Courtesan singers as courtiers: power, political pawns, and the arrest of virtuosa Nina Barcarola

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This article gives a close reading of the “avvisi di Roma”—unpublished archival documents reporting on daily life in the city—that record the arrest in 1645 of famous Roman courtesan singer Nina Barcarola. Organized by the political enemies of Nina's main protector, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the arrest was orchestrated so as to compromise the public honor of both. The reports of the arrest reflect a growing elite interest in female vocal performance in Rome, and attest to a rise in the social value of courtesan singers. Examining details provided in these reports, the article explores various aspects of Nina's life and courtesan singing culture more generally: the public honor and social practices of courtesan singers; the positive effect of singing on courtesan honor; the types of gatherings hosted by Nina; and her politically satirical public performances. It also analyzes Nina's relationship to various areas of contemporary politics—social, state, familial, and gender. The reports reveal that, in the public sphere, Nina, like Barberini's male dependents, served as a symbolic extension of the cardinal. By introducing courtesan singers—a significant, marginalized population—into musicological discourse on seventeenth-century Rome, the article broadens our understanding of Roman singing culture in this period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-267
JournalJournal of the American Musicological Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


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