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The Collation

Interview and excerpt: Jessica Goethals, Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court

At the Folger, we are proud to sponsor research inquiry within a vibrant and intellectually generous community. Periodically, as that research is published, we circle back to talk with recent authors to showcase the role of collections-based inquiry on their methods and arguments. Today, we pose a series of questions to 2016-2017 long-term fellow Jessica Goethals, followed by an excerpt from her new book Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court (University of Toronto, 2023).

Dr. Jessica Goethals is Associate Professor of Italian at the University of Alabama. In addition to Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court, she is the co-editor and -translator, with Sara Díaz, of Costa’s The Buffoons, A Ridiculous Comedy (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, 2018). Her essays have appeared in Renaissance Quarterly, Renaissance Studies, Early Modern Women, The Italianist, and Versants, among others.


When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

Margherita Costa was a professional singer and one of the most prolific female writers of seventeenth-century Italy who traveled widely and published across genres. She obtained fame across Europe, but relatively little was known about her life until quite recently. Even her fourteen full-length works, which range from salty love poetry collections and a burlesque comedy to an equestrian ballet libretto and a hagiographic epic poem, had received less than sporadic scholarly attention. I conceived of this book as a study of the life of this remarkable woman, as well as a portrait of the interests, pastimes, and literary currents found at the numerous cities and courts Costa visited: her native Rome, as well as Florence, Turin, Venice, and Paris. Costa’s publications, which spanned two and a half decades of her life, were the spinal cord of the research, both because they aided me in mapping out her movements and because they highlight her innovative approach to obtaining patronage.

While at the Folger for a short-term project on an altogether different subject, I realized that the library has one of the largest collections of these often quite rare volumes, making it an ideal place to truly begin the research for my book. Even in the age of digitalization, having an array of Costa’s works together on my desk allowed me to compare elements like watermarks, an important factor in sorting out the realities of her frequently spurious publication information. With each new genre in which Costa experimented, the web of my research also expanded, introducing me to new scholarly questions.

A portrait of a woman with short hair and a wide collar surrounded by a decorative border
Portrait of Margherita Costa, in Flora feconda [Fertile Flora] (1640)

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

When I arrived at the Folger, my line of vision was initially trained on Costa alone. I wanted to take a deep dive into her works. I quickly realized, however, that the Folger’s holdings in Italian materials were broader than I had realized and that I could begin to read fruitfully ‘around’ Costa – looking at a wealth of texts in her web of patrons, courts, and interlocutors – in a way that saved me (I hope) from becoming too myopic within an intellectual biography of a single writer. Since my writing of the book (my first, but on a topic that wasn’t the subject of my earlier dissertation) fully began upon my arrival at the Folger, the timing was perfect to set the tone and scope of the project.

What couldn’t you find that you expected to find? Can you give us examples?

My answer to this regards the larger project rather than my time at the Folger. ‘Expected’ is perhaps the wrong word, but certainly there were things I had hoped to find that I simply could not. These specifically were details concerning Costa’s biography and performance itinerary, which were incredibly hazy when I set out on the project. I was able to piece together a great deal (the names and baptismal dates of her two daughters, to give just one example, whose godfathers were no less than the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, and his brother Giovan Carlo de’ Medici). Other information remained elusive, however; this includes the dates of Costa’s birth and death, as well as those of many of her movements. In part, this was a consequence of the pandemic, which necessarily caused me to cancel two summer trips to Italian archives. More importantly, though, these gaps also reflect the difficulties presented by  researching a non-noble, female performer, particularly in the early days of opera. Often court records simply state that ‘musicians were hired’ for a certain performance, for instance, without necessarily providing any names. Tracing a single figure of her gender and social position through the mountains of letters, contracts, and documents held in Italian archives in cities like Florence and Rome is truly needle-in-a-haystack work. Happily, though, those remaining puzzles of her life are likely to be solved by future researchers, whom I hope this book will help inspire.

A town square framed by curtains as though its a stage, a large group of costumed performers dance. At the bottom of the page are a row of seated spectators.
Stefano della Bella, in Margherita Costa, Li buffoni [The Buffoons] (1641)

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

The Folger community is exceptionally generous in spirit. Events, teatime discussions, and the chance to present my own in-progress project proved invaluable, particularly in honing methodological questions. Staff offered suggestions, insights, and materials in a way I’ve rarely encountered. I found it especially beneficial at the earliest stages of writing a book to be immersed in a community deeply knowledgeable about early modernity writ large but not necessarily the particulars of the Italian context; it served as a continuous, valuable reminder of how to speak to a broad, informed audience without getting too lost in the weeds. Many of the scholars I met, both long- and short-term, have remained supportive and trusted interlocutors even after our time in DC came to an end.

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

I have become zealous in encouraging scholars (early career and not) in Italian Studies to utilize the Folger. So well-known is the institution as a gem for the English Renaissance that many of my colleagues in Italian have erroneously assumed that its holdings end there and that it doesn’t have anything for them. Nothing could be further from the truth! That earlier misconception was due in part to the fact that the library’s continental holdings weren’t yet fully visible on the online catalogue, but recently Folger staff have made heroic efforts to fill those lacunae, hopefully with the result that many more scholars will become familiar with the geographical breadth and depth of the collection.

My first piece of advice, then, to early career scholars is to look widely and creatively for institutions that could benefit or inform your work. Once on site, I would encourage them to take the time amidst their planned research trajectory to also request materials that seem tangentially related – even just one item a day. Often its exactly in these moments where discoveries and new connections are made.

Do you have other illuminating questions that we should be asking?

I think that more fundamental than any one question that might be dancing around my own thoughts is the openness of the field collectively to new approaches, new voices, and new ways of engaging in research and its support. The Folger has been doing just that, and between the limitations of the pandemic and the renovations, it has approached those goals with admirable creativity and consistency.

