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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 17 (2011) No. 1

Published 2015

Letters from the Road: Giulia Masotti and Cardinal Sigismondo Chigi

Colleen Reardon*

1. Sigismondo Chigi

2. The Correspondence

3. Patron and Singer

4. Private Lives, Personal Influences


1. Sigismondo Chigi

1.1 Sigismondo, one of the least-known members of the Chigi clan, is still a cipher in the landscape of Roman Seicento artistic patronage. He was born in Siena on August 19, 1649, the product of a union between two venerable Sienese families.[1] His mother, Francesca, was a Piccolomini, and his father, Augusto (1605–51), was brother to Fabio Chigi (1599–1667), who was making a name for himself as a diplomat and administrator in Roman ecclesiastical circles.[2] In 1656, a year after his election as Pope Alexander VII, Fabio Chigi called his brother Mario and his nephews Flavio and Agostino to the Eternal City. Young Sigismondo, who was Mario’s nephew, Flavio’s cousin, and Agostino’s half-brother, did not accompany his male relatives to Rome at that time, but he was in residence there by the time he was about ten years old. Sigismondo was raised to the purple in 1667 and lived barely eleven years longer, dying on April 30, 1678, at age twenty-eight.[3]

1.2 In much of the current literature, Sigismondo disappears in the shadows cast not only by his uncle, the pope, but also by his older and longer-lived cousin, Cardinal Flavio Chigi (1631–93). Both had a hand in his formation—Fabio probably helped direct his studies of Latin,[4] and Flavio introduced Sigismondo to the art of diplomacy by taking his fifteen-year-old cousin along during his own delegation to France in 1664.[5] The latter undoubtedly also oversaw Sigismondo’s musical training, for Flavio was a discerning patron of singers and instrumentalists. He hosted performances of serenatas and cantatas at his various residences, staunchly supported Alessandro Scarlatti when the young Sicilian composer arrived in Rome, and established an academy to produce opera at the Chigi villa in Ariccia, to name but a few of his activities.[6] And Sigismondo? Although he died well before he had a chance to establish a reputation for artistic sponsorship, even a cursory survey of a handful of documentary sources makes it clear that he had more than a passing interest in music.

1.3 The inventory of Sigismondo’s belongings executed after his death shows, for example, that the cardinal owned three two-register harpsichords, one of which he purchased from the renowned lutenist, theorbist, and composer Lelio Colista in 1666.[7] Hanging in his gallery of pictures was a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice and another by the Sienese artist Bernardino Mei “with music.”[8] In 1669 Sigismondo paid for “diverse musical compositions” to be covered with parchment and bound in three volumes.[9] During that same year, he was deeply involved in the musical preparations for the grand reopening of Siena’s public theater for opera.[10] Sigismondo’s desire to immerse himself in the world of musical drama is also reflected in account books from the early 1670s, when he disbursed funds to musicians to copy opera scores and paid for a box at Rome’s public theater for opera, the Tordinona.[11] In the late 1670s, dispatches from his agents Erasmo Secreti and Cesare Corsi are full of detailed descriptions and evaluations of various facets of opera in Venice, including the scenery, the staging, and the performers; Secreti and Corsi also enclosed librettos for Sigismondo to peruse.[12] It is possible he put to use what he learned when he served as papal legate to Ferrara (1673–6), for as an anonymous chronicler notes, Sigismondo “multiplied the feste, the spectacular shows, and the happiness of our city.”[13]

1.4 Sigismondo Chigi’s enthusiasm for works combining music and drama comes as no surprise, then, given the penchant of Flavio as well as other members of his extended family.[14] A newly discovered cache of letters to the young cardinal suggests, however, that his fervor also grew from and was nourished by his association with one of the most renowned operatic singers of her day, Vincenza Giulia Masotti.[15]

