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The Florentine Renaissance

The Orlando Consort Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: January 2020
Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: January 2022
Total duration: 72 minutes 27 seconds

Cover artwork: Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman (c1483, detail) by Sandro Botticelli (c1445-1510)
Musée du Louvre, Paris / akg-images

A celebration from The Orlando Consort of the musical and literary worlds of Florence’s golden age under the Medici, in a selection of works which includes a number of first recordings.


‘The Orlando Consort bring a brisk clarity to the textures [of Nuper rosarum flores] … the result is a beautiful, intimate performance … the lauda performances (religious songs), which Macey explains would have likely been performed by boys and organ to the tunes of known chansons, are here also presented all-vocally: two silky, flowing untexted voices support Matthew Venner’s charismatic countertenor voice in works by Dufay and Binchois. Here, delicacy and intimacy are superbly matched to these more introspective works’ (Gramophone)

‘Nuper rosarum flores, written for the consecration of Florence’s Duomo in 1436, sounds refreshingly lithe and supple in this one-to-a part performance. In the same composer’s Salve flos Tuscae gentis, the consort’s sound is honeyed and mellifluous … throughout the programme, the four voices of The Orlando Consort are beautifully balanced, their intonation and diction nigh flawless’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

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During the decades from 1430 to 1500, Florence hummed with artistic activity—painting, sculpture and architecture flourished in the hands of Italian artists. The city also delighted in imported musical works by composers from France and the Low Countries, including Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois and Heinrich Isaac. Members of the Medici banking family served as central patrons of artistic production. The patriarch, Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder (1389-1464), is best remembered for his architectural commissions, including the Palazzo Medici on the Via Larga, designed by Michelozzo. His covert control over politics in the Florentine Republic caused his exile to Venice in 1433; he took the Medici bank—and its immense wealth—with him. Florentine magistrates soon felt the economic pinch and agreed to his return in 1434. Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici ‘il Magnifico’ (1449-1492), learned the art of political influence from his forebear, but he focused his patronage elsewhere, on the literary and musical arts. In 1485 he recruited Isaac, a bright star of a composer, whose music directly reflects Lorenzo’s interest in Italian song. Lorenzo himself trained in the art of singing with string accompaniment. He also employed the renowned poet and humanist Angelo Poliziano as tutor to Piero, his eldest son. Lorenzo produced a steady stream of poetry, including Carnival songs and sacred laudas. Isaac provided musical settings for texts by both Lorenzo and Poliziano, and a selection of these is included on this recording. First recordings on this album include Isaac’s Corri, Fortuna (track 15), newly supplied with a text by Serafino Aquilano, and Lasso quel ch’altri fugge (track 16) with its missing bass part reconstructed. Isaac is also proposed as the composer of two Carnival songs (tracks 9 & 10) on texts by Lorenzo, with a reconstruction of the missing superius part for the second song, the Canto dello zibetto.

Sacred music and secular songs were performed in a variety of Florentine contexts, from the festive dedication of the cathedral in 1436, to songs from the 1470s to the 1490s that trace the cycle of festive observances in Florence. These include Carnival in January and February, followed by sacred laudas for Lent, spring songs for May, and music for the midsummer feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June. Locations for performance varied according to genre. Secular love songs sounded in the intimacy of private chambers. Racy Carnival songs echoed in the public sphere of the street and piazza. The lauda could be heard at evening devotional services in churches, as well as outdoors during processions on feast days. After the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1492, the Republic endured social and political upheaval. Florentines expressed their grief and their longing for peace in two Latin laments for Lorenzo included towards the end of this recording. Friar Girolamo Savonarola rose to fill the power vacuum and held the city in thrall with fiery sermons advocating social and religious reform. He banned Carnival songs and sanctioned only the singing of sacred laudas.

25 March 1436—a red-letter day on the Florentine calendar—marked the feast of the Annunciation. With a lily in his hand to symbolize her purity, Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be mother of Jesus. The date also marked the start of the new year in Florence, hence the year advanced from 1435 to 1436. This auspicious date witnessed the dedication ceremony for the new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (Holy Mary of the Flower), crowned by Brunelleschi’s spectacular dome.

Dufay trained as a choirboy in northern France, and in 1420 he moved to Italy to pursue his career. He landed in Florence in 1436 in the retinue of Pope Eugene IV—who settled there after fleeing political violence in Rome—and here he composed three motets for the city (tracks 1, 3 & 6). He also likely created a unique chant (track 2) for the Mass of dedication for the new cathedral, a chant found only in the cathedral’s service books. He is probably the author of the texts for all four works.

