Giovanni Buonaccorsi (fl. 1651–1674): An Enslaved Black Singer at the Medici Court

Emily Wilbourne

[print edition page number: 267]
Giovanni (or Giovannino) Buonaccorsi was an enslaved Black singer at the Medici court from at least 1651 until his death on August 15, 1674.[1] At the court in Florence, Buonaccorsi sang both chamber music and opera.[2] Buonaccorsi is unusual in that a substantial quantity of archival material allows scholars to trace his participation in elite musical genres; he is not unusual as an early modern Black European entertainer — of whom there were many. In this essay I will focus my discussion of Buonaccorsi on two main sources: first, a double portrait from c.1662 (shown as figure 1), painted by Baldassarre Franceschini (1611–1690), better known by his nickname Volterrano (meaning ‘from Volterra’), and second, a scene from the opera Ercole in Tebe from 1661, with words (the libretto or lyrics) by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia (1625–1700) and music by Jacopo Melani (1623–1676).[3] Details of Buonaccorsi’s life and performances can be gleaned from a number of account books, administrative documents, letters, costume designs, set drawings, libretti, scores, descriptions of performances and paintings, and in one remarkable instance, a poem that [268] he seems to have written.[4] Considering Buonaccorsi as a case study foregrounds the relevance of race to an analysis of European music history in three important ways. First, his very existence and his participation as a singer in the elite genre of opera makes it clear that race and racial difference were an important part of Florentine court life. Second, the operatic [269] roles Buonaccorsi played and the performance opportunities that were available to him demonstrate the structural importance of stereotypes to the development of musical and dramatic forms. Third, emergent expressive and metaphorical meanings of ‘voice’ — which coalesced in the new genre of opera — intersected with stereotyped characters (on stage and in real life) to distribute insidious stereotypes about the innate humanity of raced, classed, gendered, and differently abled bodies in formulations that are legible in Buonaccorsi’s blackness and persist into the present moment.


Painting showing a white man playing the lute. Beside him, a Black boy holds sheet music and sings.
Figure 1. Baldassarre Franceschini (1611-1690), detto il Volterrano. Ritratto di suonatore di liuto con cantore moro (Pier Gio: Albizzi, detto Panbollito, e Giovannino Buonaccorsi); c.1662. Oil on canvas: 95 x 144cm. Private collection.

“Portrait of a lute player with a black singer”

Volterrano’s Ritratto di suonatore di liuto con cantore moro [Portrait of a lute player with a black singer] was commissioned by the Cardinal Prince Giovan Carlo de’ Medici (1611–1663), a younger brother of the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando II (1610–1670). Both of the sitters were members of the Cardinal’s household: Buonaccorsi, on the right, and Pier Giovanni Albizzi (fl. 1651–1670), who was known in the court as Pan Bollito, on the left.[5] Albizzi’s nickname refers to a cheap soup that was common in Tuscan peasant cuisine, translating quite literally as ‘Boiled Bread.’ Buonaccorsi, for his part, is frequently referred to in documents as il Moro (lit. ‘the Moor’ but in mid-seventeenth-century Florence more explicitly, ‘the Black’), which at times makes him difficult to trace — particularly given the elevated number of enslaved Black Africans in the courtly environment, all [270] of whom could be called by the same racially-marked epithet.[6] According to administrative documents, Buonaccorsi and Albizzi entered the Cardinal’s service on the same day: September 14, 1651, Buonaccorsi as a chamber singer and Albizzi as a staffiere or ‘footman.’ Importantly, while Albizzi was paid a regular salary (and after the Cardinal’s death, received a pension), Buonaccorsi was not.[7]

An inventory compiled shortly after Cardinal Giovan Carlo’s death, in February 1663, describes the painting as unframed; it is thus assumed to be one of a recent delivery of new works by Volterrano to the Cardinal and tentatively dated to 1662.[8] We do not know how old Buonaccorsi was at that time, though the painting depicts him as a young man, possibly in his late teens or early twenties.

Importantly for our analysis, the work is a portrait, depicting recognizable individuals (Buonaccorsi and Albizzi) in a customary occupation (chamber music performance) in a recognizable location (Palazzo Pitti, with a section of the Boboli gardens and the famous artichoke fountain visible through the open window). Yet that does not mean that the scene is unmediated. Much like the curated photographs that characterize the modern social media stream, paintings such as this one make careful claims about the social status and public profiles of patrons and sitters through framing, costuming, and the inclusion (or exclusion) of specific items.