1.5 The relationship between Giulia Masotti and Sigismondo Chigi is a fascinating one, to say the least, and its parameters are still fuzzy. We still have no information on when and where Sigismondo and Giulia first met or about how Sigismondo became Giulia’s patron. Her first known letters to him date from barely six months after he became a cardinal at the age of eighteen and just before her performance at the famous feast that Flavio Chigi organized in Rome on August 15, 1668.[16] Indeed, it is possible that Sigismondo was a driving force behind Giulia’s appearance on that occasion. Since Sigismondo spent his late boyhood and adolescence in the Eternal City, he might have met the Roman singer during that time, perhaps through his uncle or through the Colonna, who had strong ties to the Chigi and to Masotti.[17] One of the attractions may have been that the two were about the same age.[18] Certainly, their relationship was cemented by late 1668, when Sigismondo’s half-sister, Suor Maria Pulcheria Chigi, blithely asked the cardinal if he could send Masotti to sing at her convent in Siena, and their close association lasted at very least until May of 1673, when Masotti’s last dated letter finds her in Ferrara, impatiently awaiting Sigismondo’s arrival in that city to take up his position as papal legate.[19] Only a few months later, Masotti entered the service of the Empress Claudia Felicitas and sought her fortune at the court of Vienna.[20] Here I would like to explore what these and other letters might be able to tell us about the still-shadowy figure of the Chigi cardinal who died too young.

2. The Correspondence

2.1 The fifty-one letters from Giulia Masotti to Sigismondo Chigi are preserved among other correspondence in a bound volume from the Chigi Archive in the Vatican library (see the Masotti Correspondence, hereafter MC). Of those, seven letters lack a date, and six of the seven are also missing any mention of a city or place from which Giulia was writing. The remaining securely dated missives span the years from June 11, 1668, to May 24, 1673. Masotti was at the height of her career at this time, in constant demand on the operatic stage. In fact, she wrote to the cardinal most often from Venice, where she was performing, although her travels also took her to a number of other cities in the northern part of the Italian peninsula (including Siena, Florence, Rimini, Bologna, and Ferrara).

2.2 The great majority of the letters are autographs. Giulia might have been a lovely singer, but her handwriting was terrible and became worse as the years wore on. A different, more readable hand is present in some letters dating from the period between December 1670 and early February 1671 (MC 18, 19, 21, 22, 23); alas, these are all short and are generally of less interest than most of the autograph letters. When important business was to be done, Giulia penned her own missives. What appear in the Masotti Correspondence are the most significant passages from the fifty-one letters, with comments on the content of what is not transcribed, if it was possible to determine. In this article, as well as in those by Beth L. Glixon and Valeria De Lucca, references to information in the letters or translations of passages from those letters will be noted with a number in parentheses (as above), sending the reader to examine the Italian original.

3. Patron and Singer

3.1 One of the ever-present features of Giulia Masotti’s letters to Cardinal Sigismondo Chigi is the expression of humility and respect that an artist was expected to show to a powerful patron. On April 24, 1669, for example, Masotti opens her missive with the phrase: “From Your Eminence’s most cordial letter, I have been most comforted to know that by coming there I will not be bereft of humbly paying my respects to you.” (MC 17) The singer could also lay it on thickly, lamenting her affliction at not receiving her “only joy”—a letter from the cardinal. She was sure that the absence of a letter was not simply the lack of time to write, but the cardinal’s wish to cause her pain, “far from that sun that with his rays sometimes used to make me happy.… Oh, if Your Eminence could feel what another suffers, I know for certain that you would have more pity on your fellow creatures.” (MC 11) Giulia’s deference reaches its overblown apogee in a letter from November 12, 1668, early in their correspondence:

I cannot deny that I esteem very highly all the most courteous words with which Your Eminence deigns to honor me, but I do not want them on paper; I would like to hear them from your mouth so that I might show my gratitude by genuflecting at your feet, and believe me, in order to do this, I would like to transform myself into dust, but only that dust that is worthy of being trod upon by Your Eminence. (MC 5)