The text of Dufay’s large-scale motet for the dedication of the cathedral, Nuper rosarum flores (track 1), draws attention to the golden rose, bestowed on the city by the Pope as a sign of favour, and prominently displayed on the cathedral altar. The second stanza addresses Pope Eugene by name. The final two stanzas turn to the Virgin Mary, dedicatee of the cathedral, and offer a plea for her help in gaining forgiveness for sins.

Dufay’s motet has sparked discussion about the relation of its dimensions to architectural elements of the new cathedral. The work has a clear formal design with eight segments based on the alternation of high-voice duets with full-voice sections. This progression of duet–tutti sections creates the effect of increasing speed as the duration of the breve in each statement decreases from six units to four to two, and then broadens out to three in the final section. The proportion of 6:4:2:3 has been the focus of studies that seek to relate the motet’s temporal dimensions to those of the cathedral—or to its prototype, the Temple of Solomon. Other commentators urge caution in interpreting numerical evidence.

In Nuper rosarum flores the two high voices sing all four stanzas of text, while the lower two sing a different text, ‘Terribilis est locus iste’ (‘Awe-inspiring is this place’), appropriately derived from the opening words of the introit chant at the Mass for the dedication of a church. The complete text of the introit quotes the words of Jacob (Genesis 28: 17). In a dream, he sees a ladder leading up to heaven, where God speaks and promises to bless him and his descendants. Upon awakening, Jacob exclaims: ‘Awe-inspiring is this place. This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.’ The two low voices each sing the chant at different pitch levels a fifth apart in a kind of free canon. They state the same music four times during the motet, mostly in long notes that create a strong underpinning for the work. The upper voices, by contrast, introduce the motet with a lyrical duet that floats upward, then gains rhythmic momentum. This opening duet has a duration of twenty-eight breves (modern bars), and the full-voiced section that follows also spans twenty-eight breves.

The number twenty-eight is conspicuous in Nuper rosarum flores, and various aspects of its appearance have been related to modular elements of the cathedral. The twenty-eight-bar segments appear to reflect the measurements of a central aspect of the new cathedral. Brunelleschi’s massive dome rests on the sturdy walls of an octagonal drum. The horizontal length of each inner wall of the drum is twenty-eight braccia (arm-lengths, a Florentine unit measuring about two feet). Dufay’s motet has eight sections, and each of these has a duration of twenty-eight breves. The number further appears in the twenty-eight lines of the main text, as well as the fourteen notes of the chant melody in each of the two lower voices (14x2). Those sitting under Brunelleschi’s dome during the dedication could see the eight walls of the drum, as well as hear the eight distinct sections in Dufay’s motet. It would be a simple matter to spread word that the motet evoked the module of twenty-eight braccia for the octagonal drum that supports the dome.

This disposition of eight segments each spanning twenty-eight breves is nearly unique among Dufay’s motets. The exception is one other motet for the festivities, Salve flos Tuscae gentis (track 3), also in eight sections of twenty-eight breves. The top voice praises the men of Florence, while a different text, sung simultaneously in the second-highest voice, praises Florence’s women. At the end of the first text, Dufay claims that his voice is ‘wearied with singing’—a justifiable claim, given the melodic fireworks in the concluding textless cadenza, a passage of pure melodic exuberance. And he names himself in the last line of the second text. The motet appears destined for a secular setting, perhaps a festive banquet after the dedication ceremony. Unlike Nuper rosarum flores, it has a full texture throughout, and the lower vocal ranges create a darker sound. The tenor sings, four times, a fragment of chant, ‘Viri mendaces’ (‘Lying men’), which may refer to the enemies who forced Cosimo de’ Medici into exile. Dufay signals the start of each of the eight segments with a clear cadence and a long note in the bottom two voices. In the initial segment, the tenor sings the first twelve notes of the chant melody in a distinctive rhythmic pattern marked by rests after every four notes. The second segment continues with the next twelve notes of the chant in a rhythmic pattern identical to the first segment. The modern term for this compositional technique is isorhythm (‘equal rhythm’). The eight segments are grouped in pairs to create four larger sections, and in each of these sections the tenor sings the chant at a different speed: slow triple time, then fast triple, slow duple and finally fast duple. The first section in slow triple time shifts to fast triple as the tenor begins the second statement of the chant; this coincides with the entry of line six of the text in the top voice, ‘praestantes generas religione viros’. The third statement of the tenor shifts to slow duple time at the entry of line ten in the top voice, ‘et vehere et natos mittis’. The tenor sings the fourth and final iteration of the chant in fast duple time, and the entry is marked by the last line of text in the top voice, ‘sed tu carminibus’. The other three parts each state their own identical rhythmic patterns in the four sections, except in the fourth section, where the rhythms of the top two voices are freed up. The work is a marvel of strictly organized repetition of rhythmic patterns that are animated throughout in the top two voices by freely unfolding and non-repeating melodic shapes.

