Giulio Caccini was a singer, composer, and theorist active in Florence in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Today he is known mainly for a single song, “Amarilli, mia bella,” often sung by beginning voice students. The Florentine musician’s significance goes far beyond “Amarilli,” however. In fact, Caccini helped create a new style of solo singing and a new type of musical drama – one that we now call opera.
Caccini was born in Rome on October 8, 1551. His father was Michelangelo Caccini, a carpenter from the small town of Montopoli, near Pisa. Caccini was the middle brother of three; Orazio, the eldest, was also a musician, and Giovanni, the youngest, was a sculptor.
Little is known about Caccini’s early education, but in 1564, while still a boy, he sang soprano in the prestigious Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There he continued his studies with the maestro di cappella, Giovanni Animuccia. A year later, Caccini was invited to Florence to perform at the wedding of Prince Francesco de’ Medici and Johanna of Austria. The celebration took place on December 18, 1565.
Early Years in Florence
With only brief interruptions, Caccini was to stay in Florence for the rest of his life. At first, he lived with another musician, Simone Ponte, and studied with singer and composer Scipione delle Palle. Unfortunately, not much is known about Caccini’s musical activities for the rest of the 1560s or the early 1570s. Although he was serving the Medici court as a singer, no compositions have been dated to this period.
It seems that his most important activity during this time was not as a singer but as a spy. In 1576, Caccini reported to Pietro de’ Medici that Pietro’s wife, Eleonora di Garzia da Toledo, was having an affair with Bernardo Antinori. The enraged Pietro had Antinori killed and murdered his wife himself.
Outside of the court, Caccini received support from other Florentine nobles. Chief among these was Giovanni de’ Bardi. Bardi formed the Camerata, a group of musicians, theorists, and noblemen with intellectual interests who discussed such issues as the role of music in ancient Greek theater. Important members of the group included Girolamo Mei and Vincenzo Galilei. Caccini later said that the discussions among the members of the Camerata had taught him more than had thirty years of studying counterpoint.
Royal Marriages and Dismissal
In 1584, Caccini married another singer, Lucia di Filippo Gagnolanti. They were to have two daughters, Francesca and Settimia, who also became singers and composers. Rumor had it that Caccini’s wife had been the means by which the sexual potency of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua was tested before he married Eleonora de’ Medici in 1584. Lucia’s marriage to Caccini was supposedly her payment for enduring this, but the rumor is most likely false.
Caccini helped create musical entertainments for the weddings of two Medicis in the late 1580s. In the first, the marriage of Virginia de’ Medici and Cesare d’Este in 1586, he and several other singers were to play angels descending from heaven, but as they were being lowered from the cupola of Santo Spirito, the other singers froze. Only Caccini was able to sing the motet, “O benedetto giorno” (O blessed day), its name becoming his nickname as a result. Caccini also composed a song for his wife to sing in the elaborate pageant for the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589.
Caccini continued to be employed by Ferdinando, who had succeeded his brother Francesco in 1587, but he also maintained relationships with Bardi and another noble patron, Jacopo Corsi. Caccini accompanied Bardi to Rome in 1592. On his return to Florence, he fought with one of his students and was thereupon dismissed in July 1593. Lucia Caccini died that year as well.
With little to keep him in Florence, Caccini considered moving to Rome. Genoa and Ferrara were also interested in his services. From a letter from the Ferrarese ambassador to Florence, we learn that not only could Caccini play the harp and several other instruments, but he was also a skilled gardener. In the end, a group of Florentine noblemen offered Caccini a yearly salary of 300 scudi. This proved sufficient incentive for Caccini to stay, teaching private students (including some nuns) and writing compositions for patrons outside the city.
Return to the Court
The planning of yet another spectacular wedding, that of Maria de’ Medici and Henri IV of France, meant that the court needed Caccini. He was hired back in 1600 and provided most of the music for one of the two operas that were staged. This work, Il rapimento di Cefalo, was not well received, and very little of the music survives. The other opera, Euridice, was composed by Jacopo Peri, but Caccini insisted that singers trained by him should sing only his music, and added some of his music in place of Peri’s. Caccini also set the entire libretto of the opera. In the first of several attempts to claim ownership of the new genre, Caccini had his version of Euridice printed before Peri’s.
Caccini’s most important publication was Le nuove musiche of 1602, one of the earliest collections of solo songs. According to Caccini, the songs included were written from 1580 on. One in particular, “Amarilli mia bella,” is still well-known today. Many of the pieces set poetry of Gabriello Chiabrera, who had also been the librettist of Il rapimento di Cefalo.
By at least 1603, Caccini had made another important contribution to musical life at the court, namely the establishment of a singing group consisting of his daughters Francesca and Settimia, his illegitimate son Pompeo, and his second wife, Margherita di Agostino Benevoli della Scala, whom he married sometime before 1604. The group became very famous and, in 1604, were invited to France by Maria de’ Medici. The trip was successful, particularly for Francesca. She was offered a position at the French court but could not accept because of the Florentine court’s refusal to release her. The family group considered going on to England but instead returned to Florence in 1605.
After his return, Caccini’s life continued in the accustomed vein: he wrote music for court celebrations, especially weddings, occasionally sent pieces to patrons outside Florence, sang, and taught. He tried to find husbands for his daughters and a job for Pompeo. Although he had considered marrying Settimia to the great keyboardist and composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, nothing came of it.
In the last years of his life, Caccini published one more collection of songs (Nuove musiche de nuova maniera di scriverle, 1614). He also became increasingly involved in gardening, which was becoming fashionable in Florence. In 1615, he once again had a brush with the law after fighting with Ottavio Archilei, son of the famed singer Vittoria Archilei. For this transgression, Caccini was placed under house arrest. By 1617, he was in very poor health, and he died not long after revising his will on December 6, 1618.
Carter, Tim. “Caccini’s ‘Amarilli, mia bella’: Some Questions (And a Few Answers).” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 113 (1998): 250-73.
Carter, Tim, and H. Wiley Hitchcock: ‘Caccini: (1) Giulio Romolo Caccini [Giulio Romano]’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 20 November 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>