3.2 Although Masotti rarely forgot to express the gratitude expected of one in her position, this kind of excessive posturing disappears as the correspondence goes on over the years, and her wording becomes less exaggerated and less theatrical. From the first, however, Giulia’s confidential tone suggests that Sigismondo was more than just her artistic patron. On January 1, 1669, Giulia referred to a female dog that she seems to have left in the cardinal’s care and wanted to give him as a gift: “As to the dog that Your Eminence tells me allows herself to be petted, I can only say that the creature has judgment, as it knows that you are to be her owner from now on.” (MC 8) In a follow-up letter of January 12, she remarked that the dog was in the enviable position of being caressed by such a dear gentleman (MC 9). The cardinal might not have been an animal lover, for on January 19 Giulia entreated Sigismondo to reconsider his opinion of the creature: “It seems that even if the dog may not be worthy of Your Eminence, nonetheless, when she is in your hands, she will acquire a merit that she does not have now.” She finished up by making it clear that she would rather have the dog drowned in the Tiber than experience the mortification of knowing her gift was not pleasing: “I say to Your Eminence that if you do not want to accept the dog and keep her near you, have her thrown in the river because I will be more content.” (MC 10) Other passages also suggest a close relationship. After finishing her engagements for the 1671–2 season in Venice, the singer sent on some of her luggage to the cardinal and asked him to dispatch a servant to deal with the customs officials so that her trunks would not be opened. She then expected Sigismondo to arrange for her luggage to be transported to her home (MC 37). She informed the cardinal of her stomachaches, headaches, and bloodlettings (MC 6) and went so far as to tease him in one important letter (more on that in par. 4.5). Giulia also appears to have been on good terms with the extended family, especially Prince Agostino Chigi and his wife, Maria Virginia Borghese, and she wrote more than once from the Chigi villa outside Rome in Ariccia (MC 1, 5, 46).[21]

3.3 One of Masotti’s primary responsibilities to Sigismondo appears to have been keeping him informed of everything going on in the theatrical world of Venice. She often sent him librettos, some of which she named, and others that we can tentatively identify from information she furnished in the accompanying letters. On January 1, 1669 (MC 8), Giulia supplied the cardinal the libretto for the opera that had just opened at the Grimani theater of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (undoubtedly Artaserse) and later that season, she probably sent him the libretto for Il Genserico, the second opera staged at that same theater (MC 11, 12).[22] During the 1670–1 season, the singer enclosed librettos for La Semiramide and for L’Heraclio (MC 19, 21), both presented at SS. Giovanni e Paolo, as well as for Dario (MC 22), then on stage at S. Luca (S. Salvatore).[23] Giulia dispatched two librettos to Sigismondo from the 1671–2 season, perhaps copies of the same work (MC 34). The opera might have been Caligola delirante, in which she performed (MC 33, 34).[24] During 1672–3, her last season in Venice, Masotti mailed the cardinal the librettos from both operas staged at S. Luca, most likely L’Orfeo and Massenzio (MC 41, 42).[25]

3.4 The librettos that Masotti enclosed in letters to Sigismondo were not always those in which the singer herself had a role. For example, Masotti seems not to have been a member of the cast of Dario, because she told the cardinal that she would be going to listen to the work so that she could report on it in a future letter (MC 22). (Alas, no follow-up is to be found in this correspondence.) Nor did Giulia sing in either of the operas at S. Luca during 1672–3.[26] Masotti also supplied Sigismondo with a libretto from a theatrical spectacle that took place in Bologna to honor St. Bartholomew on his feast day (MC 38); here, too, she seems to have seen the performance rather than participated in it.

3.5 Beth Glixon explores in greater depth Masotti’s comments on librettos, music, singers, and operatic productions in Venice.[27] Suffice it to say that the singer expected Sigismondo to grasp certain principles governing the adaptation of pre-existing texts for revivals. She did not, for example, send him the libretto for L’Argia by Apolloni, a poet in service to the Chigi, because, as she noted, it had been “very much ruined to make it to the Venetian’s taste” (MC 10).[28] Giulia also had a well-honed ability to distinguish between libretto and music, and she assumed the same expertise from Sigismondo. In November of 1672, she reported to the cardinal on an opera then being prepared in Venice. Masotti finds the poetry “not bad” but then says, “I’ll wait to see the music and then I’ll speak more clearly” (MC 40). Sigismondo had obviously received enough musical training that Giulia could count on him to understand her critical reactions to operatic scores.

