Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana – singular and strikingly modern composer

Born in the late sixteenth-century and cloistered from earliest childhood, Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana became Bologna’s only nun to publish her music, despite unrelenting clerical opposition.
The Coronation of the Virgin by Neri di Bicci, c. 1470. Lucrezia Vizzana was consecrated in 1613 and likely composed and performed her Amo Christum in cuius thalamum introibo for the occasion. Credit: Walters Art Museum/Wikipedia Commons
The Coronation of the Virgin by Neri di Bicci, c. 1470. Lucrezia Vizzana was consecrated in 1613 and likely composed and performed her Amo Christum in cuius thalamum introibo for the occasion. Credit: Walters Art Museum/Wikipedia Commons
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‘Through long experience, we have come to recognise how much the spiritual mind is troubled and how much damage done to religious life and regular discipline by permitting music at the convent. We understand how much dissension the devil has sown in this field of virginal purity by means of singing and playing.’ This declaration made by Theodosius of Piacenza in 1583 expressed sentiments widely shared among church authorities in Bologna—and, indeed, throughout Italy. That music nevertheless flourished behind convent walls, even in Bologna, where the curia remained notably antipathetic, reveals these nuns’ knack for discovering room to manoeuvre within a restrictive world meant to keep them silently in their place.

Of some 150 musicians to leave archival traces behind Bologna’s convent walls, only one took the public step of venturing forth, into print. Thanks to her Componimenti Musicali (1623), Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590-1662) has not been entirely forgotten.  Her inclusion since 2001 in the best-known music history textbook, A History of Western Music, (where she continues to hold her place, even as changing fashions sweep others aside) has led her to be considered a legitimate composer (although not a ‘great’ one). 

Lucrezia Vizzana was not a child destined for music. Had her mother lived just a few more years, Vizzana, if she learned music at all, might have become a genteel dabbler in that ‘very innocent diversion,’ the sort most familiar from Jane Austen (or, these days, perhaps, from Bridgerton). Widowed in 1598 and left with two young daughters, Lucrezia’s father did the most convenient thing: he sent eight-year-old Lucrezia and her sister off to a convent. By happy accident, Lucrezia had three aunts at the convent of Santa Cristina della Fondazza, one of Bologna’s wealthiest and most illustrious, but also the convent most renowned for music. 

It still comes as something of a surprise that during this period some of the best sacred singing in Italy could be heard in convent churches, and among the two dozen nunneries in Bologna, Santa Cristina was the best of them all. Of ten published musical collections dedicated to Bolognese nuns, half were dedicated to nuns from Santa Cristina. Their publication began immediately after Vizzana’s arrival. 

By another happy accident, one of Vizzana’s aunts served as convent organist. She would have likely been the one to nudge her niece in musical directions, and soon the girl’s talents outstripped her aunt’s capabilities.

How she did so was in some ways a matter of luck. Since the 1580s, Cardinal Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti had forbidden outside music teachers to teach the nuns, thereby undermining the fragile yet considerable hives of musical production behind convent walls. But Paleotti died in 1597 and his successor and distant cousin, Alfonso Paleotti, while equally averse to nuns’ music, was less competent (Paleotti would be Bologna’s only archbishop not to be made a cardinal.) And Alfonso’s successor was conveniently too busy ever to set foot in his diocese. In the meantime, Santa Cristina’s independent-minded choir mistress quietly ignored archiepiscopal prohibitions. She hired Ottavio Vernizzi, organist of the Basilica of San Petronio, to teach the convent’s three organists (one of them doubtless Vizzana), to write music for them, and to teach young Vizzana how to compose.

The convent wall kept Vizzana largely invisible to archdiocesan overseers, at least as long as the nuns did nothing sufficiently egregious to call attention to themselves. But the wall also kept her largely invisible to us. Apart from cursory, archival references, her Componimenti Musicali offer the only hints of her life and character.

Santa Cristina was one of very few European convents that still practiced the extraordinarily opulent ‘Pontifical Consecration of Virgins.’ Only performed about once a decade, this rite prepared nuns who had reached the age of twenty-five to assume highest monastic office. Much of the ceremony occurred outside monastic enclosure, in full view of the public, which provoked vehement, but, for the time being, futile opposition from the archdiocesan curia.  

Santa Cristina’s performance of the rite in 1608 was the first in ten years. Vizzana had not even turned eighteen and her sister was just twenty-one. Faced with this obstacle, they did what nuns usually did in such situations: they petitioned Rome for an exception to the rule. Although Rome’s cardinals afforded the older sister special license, they judged Lucrezia as simply too young. When the rite rolled round again in 1613, she was still too young. She petitioned once again. Rebuffed, she refused to take no for an answer (another common convent strategy). She went over the cardinals’ heads to the pope himself, lamenting that her superiors ‘did not wish to hear her and therefore forced her to seek refuge at the feet of Your Holiness.’ Her persistence paid off, although Vizzana was still almost two years short of twenty-five.

Music performed by the nuns was the highlight of these consecrations, including songs at the moments when they received betrothal rings and crowns. These crowns were usually of laurel, but at Santa Cristina they were decorated with jewels, on loan from Bologna’s highest nobility. 

