Francesca Caccini: Power and Performance in Seventeenth Century Italy

Music historian Dr. Leah Broad explores the world of Francesca Caccini and her musical legacy. 

Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero is part of our 2022 Emerging Artist double bill (28 July - 2 August): find out more and book online >

In Francesca Caccini’s world, opera was about power. The very earliest operas were lavish spectacles designed to showcase and reinforce the ruler’s authority – not just through their expensive opulence, but through allegorical plots that merged the personal and political. And what happened off-stage was equally important. Opera seating was a way of clearly laying out hierarchies, indicating favour or disapproval by proximity to the one central seat, the primo luogo, which was always occupied by the ruler. At the 1624 performance of La regina Sant’Orsola, co-composed by Caccini and Marco da Gagliano, the ambassador of Modena complained bitterly to his prince that he had been snubbed by the Medici, Tuscany’s ruling family – and he submitted the opera’s seating plan as his evidence.

Portrait Of Christina Of Lorraine

Portrait of Christine of Lorraine

Affronts aside, what made this performance particularly unusual was that the primo luogo was occupied by a woman. From 1621 to 1628, Archduchess Maria Magdalena ruled Tuscany as joint regent with her mother-in-law, Christine of Lorraine. This was the only period during the Medici’s 200-year principality that the family was ruled by women, and it happily coincided with Caccini’s years of professional maturity, complicating her otherwise overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Noble women were supposed to aspire to the ideals of faithfulness, chastity, and self-containment, deferring to men in all things. But like most ideals, this was not necessarily reflected in the reality of women’s lives. Women like Francesca, Christine, and Maria Magdalena constantly negotiated between limitations, opportunities, expectations and possibilities to build positions of power in the notoriously cutthroat and ambitious Medici dynasty.

When Francesca was born in 1587, her family were employed as musicians in the household of Francesco I, grand duke of Tuscany. Both of her parents were celebrated singers, and additionally her father, Giulio, was a teacher and composer. Being employed by the Medici family was a precarious business. As household staff the Caccinis were subject to the Medici’s whims, and before Francesca was one her mother was fired by Ferdinando I, who succeeded as grand duke after both Francesco and his wife died in suspicious circumstances.

But at other times the Caccinis benefitted enormously from the Medici’s favours and protections. Lucia was eventually rehired, Giulio became the second best-paid musician on Ferdinando’s staff, and Francesca’s first recorded public performance as a singer was at no less a venue than the wedding of Marie de’ Medici and Henri IV of France in 1600. By all accounts, Francesca was a formidably talented singer, having been taught music from a very young age by her father. After hearing Francesca sing in 1605, the French king reportedly declared that ‘there was no one in France who sang better than she, and that this was the best music in France’. Accordingly Marie tried to hire Francesca to the French court, but Ferdinando was reluctant to release Francesca from his household. Other offers followed, but through Giulio’s either incompetent negotiation or savvy manoeuvring – it’s unclear whether he desired Francesca to leave Tuscany or not – Francesca returned to Ferdinando’s court with her family.

Wedding Of Maria De Medici And Henry Iv Of France Jacopo Da Empoli 1600

Wedding of Maria de Medici and Henry IV of France (Jacopo da Empoli, 1600)

The timing could not have been more opportune. By 1607 Ferdinando was extremely ill, and Christine was consolidating her authority within the court, acutely aware of the fact that their eldest son was still a teenager, often in poor health, and more interested in scholarship than in governance. Christine was described by a contemporary as a woman ‘born to reign and command’, and she wielded power with an assertiveness that led one (possibly affronted) ambassador to complain that she wished ‘to govern everything absolutely, without any thoughts to the reputation and the benefit of her son.’ 

