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  • Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice
  • Anne MacNeil
Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice. By Wendy Heller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. [xix, 386 p. ISBN 0-520-20933-8. $65.00.] Music examples, notes, bibliography, index.

Music historians have long needed a thematic treatment of seventeenth-century opera, and here it is. Wendy Heller's Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice, taking off from Ellen Rosand's influential and monumental text Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), offers an interpretive critique that makes early-modern Venetian opera accessible to students and interested non-specialists as well as to experts in the field. Those of us who teach opera history welcome Emblems of Eloquence for the engaging fodder it provides for stimulating discussion and the development of alternative perspectives. Heller is a bold scholar who brings a provocative voice to the often staid realm of Baroque opera.

Heller's argument in Emblems of Eloquence is three-fold, alternately highlighting conceptions of women, opera, and Venice as a republic. She integrates into her discussions the evolving modes of female eloquence in Venetian opera, the ambivalent ways in which the male-dominated republic of Venice incorporated emblematic women into its mythology, and the ways in which the representation of women forged a relationship between opera and the ancient world (pp. xiii–xiv). For Heller, opera is the medium in which Venice's querelles des femmes were fought, and opera is a metaphor for the Serenissima itself. Strikingly, this confluence of proto-feminist ideology, opera, and the mythology of the state runs its course by the end of the seventeenth century, and Heller therefore defines the early-modern manifestation of the genre along these lines.

Heller's book presents five discrete case studies, circumscribed by three introductory chapters (the unnumbered Introduction plus two numbered chapters), and a rather pallid five-page conclusion. The introduction lays the groundwork for ensuing discussions. Categories addressed are: opera and the myths of Venice; opera, carnival, and ritual; virtue and the body; courtesan culture; opera and theatrical gender; and representing female eloquence. As one might surmise from the book's title, the first and last categories get the most play, and chapter 1, "The Emblematic Woman" rightly addresses the confrontation of women writers with seventeenth-century humanists. Heller's discussion here, as well as in chapter 2, "Bizzarrie Feminile:Opera and the Accademia degli Incogniti," offers a fine contextualization of the history of humanistic fascination with extraordinary women.

One facet of this history is offered in didactic treatises of the sort Heller discusses in chapter 1, where she focuses on the writings of Lucrezia Marinella and Moderata Fonte, written in response to Giuseppe Passi's misogynist diatribe on the defects of women. Interested readers should not neglect also to consult recent publications from the University of Chicago Press's Other Voices in Early Modern Europe series, most notably Lucrezia Marinella, The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (ed. and trans. Anne Dunhill, introd. by Letizia Panizza [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999]), Moderata Fonte (Modesta Pozzo), The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (ed. and trans. Virginia Cox [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997]), and Arcangela Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny (ed. and trans. Letizia Panizza [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004]).

Another facet of this history is expressed in exchanges of letters between noted male humanists and prominent literary women. To Anthony Grafton's and Lisa Jardin's exposition of the letters of Isotta Nogarola with Guarino Guarini, and Cassandra Fedele with Angelo Poliziano (From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe [Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1986]), and to this reviewer's examination of the correspondence between Isabella Andreini and Erycius Puteanus (Women and Music of the Commedia dell'arte in the Late Sixteenth Century [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]), Heller adds an important fourth example with the exchange between Arcangela Tarabotti and Giovanni Francesco...