Tacitus incognito: Opera as history in L'incoronazione di Poppea

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This essay considers opera's use of a particular history in seventeenth-century Venice: Cornelius Tacitus's Annals of the Roman Empire as transformed in Monteverdi's and Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea. In contrast with a recent hypothesis linking Tacitus, Poppea, and the Venetian Accademia degli Incogniti with Neostoicism, this essay argues that the members of the Accademia degli Incogniti used Tacitus's history of the Julio-Claudians as part of a highly specialized republican discourse on Venetian political superiority and sensual pleasures. After considering Incogniti philosophies and interest in the erotic in the context of Venetian political ideals and the influence of Tacitus on political and moral thought in early modern Europe, this essay places L'incoronazione di Poppea in the context of several other treatments of Tacitus produced during the mid-seventeenth century by Busenello's colleagues in the Accademia degli Incogniti, in which empire and the liabilities of female power are contrasted implicitly with Venice's male oligarchy. The Venetian rejection of Stoic philosophy and fascination with the erotic and the patriotic play themselves out in one of the opera's most peculiar distortions of the historical record - the scene following the death of Seneca in which the philosopher's nephew, the poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, known in Venice for his republican ideals, joins the emperor Nero in song to celebrate his uncle's death and Poppea's charms. As transformed by Monteverdi's sexually explicit music, Lucan's endorsement of artistic self-expression, sensual freedom, and republican ideals provides a critical counterpoint to Senecan support of the principate and moral restraint - a view that was far more compatible with Venetian concerns at midcentury.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-96
Number of pages68
JournalJournal of the American Musicological Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Music


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