3.6 Other than sending the cardinal librettos and reporting some of the theatrical gossip from Venice, the terms of patronage also required some command performances from Giulia Masotti for the extended Chigi family. In this capacity, she was called to serve the “most excellent princess” (undoubtedly a reference to Maria Virginia Borghese) on what appears to have been a sad occasion (MC 50). She also stopped over in Siena in late April 1669 while on her way back to Rome where she was fêted by Cardinal Sigismondo’s mother, Francesca Piccolomini. Masotti remarked that two “academies” (private musical entertainments) were held in her honor and that all the ladies in the city participated (MC 17). Giulia was a known quantity in the city, having previously visited in December of 1668, when she was the toast of the town. At that time, she participated in an accademia with the aristocratic women of Siena, she sang concerts for the adoring Sienese public, and she counseled those in charge of choosing an opera to inaugurate the city’s newly refurbished operatic theater.[29]

3.7 In return, Giulia expected special treatment from the cardinal and, to get what she wanted, she was not above reminding him of her other admirers who, she implied, would be glad to replace him.[30] For example, on February 4, 1673, she opened her missive with a complaint: “Although I have been honored neither with the receipt of letters from Your Eminence nor with operatic librettos, I have been favored by your clan and by others, so never mind” (MC 42, emphasis mine). Masotti often relied on the cardinal to send her librettos that she could not obtain herself. In early 1672, Sigismondo provided her with two librettos, La Dori and La prosperità di Elio Seiano,[31] both performed at the Teatro Tordinona in Rome during Carnival season (MC 35, 36).[32] Later in the year, he followed this up by mailing her the libretto from the production staged at Ariccia in autumn of 1672 (MC 40).[33]  Giulia was undoubtedly keeping her eyes peeled for roles that would suit her talent.[34]

3.8 Cardinal Sigismondo was also in a position to protect Masotti in the negotiations for her musical services—or so the singer thought. On November 12, 1668, Masotti called upon the cardinal to “shut them up by telling them that no one should meddle in your affairs.” She urged Sigismondo to come to her aid in dramatic language, citing a poetic verse in order to compare herself to the legendary Roman hero Orazio Coclite who, without help, defended an important bridge into the city against Etruscan forces: “Everyone is out to ruin me and I could almost say that I have been and remain ‘Orazio alone against all of Tuscany.’”[35] (MC 5) It is clear from the next letter to Sigismondo (MC 6) that the deal being put together involved her going to Venice to perform.[36] Masotti was evidently counting on Sigismondo for some kind of support, because she notified him on November 20 that she refused to give a firm answer to either the Contestabile Colonna or Prince Agostino Chigi (“I said neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’”) and then stated that what was of utmost importance to her at the moment was how she could manage to see him (MC 6).

3.9 A number of Masotti’s requests involved the Grimani (see MC 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 40, 44).  The singer begged for the cardinal’s help in obtaining an ecclesiastical position for Vincenzo Grimani and she did not hesitate to use a subtle form of intimidation. In January 1672 (MC 35) she told Sigismondo that if Vincenzo Grimani were not satisfied “by the end of this month” (the request is couched in vague terms) she would not show her face in Rome. Why should she go just to be unhappy (she asked rhetorically), for if she failed to obtain such a small favor from such great resources, what could she expect for herself? Masotti also nagged the cardinal to write Vincenzo in his own hand because the latter so desired to be the cardinal’s servant (MC 29, 30, 32). Her insistence apparently paid off—by early November 1672 she could report that Grimani was most indebted to the cardinal, because he had achieved ordination as a priest (MC 40). Her pleas did not end there, however. On May 24, 1673, when the Grimani brothers had traveled to the Eternal City and were staying at “SS. Apostoli” (perhaps with Flavio Chigi[37]), Giulia entreated Sigismondo to tell everyone that Vincenzo was under his protection. She also asked the cardinal’s indulgence, as the brothers were not used to the ways of Rome and could easily err (MC 44).

