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Art, History & Politics, Literature, Music, Theater & Dance

Early Modern Voice and the Representation of Racial Difference

Scenes of Performance at the Medici Court in the Primo Seicento

March 25, 2021
3:30 pm

Viva Voce
Lecture on Zoom
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by 2pm on March 25

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Early Modern Voice and the
Representation of Racial Difference

Scenes of Performance at the Medici Court in the Primo Seicento

Emily Wilbourne, CUNY Graduate Center

Respondent: Janie Cole (University of Cape Town)

Co-sponsored by Medieval and Renaissance Center at NYU

In the history of music, primo Seicento Florence looms large as the birthplace of opera: a nuova musica in which sound (specifically musical sound) was understood to narrate more effectively than words alone. Yet for historians interested in cultural and racial Others, early operatic musics have proved oddly ineffective as representational media. Critics and scholars have noted that such music remains entirely Western in affect and stylistic content. In this paper, two Florentine performances from 1616 are considered. Each represents “indiani“–confounding Indigenous Americans and South Asian Indians in ways that militate against claims of ethnographic “authenticity,” yet through sound both performances reveal clearer conceptions of racial difference than modern analyses typically allow.

Emily Wilbourne (PhD NYU) is Associate Lecturer in Musicology at CUNY (Queens College) and The Graduate Center; she specializes in Italian theatrical music and sound during the seventeenth century, and in questions of embodiment, performance, race, gender, and sexuality. She is the author of Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’Arte, (Chicago University Press, 2016). Dr. Wilbourne’s articles have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Women & Music, Recercare, Teatro e storia, Italian Studies, Echo, and Workplace, as well as in several Oxford Handbooks. In 2011, Dr. Wilbourne was awarded the Philip Brett Award for excellence in queer music scholarship for her article, “Amor nello specchio (1622): Mirroring, Masturbation, and Same-Sex Love”; in 2017-18, she was the Francesco De Dombrowski Fellowship at the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti in Florence. Since 2017, Dr. Wilbourne has been Editor-in-Chief of Women & Music.

Janie Cole (PhD University of London) is an Associate Lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music and Research Officer for East Africa on UCT’s Mellon-funded project “Re-Centring AfroAsia: Musicaland Human Migrations in the Pre-Colonial Period 700-1500 AD”. Her specialty research areas are in 20th-century South African music, protest and prisoner resistance during the anti-apartheid struggle; Italian music, poetry and theatrical spectacle in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods; indigenous Cape Khoekhoe musical heritage; and musical culture in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and transcultural encounters with Latin Europe and the early modern Indian Ocean world. She is the author of two monographs, A Muse of Music in Early Baroque Florence: the Poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane (Florence: Olschki, 2007) and Music, Spectacle and Cultural Brokerage in Early Modern Italy, 2 vols. (Olschki, 2011), together with numerous publications in journals and book chapters related to her specialties. She has received fellowships from The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, the Newberry Library, the Medici Archive Project, research grants from The Getty Foundation, The Leverhulme Trust and The Italian Cultural Institute; and awards such as the Stephen Arlen Award from English National Opera, the Janet Levy Prize from the American Musicological Society, the Author Grant Award from the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association of South Africa, and most recently, the Claude V. Palisca Fellowship Award in Musicology from the Renaissance Society of America (RSA). She has served on RSA Council as Discipline Representative in Music, on the Editorial Advisory Board of Renaissance Quarterly, and is currently the founding RSA Discipline Representative in Africana Studies (2019-21). She is co-directing an educational film “We Are Not Afraid: Music and Resistance in the Apartheid Jails” with award-winning South African filmmaker Shameela Seedat, and is building a digital archive of women’s struggle testimonies and music from the apartheid prisons in collaboration with University of Cape Town Libraries Special Collections funded by the Schlettwein Foundation. She is the Founder/Executive Director of Music Beyond Borders, a platform for public musicology, engaged scholarship and innovative digital humanities projects.


Organized by Prof. Eugenio Refini, Viva Voce is a series of events – conversations, talks, book discussions – that address the intersections of voice, performance and the mechanisms of reception. Featuring specialists from different fields, these interdisciplinary events aim to bridge across research, teaching, and public outreach.