among the cortigianes skills outside of the bedroom was her musical
ability. Records indicate that cortigiane would perform at events hosted by her sponsors,
and would occasionally perform for the public in festivals and less formal gatherings.5 It
is likely that many of these women found themselves participating alongside the early
Commedia dellArte troupes, which were predominately male in their early stages.
The earliest records of females in the Commedia dellArte is in the character of
the cantarina, whose sole purpose was to provide music (both in forms of interlude and
exposition) for the male performers. The role was always performed by a prostitute,
and required both musical and dancing abilities.6 From there, it was an easy transition to
include the women in performance roles (first recorded in 1566 by the troupe Zan
Ganassa7), particularly as the courtesans grew in power and popularity. Their quick wit,
adaptability, and musical talent became a valuable asset to the largely improvisational
form, along with their pre-existing relationships with nobility and wealthy merchants,
both in their home towns and internationally.
One of the most famous of the Commedia dellArte troupes was I Gelosi (15681604), in part because of their wide travels. The troupe is first recorded as performing in
Milan in 1568, and traveled more to France than any other Italian troupe.8 Their first
visit in 1571, likely at the request of Louis de Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, allowed them to
perform in front of King Charles IX, the Queen and the Queen Mother, Catherine
deMedici. In 1573, they performed Tassos pastoral Aminta near Ferrara, and Phillip II
of Spain was among the audience, though they described the performance as rewarding

Feldman and Gordon, The Courtesans Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, 20.


Ducharte, The Italian Comedy,263.
7
I Sebastiani, Commedia dellArte Troupes Timeline. www.isebastiani.com
8
Rudlin and Crick, Commedia dellArte: A Handbook for Troupes, 15.
6

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them with little gain and many insults.9 In July of 1574, they were summoned to
Venice at the request of young Henri III, the as-yet-uncrowned 23-year-old king of
France, passing through Italy on his way home from Poland. There, he became enamored
of I Gelosis innamorata, Vittoria Piisimi, and he invited them to come and perform for
him in France (an invitation they would not take up for four years, in part due to the
religious upheaval in France).10
When the troupe finally made their way to France in January of 1577, they were
captured by the Huguenots and held for ransom at La-Charite-sur-Loire. Their ransom
note indicated that, unless King Henri III released all the captured Huguenots and paid a
ransom of 10,000 gold florins and 50,000 silver, only the heads of his beloved actors
would make it to Paris. King Henri III relented, and I Gelosi performed for him the very
night they arrived.11

Vincenza Armani
Documents describing Vincenza Armanis performances indicate that she was
clever, articulate and funny, and she is credited as one of the first of the refined, educated
actresses. She was a member of the Zan Ganassa troupe (1566-1610), the first to travel
to Paris to perform. After less than a year, she quit and joined I Gelosi12. Shortly
thereafter, she was poisoned (presumably by a jealous lover). However, at her funeral,
she was praised for her cooking, musicianship, Latin, singing, sculpting ability, and
ability to effortlessly act in three different styles: comedy, tragedy and pastoral.

Rudlin and Crick, Commedia dellArte: A Handbook for Troupes, 16.


Rudlin and Crick, Commedia dellArte: A Handbook for Troupes, 17.
11
Rudlin and Crick, Commedia dellArte: A Handbook for Troupes, 18.
12
Brown, Parolin, Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, 126.
10

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Vittoria Piisimi
Like many of the famous actresses of the era, little is known about the childhood
of Vittoria Piisimi, aside from the fact that she was educated as a cortigiana onesta.
She took over the role of prima donna for I Gelosi in 1569 after the tragic death
of Vincenza Armani. In addition to her position on the stage, she also took over
management of the company, negotiating international contracts for the troupe and
developing a reputation as an adroit negotiator and shrewd businesswoman in addition to
her performances on stage. Upon his arrival in Italy, the young King Henri III of France
requested to see Vittoria and her troupe.13
Shortly after forming her own troupe, Confedenti, in 1579, the Duke of Mantua
(ever a Commedia buff) organized an arranged marriage for her and Giovanni Pellesini,
who had created such a famous Pedrolino character that his troupe went by that name.
Their combined company (performing as Confedenti) achieved great success, though
there are no records of them travelling internationally. She was most famous for her
sharp memory in 1574, she learned music for Frangipanis Tragedia (an early opera)
for their performance for King Henri III in less than a week.14 Cleric Tomaso Garzoni,
writing in La piazza universale (1585) writes of her:
Above all, the divine Vittoria, who metamorphoses herself on stage,
seems to be worthy of the highest honours; that beautiful witch of love
who entices the hearts of a thousand lovers with her words; that sweet
siren who bewitches the souls of her devoted spectators with soft
incantations, and who without doubt deserves to be heralded as the
summation of the art, having proportionate gestures, harmonious and
concordant movements, majestic and welcome acts, affable and sweet
13
14

