The Three Ladies of Ferrara and the Birth of the Diva (16th c.)

The year is 1580. You are the court scribe for the Duke of Ferrara. You were a foundling taken in by the local monastery–the magnificent Abbey of Pomposa and, because you were an unusually clever child, were taught to read and write. At the age of twelve you were put to work as the assistant to the monastery’s chief scribe and historian. Watch this short film to get the sense of your work environment: In your new job at the ducal palace (and the dozens of luxurious noble residences around Ferrara), you write letters for the Este family, and document their history and accomplishments. You also keep a record of important visitors, and describe grand ducal events for posterity. A minor nobleman from England, Baron Hunsdon of Hunsdon, a distant relation of the duchess, is coming to stay at the court for hunting season. He is an amateur historian and noted patron of the arts. He has heard astonishing reports of the musical nuns of the convent of St. Vito in Ferrara, and the famous, but mysterious, concerto delle donne of the Ferrarese court. He can’t imagine how women of the middle classes could become so skilled in music. The duchess has charged you with writing to the Baron and telling him how it is that all these ladies, from ordinary, non-noble backgrounds, came to be able to read music, play instruments, and gain so much fame. Tell him how the invention of music printing led to musical literacy, and the pursuit of music making. Remember: he is a historian, and needs some facts and details for the history of music in the convents and courts of Italian city-states that he is working on in his abundant leisure time. Describe one piece of music from the convent, and one sung by the concerto delle donne, that he can expect to hear on his visit. Name the composer of each. Point out something unusual about the performance of each one–something that will make the Baron’s jaw drop in wonder. Make him so eager to hear these remarkable female musicians of Ferrara that he packs his bags two weeks early. Read and use attached lesson as reference.

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