This image of Buonaccorsi and Albizzi has a studied casualness to the composition — as if Volterrano has captured a candid glimpse of an ordinary and intimate afternoon of musical performance. Formally, however, [271] the painter has constructed a striking contrast between the pale-skinned white lutenist, depicted in somber, dark clothing, and seated in shadow, and the Black-skinned singer who sits with the light behind him, wearing a brightly striped, non-Western tunic. This play of light and dark, outside and inside, exotic and European splits the painting right down the middle, belying the sense it exudes of a natural, frequent occurrence, happily captured by the painter-as-observer. Even as Buonaccorsi and Albizzi are markedly contrasted, their unity and coordination are emphasized by subtle visual cues — such as the parallel angle of Albizzi’s left hand and the back of Buonaccorsi’s right, and the similarly open collars of their two very different outfits. It is this deliberateness that allows us — as modern viewers — to read, and to read into the details of the image: nothing is included in Volterrano’s frame by mistake or happenstance, not the music, not the outfits, and certainly not the enslaved Black singer.

In mid-seventeenth-century Italy, elite chamber music was largely written for the solo soprano voice and semi-improvised chordal accompaniment, whether at a keyboard or with a plucked string instrument such as the lute (shown in figure 1). I talk more about the specifics of this kind of music below, but for now we can note that both men direct their music making to a specific goal: both make eye contact with the viewer, initially identifiable as the Cardinal patron and/or his selected guests. Albizzi fingers a chord with his left hand, his right poised in anticipation; he seems to wait for a signal from the viewer. Buonaccorsi has his lips slightly parted. This is a common iconography of song or singing, though here it looks as if he is breathing in or holding a breath, poised like Albizzi and ready to begin. There are bound music books visible on the table, yet the performers are reading from loose sheets. The implication is that the listener is about to hear something fresh and new, likely something written expressly for the patron’s enjoyment. Indeed, the literacy of the two musicians underscores their importance as playback devices (even as it testifies to their level of education): before recording technologies existed, only the wealthiest Europeans could listen to music on demand.

In this context of understated yet conspicuous consumption, the clothing of the two men calls attention to itself, with both depicted in costly, even luxurious outfits. Black fabric was particularly expensive, and the textured velvet and voluminous folds of Albizzi’s jacket and undershirt [272] make it clear that whoever paid for the outfit spared no expense. While the satiny fabric of Buonaccorsi’s tunic also makes a claim to volume (and thus expense), the brightly striped pattern and the Middle Eastern style of dress have a dramatically different effect. Indeed, it is productive to consider Buonaccorsi’s outfit as a costume, though he likely wore this outfit or something very similar as his everyday wear. In an age such as the Renaissance in which sumptuary legislation dictated what clothes could be worn by which types of people, “clothes maketh the man.” Servants and retainers wore livery supplied by their employers, and enslaved foreigners typically wore clothing that marked them as such. Accounts from 1666, for example, document an outfit made for the Morino or ‘black boy’ belonging to Ferdinando II, presumably Ali Moro, who would have been about ten at the time.[9] He received an “outfit in the Moorish style (alla morescha) made of green cloth, full hose, and stockings made in one piece and a long cassock down to the knee, all decorated with green trim.”[10] The (literal) costume that Buonaccorsi wore in Ercole in Tebe was described at some length:

Iolao, the black servant of the Athenian monarch appeared on the shore. He wore a vest in the African style with satin sleeves, adorned with splendid embroidery; the dark color of his black legs was covered by soft stockings of pure silver, and the many jewels adorning him at every turn denoted the grandness of his master.[11]

This description makes apparent the clear link between the exoticized (African) style of a Black African servant’s clothing and the glory thus reflected back onto the owner/patron through the manifestation of purchasing power. [273]

Everything about this painting portrays the fabulous wealth of the Medici court, including the decorative nature of the painting itself, the leisurely enjoyment of new music, the expensive clothing of the (relatively lowly) court functionaries, and the majestic architectural and botanical vistas glimpsed in the background. The pose of the waiting musicians flatters the patron directly, implicating him as the reason for and the controlling force over their imminent performance. This pose thus signals the patron’s sovereignty over the bodies, products, and sounds depicted in the painting — this is true not only of the two visible musicians, but also the painter whose labor resulted in the image and the composer whose labor produced the newly composed song indicated by the loose sheets. Painting and musical performance were luxury goods.