Brown, Parolin, Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, 126.
MacNeil, Music and Women of the Commedia dellArte in the Late Sixteenth Century, 13.

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words, lovely and cunning sighs, witty and gentle laughter, noble and
generous deportment, and in her entire person a perfect decorum that is
due to and belongs to a perfect comedienne.15

Isabella Andreini
Little is known about Isabella Andreinis early life, except that she was born in
Padua in 1562 as Isabella Canali. She is also presumed to come from the ranks of the
cortigiana onesta.16 It is not a far stretch to presume that it is through this trade that she
met her husband, Francesco Andreini (born in 1548 as Francesco Dal Gallo), who had
been a member of the Venetian navy, was captured by Moorish pirates, and served as a
galley slave for eight years before his rescue. Dating based on Venetian Navy enlistment
practices and Francescos date of birth indicates that he likely met Isabella within a year
of his rescue. Isabella gave birth to their first child, Giovan Battista, on February 9,
1576. The two were wed later that year in a private ceremony (a public ceremony would
not be held until 1578).
Together, they joined I Gelosi in 1578, where Francesco took up the role of
Capitan Spavento, a Spanish take on the Capitano role. It is presumed that Isabella
served as the seconde donna to Vittoria Piisimi until Vittoria left I Gelosi to form the
Confedenti in 1579. Both companies remained friendly, trading performers and
opportunities as travel and personnel required. In 1589, Francesco became the director of
I Gelosi, though he and Isabella took time off from the troupe as their children were born
(Isabella bore seven children). During their sabbaticals from the troupe, Vittoria would
frequently step in to manage I Gelosis affairs, even signing for a performing license for

15
16

MacNeil, Music and Women of the Commedia dellArte in the Late Sixteenth Century, 15.
Campbell, Literary Circles and Gender in Early Modern Europe: A Cross-Cultural Approach, 51.

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the troupe in 1595. 17 In return, I Gelosi members frequently performed with other
troupes. Isabella performed with the Confedenti in Genoa in 1589 and with Uniti in
1601.18
Throughout Isabellas travels, she made a habit of dedicating poems to the
scholars and nobles she met along the way. This method of personal flattery likely
helped spur her academic career, as her work first appeared in 1587 in the anthologies of
the Accademia degli Intenti, an academic society that did not generally accept women, in
part due to her friendship with Gherardo Borgonia, another Italian poet.19 Isabellas first
published work, a pastoral play called Mirtilla, was released in 1588 and widely
acclaimed.
In addition to her relationship with Accademia degli Intenti (who accepted her as
a member and granted her an honorary doctorate in 1601), she also developed
relationships with other exclusively male institutions, including the Accademia
Filarmonica of Verona (Italys oldest musical academy, founded in 1543) and Accademia
Olimpica of Vincenza.
Her poetry, later organized into Rime, published in two volumes in1601 and 1604,
was known for its direct simplicity of subject, pragmatism, and masculine voice. The
following poem is her Sonnet 108, composed on the death of Laura Guidiccioni
Lucchesini, an Italian playwright.
Sonnet 108
How many trophies of splendid arms, O Death,
How many warriors high in our esteem
Have you seized? How many pilgrim lovers bound
17

I Sebastini. Commedia dellArte Women Timeline.


Russell, Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Biographical Sourcebook, 19.
19
Andreini, MacNeil, Wyatt-Cook, Selected Poems of Isabella Andreini, 9.
18

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For Loves fair realm, O fierce one, have you snatched?