A book cover with a richly colored portrait of a woman holding a stringed instrument


Below find an excerpt from the Introduction to Dr. Goethals’ book Margherita Costa, Diva of the Baroque Court (University of Toronto Press, 2023).

Sometime around 1618, the French artist Simon Vouet painted a female musician strumming a Spanish guitar, her lips slightly parted as if in song. The portrait, selected for this book’s cover, dates to Vouet’s years in Rome during the first decades of the century.1 Sumptuously dressed in a full red skirt and green satin sleeves that fall suggestively from her shoulder, and framed in dramatic Caravaggesque lighting, the seated figure glances to the side as though lost in thought. Pictorial images of female musicians, including singers, were in ever increasing demand in the early seventeenth century. In roughly the same years, the Roman artist Ottavio Leoni drew a similarly positioned female singer playing the guitar, perhaps either modelled on or a model for Vouet’s painting.2 Leoni’s image – one of his many portraits of cantanti – differs from Vouet’s in the inclusion of a lightly sketched male figure whose hands grasp the woman’s thigh and circle her waist, hinting at an erotic availability often associated with professional female performers.3

The identity of Vouet’s and Leoni’s sitters remain uncertain.4 Yet we might well imagine these figures of female musicianship to represent contemporaries such as Margherita Costa (1600?– after 1657), a Roman singer, courtesan, and prolific writer who entitled her first poetry collection La chitarra (The Guitar).5 This title, as Costa explained to her patron and dedicatee, Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici of Tuscany, reflects the ambiguous nature of both the volume and its author. “The guitar,” she wrote, “though it be a lowly instrument, is played by nearly everyone.”6 The declaration alludes to the tension between criticisms of the instrument as humble and unrefined and the evident enthusiasm for its versatile sound. Much like Costa herself, the Baroque guitar’s repertoire ranged from “boisterous street music to the elegance of courtly performance.”7 Yet, Costa pointedly adds, despite its contested status the grand duke often deigns to include it among the more urbane instruments found at his court. So too, she implies, should she belong there.

Her argument proved persuasive. Margherita Costa won prominence and acclaim across the courts of Italy and France during the mid-seventeenth century. She was, in the words of one of her celebrants, “la Signora Margherita Costa di poesia e di musica” – a woman of both poetry and music.8 In addition to her performances in the chambers and on the opera stages of Baroque Europe, Costa published a remarkable fourteen full-length texts across an array of genres: historical writing, burlesque comedy, drama, equestrian ballet, pastoral opera, amorous letters, elegiac poetry, and laments. She deftly secured a steady stream of elite patronage – with benefactors including the Medici in Florence, the Barberini in Rome, and Cardinal Jules Mazarin and Queen Anne in Paris – while male academicians, poets, and librettists wrote poetry on her behalf. Italy offered earlier examples of itinerant performer-authors, most notably the actress Isabella Andreini (1562–1604), and of literary courtesans such as Tullia d’Aragona (c. 1501/5–1556) and Veronica Franco (1546–1591), but Costa was sui generis in both content and context. Unafraid to leap over the boundaries of decorum that delimited what women could and should write about, she blended the laudatory and the satirical, the stately and the risqué. A versatile and self-styled “bizarre” figure active in the very decades when Italian women writers encountered fewer opportunities and more hostility than in previous generations, Costa defies categorization as an early modern author.

  1. Amy Brosius, “‘Il suon, lo sguardo, il canto’: The Function of Portraits of Mid-Seventeenth-Century Virtuose in Rome,” Italian Studies 63, no. 1 (2008): 17–39, 24–5.
  2. Yumi Primarosa, “I volti della musica: Cantatrici, musici e buffoni alla corte di Roma nei ritratti di Ottavio Leoni,” Storia dell’arte 41 (2015): 63–85, esp. 63–4.
  3. Nicholas Turner, Roman Baroque Drawings c. 1620 to c. 1700 (London: BMP, 1999), 158; Bernardina Sani, La fatica virtuosa di Ottavio Leoni (Turin: Umberto Allemandi, 2005), 62–6, plate #92.
  4. There is some informal hypothesis that Vouet’s sitter may be his wife, Virginia da Vezzo, who was a singer as well as a painter herself. See Brosius, “Il suon, lo sguardo, il canto,” 24n41. For a comparison of this portrait with that the artist did of Artemsia Gentileschi, see Francesco Solinas, “Simon Vouet, suonatrice di chitarra,” in Maria de’ Medici (1573– 1642): Una principessa fiorentina sul trono di Francia, ed. Caterina Caneva and Francesco Solinas, 305–7 (Florence: Sillabe, 2005).Rossella Vodret and Claudio Strinati suggest that the image should more accurately be titled “Singer Playing the Guitar”; Vodret and Strinati, “Painted Music: ‘A New and Affecting Manner,’” The Genius of Rome, 1592–1623, ed. Beverly Louise Brown, 92–115 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2001), 106.
  5. The Biblioteca Civica di Padova possesses a copy whose cover page has been re-printed with a date of 1648; the volume contains various printing errors (blank and misordered pages) but the text is unchanged.
  6. “la Chitarra… se bene è istromento vile, viene quasi da tutti esercitato”; Margherita Costa, La chitarra, ([Frankfurt]: [Daniel Wastch], 1638), dedicatory letter. Translations are my own.
  7. Victor Coelho, “The Baroque Guitar: Players, Paintings, Patrons, and the Public,” The World of Baroque Music: New Perspectives, 169–84 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 169.
  8. Alfonso de Oviedo Spinosa, in Margherita Costa, Lettere amorose ([Venice], 1639), 14.

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