A palaeontologist that made crucial discoveries, and a composer of true merit. Sadly, these women were lost to history. No longer.
A while ago we had a look at two astonishing women – one an astronomer, the other a cryptanalyst – who have been mostly forgotten in the fast-paced, fickle, shallow, celebrity-ridden times in which we live.
Today, two more forgotten women make an appearance – a composer and a fossil hunter/palaeontologist. Each lived quiet lives making their marks without fanfare and largely without the recognition they were due. TG for history!
Barbara Strozzi (1619- 1677)
It’s only been in relatively recent years that female composers have received focused mainstream airplay on classical radio stations, but even in spite of this, it’s true to say that many of us remain ignorant about some pretty gifted musical women. So let’s meet one such woman, seventeenth century Italian composer Barbara Strozzi (aka Barbara Valle).
Barbara wrote madrigals, cantatas, duets and other works for solo soprano – which she would have performed herself. Most are love songs. Her music consists of simple melodic lines and perhaps there’s an austerity there too, but with the right voice, this baroque music can take your breath away, like this Amour dormiglioni:
Barbara was likely the illegitimate daughter of Venetian intellectual Giulio Strozzi, librettist to some of Italy’s greatest baroque composers including the great Claudio Monteverdi. Giulio gave Barbara a comprehensive musical education, which paid off after he died in 1652. He’d left her very little, certainly not enough to live on. Fortunately she had both talent and entrepreneurship and made money from her music. She was one of the few women from that period who published her own work – eight volumes in all, quite an achievement.
The only surviving likeness of her shows a plumpish 20-something woman, gazing directly at the viewer, a viola da gamba held casually in her left hand, a violin on the side table. The fact that one breast is exposed has been interpreted as meaning that Barbara was a courtesan. So much from just one breast?
Perhaps she did support herself as a courtesan. She had four children in the early 1640s and never married, but scholars say it is more the fact that she performed only to small groups of the cultural elite rather than on a concert stage that suggests she was a courtesan. In seventeenth century Venice, women musicians could actually have a public career, so Barbara could have become a noted opera singer. Instead she wrote music and performed it privately at the Accademia degli Unisoni, the salon established by her father to help showcase her talent. Private performances were associated with the courtesan lifestyle, a highly educated and cultured woman supposedly seeking a wealthy patron.
The reality, however, is that her private life is all speculation and with the distance of time, irrelevant. It’s all about her work and her accomplishments. Barbara Strozzi was smart, talented, resourceful, accomplished. Why don’t you give her music a burl sometime?
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
Until just a little over 200 years ago, many people, taking their cue from the Bible, thought that Earth was about 6,000 years old, but in the nineteenth century, a young girl exploring what is now known as the Jurassic Coast – the shoreline and surrounds of her native Lyme Regis in the south of England – found something that would change the whole course of geological thinking and lead to the establishment of that field of scientific inquiry we know as palaeontology.
Mary Anning was an avid fossil collector. At the age of 12, she and her brother found what they thought was the intact skeleton of a crocodile. That particular fossil was the first complete ichthyosaur ever found, and Mary went on to unearth other remarkable finds including more complete ichthyosaur skeletons, a plesiosaurus with its long neck intact, a pterodactyl and countless other fossils. Intelligent and resourceful, she taught herself geology, anatomy and palaeontology. She had no formal training in these disciplines but she had acute observational skills, a deep local knowledge of tides, weather patterns and the landscape, and before long geologists, anatomists, collectors and others sought her assistance. She generously shared her knowledge and freely corresponded with scientists and enthusiasts.
Mary is credited with kickstarting the study of the eating habits of the ancient reptiles she’d uncovered. She’d noticed that “stones” found in what would have been the stomachs of ichthyosaurs contained fossilised bones of various fish species. These “stones”, called coprolites, were actually fossilised faeces. It doesn’t sound glamorous at all, but this was a major scientific discovery.
Unfortunately at the time, Mary never received her full due. Many dismissed her as an amateur because of her lack of education and low social status, yet she could identify and classify bones that puzzled even the most experienced scientists. Some went on to publish her findings under their own names, with perhaps a passing acknowledgement to her. She had the good opinion of others, but not the financial reward and it was only later in her short life (she died aged 47) that she was given an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. It was Mary’s initial discovery and remarkable follow-ups that revolutionised geology and palaeontology, so it’s nice to know she received some remuneration for her efforts.
Sadly however, but not surprisingly, her name fell into obscurity after her death, but in 2010, Britain’s Royal Society named her as one of the ten most influential women in British science.
The work of these two women had a lasting impact, and we’re all about giving them their due. Fair’s fair after all.