French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

The Sound, the Image, and the Object: The Place of Music in Palaces and Villas of the Italian Renaissance


By Raffaella Bortolini

On 4 January 2017 at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art, in the seminar Lieux et espaces en musique : la Renaissance italienne (part of the series L’iconographie musicale et l’art occidental), Laura Moretti (University of St.-Andrews) spoke on “The Sound, the Image, and the Object: The Place of Music in Palaces and Villas of the Italian Renaissance.”

The presentation started with a panoramic view of the importance of chamber music during the sixteenth century. L’Antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica by Nicola Vicentino is the earliest source that speaks about chamber music (1555). Private and semi-private performances ‘at home’ were very common in the mid sixteenth century and before. In a series of images and written testimonies we find evidence of this practice. One such example is the description by Francesco Sansovino in Venetia città nobilissima et signorile (1581) of “Studi di musica con strumenti e libri di eccellenza” (music rooms with instruments and books of excellence). He describes ‘modern’ rooms and rooms alla greca et all’antica in great numbers. Palaces were at the time the principal sites for musical performances. Increasing attention was paid to rooms dedicated to musical purposes, and was profoundly influenced by this fashion for rooms all’antica.

Alvise Cornaro’s case is an example of how musical spaces became central in the architecture of noble houses in Italy. Cornaro was a renewed artists-patron with several important connections. The loggia of his house in Padova, Casa Cornaro, designed by Giovanni Maria Falconetto in 1524, was supposed to be used as an amphitheatre. Cornaro himself was involved in the design of the house, as Giorgio Vasari testified. His Odeo, as Sebastiano Serio writes in Il settimo libro d’Architettura, was built to be a place of music. Playing music in these areas of the houses became a more and more common practice. Serio also writes about the octagonal salotto of the house where “musicians are to play…”. The salotto was copied from the project of Andrea Palladio’s central room of Villa Pisani (which was never realized). The same type of room is found in Vincenzo Scamozzi’s Rocca Pisana; in l’idea dell’architettura universale, Scamozzi asserts that this room is an ideal space for playing music.

The two most important examples for investigating the connection between architecture and music performances are those of Mario Bevilacqua and Niccolò Vaddi. We see a large number of sources documenting the musical life at their houses. They were both born in 1536, died in the 1590s and they were both interested in music and musical instruments, as well as in the other arts and arranged their houses for semi-public use. Their collections were in display of the people connected to the family and the houses can be seen as proto-museums.

Mario Bevilacqua came from a wealthy family and studied law in Bologna. Palazzo Bevilacqua, restored in 1550 by Michele San Micheli, became his property in 1579. Unfortunately, today the palace is used as a school: only the loggia still survives unaltered. In 1593 an inventory of the art works of the house was compiled: the majority was kept in semi-public rooms named ridotto, galleria, camera grande and studio (most of them were situated in the piano nobile, or nobles’ residence). All the rooms were accessible by the open-air staircase in the inside court of the palace. The family members could reach the rooms by their living spaces, guests could enter from the outside court.

The galleria was used as an entrance space for people to walk around freely and observe the precious art works. There were, in fact, many sculptures (seven in life size) and some of the most valuable paintings (amongst them one by Tintoretto). A large open room known as the camera grande was instead equipped with a warm fire-place. Here we could find, together with paintings and medium size objects, some furniture like tables and chairs: guests could, in fact, sit and wait their turns to enter the studio and talk to Mario Bevilacqua. The studio had a huge number of paintings, drawings, furniture, book cases for his manuscripts and books. An ebony lute was also kept in here, together with a painting of a lute-player by Cariani: Bevilacqua wanted to create a microcosm to remind the people of his interest in music. We think that the lute was considered unsuitable for performances because it has been described as having a too ‘brittle’ sound.

The Ridotto was situated in the body of the palace (now completely lost). The term ridotto refers to a room in a private house opened to people for musical performances, conversations etc. Bevilacqua’s most precious sculpture (Adorante statue, called Apollo by him) was placed at the entrance to the path leading to this room, in order to welcome people to the musical performances.

Seventy-seven instruments of his collection (including the very rare Bassanelli) were kept there, as well as many paintings, fifty music printed books, fourteen manuscripts, chairs and benches: it was intended to host a huge number of people.

Bevilacqua must have been a great music patron: thirty musical prints were dedicated to him and some others to the Ridotto. The renowned composer Luca Marenzio asserted that he wrote madrigals for the instruments of this collection in a very different style, which were sub-sequentially performed in the Ridotto.

Niccolò Gaddi owned two big houses in Firenze, his main residence, Casa grande, and a second house, casa dell’Orto, reserved for displaying his sumptuous collection: again, it is one of the first buildings conceived for this proto-museum intent. It consisted of two buildings and a garden (commissioned to the architect Antonio Dosio), none of which today remain. Fortunately, many drawings survived, testifying to its historical setting.

Within the house was a stanza de’ suoni (room of sounds) with a huge collection of musical instruments, but too small for live performances. The galleria sull’orto hosted an organ: we can imagine that the musical performances were set there and in the garden itself.
No dedications to Niccolò Gaddi survived as in the case of Mario Bevilacqua. Probably Gaddi was much more interested in the works of art as collection objects then in their musical-theatrical use.

Conclusion: from a methodological point of view, to analyse a private building architecturally, we need to study first the history of its owner, in order to understand the use of the spaces in the house and the value of the objects and art works belonging to them.

Quoted sources
Nicola Vicentino, Antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, Antonio Barre – Roma 1555

Francesco Sansovino, Venetia città nobilissima et signorile, Iacomo Sansovino – Venezia 1581

Sebastiano Serio, Il settimo libro d’Architettura, Andrè WechelFrankfurt am Main 1575
Vincenzo Scamozzi, l’idea dell’architettura universale, Girolamo AlbriziVenezia 1615


  1. Thank you Very much ! I am Very much interested in writing about the harpsichord and could not find enough about the intimate ( If there was such concept about músic Room ?!) música grottoes in Italy .

  2. Quite interested in harpsichord music in Italian Renaissance. This articule os 8nestimable ! Thank you.

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