- Singers Behaving BadlyRivalry, Vengeance, and the Singers of Cardinal Antonio Barberini
We have come to expect bad behavior and public rivalries from opera singers. Recurring jokes play on pervasive stereotypes and serve to distinguish singers from other musicians, portraying them as self-centered, aggressive, and vindictive. Media attention paid to singers behaving badly is not limited to the modern day or to our recent nineteenth-century past, and the titillation it incites in the listening public leads to an uncritical acceptance of rivalries; the perceived ubiquity renders them an intrinsic part of the phenomenon of opera, a by-product of the innately flawed nature of opera singers. However, recently scholars have begun to contextualize well-rehearsed historical altercations between singers in contemporary cultural practices, broadening our understanding of the singing cultures in which such rivalries flourished.1
In this article I examine a scandalous incident from Rome in 1639 involving two singers supported by Cardinal Nephew Antonio Barberini (1607– 71). On the surface, the incident appears to be just another case of egocentrism run rampant. Yet a more critical investigation reveals a carefully orchestrated act of revenge born out of the necessity to maintain a public image. The sources provide important details about the specific role that rivalry played in early modern singing culture in Rome as a whole; rivalry was not limited to the Roman operatic stage. Unlike Handel’s London, where rivalries existed among the same type and gender of singer, in Barberini Rome rivalries also existed between castrati and women, despite the fact that the latter did not sing opera and were [End Page 45] governed by different social rules. Occurring in the same year that Francesco Cavalli’s first Venetian opera was performed, this incident contributes pertinent information about the role of rivalry during the time of opera’s expansion from the court to the public theater.
The Basile-Baroni House Scorning
On 19 September 1639 two of Antonio Barberini’s most favored singers, the castrato Marc’Antonio Pasqualini (1614– 91) and the soprano Leonora Baroni (1611– 70), were involved in a shaming public incident, what historian Elizabeth Cohen identifies as a house scorning: “While Adriana (Basile), famous singer, along with her daughters, enjoys the height of peace and collects gifts and presents from everyone, a spirit of conflict disturbs her quiet and upsets her comfort, because on Monday night her house was smeared with filth [varie lordure].”2 Like other similar incidents, the event was reported in the avvisi di Roma, handwritten news sources copied and circulated in Italian and European cities. The six known avvisi that comment on the incident and its aftermath describe the cycle of events pertaining to this ritual revenge crime: they report that the house scorning took place at the home of the Basile-Baroni family, residence of famous Neapolitan singer Adriana Basile (ca. 1580– after 1642) and her two singer-daughters, Leonora and Caterina. The house was smeared with staining substances, either ink, “filth,” or both, and the perpetrators left a card saying, “The second time it will be worse.”3 Adriana tried to wash off the stains, but they were still visible in the light of day. Because of the incident Adriana was “despairing” and considered leaving Rome.4 Her friends, feeling sorry for her, “swore to take bitter revenge.”5 There were several singers thought to have been responsible, including Pasqualini and the Lolli sisters, and Leonora was believed to be the main target, due in part to a recent publication of poems praising her virtues. In the end, the perpetrators were never publicly identified, and as the physical evidence and the memory of the incident faded, Adriana was content to stay in Rome “for a long time.”6
Like many such incidents, the only record of the Basile-Baroni house scorning comes from avvisi, sources notoriously difficult to interpret due to questions of veracity. As Cohen notes, however, even blatantly falsified sources [End Page 46] reveal “cultural patterns and characteristic mentality and social behavior.”7 These avvisi transmit what plausibly could have happened—though not precisely who was involved or the exact sequence of events.
While several singers were implicated, I will...