So, too, were enslaved Black retainers. Indeed, within the visual economy of Volterrano’s painting, Buonaccorsi’s race is far from negligible. While the painter’s artistry would seem to discount some of what we see as posed or constructed rather than a fully transparent documentation of court practice, we need to bear in mind that the court itself was a superficial and competitive environment in which courtiers and sovereigns staged their influence and power in order to claim influence and power. Thus the presence of this painting in Cardinal Giovan Carlo’s collection suggests that the Cardinal would have enjoyed and staged similar performances in his everyday life: the artifice of this scene does not mean that it did not happen. (In a mundane and modern analogy, one might both enjoy a cup of coffee in a fashionable café and enjoy posting an artful snap on social media of the latte art.) Buonaccorsi was listed in Medici accounts as a chamber singer, thus we assume that he sung in intimate, chamber settings such as the one depicted here.

What Operatic Voice Conveys

In mid-seventeenth-century Italy, most notated vocal music was operatic in character. Indeed, opera as we know it was invented in Florence (where Buonaccorsi lived) around 1600, and thus was relatively new during his lifetime. Opera was incredibly successful, and the important vocal innovations associated with its invention spread rapidly through elite European networks, quickly becoming the dominant European musical language in chamber and theatrical contexts. [274]

In the simplest possible terms, opera can be understood as a play set entirely to music and sung throughout. As in a play, actors and actresses impersonate characters and speak (or in opera, sing) their lines in the first person using “I” and “we.” Costumes and sets substitute for the narration of an author, and the story unfolds through scenes and acts, monologues and dialogues. Unlike in a spoken play, however, in opera the music provides an integral element of the drama. Indeed, the success of opera and operatic music is predicated on the assumption that music does not merely accompany the words but that music can narrate the emotional life of a character more effectively than words alone.

Many theatrical performances prior to the invention of opera included music — sometimes lots of music — as songs, dances, or background sound, each a closed unit of musical performance embedded within a larger whole. What was fundamentally different about operatic music, however, was the constant first-person, present-tense demands of the theatrical form: this is the difference between a song about how the singer’s heart was previously broken and a song sung as if the singer’s heart were being broken at precisely that moment. To achieve this aim, opera composers turned away from repeating verse-chorus structures and invented a new kind of music — called recitative — that was understood to represent speech itself. Recitative eschews a constant pulse, predictable phrases, and memorable tunes, relying instead on a flexible musical texture than can set each word. It built upon a pre-existing form of poetry, the versi sciolti (freely mixed, blank verse in seven and eleven syllable lines) which itself was prized for an avoidance of repetitive rhythmic formulae and the singsong textures of patterned poetry.

While the earliest operas consisted almost entirely of recitative, by mid-century, a desire for aural and narrative variety had resulted in a sharp increase in the number of arias (songs) and arioso (song-like) passages. Crucially, given opera’s fundamental premise that the sounds of the voice express the representational truth of the character, recitative and aria were distributed along a sounding axis of stereotyped associations, which mapped onto existing linguistic registers associated with various poetic and musical forms — from elite to popular. In this sense, opera was heavily reliant on the sonic profiles of various character types within the existing [275] vernacular (spoken) theater, the commedia dell’arte.[12] Simpler, lower-class (comic) characters, such as servants, slaves, and soldiers, sung simple songs, with patterned, rhyming poetry, repetitive, singable melodies, and rhythmic, danceable accompaniments; these characters provided sub-plots and entertaining interludes. Educated, upper-class (serious) characters, such as princes, princesses, or priests, sung complex, emotional appeals to love or duty, written with elevated poetic vocabularies and complex, stirring, or beautiful music; these are the story’s main characters and love interests. (Even today similar musical and characterological choices continue to structure contemporary music drama, as can be seen from a consideration of any given Disney musical.) There is thus a clear and highly stereotyped relationship between musical register and character type.

