Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference 2014

  • Laura Ventura Nieto (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


"What a Perfect Sight of Sin": Early Sixteenth-Century Depictions of Women Playing Keyboards

The stringed keyboard (spinet, virginals, clavichord) was considered the feminine instrument par excellence during the sixteenth century and it was preferred among female performers because it enabled them to fulfil their dual purpose, that is, to be chaste and accomplished at the same time. Thus, endless representations of beautiful and accomplished young women playing keyboards from this period are extant: as solo performers or as members of a musical ensemble; alone in the privacy of their homes or accompanied by a suitor; courtesans or courtiers, these lavishly-dressed female musicians are normally depicted properly seated in front of their instrument and in the act of playing.
This paper will focus on four images not previously discussed by musicologists, which highlight the connotations these instruments had during the early modern period when they were associated with women. On the one hand, three paintings representing Mary Magdalene playing a clavichord by the Flemish Master of the Female Half-Lengths (first half of the sixteenth century) reproduce the same stereotypical female figure: young, accomplished and affluent. On the other hand, Woman Playing a Clavichord, with Man and Older Woman (c. 1520) by the Italian painter Bernardino Licino (c. 1489-1565) depicts a young prostitute using her music to attract her prospective client. These images suggest that despite the keyboard’s aura of perfection, artists still associated female keyboard players with lust and sin.
Period3 Jul 2014
Event typeConference
LocationBirmingham, United KingdomShow on map