On March 16, 2013, the Art Gallery of Ontario unveils a three-month exhibit entitled Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art. On display will be the work of Florentine artists active between 1300 and 1350. This exhibition shows what people would have seen in 14th-century Florence, but what did they hear? First, some context.
Times were certainly different back then:
- Life expectancy (at birth) was around 30 years.
- People only washed their clothing once or twice a year.
- Unpopular in today's western diets, pigeon was a gastronomical delicacy.
- Pasta had not yet become synonymous with Italian cuisine.
- The Tower of Pisa wasn't yet finished (but it was already leaning).
- The bubonic plague wiped out more than 60 per cent of Florence's population.
Tough times, to be sure. Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Florence emerged as a centre of wealth and prosperity. This wealth was a cause of concern for Florentines; they were worried it would jeopardize their admittance to heaven. Thus, they poured money into religious art in an attempt to clear their conscience.
As the AGO's exhibit shows, 14th-century Florentine art was borne from its patrons' preoccupation with death and the afterlife. As you'll see in the samples below, the surviving music of the trecento (as this period is known in musical circles) seems to dish out lighter fare, with themes of love, dancing and hunting — music that seemed to offer respite from the woes of mortality.
Ballata: songs of dance
Ballata is a composition for one to three voices, typically begun and concluded by a refrain. The term ballata is derived from the Italian term ballare (to dance). This example is by Florentine composer Francesco Landini (1325–1397).
Caccia: songs of hunting
Caccia is the Italian word for hunting, and these chase-like, three-voiced songs often contained texts based on the hunt. Two upper voices form a canon; the lower voice provides independent accompaniment. This example by Lorenzo da Firenze (who died in 1372/3) combines voices and instruments.
Landini: songs of love and lust, desire and hope, rejection and misery
Listen to Anonymous 4 performing love songs of Landini. A review of this album says that the song texts cover the "three L's of love, lust, and longing — for love that was possible, for love that wasn't, and, in the latter case, longing for death rather than suffer the pain of hopeless, eternal separation from the object of one's desire."
Who performed trecento music in its heyday?
What little we know points to the presence of troubadours arriving in Italy from Occitania. These were the singer-songwriters of their day, often receiving patronage from nobility and residing with them at length, rather than constantly touring. Sounds like a decent gig! However, the black death affected the troubadours as well, and they fell from prominence as performers around 1350. After that point we can only guess who performed the secular music of the trecento.
Who performs Florentine trecento music these days?
As part of a general performance revival of early music over the past half-century, leading groups such as Lionheart (U.S.A.), Anonymous 4 (U.S.A.), La Reverdie (Italy) and Ensemble Micrologus (Italy) count among their repertoire works from the Italian trecento. Lionheart will appear at the AGO on April 6, and will be singing from the reassembled Laudario of Sant'Agnese, an illuminated Florentine hymn manuscript dating roughly from 1340. Twenty-four pages from the Laudario will be featured in the exhibition.
Are you a lover of the Renaissance? Does this music "take you back" a few years? As usual, we'd love to hear what you think.
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Laudario of Sant'Agnese
on Mar 14, 2013