Black Voices and Stereotypes on the Stage

In Buonaccorsi’s performances, musical identity coheres with vocal sound in powerful ways: all of the operatic roles that Buonaccorsi is known to have performed were Black slaves, Black servants, or Black gypsies. He is thus (visually) typecast and, by the logic of opera, musically typecast, too. The representational stereotype of Black characters in Italian drama centered on their speech as recent immigrants.[13] As Extract 1 (given below), I translate a scene from the anonymous libretto for Scipione in Cartagine, performed in Florence at the Cocomero theater in 1657.[14] This opera includes a Black galley slave character called Caralì, who sings a particularly [276] dense example of stereotypical Black speech. This role was likely performed by the ex-galley slave Caralì who was owned by Prince Mattias de’ Medici (brother to the Cardinal Giovan Carlo); Caralì was around sixteen at the time.[15] In this scene, the character Caralì has just learnt that Scipione has liberated all the slaves, and he sings in celebration. Given the heavily marked Italian, the deliberate grammatical errors, and the use of both foreign and dialect words, the translation offered here reproduces the meaning of the words with no attempt to reproduce the errors of the text.[16]

Extract 1. Taken from Anon, Scipione in Cartagine (perf. 1657), I, xv.[17]
CARALÌ O Quanto star contentu
Baes miu andar,
Marmorata trovar;
Legressa grandu Diù,
O fatma core miù.
Oh, how happy I am,
To return to my country
To find my beloved;
How generous the great God,
O, Fatima, my love.
1 Camarata nesciumù,
Non biscottu mansgiar,
Non corbasciù tuccar;
Tenimu libertà;
Scibiona gentilisco
Fasito carità;
Salamalech Ikallà, Ikallà.
Leave the cabin,
We will not eat ships’ biscuit,
Nor be touched by the whip,
We hold our liberty;
Noble Scipione
Has done us this good deed;
Peace be upon you, God willing!
2 Ber chistu ligramente
Frofalla, & Ebrahin,
Corcùt, Dragùt, Selin,
Soliman, Mustafà,
Ballar, e ghimberì.
Sonar, Alì, Cassa,
Salamalech Ikallà, Ikallà.
For this happily,
Frofalla, and Ebrahin,
Corcùt, Dragùt, Selin,
Soliman, Mustafà,
Dance and [with] cymbals,
Play, Alì, Cassa.
Peace be upon you, God willing!

Though the score of this opera does not survive, the poetic meter of this scene indicates an introductory recitative followed by two verses of aria, both of which would have been sung to the same music. Direct reference [277] is made to the life of the galley slave — No longer will they have to eat ship’s biscuit! — while the names of Caralì’s fellow slaves are recognizably ethnic, even Ottoman. The refrain cites the traditional Arabic greeting: “As-salāmu ’alaykum,” or “Peace be upon you,” possibly with the word “Allah” or “in sha Allah” (“God willing”) tacked on the end. For readers who do not recognize Italian conventions, the distance of this text from correct linguistic formulations will be hard to judge. The first line of the last verse, for example, “Ber chistù ligramente,” should read “Per questo allegramente.” The p sound has been replaced with b; the opening qu of questo has been chewed into a sounding ki (chi), the final vowel replaced with an un-idiomatic ù; and syllables omitted from the last word. In other places verbs are left un-conjugated (star rather than sto, for example, in the opening line). Describing the speech of a Black character (also, for what it’s worth, named Caralì) in a libretto by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, the theater scholar Françoise Decroisette writes, “this figure of the moro is typical in the dramas of Moniglia, who gives him an exotic, macaronic language, dominated by a final ù, by the substitution of b for p, by the use of infinitive verbs, and by the omission of grammatical articles.”[18]

Interestingly enough, however, in Ercole in Tebe (also by Moniglia) in which the role of Iolao was written specifically for Buonaccorsi, this “Black voice” is avoided. In this way, Buonaccorsi manages to sidestep one of the most insidious markers of Black foreignness, representing himself instead as fundamentally Italian. In other ways, however, his performance confirms and reiterates characteristics understood to be natural to a specific class or category of person. In Ercole in Tebe, act III, scenes v and vi, Buonaccorsi’s character Iolao has his only solo and his longest section of dialogue. The action of these two scenes takes place on the banks of the river Styx — which, in Greek mythology, separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. Figure 2 shows the set design of scene vi, with Iolao and his interlocutor Sifone visible at the bottom right. Throughout [278] both of these scenes Iolao is waiting for his master to return. He is understandably antsy, more than ready to leave the unsettling landscape and the land of death behind, and his opening aria is a series of complaints about the situation in which he finds himself. As his first solo scene, his immediate launch into song (into aria rather than recitative) marks him as a lower-status character; the rhythms and repeating melodic cells emphasize his expressive register. Interestingly, the poetic form is versi sciolti, so this could have been set as recitative, however the poet has repeated the last line, and then the composer has used more insistent repetitions — sometimes of whole lines, sometimes of single words — to break down the elevated poetic effect into something much simpler and more popular in style. When we look at the lyrics, the impression of simplicity and rustic naturalness are deepened: Iolao complains of bodily distress — terror and hunger — far removed from the political and romantic crises that trouble the serious characters. The punchline of the song confirms the character’s low-brow essence: there is not even anything here worth stealing! [282]


