Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court: Reflections from Author Jessica Goethals

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Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court reconstructs the life, work, and legacy of an extraordinary woman and prolific writer of the seventeenth century. Read the full blog post by author Jessica Goethals:

“Don’t raise your eyebrows at me!” So declared the professional opera singer and prolific writer Margherita Costa in the final poem of her first (and, at almost 600 pages, her longest) poetry collection, La chitarra (The Guitar, 1638). Rather than one of the nine beautiful and refined Muses who inspire the arts in the Greco-Roman tradition, Costa declares in this same poem that her muse is instead a wild, ugly, screaming, uncontrollable woman named Simona of Elicona (Helicon). Through this unusual figure, Costa crafted a literary persona as capricious and “bizarre” – an identity itself decidedly out of the ordinary for early modern women writers in Italy, who often found it necessary to highlight their decorum and modesty as a means of ensuring their social acceptability. As a professional performer and (at least in her early days) a courtesan, however, Costa was less constrained in this way than many of her female peers. Her singing career took her from her native Rome to Florence, Turin, Venice, and Paris, and along the way she composed an enviable fourteen full-length literary and theatrical works across a spectrum of genres and registers. These include amorous poetry, love letters sent between an array of varyingly unattractive lovers and beloveds, a burlesque comedy, a Mediterranean epic and a sacred epic (on St. Cecilia, patron saint of music), encomiastic and funeral verse, several opera librettos, and even a horse ballet.

I first encountered Costa after speculating with a colleague (Sara Díaz of Fairfield University) about whether any of Italy’s comparatively numerous Renaissance women writers had ever authored a comedy. The question led us to Costa’s Li buffoni (The Buffoons, 1641), which we subsequently made available to English-speakers through a bilingual critical edition. The first comedy published by a woman in Italy, this is the ribald tale of a princess who suffers in love because she is unable to convince her husband, the prince, to join their marriage bed since he is so otherwise distracted by the company of court dwarfs, hunchbacks, and prostitutes. Dedicated to a professional buffoon, the comedy is set in northern Africa but parodies the Medici court, including through caricatures of historical personages in the family’s employ. Yet this was by no means the only kind of theatre Costa associated with the Medici. A year earlier, she composed a libretto for an equestrian ballet – one of the most vibrant forms of early modern spectacle that paired music, dance, horsemanship, and military arts. In the ballet’s final scene, sixty horses and their riders were to be lifted into sky, becoming heavenly planets organized in the form of the Medici balls, the family’s famed emblem. When it proved impossible to stage the event in Florence, Costa would later revise and repurpose the work to instead honour a young Louis XIV while she was gracing the French opera stage.

In Margherita Costa, readers will find a woman active at the intersection of literature, music, and theatre. She was one of Renaissance Italy’s last but most productive and versatile female writers. Her pages reveal her inventive adaptations of models that include Ovid, Ariosto, Tasso, Isabella Andreini, and Giambattista Marino in poetry and Luigi Rossi and Ottavio Rinuccini in music and librettos, among others. In addition to reading Costa’s thoughtful, and often playful, use of these predecessors, I have also sought to piece together the details of her movements and relationships – from her poetic interlocutors and imitators to her entanglement with a notorious bandit who impacted her writing and her performance itinerary – through an extensive survey of archival materials.

Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court thus traces the career, works, and relationship of this extraordinary woman, whose roster of prominent patrons included the grand duke of Tuscany, the regent queen of France, and an assortment of powerful cardinals. A true performer, this book argues, Costa savvily adapted the style and contents of her works to each of the cities and courts in which she performed, shrewdly placing her benefactors at the heart of her literary efforts. Costa was a woman with her finger on the pulse of these cities, and she instinctively understood how to use her pen not only to ingratiate herself to the powerful through her title page dedications but also how to build her works in part around the rhetorical and political iconographies dear to her patrons. At the same time, however, Costa knew how to seize the spotlight as an unconventional writer in a way that won praise and applause from many of her contemporaries but also drew words of scorn from select others who disapproved of Costa’s lifestyle and literary audacity. As the book’s final chapter underscores, while Costa knew how to tug on her patronage network to her advantage, her view of the court and its dynamics was thus not always rosy. She also used her publications to lament the jealousies and rivalries, both between female performers and between male and female writers, that risked jeopardizing her position. In short, Costa opens a new window onto the possibilities for women’s literature and performance, on the one hand, and on the dynamics of the baroque court, its entertainments, and its tribulations on the other.

Learn more about Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court.


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