A Patron Queen of Sciences in the Seventeenth-Century


In my readings in the history of science during the seventeenth century, I have come across the name of Queen Christina (1626-1689) repeatedly, but only lately have I begun to pay attention. I have yet to find a comprehensive list of the many early modern figures in science Queen Christina of Sweden employed, encouraged, patronized, prodded to teach her, or with whom she corresponded, but it would be a long and fascinating roster. Descartes, Galileo, and Bernini would top such a list but one could include many others, such as Count Luigi Fernando Marsili, the author of a 1725 volume on physical oceanography (a copy of which was recently acquired by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University).

Several books and even a movie (starring Greta Garbo) have detailed the remarkable life of Queen Christina – her assumption of the Swedish throne at age six upon the death of her father, Gustav Adolf (killed while defending Protestantism in the Thirty Year’s War), and her abdication of the throne some twenty years later (to convert to Catholicism and move to Rome!). While in Rome, she established one of the most powerful courts in Europe even as a ruler without a country.

My interest in Queen Christina (she was technically crowned King) was sparked again by reading a provocative dissertation on Queen Christina’s physical presence. In her dissertation, “Figuring a Queen: Queen Christina of Sweden and Embodiment of Sovereignty,” Camilla Kandare argues that Queen Christina used the movement of her body to gather power. Unlike many of Christina’s biographers, Kandare claims that during the seventeenth-century, it was not how Queen Christina looked that mattered but rather how she carried herself. While some contemporaries commented on her aging female body, her messy hair, or her habit of wearing men’s shoes, it was the way she moved that gained her access to the highest echelons of religious and political life in Rome. The way Queen Christina processed, rode, strolled, danced, curtsied, and kissed, all served to bolster her prestige and power, even as an older woman.

Early Music Vancouver recently presented a concert of music from the court of Queen Christina, along with a performance of dances with which she would have been familiar. On July 26, 2015, a band of top-notch musicians and a dancer took the stage in the Roy Barnett Recital Hall at the University of British Columbia’s School of Music. The music and dance selections followed the outline of Christina’s life from “Stockholm, the Court of the Lion of the North,” through her “Abdication and journey to Rome,” to her visit to Versailles, and back to Rome.

Soprano Ellen Hargis used snippets of Christina’s diaries, letters, and commentaries of the day to paint episodes from Christina’s life. For example, to portray Christina’s education, Hargis read from the young Christina’s letter to her Latin teacher in which she promised “to speak only Latin…even though I have failed at that in the past.” The music of Baldassare Donato (c.1530-1603), Luigi Rossi (c.1597), Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), and Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) and others was played with nuance and spirit by Ellen Hargis (soprano), Paul Luchkow (violin), Christopher Bagan (harpsichord), and Lucas Harris (theorbo & baroque guitar). Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiére, a baroque dancer from Montreal gave splendid and convincing performances of dances reconstructed from period notation complete with lavish costuming. In 1657, Christina had visited the court of Louis XIV where she would have seen the Folias danced using choreographies like those employed by Lacoursiére to splendid effect. For decades, Christina was an intimate friend of Cardinal Azzollino (1623-1689) who attended her at her death bed. Lacoursiére’s funerary-inspired final dance evoked the sorrow of the cardinal through a pensive and beautiful tribute, also danced with a repertoire of period steps.