Etching of a Florentine landscape with a castle in the background. Two men are seen farming while two other men observe.
Figure 2. Unsigned etching, possibly by Valerio Spada, from Giovanni Andrea Moniglia’s libretto for Ercole in Tebe (Florence: Stamperia all’Insegna della Stella, 1661), where it appears between pages 44 and 45.
Figure 3a. “E a chi non scapperebbe la patienza?” Aria sung by Giovannino Buonaccorsi as Iolao Moro, Act III, scene v, Ercole in Tebe (1661). Text by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, music by Jacopo Melani.
Figure 3b. “E a chi non scapperebbe la patienza?” Aria sung by Giovannino Buonaccorsi as Iolao Moro, Act III, scene v, Ercole in Tebe (1661). Text by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, music by Jacopo Melani.
Figure 3.c “E a chi non scapperebbe la patienza?” Aria sung by Giovannino Buonaccorsi as Iolao Moro, Act III, scene v, Ercole in Tebe (1661). Text by Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, music by Jacopo Melani.


Extract 2. Taken from Gio: Andrea Moniglia, Ercole in Tebe (perf. 1661), III, v.[19]
IOLAO E a chi non scapperebbe la pazienza?
La paura mi tormenta
E la fame m’assassina;
La caritade in questi luoghi è spenta,
E non c’è modo à viver di rapina.
Per qual grave peccato
Sono, ohime, condennato
A tanta rigorosa penitenza?
E a chi non scapperebbe la pazienza?
And who wouldn’t lose their patience?
Fear torments me
And hunger assassinates me.
In such places, charity is exhausted
And there is nothing to steal.
For what grave sin
Have I, alas, been condemned
To such a harsh punishment?
And who wouldn’t lose their patience?

The composer of this opera, Jacopo Melani, was on the payroll of Prince Mattias, and Melani served as singing teacher to at least one of Giovan Carlo’s young musicians.[20] He can thus be assumed to have had a good grasp of Buonaccorsi’s vocal and dramatic capacities. Notably, all of the surviving music written for Buonaccorsi is scored for the soprano voice, a high-pitched voice that in modern society is typically associated with female singers. Buonaccorsi may have sung falsetto (now often called “counter tenor”), but more likely was castrated before he reached puberty in order to preserve his youthful high voice into adulthood. The castrato voice was particularly favored in seventeenth-century Italian music, simultaneously celebrated for the ways in which breath control and melodic flexibility exceeded that of the unaltered male voice and viewed as explicitly “natural” — despite the surgical intervention required to produce the voice — as the singer retained his (natural) boyish voice into adulthood rather than artificially manufacturing a small, false voice (literally, ‘falsetto’) in the adult throat. [283]

Musically, the aria is structured into two halves, with the opening material (text and music) returning at the end as a form of refrain. The A section is in duple time, with the repeating pulse felt in groups of two. The bass line moves quickly and emphasizes the tonic and dominant chords of the d min key. This section is quite jaunty, giving a kind of rollicking, humorous energy to Iolao’s energetic complaints. The musically literate will notice that the bass line cycles through a series of different stock formulae. From measure 9, for example, the bass moves up a step and down a third repeatedly until the end of the phrase; in the following phrase, from measure 14, the bass descends stepwise through an octave plus a fifth, and so on. Iolao reaches an energetic climax as he repeats the punchline (“E non c’è modo à viver di rapina”) on an ascending sequence, which is followed by an orchestral ritornello. The contrasting B section is in triple time, with the pulse felt in groups of three. This would have been sung more slowly, allowing the singer to spoof the moment of introspection, before returning to the opening complaint, and repeating the first two lines of the A section to conclude the piece.