Vizzana’s work Amo Christum in cuius thalamum introibo concludes with the liturgical texts sung by the consacrands at these moments: ‘With his ring he has betrothed me, and bedecked me with countless gems, and with a crown he has adorned me as his spouse.’ It seems quite certain Vizzana composed this motet for her own consecration in 1613, and that she was one of the two nuns who sang it.

It is intriguing that seven of Vizzana’s twenty motets call attention to the act of performance, for which the nuns of Santa Cristina enjoyed singular renown. This emphasis highlights an aesthetic quite different from our own. Modern-day audiences tend to esteem the composer and the individual ‘masterwork’ of music. In the 1600s, composer and piece were often eclipsed by performer and individual performance. Italy’s musical nuns were better known as performers than as composers, and their audiences were as interested — perhaps more interested — in who did the singing than who provided the notes they sang. Given how many details were left to the performer in seventeenth-century song, singers loomed as large as composers in the co-creative act of performance. 

Vizzana’s Sonet vox tua in auribus cordis mei sounds, in fact, like a theological justification of her own creative acts, both as composer and singer, in the face of clerical disapproval, and it is also intriguing that she presents her voice as of divine origin and an instrument of God.

‘Let your voice sound in the ears of my heart, most beloved Jesus, and let the abundance of your grace overcome the abundance of my sins. Then, truly, I will sing, I will exult, I will rejoice, I will recite a psalm of jubilation and rejoicing. And my voice will be like the striking of the kithara and my eloquence, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.’ 

While their origins certainly encourage curiosity, Vizzana’s works are noteworthy in and of themselves due to their often experimental nature. In O invictissima Christi Martir there is an especially arresting moment mid-motet. When the two sopranos declaim ‘ut spiritum timoris,’ the harmony lurches suddenly from G-minor to E-major, as each voice slides upward a semitone. Such an extroverted gesture was far less at home in church than in secular settings, most notably in contemporary madrigals

Bolognese, sacred male composers tended to eschew such promiscuous use of accidentals, which call attention to the notes themselves and away from the sacred words and liturgy. But Vizzana repeatedly and enthusiastically embraced such gestures as favourite aspects of her expressive vocabulary.

This was not her most transgressive music-rhetorical gesture, however. At notably fraught moments in half-a-dozen motets, when the voice creates a dissonant clash with the accompanying bass part, Vizzana allows the voice to leap from the dissonance, rather than to resolve smoothly downward by a tone, according to the time-honoured rules of counterpoint. This appears most notably in O si sciret stultus mundus, in O magnum mysterium and in Usquequo oblivisceris me in finem. Conservative Bolognese music theorist, Giovanni Maria Artusi, referred to pieces by Italy’s best-known contemporary composer, Claudio Monteverdi, which introduced such gestures, as ‘monstrous births’ and ‘trounced up whores.’ It is particularly intriguing to encounter such rule-breaking at the hands of a musical nun, supposedly ‘dead to the world’ behind the convent wall at Santa Cristina.

The publication of Vizzana’s Componimenti Musicali in January 1623 marked the end of Santa Cristina’s heyday and the withering of her musical career. By the time the collection appeared, the nuns were already in trouble. Pope Gregory XV’s nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, named archbishop of Bologna in 1621, reiterated bans on all nuns’ singing except plainchant, all instruments except organ and harpsichord, and all outside music teachers. Even more seriously, he ordered an archiepiscopal investigation of supposed abuses at Santa Cristina, alleged by two rivals of the convent’s music mistress. Among the first called to testify, Vizzana, with characteristic understatement, offered a hint of what was on every nun’s mind, ‘It merely seems to me that between Sister Emilia and Sister Cecilia there might be some enmity that causes some modest disturbance within the convent.’

Other nuns suggested that rivalries had turned the convent upside down. One musical rival within the convent alleged it all ‘began because of music.’ Much more seriously, she also hinted, ‘Chastity?—I respectfully decline to speak of it…’ When Archbishop Ludovisi’s interrogation failed to turn up anything concrete, clerical police ransacked the convent. The nuns’ confessor later recalled, ‘Not content to have rifled the nuns’ coffers, they even tore apart their beds; and even though they did all this without warning, they found nothing to carry off.’

In the truly extraordinary confrontations that followed, the nuns of Santa Cristina battled archdiocesan ministers, not only with words and music, but also with bricks, roof tiles, and stones, hurled from convent windows. High above the church doors, as the bell sounded the alarm, Lucrezia Vizzana’s sister, crucifix in hand, exhorted parishioners to come to their aid. Children tossed stones over the wall, lest the nuns run short of ammunition before the police finally fled. 

Vizzana and the rest of the nuns of Santa Cristina resisted for years, defying even the pope, until Urban VIII’s threat of excommunication brought them to their knees in 1629. They were only defeated absolutely in 1647 — but not before Vizzana had been driven mad by the shattering events. As her confessor recorded, ‘So great was the terror they suffered that Donna Lucrezia Vizzana took a shock to the brain. And whenever she heard the cloister bell ring, her imaginary fears were so great that she would fall about, shaking.’

Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana lived until 1662, outlasting virtually everyone from those years of crisis. But her musical career had been overwhelmed in 1623, and for centuries, her voice silenced.

Craig A. Monson

Craig Monson is Paul Tietjens Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in Saint Louis. His recent books include Nuns Behaving Badly (2010), Divas in the Convent (2012), Habitual Offenders (2016), and The Black Widows of the Eternal City (2020).

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