“She walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers.” So she was described by one of her biographers. This was Queen Christina, the Rebel Queen, a queen like no other.
Christina was constantly upending expectations of her. This even happened at her birth in 1626 where, because of her hairy appearance, they first thought she was a boy. The daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, she became queen at age six when her father was killed in the Thirty Years’ War. Before he left for battle, the king had ordered that she be raised and educated like any prince, and she took great advantage of her education. Obviously very bright and extremely curious, she could speak six languages; it was said that her talent for languages was “nothing short of unique.” She slept only about six hours a day and spent the rest of the day in her studies, often dressing in male clothes as she felt it was more efficient. Christina eventually invited the French philosopher René Descartes as well several other foreign artists and intellectuals to her court. She amassed one of the largest libraries in Europe and became known as “the Minerva of the North.”
Through conversations with Descartes and probably her Italian musicians, she gradually became interested in the Catholic faith. Queen Christina eventually decided not to marry. In June 1654, she abdicated the Swedish throne, discarded the Lutheran faith, converted to Catholicism, and began her journey to Rome to take up residence there. Christina traveled though Europe, often dressed as a knight, and finally arrived in Rome in December of 1655 to great fanfare. She entered the city though the Porto del Popolo, newly redecorated in her honor by Bernini, where she could read Pope Alexander VII’s personal greeting that is still inscribed over the gate: “Felice faustoque ingressui – 1655” (“May your entry be happy and propitious”). Over the next few weeks she also attended a special performance of Carissimi’s oratorio Il sacrificio d’Isacco at the German College, along with several theatrical and opera performances at the Barberini palace.
Christina at first took up residence in the Palazzo Farnese, eventually settling in the Palazzo Riario. Music and the arts remained an important part of her life and patronage as she quickly established her Academia d’Arcadia, where participants enjoyed and took part in music, theatre, literature, philosophy, science, and languages. She named Carissimi her Maestro di Cappella del Concerto di Camera, making him central to the musical aspects of her gatherings. This was a major coup, as Carissimi was firmly situated as the chapel master at the Jesuits’ German College and had already refused several important positions elsewhere. She also had close relations with the Barberini family, and “borrowed” several of their musicians, including Marazzoli, Pasqualini, Vittori, and Giuseppe Melani. (She apparently took voice lessons from the castrato Loreto Vittori and was accompanied by Marazzoli, probably on the famous Barberini harp.) Eventually she became patron to the composers Bernardo Pasquini and the future important composers Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti.
Christina was a member of the “Libertines,” the freethinking branch of the Catholic faith, and she often made disparaging remarks about the Pope and others in power. She was an advocate of women performers who commonly participated in events at the academy and in operas she staged. She had several women musicians in her employ such as the singers Maria Landini and her daughters Angelica and Mariuccia. Other singers included Angela Maddalena Voglia (who also played lute, theorbo, and keyboards) as well as the famous soprano Antonia Cortesi, who had been one of the leading opera singers in Venice. It is also possible that she heard one of the other ensembles of women in Rome (an important inspiration to Armonia Celeste), as detailed by André Maugars in a visit to Rome towards the middle of the seventeenth century:
There was also the Leonora Baroni and her daughters who were in Rome for several years…. I must tell you that she did me the special favor of singing with her mother and her sister, her mother playing the lirone, her sister the harp and she the theorbo. This concert, composed of three beautiful voices and three different instruments, so affected my senses and so ravished my spirit that I forgot my mortal condition and thought I was among the angels enjoying the delights of the blessed.
Christina was known for often going against conventional Roman customs and mores. This applied not only to promoting women performers but to other traditions as well. For example, in Rome, there was a reprehensible custom of chasing Jews through the streets during Carnival; she issued a proclamation that Roman Jews were under her protection. It was said that she took a practice shot with a cannon at the Castel Sant’Angelo without bothering to aim it, and hit the door of the Villa Medici. (The dented door is still there, and the supposed cannon ball is now atop the fountain in front of the entrance.) She became both the darling and the scandal of Rome and at the same time, one of the great patrons of the arts.
Christina died in 1689 and was buried in St. Peter’s Grotto, one of the few women ever to ever receive that honor. In 1933, the great Greta Garbo appeared in “Queen Christina,” a fictionalized movie about her life and abdication. Christina remains one of the most interesting women in history, and numerous books and articles have been and continue to be written about her. Her lasting reputation as a witty and freethinking historical figure is complemented by the enormous musical legacy she fostered during her years in Rome as patron to the arts. The music on Armonia Celeste’s program is a testament to the strong musical traditions cultivated in her courts and academies.