In the following scene, an old friend arrives: the (white) servant Sifone, a stuttering comic character played by the tenor singer Carlo Righenzi, also a member of Cardinal Giovan Carlo’s household.[21] Sifone, too, is unsettled and looking to find his master. In the interaction between the two servants, Buonaccorsi’s blackness takes on dramatic importance, as Sifone fails to recognize his friend, screaming instead that he is being accosted by an ugly demon (see Extract 3.) [284]

Extract 3. Taken from Gio: Andrea Moniglia, Ercole in Tebe (perf. 1661), III, vi.[22]
SIFONE Per tro-, trovare Alceste
vò cercando per tutto
oh, che paese bru-, bru-, bru-
To f-, find Alceste
I am searching everywhere
Oh, this place is ug-, ug-, ug-
IOLAO In queste parti e come
Per qual strana occasione …
In these parts, and how?
For what strange reason …
SIFONE bru-, bru-, bru- ug-, ug-, ug-
IOLAO … arrivasti Sifone? … does Sifone arrive?
SIFONE bru-, bru-, bru- ug-, ug-, ug-
IOLAO Che fai, non mi conosci?


What are you doing?
Don’t you recognize me?
SIFONE bru-, bru- ug-, ug-
IOLAO Guardami, chi son io? Look at me! Who am I?
SIFONE bru-, bru-, brutto.
Ohimè, un Demonio, ohimè
ug-, ug-, ugly.
Oh no, a demon, oh no!
IOLAO Di che paventi? Iolao son’ io. Why are you so scared?
It is me, Iolao!
SIFONE È quando sei venuto
nella patria di Pluto?
And when did you arrive
in the land of Pluto?

Importantly, since the role of Iolao was written specifically for Buonaccorsi, the lack of noticeable accent suggests that he spoke Italian well, as does his one surviving poem (which is written in excellent Italian). As evidenced by his literacy and his facility as a singer, Buonaccorsi presumably lived in Italy from a very young age (and may have been born there). The role of Iolao represents a blackness that was thoroughly Italianate, though importantly, the role of Caralì and of other Black characters and Black voices written in a similar vein also imply a Black Italian presence and the familiarity of white Italian authors and poets with Black individuals. The presence of Buonaccorsi, Caralì, and Ali Moro at the court makes it clear that the elite Italians of Medici Florence regularly interacted with enslaved Black retainers. [285]

Modern Race and Early Modern Razza

Even as the characterological differences between Iolao (who is enslaved within the court) and Caralì (who is enslaved on the galleys) demonstrate a variety of Black experience in late Renaissance Italy, their shared categorization as entertaining, aria-singing servants emphasizes the limits of class or category mobility within the Italian imaginary. Understanding the circumscribed space accorded to Black voice here is crucial, for as the spread and wide popularity of opera disseminated the ideology of the expressive voice, it categorized a hierarchy of persons to whom such a voice was afforded.

Opera relies on the epistemological conceit that the voice (emerging from the hidden depths of the body) tells the truth — betraying the body and its history irrespective of the semantic content of any given act of speech (even as that natural, expressive voice is fabricated in the act of performance).[23] Such assumptions persist: we regularly deduce the health, happiness, age, gender, national origins, linguistic fluency, and sincerity of our interlocutors based on the sound of their voices.[24]

So what can we hear in Buonaccorsi’s voice? What did contemporary audiences hear? Buonaccorsi is ascribed a strictly delimited emotional range. His music is “song like” — which by early modern European standards was securely located at the entertaining, popular, or “low brow” end of the spectrum. He never gets the flexible, emotional extremes of the princely hero. His character appears in (comic) episodes and never develops. In what the Black musician is permitted to sing we can hear the parceling out of full humanity only to certain characters and the association of a natural, musical predisposition with the marked bodies of enslaved Black individuals. Still today assumptions of natural musicality are mapped onto certain (racial) categories, imposing limits on the stories their bodies are permitted to live and assumed to tell. [286]

Scholars have emphasized that the early modern usage of the Italian term razza meant something closer to ‘lineage’ rather than ‘race’ as the term is currently understood.[25] Still, to come from a “race of kings” or a “long line of thieves” implies a passing down of inherited suitability, a categorization of potentiality that helps to explain the rigid stereotypes of the early modern theater. Buonaccorsi doesn’t get to play the king, though neither does Righenzi (who played the stuttering, hunchback servant) — both men were visibly marked, though one we now call ‘race’ and the other ‘disability.’[26] For elite, white, European audiences, the Black entertainers they watched on stages and in other public spaces were a category apart. Black voices, raised in song, were assumed to signal a contentment with and suitability for servitude that echoes — in disturbing ways — through modern assumptions about race, voice, and subjectivity.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are the stereotypical associations of Black performance that limited Giovannino Buonaccorsi still operating in contemporary society?
  2. What information does the sound of your voice (including your accent, pitch, and linguistic habits) give to your auditors? In what ways might the sound of your voice prejudice others against you?
  3. To what extent should we understand Buonaccorsi as African? To what extent should we understand him as Italian? [287]

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bindman, David, and Henry Louis Gates, eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art. 10 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010–2014, particularly vol. 3, which has a significant essay on Italy during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Jones, Nicholas. Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019.