3.10 Masotti’s most audacious appeal was, however, largely for herself (although the Grimani entered into this as well). As she wrote the cardinal on July 18, 1671:

The favor I desire of Your Eminence is that you deign to command Apolloni to write an opera for this year for the Grimani.… With all my soul, I beg Your Eminence to promote this venture. In the opera, [Apolloni] should create parts for many people, but I should have a part that does me honor above everyone else; indeed [Apolloni] should write the opera with this goal in mind. (MC 27)

3.11 Apolloni was a renowned poet in the employ of the Chigi household and had written librettos for two of Masotti’s favorite operas, La Dori and L’Argia.[38] The singer seems to have passionately desired an Apolloni libretto penned specifically with her talents in mind. Her advice to the cardinal about how to broach the subject with Apolloni gives us a good idea of the subterfuge that was necessary to survive in the world of opera and of the necessity of playing all the angles. It also tells us something about the family dynamic within the Chigi household and the power held by Princess Maria Virginia Borghese:[39]

Apolloni already knows about the scheme. I must, however, advise Your Eminence that I had already written about this subject to the Borghese Princess but for whatever reason, I have never received a response from her. So, I beg Your Eminence to speak first privately with Apolloni to see if the Princess has already spoken to him about this, and if she has, Your Eminence can press the matter.  If she has not spoken to Apolloni, you can tell him to write the opera and then if the Princess does speak to you about it, you should not say anything to Apolloni and pretend that you are in the dark and do what the Princess tells you. (MC 27)

3.12 If Giulia really hoped to be the stimulus for another Apolloni libretto with a large, starring role for herself (something Masotti insisted upon, as Ellen Rosand has demonstrated),[40] she was disappointed, for on August 6, 1671, she lamented that she had heard nothing about her proposal (MC 28). No further mention of the matter appears in the subsequent letters.

4. Private Lives, Personal Influences

4.1 In closing, I would like to return to the question of the relationship between Giulia and Sigismondo and to speculate further on the notion that they might have been closer than merely singer and patron. The evidence comes from passages in letters that Sigismondo’s sister-in-law, Maria Virginia Borghese, penned to the singer. In a missive from November 18, 1673, the Borghese princess congratulated Masotti on her imminent transfer to the Imperial court in Vienna, wishing her all the advantages that the court could offer and perfect health in the new climate.[41] Sixteen years later, on June 18, 1689, Maria Virginia sent another letter, this time to “Signora Giulia Masotti Klugheim” (clearly misunderstanding and misspelling Masotti’s married name, which was “Kugler”[42]).  The subject was one obviously near and dear to Masotti’s heart:

Your nieces … are truly being raised in the tradition of good nuns. When they are there, you will find yourself served with precise punctuality and they promise me that they will be most obedient to you, that they will learn the German language, and that they will do everything you want, as they cannot wait for the day that they can embrace you. I am sorry that I do not have the means to take them to Florence because I do not have friends there anymore in whom I can confide, as I did with Signora Anna Maria Acciaioli, who died nearly a year ago; neither do I have, at this moment, anyone who can accompany them as I myself must make use of all my servants, due to the poor state of my health and the encumbrance of my numerous family.[43]

4.2 Just who were these nieces? They might have been the daughters of Masotti’s brother, who died in Rome in December 1673, although the notice of his death mentions no children.[44] Perhaps Giulia asked the Chigi to take care of them while she went off to take up her new position in Vienna. Why, however, was Maria Virginia Borghese using stalling tactics to prevent the nieces from joining Masotti? The Borghese princess did indeed have a large family; she married Agostino in 1658, and between 1659 and 1681 she bore him seventeen children, most of whom lived past childhood.[45] Of those offspring, eleven daughters survived to young adulthood, and seven were placed at early ages in the Sienese convent of S. Girolamo in Campansi. In fact, Maria Virginia seems to have spent considerable time traveling to Siena to take those daughters to the convent, to celebrate their clothing and profession ceremonies, and simply to visit them.[46] Florence would have been easily reachable from Siena during one of those many journeys. Even if it were somehow impossible to include Masotti’s nieces on one of the family expeditions north, it seems absurd that one of the most powerful and well-connected women in Rome could find no trusted friends to accompany the girls to Florence. Masotti, too, must have found the reply unsatisfactory, for she wrote again, and Maria Virginia Borghese had to reply once more on August 27, 1689, counseling patience in the matter and trying alternately to mollify and discourage the singer with a curious report on the girls:

They are in good health at present and they are happy because in the end they hope to see you, as I have already assured them. You will be most satisfied with these girls because they are obedient.… As for beauty, certainly they are not good-looking at all, and I am telling you this truthfully so that you do not start thinking that they are pretty.[47]

