RAPHAELLA ALEOTTI (1575-1646?)
Music of the Nuns of San Vito
The Este dynasty ruled the northern Italian city of Ferrara beginning in the 13th century, and already by the 1420s under Niccolò III, the city had become one of the most significant musical centers in all of Europe. In the 16th century, a unique feature of musical life at the Estense court was the renowned ensemble of virtuoso women singers known as the concerto delle donne. Yet other lesser-known but perhaps more remarkable female ensembles also flourished outside the realm of the court behind cloistered walls, in the Ferrarese convents of Sant’Antonio, San Silvestro and particularly San Vito. Of the numerous descriptions of musical nuns found in the chronicles of the 16th and 17th centuries, perhaps some of the most spectacular refer to the impressive concerto grande at San Vito, first described by Ercole Bottrigari in 1594:“They are unquestionably women, and watching them enter the room […], where a long table had been prepared, at one end of which was a large harpsichord, you would see them come in slowly, one by one, each carrying her instrument, be it a stringed instrument or a wind, for they play all kinds; and they take their places at that table without making the slightest noise, those sitting who must sit to play their instruments, and the others remaining standing. Lastly the Concert Mistress seats herself at the other end of the table, and with a long, slender and elegant rod which has been set before her, when she is sure that the other sisters are ready, she silently gives them the sign to begin, and then beats the time, which they obey in singing and playing. [...] There were, if I remember correctly, 23 of them who participated at that time in the large ensemble... ”The Concert Mistress conducting this ensemble was Raphaella Aleotti (1575-1646?), the first Italian nun to have published any music. She was one of 5 daughters of Giovanni Battista Aleotti, called L’Argenta, the ducal architect to the Estense court, and she is typical of nun composers in belonging to a wealthy, if not noble, family.