Lowe, Kate. “Isabella d’Este and the Acquisition of Black Africans at the Mantuan Court.” In Mantova e il Rinascimento italiano: Studi in onore di David S. Chambers, edited by Philippa Jackson and Guido Rebecchini, 65–76. Mantua: Editoriale Sometti, 2011.

Wilbourne, Emily. “‘… la curiosità del personaggio’: Il Moro on the Mid-Century Operatic Stage.” In Seachanges: Music in the Mediterranean and Colonial Worlds, 1550–1880, edited by Kate van Orden. I Tatti Research Series, 133–148. Florence: I Tatti Studies, 2021.

Wilbourne, Emily. “Little Black Giovanni’s Dream: Black Authorship and the ‘Turks, Dwarves, and Bad Christians’ of the Medici Court.” In Acoustemologies in Contact: Sounding Subjects and Modes of Listening in Early Modernity, edited by Emily Wilbourne and Suzanne G. Cusick, 135–165. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2021.

  1. “Gio: Buonaccorsi moro” is listed as a singer among the members of Prince Gio: Carlo Medici’s household in ASF Mediceo del Principato, f.5358, c.657v. His death record, for “Gio: Buonaccorsi moro, turco battezzato” is located at ACAF S. Felice in Piazza, Morti dal 1627 al 1686, RPU 0025.13, c.236v.
  2. Buonaccorsi also sang at least one season on the public operatic stage in Venice.
  3. The libretto was published at the time, see Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, Ercole in Tebe (Florence: Stamperia all’Insegna della Stella, 1661); the score, which survives in manuscript, was published in a modern, facsimile edition, see Jacopo Melani, Ercole in Tebe (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978). On the Volterrano painting see Alessandro Grassi’s catalogue entry in Maria Cecilia Fabbri, Alessandro Grassi, and Riccardo Spinelli, eds., Volterrano: Baldassarre Franceschini (1611-1690) (Florence: Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, 2013), 245.
  4. My work on Buonaccorsi is central to a forthcoming book, Voice, Slavery, and Race in Seventeenth-Century Florence (Oxford, 2023). Some preliminary archival findings and the extant sources are discussed in “ ‘ … la curiosità del personaggio’: Il Moro on the Mid-Century Operatic Stage,” in Seachanges: Music in the Mediterranean and Colonial Worlds, 1550–1850, edited by Kate van Orden, I Tatti Research Series, 133–48 (Florence: I Tatti Studies, 2021); I discuss the poem at some length in the open access book chapter, “Little Black Giovanni’s Dream: Black Authorship and the ‘Turks, dwarves, and bad Christians’ of the Medici Court,” in Acoustemologies in Contact: Sounding Subjects and Modes of Listening in Early Modernity, edited by Emily Wilbourne and Suzanne G. Cusick, 135–65 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2021), Paul Kaplan has presented several papers on Buonaccorsi, though to my knowledge none are in print.
  5. The lute player is identified in a 1663 inventory of paintings: “Un quadro in tela senza adornamento bislungo di braccia 2 1/2 largo, et alto braccia 1 3/4 entrovi il Ritratto di Pan Bollito che suona il Liuto, et il Moro con una Carta di musica in Mano, con il Violino et libri di mano di Baldassarre.” ASF Miscellanea medicea, n.31, ins. 10, c.133v. Pier Gio: Albizzi is identified as “P. Bollito” in the “Ruolo dei Cortigiani del Car.le Gio: Carlo A’ quali doppo la morte di doveva dargli impiego,” ASF Mediceo del Principato, f.5358, cc.728–729.
  6. The descriptor moro is notoriously difficult to translate as the meanings range from ‘brunette,’ to ‘Muslim,’ or ‘Black African,’ depending on the context or more precisely on the presumptions of a given author or scribe. In my research into Florentine sources, I have found the term used almost exclusively to describe Black Africans who predominantly entered Italy via the Middle East or the Ottoman empire, with the diminutives morino or moretto used to describe Black children. Muslims more generally were typically described instead with the term turco. I have chosen therefore to translate the term as ‘Black’ in recognition of the localized Florentine usage.