Sometimes youve pillaged gems, and royal cloaks,
Youve burned a lovely town with raging heat,
Then, thirsting for the tearful humor, you
Have drunk of a thousand eyes the welling tears.
Who could describe the slaughter you have wrought,
Hoping with beauty to adorn yourself
And with the Muses darlings glorious gifts.
And fancying just such high and worthy traits,
A laurel youve uprooted in our time
That neither Thessaly nor Sorgue could match.20
After her death at Lyons in 1604 (in childbirth with her 8th child, who did not
survive), Francesco retired to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he edited Isabellas
letters (published as Letteres in 1607 and reprinted five more times by 1647). He also
collected her performed dialogues, and with the help of Flaminio Scala, published them
in 1620 as Fragmenti di alcune scritture della Signora Isabella Andreini comica gelosa e
academica intent (Fragments of some writings by Isabella Andreini, Gelosa actress and
Intenta academician). 21
Isabellas oldest son, Giovanni Battista, performed with I Gelosi as an innamorato
until he was twenty, when he formed his own company of the Fedeli. He also became an
accomplished writer, penning eighteen plays and composing a book of poems dedicated
to his mother, Pianto di Apollo (Apollos Tears), published in 1606. 22 He was a favorite
actor in Louis the XIIs court, and helped establish the process of notating stage

20

Andreini, MacNeil, Wyatt-Cook, Selected Poems of Isabella Andreini, 113.


Russell, Italian women writers: A Bio-Bibliographical sourcebook, 19.
22
Russell, Italian women writers: A Bio-Bibliographical sourcebook, 19.
21

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directions in scripts. Many Italians assert that Miltons Paradise Lost was based on his
play LAdamo, which was in production during Miltons travels in Italy.23

A Staged Contest: Old Courtesan Tricks


There are few better examples of the ingenuity of female commediani than the
famous contest at the Medici wedding. In May of 1589, I Gelosi travelled to Florence
with Vittoria Piisimi to perform at the wedding of the new Grand Duke Ferdinando
deMedici to Princess Christine de Lorraine. The festivities were so lavish that the
construction for the complicated stage machinery took eight months to build. For once, I
Gelosi was not the main attraction, something that the women quickly meant to remedy.
The festival began with La Pellegrina, a total theater piece including dance,
poetry and drama, filled with lavish scenery and complicated machina, performed by an
all-male amateur acting troupe, and the recreation of a naval battle in the great hall of the
Palazzo Pitti. When it came time for I Gelosi to take the stage, a much-publicized row
broke out between Isabella and Vittoria over whether their performance should be La
Zingana (The Gypsy), which starred Vittoria, or La Pazzia dIsabella (The Madness of
Isabella), starring Isabella.
The Grand Duke determined that both plays be performed the following weekend,
and that he would decide which was better. Ultimately, the acclaim went to Isabella,
whose performance included speaking six different languages (including French, the
brides native tongue) and the dialects of all of her companions. However, the entire
troupe benefited from the stunt: the troupe was paid double for doing two performances,

23

Hayley, The Life of Milton, to which are added The Conjectures on the Origin of Paradise Lost, 248.

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and they avoided an anticlimactic performance by delaying their show until a week after
the spectacles of La Pellegrina and the indoor naval battle.24
Though Italian Commedia continued on into the late 1600s (and in various other
forms long after), by the middle of the century, more and more jurisdictions were
requiring performance content to be pre-approved, requiring scripts. Increasing sanctions
on the cortigiane in Venice restricted their mobility and social positions. While there
were a number of famous actresses after Isabellas death (namely, her daughter-in-law,
Virginia Andreini), the loss of improvisation de-emphasized the quick wit and natural
talent of the performers. With this shift, the demands on actors were lessened. It was no
longer a professional requirement for actors and actresses to be multi-lingual, wellversed, political, accomplished singers, musicians and acrobats, in addition to having
impeccable comedic timing.

24

Crick, Rudlin, Commedia dellArte: A Handbook for Troupes, 22.

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Stage. Cornwall: MPG Books, LTD, 2005.
Campbell, Julie D., Literary circles and gender in early modern Europe: A cross-cultural approach.
Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988.
Ducharte, Pierre-Louis. The Italian Comedy. New York: Dover, 1966.
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