9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Susanna and Male Gaze: The Musical 'Iconography' of a Baroque Heroine

Susanne Dunlap

The vast majority of Baroque paintings placed women as objects and subjects of the male gaze. Even where sexuality was not overtly the issue, the concentration of representations of female nudes in historical, mythological and biblical contexts furnished a subtext of sensual/sexual inference. The unmistakable vantage point of the male artist was very influential in these representations, as is demonstrated by comparing canvases painted by men depicting the story of Susanna , with one notable instance of a work on the
same subject by a woman, Artemisia Gentileschi, in the late 17th century.

The question of whether this vantage point can also be discerned in musical treatments of the same theme is the subject of this paper. Are there identifiable ways in which Handel's, or Stradella’s, setting of the story subscribes to this androcentric view of Susanna? How do the two male composers play to the expectations of their audience, who may have been accustomed to seeing the story as a thinly-veiled opportunity for titillation? Can one discern a different point of view in Elizabeth Tollet’s “Susanna, or Innocence Preserv’d,” an English music drama for which only the text survives? Finally, this paper seeks to draw a meaningful parallel between the visual and musical representations of the figure of Susanna in the Baroque era, and by doing so, to illuminate the commonality of images, musical, textual, and visual, associated with women in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

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Last updated on 22 March 2000 by Yo Tomita