  7. See ASF Mediceo del Principato, f.5358, c.657v and cc.728–729.
  8. ASF Miscellanea medicea, n.31, ins. 10, c.133v.
  9. For Ali’s age see his baptismal details at I-Fd, reg. 58, fol. 22. Ali took the baptismal name Cosimo Maria Medici.
  10. ASF Camera del Granduca f.35, 77r.
  11. “Iolao moro servo del monarca Ateniese comparve sul lido. Egli vestia all’Affricana una giubba di raso manì, adornata con ricamo splendete; copriva l’oscuro colore della sua nera gamba gentile calzare di candido argento, e le molte gioie, che d’ogn’intorno il fregiavano, la grandezza dinotavano del suo Signore.” Cited from the “Descrizione dell’Ercole in Tebe, feste teatrale,” published as an appendix to the libretto, 134.
  12. Emily Wilbourne, Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell'arte (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  13. On theatrical representations of Africanized speech in early modern Spanish sources, see Nicholas Jones, Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019); on the relationship of Italian moresche to African (specifically Kanuri) words, see Gianfranco Salvatore, "Parodie realistiche: Africanismi, fraternità e sentimenti identitari nelle canzoni moresche del Cinquecento," Kronos 14 (2011): 97–130.
  14. Scipione in Cartagine, dramma musicale; Fatto rappresentare da gli Accademici Sorgenti, nel loro Teatro, sotto la protezzione [sic.] del Sereniss. e Reverendiss. Princ. Card. Gio: Carlo di Toscana (Florence: Gio: Anton Bonardi, 1657).
  15. Previous scholarship has assumed that Buonaccorsi played all the Black roles on Florentine stages during this period, however I have argued otherwise, see my “… la curiosità.” For details of Caralì’s life and baptism see ACAF Pia Casa dei Catecumini, f.2, insert 18, cnn. [3] and I-Fd Registri Battesimali, Maschii, reg.51, fg. 236, 1 August 1657.
  16. I would like to thank Riccardo Strobino and Giuliano Mori for their help with this translation.
  17. Scipione in Cartagine, 34–35.
  18. “[Q]uesta figura di moro è abituale nei drammi di Moniglia, che gli dà un linguaggio esotico maccaronico, dominato dalla ù finale, dalla sostituzione di -p- in -b-, dall’uso degli infinitivi verbali, e dalla soppressione degli articoli.” See the editorial apparatus to Giovanni Andrea Moniglia, Il vecchio balordo, ed. Françoise Decroisette, Biblioteca Pregoldoniana (Venice: Lineadacqua, 2014), 149.
  19. Moniglia, Ercole in Tebe, 54.
  20. For Melani’s presence on Mattias’ rolls, see Sara Mamone, ed., Mattias de’ Medici serenissimo mecenate dei virtuosi. Notizie di spettacolo nei carteggi medicei. Carteggio di Mattias de’ Medici (1629–1667) (Florence: Le Lettere, 2013), lett. 1103-04. For the reference to Jacopo as a singing teacher, see Mamone, ed., Serenissimi fratelli principi impresari: Notizie di spettacolo nei carteggi medicei. Carteggi di Giovan Carlo de’ Medici e di Desiderio Montemagni suo segretario (1628–1664) (Florence: Le Lettere, 2003), lett. 803.
  21. ASF Mediceo del Principato, f.5358, c.657v. On Righenzi, see Sergio Monaldini, “Leandro: Carlo Righenzi musico e comico,” Musicalia 8 (2011): 75–112.
  22. Moniglia, Ercole in Tebe, 54–55.
  23. See Emily Wilbourne, "Demo's Stutter, Subjectivity, and the Virtuosity of Vocal Failure,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 68, no. 3 (2015): 659–63.
  24. Amanda Weidman, "Anthropology and Voice,” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 37–51.
  25. See Kate Lowe, "Isabella d’Este and the Acquisition of Black Africans at the Mantuan Court,” in Mantova e il Rinascimento italiano: Studi in onore di David S. Chambers, edited by Philippa Jackson and Guido Rebecchini (Mantua: Editoriale Sometti, 2011), 65–76.
  26. On early modern disability, see Amrita Dhar’s essay elsewhere in the collection.


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