4.3 The matter was summarily resolved seven years later. Giulia Masotti apparently traveled from Vienna to Rome in 1696, perhaps for reasons of health,[48] or perhaps to resolve the issue of her nieces. Whatever Giulia’s intentions, she did not encounter Maria Virginia during her Roman sojourn. The Borghese princess wrote to Giulia on September 22, 1696, evidently after the singer had returned to Vienna, and addressed the issue of her nieces one last time:

I have already heard from my prince [Agostino Chigi] your resolution regarding wanting your nieces with you. They are here in the [convent] of S. Eufemia, but I hear from him [Agostino] that they do not want to go, and on this matter I will not say anything. I was sorry not to have seen you in Rome, which would have pleased me greatly, but one must have patience. I rejoice, however, that you have such a talented daughter. I am not at all surprised because, under your direction, she could be nothing else but talented.[49]

4.4 The question remains: why were Maria Virginia and her husband Agostino so unwilling to allow Masotti’s nieces to join her in Vienna? None of the excuses Maria Virginia offered seem to make sense unless the “nipoti” were not Giulia’s nieces, but rather the fruit of a liaison with Sigismondo Chigi.[50] In that case, the family would want to ensure that they remained under their control and not Masotti’s. Maria Virginia Borghese’s reference to the singer’s daughter, clearly the offspring of her marriage to Kugler, may have served as a not-so-gentle reminder to Giulia that she was risking her reputation; she might have been warning Masotti to leave well enough alone.[51]

4.5 Whether or not the relationship between Giulia Masotti and Sigismondo Chigi went as far as I have hypothesized, it was nonetheless close, and it is clear that the singer cast herself as protagonist in a large-scale program to train the cardinal in the art of opera patronage. A telling passage in one of Giulia’s letters offers evidence of both the personal relationship—she is clearly teasing Sigismondo in a most intimate way—as well as what she saw as her role in influencing his musical tastes. The letter is, alas, one of the undated ones, although the handwriting would suggest that it comes from sometime in 1668:[52]

Oh, God, how is it that a cardinal of the holy church and a man of such spirit could be influenced by such ephemeral relationships that it is evident to the world that Your Eminence values comedies more than heroic operas? Enough said. I will only tell Your Eminence that when I think on such a thing I am dumbstruck because what I never expected to hear arrived so suddenly and now I take it for the gospel truth. (MC 46)

If this is indeed a letter from early in their association, it shows that Giulia was well aware of what she was up against if she intended to shape Sigismondo’s musical sensibilities so as to reflect her own preferences for the dramma per musica. She realized that other people with “weaker ties” than hers to the cardinal (other women? other singers?) had already had a hand in developing his taste in opera. Whatever the status of these “ephemeral relationships,” Sigismondo could not have failed to feel the strong influence of his cousin Flavio Chigi, whose fondness for comedies and comedians is well documented.[53] In a letter from the Chigi relative, family agent, and future archbishop of Siena, Leonardo Marsili, we see that influence at work. The letter dates from November 18, 1673, when Sigismondo was serving as papal legate to Ferrara. Marsili wrote to Flavio Chigi from that city to inform him about Sigismondo’s plans:

Signor Marchese Riccardi, who was passing through on Monday and whom the Most Eminent [Cardinal Sigismondo] held over one morning for a meal, while discussing the comedy, also affirmed that even in Florence word has spread about the most praiseworthy recitative that enriched [the opera] L’Adalinda. After we have had the musicians study the opera for four days, the Signor Cardinal Legate is thinking of having it sung one of these evenings in order to enjoy it more thoroughly.[54]

L’Adalinda, which had just been staged by the Accademia degli Sfaccendati at Flavio Chigi’s villa in Ariccia, was a pastoral opera that the older cardinal liked so much that he had it revived for performance in Siena in 1677, during his fall visit to his villa at Cetinale.[55]

4.6 With these new documents in hand, we can begin to sketch a more detailed portrait of Sigismondo Chigi. It is true that he was not a precocious patron of music, but he was both interested in dramatic vocal composition and dedicated to learning more about it. Although we cannot know for sure what Sigismondo may have contributed to the musical culture of his time had he lived longer, the letters from Giulia Masotti suggest that he would likely have continued a family tradition by developing into a discerning patron of fine singers and of theatrical composers who specialized in comic and pastoral operas.

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