Born: September 18, 1587, Florence, Italy
Died: c. 1646, Florence, Italy
Francesca Caccini was born into a very musical family. Her father was well known composer, Giulio Caccini, and her mother, Lucia Gagnolanti, younger sister, Settimia, and stepmother, Margherita della Scala, were all talented singers. The Caccini home in Florence was always bustling with the activities of the children, Giulio’s music pupils, and nearby poets and painters. Caccini was thoroughly educated and studied Latin, rhetoric, geometry, philosophy, astrology, contemporary languages and was trained to be the “genteel woman” society demanded. Because “idleness is the enemy of virtue,” she also learned to read music and play keyboard, Spanish guitar, lute, harp, theorbo and viols. Ensembles of women were in fashion at Caccini’s time and gave her the opportunity to perform often as a singer beginning when she was 13. The Caccini’s were ambitious, especially Giulio, who tirelessly promoted his daughters at court to maintain his good reputation and later, to showcase Caccini’s emerging vocal talent. La Cecchina (“The Songbird”), as Caccini was called, was likely very high spirited, funny, passionately committed to study, and, while never praised for her beauty, was always admired as a consummate musician.
Caccini performed as one of le donne di Giulio Romano (the ladies of Giulio of Rome) in two musical entertainments for the marriage of Marie de’ Medici to Henri IV, King of France, in October 1600. When Caccini sang French songs for the King, he proclaimed her the best singer in the country and offered her a position serving the French court. Caccini’s father likely hesitated allowing his daughter to accept this position because it would have meant giving up the prestige he maintained in Italy because of his daughter’s many talents. In addition, the choice to accept the position might have conveyed that the Italians were secondary to the French, a scenario that would have angered the Medicis. Caccini ultimately turned down the position and the family returned to Florence where she began to serve the Medici court and Ferdinando I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, as an "all-around musician.”
In 1607, poet and artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, was hired as the designer and scriptwriter for the year’s spectacle entitled La Stiava, a dance representing war battles. An admirer of Caccini’s talents, Buonarroti arranged for her to write the music to accompany it. They developed a steady working relationship and Buonarotti always remained a loyal supporter and friend of Caccini’s.
Around this time, the Grand Duke fell ill and his wife, Grand Duchess Christine de Lorraine, assumed the role of leader and decision maker of the Medici family, spending much of their fortune on art, architecture, and theater to display their intellect and power. As an employee of the Medicis, Caccini received orders from the Grand Duchess to marry Giovanni Battista Signorini. Signorini was a tenor and string player but he was not a wealthy man. Once married, Caccini and Signorini both benefited by continuing to perform in festivals and at court, each earning an annual salary of 120 scudi in 1607. Seven years later, Caccini’s stipend increased to 240 scudi a year, making her the highest paid musician in court. The Grand Duchess may have offered this salary to solidify her political power and prestige and show that she was responsible for Caccini’s career and musical performances.
In 1618, 30-year-old Caccini published Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of 32 monodies dedicated to Cardinal Cosimo de' Medici, the son of Grand Duke Ferdinando I and Christine de Lorraine. It combined sacred and secular pieces, solos, and duets and included varying styles from expressive to lighthearted, florid to simple. Caccini used these pieces to teach her female students vocal technique. The songs constituted a uniquely female centered publication; they were written for women, by women, and were approved by the powerful Medici women. Caccini’s compositional output also included at least 17 theatrical works and hundreds of shorter vocal works for private concerts performed by her students. Her father said that she “filled three books with over 300 works with passages of invention others imagine, with the best ornaments that could come from anyone who professed solo singing. “
Caccini lived five minutes from her father’s house and worked primarily from home where she taught a number of students, coached, composed, and studied. In addition to her musical pursuits, Caccini also managed her household and, after years of marriage to Signorini, gave birth to a daughter, Margherita, in 1622.
According to Cristoforo Bronzini’s Della dignità e nobiltà delle donne, Caccini was “friendly and admirable, never tiresome or resentful but merry and charming…and whether playing, singing, or pleasantly talking, she worked such stunning effects in the minds of her listeners that she changed them from what they had been. (Beer, 38)” Bronzini also praised Caccini for mastery over every aspect of her craft, which was respected by musicians and patrons alike. He stated that “the equality of men and women…was politically necessary to the health of the state,” indicating the true potency of Caccini’s influence in Florence, and the necessity of feminine equality in order for society to flourish.
In 1624, Archduchess Maria Maddalena commissioned a work titled La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina for a celebratory state visit by her brother, Archduke Karl of Styria, and her nephew, Crown Prince Wladislaw. Ferdinando Saracinelli wrote the libretto, Caccini wrote the vocal music, and architect Giulio Parigi designed the spectacular sets representing the dynamics of Tuscan women at court with its many female roles, some of which possessed great power. The work was a completely sung balletto ending with dance presented to the foreign guests at the newly renovated Villa Imperiale. The final product was a unique spectacle and represented one of the earliest versions of music theater in history.
After Caccini’s success composing La Liberazione, she continued writing music for the court. In 1626, she accepted a commission for two stage works by Prince Wladislaw when her husband suddenly died. Caccini, now a widow, was concerned about the custody of her daughter, Margherita, and wrote to her old friend Buonarroti for help. She decided to relocate to Lucca, where she began working for Vincenzo Buonvisi, and remained there for six years. In Lucca she met and married aristocrat Tommaso Raffaelli. They had a son, Tommasino, but Raffaelli died soon after, leaving her to take care of the children alone. A widow once more, she reached out to the Medici family who urged her to return to Florence. She finally heeded their advice after several years of plague outbreaks and lived in an apartment behind the Dominican monastery of Santa Croce until 1641. Duchess Christine and her daughter-in-law, Archduchess Maria Maddalena, visited Caccini and used her home as a retreat where music was always remarkably creative.
Caccini was sustained by the protection of the Medici family and, in her later years, petitioned for her daughter Margherita to be able to enjoy a singer’s life. She said, “...a father and mother can have no greater desire than to make themselves anew in their children, leaving them heirs of their professions and virtu.” Caccini’s daughter entered the convent of San Girolamo in Florence where she lived until 1690 and took the name Suor Placida Maria. Severo Bonini, a music writer, commented that Maria “became so polished and brilliant in the profession of singing that everyone raced to hear her, admiring her smooth voice almost like resonant silver pipes, full of trills and articulated ornaments accompanied with miraculous and feeling-filled dynamic shadings.”
Both Caccini and her daughter were hailed for their talented musicianship, thereby solidifying Caccini’s 40-year career as a composer, singer, and teacher through her daughter, who continued her musical legacy. While the details of her death are not confirmed, it is believed that Caccini died just south of Lucca in August 1646.