Born: 1544, Italy
Died: 1590, Vicenza, Italy
Established composer and exceptionally talented professional singer, lutenist, and teacher, Maddalena Mezari detta Casulana Vicentina (also known as Maddalena Casulana) of Venice, was the first woman to publish her own musical compositions, primarily madrigals. Her first set of four madrigals in four parts, published in Il Desiderio I in Venice in 1566, was compiled by Giuglio Bonagiunta, a well known music underwriter and singer who included Casulana’s work in order to sell the edition. Two years later, a full volume of her music, First Book of Madrigals for Four Voices, was published. Casulana humbly dedicated this composition to Isabella de’ Medici, the main musical subject of these madrigals. In her dedication, Casulana expressed her admiration for de’ Medici while sharing thoughts on being a woman composer in a field dominated by men:
"I know truly most excellent Lady, that these first fruits of mine, flawed as they are, cannot produce the effect that I desire, which would be in addition to providing some evidence of my devotion to Your Excellency, also to show the world the futile error of men who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of intellect, which according to them cannot also be held in the same way by women. Because of all this, I did not wish to fail to publish them, hoping that in Your Excellency's bright name they would achieve such light as might kindle some other, higher talent to succeed more clearly in that which except for the spirit, I have not been able to show."
Venice, April 10, 1568.
from Your Excellency’s most humble servant,
Women’s roles in the early 1500s largely centered around domestic duties and a constrained societal existence with the expectation that they would live humble, demure and pious lives. Musical women in earlier times had often been silenced but the sixteenth century brought the beginning of a much debated change; young women, including Casulana, who was offered the opportunity to pursue academic studies in Florence, sought education. Armed with this experience and her talent, she chose to dedicate herself to a career in music, finding opportunities to sing and teach in salons and academies where women were accepted more readily. She published three volumes of madrigals between 1560-1580 on her own and her works were also included in Bonagiunta’s Il Gaudio and Il Desiderio III. Respected as a composer and singer by the famous male composers of the day who lived in Venice, she built a reputation not as a courtesan, known for improvised singing, but as a professional singer and composer of written and published music. To describe Casulana’s independent and hard-working spirit, editor and researcher Thomasin LaMay writes:
“She was an independent woman who apparently came from modest means and chose to earn her own living. We know that women should not have been able to do that then, for they were property of either their father, brother, or husband, or existentially of a convent.” “At the very least, we can know that Maddalena was highly unusual in her quest for a self-identifying voice, and that she must have experienced life quite differently not only from other women, but also from other women performers.”