Controlling and Fashioning the Sounding Body: Italian Depictions of Women Making Music, c. 1520-c. 1650

Laura Ventura Nieto

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis investigates how female musicians were imagined, constructed and represented between c. 1520 and c. 1650, focusing on depictions (e.g. paintings, drawings, woodcuts) produced in Italy as primary sources. It interprets these visual
representations as multi-layered gender performances constituted by a multiplicity of gazes (for instance, those of the sitter, the painter or the commissioner), which are in turn re-enacted through time by the gaze of new onlookers. Such depictions thus are static and silent interpretations of the gender performances made by women as they fashioned their identities within the limits imposed by patriarchal society.
As a starting-point for the gender performances captured in visual artworks, this dissertation investigates the education of female musicians, through treatises (such as Castiglione’s Il cortegiano or Bruto’s La institutione) and biographical documents that discuss female musical education (such as Guasco’s Ragionamento). Such sources show the ambivalent status of music during early modernity, and highlight how the education of women was framed by society’s conventions and expectations. Further case-studies show the role of musical instruments in gender performances: through a focus on
anthropomorphism as a part of the early modern episteme of resemblance, this thesis investigates the gender connotations of percussion, blown, stringed and keyboard instruments. Moreover, visual representations of Saint Cecilia are also scrutinised as commentaries on contemporary physical religious experiences, as well as ideals of femininity, social implications of female music-making and early modern musical
theory and practice. Finally, musical portraits of figures such as Barbara Salutati (fl. 1520s), Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625), Marietta Robusti (c. 1554-c. 1590), Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) exemplify how early modern women played with blurred boundaries through the use of masks and sprezzatura in their performances with their sounding bodies, and how artists
represented these musical gender performances with reference to the cultural conventions and social beliefs surrounding female musicianship.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Rose, Stephen, Supervisor
Award date1 Oct 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017


  • Musical Iconography
  • Renaissance - Italy
  • Gender

Cite this