Tarquinia Molza Porrina (1542-1617)

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Marriage and associations with Parma

Five years after her marriage, Tarquinia resumed her education, and at this time she began seriously to study music.  Patrizi tells of an incident in which her music master happened to hear her improvising, and resolved to teach her composition - like her literary education, this went far beyond what would have been expected for a woman.  She kept her musical activities (or at least the extent to which she was studying) from her husband initially, but eventually he agreed to allow her to carry on.

Tarquinia Molza as a young woman, artist unknown.  By kind permission of Contessa Giovanna Molza.

The information Patrizi gives regarding Tarquinia’s musical development as an adult would support the possibility that she became musically active in Parma in the mid-1560s. In the first dialogue of L’amorosa filosofia, Fabrizio Dentice (himself part of the Farnese musical establishment), names her teachers as ‘Cesarino, Modonino, Calderino, Alfonso della Vivuola, Giovannino Fiammingo’. Three of these correspond to names that appear regularly in the Farnese payment records throughout the 1560s and early 70s.
A fourth could refer to Alfonso dalla Viola; however, he was a permanent employee at Ferrara during the years he might have taught Tarquinia, and she does not appear to have been at Ferrara often enough for her to have been brought to a high level of competence by someone with extensive duties at court.  But it's possible that Patrizi named the wrong musician ‘of the viol’. If Tarquinia was still circulating in Parma society after her marriage, she would have been in contact with the outstanding viol virtuoso, Orazio Bassano da Cento detto della Viola, whose connections with the Farnese date from at least 1570 .   Tarquinia's other contemporary biographer, Ribera, credits Orazio with having taught her.
In October 1568, an event took place that would change Tarquinia's life.  Accompanied by his wife, Barbara of Austria, and his sister, the Princess Lucrezia, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, came to Modena for a state visit.  Banquets were held, and at one of these, Tarquinia was requested to perform.    She sang a setting of Petrarch's 'Hor che 'l ciel et la terra e 'l vento tace', and the Duke was so captivated he asked her to repeat the performance 'four to six times'.  The event was recorded by Patrizi, and commemorated in a sonnet, set by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri in 1572.  After she sang, the Duke allowed her to dine at his table.  During the visit, Tarquinia was also asked to sing madrigals with the (male) members of the ducal chapel, and it was said that she was the only one not to make mistakes.  Hor che 'l ciel et la terra e 'l vento tace,
incominciò colei che l'aria molce
con angelici accenti, e in lingua dolce
rischiara Secchia con la tosca face.
Sentiam gli spirti altrui beata pace,
tutto l'amar si trammutava in dolce
e giva al ciel (che più l'alme soffolce)
mio cor, che via da lei morendo giace.

Che poi se i moti de suoi tersi avori,
de' vaghi lumi, e del leggiadro viso,
l'occhio vedea ch'or vana vista intrica;
che poi s'un dì mi spiega bei tesori,
o del nome Tiran degn'et nemica,
o qua giù cieli aperti, o paradiso.

poet anonymous (Giambattista Pigna?) setting by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, Il secondo libro a cinque voci, 1572

Alfonso's interest in cultivating music for the female voice is said to date from this time.  Not long afterwards, in 1571, the first recorded performance of women singing together at his court took place, at festivities in honour of the Duchess's brothers visiting from Austria.  The singers were Lucrezia and Isabella Bendidio; however, Tarquinia was also present at this event, and it seems unlikely that she was not prevailed upon to sing as well.  Certainly by this date, she was well enough known in Ferrara to have been commemorated in two madrigals set by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, and dedicated to Princess Lucrezia in 1571.
Tarquinia and Paolo remained childless; she apparently even remarked on her good fortune in being unable to have babies, as is meant she had more time for her studies.  Nevertheless, her marriage was happy and she prospered.  Moreover, her links with Cardinal Farnese were not severed; in 1577, around the time he was composing L'amorosa filosofia, Patrizi sent her verse to the Cardinal for his appreciation and patronage. Perhaps the Cardinal functioned more as patron than a guardian and protector, introducing her to Farnese circles and establishing her reputation as a poet in Parma and in Rome.  Whatever her early circumstances, by the end of the 1570s Tarquinia was an established member of Parma’s artistic elite. By 1581, she had gained membership of the city’s most prestigious accademia, the Innominati, an unusual honour for a woman.  Perhaps this could have been an early source for the name by which she was known later in life - 'L'Unica'.

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Bibliography references (musical sources):  Ingegneri, 1572; Luzzaschi, 1571

Bibliography references (primary sources): Patrizi, 1577; Ribera, 1606

Bibliography references (secondary sources):  DurMart, 1989; Riley, 1980; Riley, 1986; Stras, 1999; Vandelli, 1750

Archival sources:
Archivio di Stato, Parma:  Mastri Farnesiani, Ruoli Farnesiani
Biblioteca Palatina:  Carteggio Alessandro Farnese

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.