French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Space, Sight, and Sound in the Renaissance Palace


by Sadegh Ansari

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), Tim Shephard (University of Sheffield) gave a talk titled “Space, Sight, and Sound in the Renaissance Palace,” following the talk by Laura Moretti on the place of music in the palaces and villas of the Italian Renaissance.

The focus of Shephard’s talk was a series of representations of music that did not necessarily correspond to music performance. They rather demonstrated supra-musical functions of musical imagery in Renaissance Italy. These images were widely disseminated and usually portable, printed in eclogues, pamphlets, books, etc. They connect specific aspects of the musical culture of the time to give a particular reading of music making as an activity.

The first set of images depict pastoral scenes with shepherds as their protagonists in eclogues. The images can be essentially grouped in two categories of “good” and “bad” space. Music is always present in the good space and brings about the happiness and joy there, while it is absent in the bad space and replaced with silence.

The second set of images represent the story of the judgement of Midas. In this story, Midas, a king in ancient Greece with a reputation for having poor judgement questions the superiority of Apollo in playing music by judging Pan’s music to be better than that of Apollo. This story shows the extent of Midas’ poor judgement. In the illustration chosen by Shephard, Midas is represented as unmanly, effeminate, inelegant, and obviously with poor musical judgement. But Shephard argues that the poor judgement does not just stop at music. Midas has poor moral judgment as well, which is why he is depicted as unmanly. This, Shephard argues, links music with moral judgement: if a person has a poor judgement in music they will have poor moral judgement too.

In the next image, an episode in the story of Orpheus is depicted. The episode is about Orpheus’ sadness after he loses Eurydice for the second time. The depiction shows him playing music so passionately that even beasts and trees are moved by it. The illustration was a part of a printed edition of Ovid’s stories translated in vernacular, printed around late 15th century. At that time Orpheus was not understood to be just a musician, but also a poet and orator. In fact, his musicianship was an accompaniment to his oratory abilities that enabled him to control beasts and trees which here represent uncontrollable stubborn men rather than actual beasts and trees. Orpheus is an ancient civic leader who uses powerful rhetoric to tame wild and stubborn men. Music and poetry nourish oratory skills that are necessary for being an effective leader. This is to emphasize the importance of poetry and musical education as opposed to swordsmanship and other purely physical activities.

The last image is an illustration of Mount Parnassus. The image was printed on porcelain plates used on dinner tables. It depicts Apollo playing the lyre as the organizer of the harmony of the spheres and the universe by extension. This depiction of Apollo very clearly puts him in line with Pythagorean music theory. But, in Renaissance Italy, Apollo was associated with the personification of poetry rather than music. Once again, music is seen as an accompaniment to poetry. especially since the instrument used by Apollo, Lyra, was very similar in name to the instrument that was used in 15th century Italian poetry recitation as an accompaniment instrument: Lira da Braccio. This instrument in return was linked to Pythagorean music theory by Johannes Tinctoris. Through Lyra, Apollo linked the Pythagorean mathematical quadrivium to poetic grammatical trivium, tying poetry to music. In fact in Renaissance Italian cosmology it was poetry and not music that could give you access to the secrets of the universe. This image shows the close connection that music and poetry had to one another, depicting personification of poetry as a lady holding a lyre sitting on top of Mount Parnassus. The essential idea behind Shephard’s argument is that music and poetry in renaissance Italy were the same or at least could be understood as the same.

The images studied here connect specific aspects of the musical culture of the time to give a particular reading of music making as an activity. These activities could be the production of a happy space as in the case of the pastoral eclogues, the instillment of good moral judgement through good musical education, the promotion of oratory skills, or the refusal to make a distinction between music and poetry. These images can produce these meanings as a kind of space for performance of musical activities of all kinds in any location.

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