Barbara Strozzi

What little is known about Barbara Strozzi (also known as Barbara Valle) suffices to make her an extremely intriguing figure.  Perhaps the most outstanding female composer of the seventeenth century, Strozzi studied under respected musicians and published eight collections of her music.  Music, however, was possibly not her only means of support as several sources indicate she may have been a courtesan as well.

Birth and Education

Born in 1619 to a servant, Isabella Garzoni, Barbara Strozzi was adopted by Isabella’s master, who may also have been the father of the baby.  That master, Giulio Strozzi, was a well-known Venetian intellectual who had young Barbara trained as a musician.

Strozzi studied music with the singer and opera composer Francesco Cavalli.  Other musicians knew of her talents as well.  Nicolò Fontei dedicated two books of solo songs to her, the first when she was only sixteen years old.

In 1637, her adoptive father founded an academy, the Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy of the Unisons).  As the name suggests, the academy was devoted mainly to music, and Barbara seems to have been the center of attention.  She not only sang at the academy meetings but also proposed topics for the other members to discuss.

Love Life and Family

Strozzi never married, but she had four illegitimate children, all born in the early 1640s.  Her two sons were Giulio Pietro and Massimo.  Her daughters were Isabella and Laura.  Their father was probably Giovanni Paolo Vidman, to whom Giulio Strozzi dedicated his opera librettos La finta pazza and La finta savia.  This hypothesis is based partly on the fact that members of the Vidman family, including Giovanni Paolo, left money to the children in their wills.  In addition, Giovanni Paolo Vidman’s widow paid for the Strozzi girls to enter a convent in 1656.  A source dating from after Strozzi’s death says that Vidman raped Strozzi, but this may merely have been a story circulated to preserve Strozzi’s propriety.

Some scholars have speculated that Strozzi supported herself as a courtesan.  Courtesans in Venice were renowned for their high level of education, which often included great musical ability.  Several pieces of evidence support this suggestion.  Among them is the sole surviving portrait of Strozzi, which depicts her with one breast mostly revealed.  A Mantuan nobleman, Antonio Bosso, described Strozzi as having wonderful breasts, a remark that he would not likely have made about a woman of higher social standing.  In addition, an anonymous satire commented upon her giving flowers to members of her father’s academy: “It is a fine thing to have distributed the flowers after having already surrendered the fruit.”  This is undoubtedly a reference to Strozzi’s losing her virginity.

Compositional Career

Strozzi published her first compositions in 1644.  These were madrigals that set poems by her father.  The remainder of her eight published collections appeared after Giulio Strozzi died in 1652.  He had little to leave her, and she may have been motivated to publish partly by financial necessity.

One of Strozzi’s published works, Opus 4, is missing.  The rest are dedicated to various royal or noble patrons, including the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Ferdinand II of Austria and Eleanora of Mantua, and Nicolò Sagredo (a future doge of Venice).  It is not known how Strozzi came into contact with most of her patrons, since only Sagredo was a Venetian.  Other musicians from Venice rarely dedicated works to non-Venetian patrons.

Most of Strozzi’s compositions, apart from the madrigals mentioned earlier and some sacred motets for solo voice, are secular works for soprano and continuo (described variously as “aria,” “arietta,” or “cantata.”  She probably sang the works herself, and many contain references to her name.  At least one source calls Strozzi a poet, and about half the texts she set are anonymous, but there is no other indication as to whether she set her own poetry.

Little else has been discovered about Strozzi’s life.  She was still in Venice as of May 8, 1677, but, for some unknown reason, went to Padua shortly thereafter.  In Padua, after an illness of at least a month’s duration, she died on November 1677.


Glixon, Beth L.  “More on the Life and Death of Barbara Strozzi.”  The Musical
Quarterly 83 (1999): 134-41.

Glixon, Beth L.  “New Light on the Life and Career of Barbara Strozzi.”  The Musical
Quarterly 81 (1997): 311-55.

Rosand, Ellen and Beth L. Glixon: ‘Strozzi, Barbara’,  Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy
(Accessed 04 May 2006), <>

Rosand, Ellen.  “Barbara Strozzi, virtuosissima cantatrice: The Composer’s
Voice.”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 31 (1978): 241-81.