CONTESSA TURCA (1550-1601)

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Years in Ferrara

Laura arrived in Ferrara in the spring of 1580, to take up a position in the household of the Duchess Margherita.  Although officially she was a lady-in-waiting, her duties were clearly primarily those of a musician.  Like her colleagues Anna Guarini and Livia d'Arco, she was required to study, rehearse and perform on a daily basis, but the three women were also the constant companions of the Duchess when she went out in public.  Laura seems to have additional duties, or at least to have been more frequently called upon to provide less formal musical interludes, for there are many mentions of her performing alone to entertain a noble company at the end of a philosophical conversation.
Laura's arrival marked a sea-change in the Duke Alfonso's recruitment policy for his ensemble.  Laura was not a member of the nobility, Ferrarese or otherwise, she was the daughter of a tutor.  Moreover, she was an unmarried woman nearly thirty years old at the time she joined the court.  Her employment signalled that the Duke Alfonso had begun to regard his singing ladies as professionals, part of his musical establishment rather than simply noble assets for the adornment of the court.
Once she had arrived, Laura's marriage became a pressing concern for the Duke.  To act openly as a professional singer was a dubious enough activity, but Laura's unmarried status made her reputation precarious, especially as she was well beyond the normal marriageable age.  Furthermore, until she was married to a Ferrarese vassal, she continued to be the 'property' of the Mantuan court.  Negotiations began in 1581 to marry her to Conte Annibale Turco, carrying on throughout the following year.  Eventually at the end of 1582, Guglielmo Gonzaga gave his consent to the marriage, which was performed on 22 February 1583. Da l'odorate spoglie
sciogliete homai la mano
che’l mio voler
e disvoler mi toglie.
Et quell’ Arpa felice
a cui non si disdice,
stringersi col bel petto
d’amor fido ricetto,
togliete e con l’usata leggiadria,
fateci udir: “Cara la vita mia”.

Orsina Cavaletta

The news of Laura's engagement and pending marriage triggered a response from the artistic community that came in the form of two exquisitely printed volumes of madrigals, Il lauro secco of 1582 and Il lauro verde of 1583.  The names of the books formed a pun on her name, referring to the withered laurel (representing the poet's withered hopes upon her betrothal to another) and the green laurel (representing the joy and renewal that comes with a marriage).  Each book contained over twenty madrigals on texts which celebrate Laura, her beauty and her singing.  The motivating force behind the collections, and the author of many of their texts, is presumed to be Torquato Tasso who, although at the time imprisoned in the hospital of Sant'Anna, was still able to organise the composition and compilation of the volumes.
Laura remained at the centre of Ferrarese musical activity for the rest of her life.  She gave birth to one daughter, Margherita, in the fall of 1585.  Laura was recorded singing as late as 1598, as part of the hospitality offered to Margherita d'Austria, who was in Ferrara to be married by proxy to Philip III of Spain.  Laura died in 1601, and was buried in the church of the Jesuits.



Bibliography references (primary and musical sources): Lauro secco, 1582; Lauro verde, 1583; Romei, 1585

Bibliography references (secondary sources):   DurMart, 1989; DurMart, 2000; Newcomb, 1975; Newcomb, 1981; Solerti, 1891

Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 04 October, 2002.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and not those of the University of Southampton.