As part of her negotiations, Christine commissioned a stage work from the nineteen-year-old Caccini for the 1607 Carnival. Women’s power was central to the plot, in which a group of knights help a Persian slave woman after she is revealed to be a future queen – a Persian princess captured before her intended marriage to the king of India. Christine was delighted with the result, and shortly afterwards hired Francesca into the household independent of her family, providing her with a salary, a dowry, and a husband – fellow court singer Giovanni Battista Signorini.

a powerful testimony to historical women’s determination to be heard

Signorini seems to have been an excellent match. What little is known about him is that he was both generous and kind, and Caccini seems to have been happy with him. Certainly she was productive; her duties involved singing, teaching, and composing, and she wrote prolifically. Sadly much of Caccini’s music is now lost, but what survives gives some idea of her extraordinary compositional power. In 1618 she published Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of both sacred and secular songs and duets. They reveal a composer with a real gift for melody, just as compelling when writing light-hearted, sprightly songs as pathos-laden laments. And they give us some idea of Caccini’s priorities and strengths as a singer. She would surely have sung these herself, and the overwhelming emphasis in the songs is allowing for expression of emotion. She does not shy away from virtuosity, but technique is always used as the vehicle for articulation of sentiment rather than an end in itself.

Maria Magdalena Of Austria And Her Son By Justus Sustermans Circa 1623

Maria Magdalena of Austria and her son (Justus Sustermans, 1623)

Most of all, though, Caccini wrote for the stage. After Christine’s husband died in 1609 his successor, Cosimo, often absented himself from governing decisions. Christine effectively ruled Tuscany unofficially until Cosimo’s death in 1621, resulting in her joint regency with Maria Magdalena. They used the arts to support their reign, commissioning numerous artworks that foregrounded powerful women and explored women’s perspectives. Maria Magdalena filled her audience room with paintings of female sovereigns, and the rest of her villa with frescoes showing historical and Biblical women. But most important were the entertainments for court events that that would dazzle visiting dignitaries from allied and enemy states alike, staging the womens’ power. For at least fourteen of these entertainments, Christine and Maria Magdalena turned to Caccini, and from 1621 to 1627 she was the highest paid musician in the household. 

La liberazione di Ruggiero was written for one such entertainment, commissioned for the 1625 Carnival to celebrate the visit of Crown Prince Władysław of Poland. Like her earlier ballet La stiava, Caccini’s only surviving opera cleverly centers female power and voices without explicitly challenging an overarching patriarchal worldview. Based on the famous Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso, the opera’s central character is ostensibly the titular Ruggiero, trapped by the sorceress Alcina. But it is ultimately three women who determine the dramatic action. Alcina captures Ruggiero; Ruggiero’s beloved, Bradamante, determines to free him; and the sorceress Melissa ultimately contrives a way to rescue him. Ultimately the main dramatic tension is the rivalry between Alcina and Melissa. And yet, despite this, they compete over a man. It is Ruggiero’s choice that determines the opera’s outcome, giving him an almost god-like status that ensures that Caccini – and, by implication, her patrons – never step outside of the bounds of feminine propriety. 

Julia Sitkovetsky Alcina Lfo Alcina 2016 Cr Patrick Baldwin 4

A different Alcina... Longborough's 2016 production of Handel's Alcina (photo by Patrick Baldwin)

Caccini was widowed in 1626, and with the regency coming to an end she decided to remarry and move away from Florence. She continued to compose, writing intermedii (musical dramas performed between play acts) for a new employer, but found herself widowed again within just three years. Feeling ‘alone, without company, abandoned’, Caccini and her two children returned to Florence and to the Medicis. Without Christine and Maria Magdalena, however, Francesca and her two children held a less prominent position within the household. She finally left the Medici’s service in 1641, aged fifty-four. Apart from two letters about accommodation, her letters of protection from the Medici are the last historical traces that survive of Caccini’s life, commending her for having worked ‘to our extraordinary satisfaction and with particular fame for her singular value’. Caccini’s final years – what she did, where she lived, when she died – are a mystery. But she left an extraordinary legacy in her music, a powerful testimony to historical women’s determination to be heard, to reject the limitations placed upon them, and to thrive even in worlds that are built to diminish them.

Leah Broad

Dr. Leah Broad is a music historian and Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford. Her book on women composers will be published by Faber & Faber next year. You can find more of her writing at, or follow her on Twitter @LeahBroad.

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La liberazione di Ruggiero (28, 30, 31 July, 2 August 2022)

Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero is part of our 2022 Emerging Artist double bill (28 July - 2 August), together with Freya Waley-Cohen's Spell Book: find out more and book online >