Tarquinia Molza Porrina (1542-1617)

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Tarquinia's husband, Paolo Porrino, died in 1579.  The poem she wrote upon his death testifies to their love and friendship, and his role as her supporter in life.  Despite the financial and social consequences, and the pressing of numerous suitors, Tarquinia resolved not to marry again.
In order that she could retain her independence and not become destitute, Tarquinia had to secure her right to her maritial assets, such as they were.  She became embroiled in legal proceedings with other family members; these were by no means straightforward, and she was forced to enlist the aid of Duke Alfonso.  The matter was finally resolved in her favour in 1583. Qual vita al campo sola
viver omai disegno;
poichč il primo sostegno
mi tolse, che le cose umane invola.
Nč fia, ch’io piů m’appoggi
ad altro in piano, o poggi,
che da procella vasta
serbarmi altro non basta.

Tarquinia Molza

Meanwhile, Alfonso continued to press Tarquinia into coming to Ferrara, ostensibly to take a position as his sister Lucrezia's lady-in-waiting but in reality to become a permanent member of his private musical establishment.  He had recruited Laura Peverara  from Mantua in early 1580, and two younger women, Livia d'Arco and Anna Guarini, joined the ensemble soon after (inasmuch as their yet limited abilities allowed them).  Between 1579 and 1583, Tarquinia made frequent visits to Ferrara in connection with her legal business, and no doubt she also  leant her considerable musical expertise to the younger ladies.

Tarquinia Molza at Ferrara with Duchess Margherita Gonzaga d'Este; tapestry, artist unknown.  By kind permission of Contessa Giovanna Molza.

In April 1583, once Tarquinia had secured her financial independence, she finally accepted Alfonso's offer of a post at Ferrara.  Her terms were unique; whilst she was paid a salary as a lady-in-waiting to Lucrezia, she maintained her own house in town and was not obliged to live at court.  For the next six years she flourished as one of the court's leading intellects and musical icons.  Her role appears not to have been as a regular performing member of the ladies' vocal ensemble, but as its instructor and director (for instance, there are many pieces required three sopranos, but only a few that require four).  She continued to be celebrated by the most eminent poets of the age.  She also appears as an active participant in a number of philosophically conceived dialogues, notably those by Torquato Tasso.  But her position at court, on the surface seemingly inviolable, was threatened by jealousy and mistrust of her now famous talents.
Although there are many notices of Renaissance women who either worked in the performing arts or cultivated the necessary skills, their abilities all too frequently allied them with another sort of working woman, the professional courtesan.  Up-market courtesans were skilled in the arts of social as well as private entertainment, which included conversation, the Classics and music.  Whilst still married and in Modena, Tarquinia had made the decision not to alter her appearance according to current fashion - she quit bleaching her hair blonde, stopped using all cosmetics and dressed as she pleased.  This decision may have been in order to alienate herself from the world of the educated courtesan, for although court women also followed fashion slavishly and liberally used beauty products to mask any imperfections, they were protected from accusations of impropriety by their relative lack of education and/or their social status.  Tarquinia, on the other hand, was not a noblewoman and (by the time she was at Ferrara) she was not married.
In 1589, one of her fellow musicians, a man  reportedly consumed with jealousy at her continued and exalted position, told Alfonso that Tarquinia had been conducting a long-standing liaison with the Mantuan composer Giaches de Wert.  Wert had strong connections with the d'Este court - he had received his education there in his boyhood, and had been a frequent visitor to Ferrara since.  Both parties were widowers; Wert was 54 years old, Tarquinia was 47.  Whilst neither denied their friendship, Tarquinia insisted that nothing improper had taken place.  The implication to her honour was, however, too much for Alfonso to defend.  Tarquinia was instructed to leave Ferrara, Wert was sent back to Mantua and the two were instructed never to communicate again.

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Bibliography references (primary sources):  Ribera, 1606; Romei, 1585; Tasso, 1586

Bibliography references (secondary sources): Harrán, 1995; Newcomb, 1981; Newcomb, 1986; Riley, 1980; Riley, 1986; Solerti, 1891Vandelli, 1750; Zancan, 1983

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.