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Saturday morning quotes 5.23: Isabella D’Este

October 24, 2015


“…Relations of force and the play of power are the very stuff of history. History exists, events occur, and things that happen can and must be remembered, to the extent that relations of power, relations of force, and a certain play of power operate in relations among men..”

– Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976

If one accepts our received historical accounts at face value, we see the past as a world primarily populated by assertive men of noble rank—and the occasional exceptional individual who is remembered mainly due to happenstance. As we have mentioned before, what we have come to call the Renaissance was really the result of an economic anomaly.  In rather simplistic terms, the Renaissance was just a blip in time when brazen bankers were able to successfully flout the the ban against usury and acquire mountains of cash.  Since bankers have always been better known for their tendency toward ruthless exploitation rather than for noble refinement, the next logical step was to buy the illusion of nobility by paying architects, artists, poets and musicians to be nice to them and surround them with the trappings of culture.

Isabella D’Este (1474 – 1539) was an exceptional woman who ruled Mantua during the perpetual absence of her husband Francesco Gonzaga, who was either pursuing prostitutes, rampaging across Italy on military matters, or being held captive by the Venetians. In addition to her skill in statecraft and other intellectual pursuits, Isabella happened to indulge in a passion for poetry and music, and was patroness of our favorite frottolists, Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marco Cara.

Isabella was not content to be entertained by the best musicians, but developed and indulged in her own skill as a musician.  Our quotations outline Isabella’s skill in music and are drawn from a fascinating article by William F. Prizer, “Una “Virtù Molto Conveniente A Madonne”: Isabella D’Este as a Musician”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 17, No. 1, A Birthday Tableau for H. Colin Slim (Winter , 1999), pp. 10-49

Prizer’s research demonstrates that Isabella learned to read music and studied sight-singing and vocal technique rather than learning the traditional way by ear and by rote.

“The exact nature of Isabella’s vocal training is crucial, for it was not the traditional rote or “unwritten” method of teaching music, but was firmly rooted in the written tradition. Not only were her identifiable teachers Northerners associated primarily with the written tradition, but there is evidence that she was using notated music and a singing method for her study.”

– Prizer, pg. 15

Always on the lookout for a capable tutor, from Isabella’s correspondence we learn a bit about the desirable vocal characteristics of a singer and instructor from the late 15th century—a soft voice was used in chamber music and balance with the volume of plucked instruments was important.  From a letter dated October 24, 1491 written by Francesco Bagnacavallo, a courtier of Cardinal Ippolito I d’Este in Ferrara, addressed to Isabella:

“…Your brother says that [the Hungarian singer] does not have a large choir voice, but that he is sufficient as a chamber singer and says that he sings well to the lute, cittern, [and] lira; he knows how to sing well with such instruments…”

– Prizer, pg. 14

We read historical accounts of improvised accompaniments to poetry based on grounds or harmonic formulas, for example those notated and indicated in the (much later) Bottegari manuscript. While professional musicians were known and respected for their skill in improvising song settings, the amateur was not expected to indulge in such pastimes.

“There is no trace of Isabella’s improvising settings of poetry anywhere in the large body of documents that mention her singing, and it seems unlikely that amateurs were trained to take part in the complex unwritten tradition of Italian secular music.”

– Prizer, pg. 18

Of course Isabella played the lute.

“If Isabella had already studied voice and clavichord in Ferrara, then it seems likely that she would have begun study of the lute there as well, since the instrument was in many ways the basic instrument for any Renaissance musician. Certainly, children did study lute as an early musical step: Isabella herself, for example, had her daughter Leonora (1494-1570) and son Federico (1500-1540) studying lute as children. Furthermore, her brother Alfonso definitely studied lute during his childhood: in 1489 there is a payment for the repair of the “liuto de don Alfonso.””

– Prizer, pg. 20-21

Prizer points out that it is difficult to discern just how well Isabella played the lute and sang, but she did perform among professionals and reputed notorious poisoners.

“In the refined climate of the courts, with its constant flattery of the ruling family, it is not easy to determine the exact level of Isabella’s abilities as a musician. Nevertheless, we can ascertain something of her caliber through accounts of her actual performances; these can give a notion of her level of proficiency, of the kind of occasions on which she performed, and, in at least one case, the precise repertory she performed. The earliest evidence comes from February 1502, during the marriage festivities for Alfonso d’Este to Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara. During the celebrations Isabella gave a dinner for an impressive list of luminaries: the French ambassador, Ferrante and Giulio d’Este, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Laura Bentivoglio, Niccolo da Correggio, and four of the major Spanish dignitaries. Here Isabella had Marchetto Cara sing.”

“She also performed herself, although, in her letter to her husband, she modestly insisted that she was forced to do so: “After dinner, we danced the hat dance. When this was done, so many requests and demands were made of me that I had to demonstrate my singing to the lute.” The Marchesa of Crotone was more specific in her comments: “after dinner, her Excellency the Marchesa, because of the requests of these lords, sang two sonnets and a capitolo, and they were as delighted as it is possible to be.” Once again, Isabella was mirroring Castiglione’s statement that a woman should perform only after having allowed herself to be “begged a little, and with a certain shyness.”

– Prizer, pg. 25

We are impressed by Isabella’s many accomplishments but most pleased to find that she was an advocate for the musical education of other women, if only because it had to do with good taste. From a letter written by Isabella in 1512 to the Abbot of San Benedetto Po:

“Reverend in Christ, our dearest Father. You must remember that when we spoke we asked you to arrange that these venerable nuns of San Giovanni have a way to learn singing and psalmody, because it is truly a great shame that such a venerable and outstanding college of women does not have reason and order in this particular thing, as they do in others. Thus we ask you again now to have your chapter come to terms with those reverend fathers [the nuns’ advisors] and be sure to assign practiced and discreet persons who know how to teach them. This will not only be honoring religion and a greater glory to God, but we also will be most satisfied, because when we go to the said nunnery and hear such discord, our ears are much offended and we are little consoled…”

– Prizer, pg. 24

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