Mirandas parit (track 6) is in cantilena style, characterized by two high voices that intertwine beguilingly above a freely composed tenor that is not based on chant. Like Salve flos Tuscae gentis, it praises the women of Florence; the second half singles out a beautiful maiden whose identity remains unknown.

One other work for the dedication of the cathedral is a chant, a single strand of melody, on the text Nuper almos rosae flores (track 2). The text echoes the opening of the motet Nuper rosarum flores. The chant is a sequence, performed at Mass just before the reading of the Gospel. Dufay is likely the composer of the text and melody of the chant, as it refers to specific events for the dedication of the cathedral, as narrated in accounts by witnesses. The third stanza mentions the wooden walkway that allowed elevated passage for the Pope and his retinue from Santa Maria Novella to the cathedral. The chant is preserved uniquely in a lavishly illuminated service book copied for the cathedral.

The French chansons of Dufay and his contemporary Binchois enjoyed great favour in Italy, as attested by surviving manuscript copies dating from as early as the 1430s. In Florence the chansons of Binchois were especially admired. Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469), the father of Lorenzo il Magnifico, owned a manuscript of nineteen songs copied in the 1440s; twelve are by Binchois. French chansons by Binchois and Dufay stand out for their exquisitely crafted melodies, with syncopated rhythms and vocal leaps. As such, they are best suited to solo performance by trained singers. Some two dozen chansons by these northern composers and their contemporaries migrated from the chamber to the church when their music was adapted for lauda singing in Florence. The lauda is a religious song with texts that praise the Blessed Virgin or exhort the singer to turn away from sin. An important venue for lauda performance was the cantoria (organ loft), and in Florence one could hear laudas sung by a boy treble with organ accompaniment. The practice is documented in the church of Santissima Annunziata, which was central to Florence’s devotional life and attracted pilgrims from far and wide for the healing powers of its miraculous painted image of the Annunciation. The cathedral of Florence was graced with two organ lofts featuring sculpted panels by Luca della Robbia and Donatello that depict children singing, dancing and playing instruments. These small lofts can accommodate only a few people, not a full choir of singers. The latter stood on the floor of the church on one side of the altar, where motets like Nuper rosarum flores were performed.

Two laudas, one each with music from a chanson by Dufay (track 4) and Binchois (track 5), illustrate the style of performance with a boy treble. Here two untexted supporting voices substitute for the organ. Hundreds of lauda texts were written in Florence by Feo Belcari, and they often bear the instruction cantasi come (‘sing this like’) followed by the title of a secular song. For Belcari’s lauda Vanne mio core the instruction is ‘sing this like Va t’en mon cueur and like Pour prison’, so one could choose the music of one of the indicated chansons by Dufay or by Binchois. Piero de’ Medici’s songbook from the 1440s included Binchois’s Pour prison, and it is likely that within the next decade or two Florentines heard Belcari’s lauda sung to the music of both Binchois and Dufay.

Unlike the sophisticated musical settings by Binchois and Dufay, the lauda for St Sebastian, Quando riguardo (track 8), typifies the unadorned music of Florentine religious song in a style suited to amateur singers. Here the singers on each of the three parts pronounce the words together. Vocal ranges are narrow, rhythms are steady, and the parts have few leaps. St Sebastian, a Roman centurion who suffered martyrdom for his conversion to Christianity, was thought to protect against the plague. In the 1470s a spacious chapel called ‘San Bastiano’ was erected alongside the church of Santissima Annunziata. In 1475 the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo painted for this chapel an imposing altarpiece of the saint’s martyrdom, now in the National Gallery in London. Florentine laymen invoked Sebastian’s aid by singing Quando riguardo in front of such images.

In Hora mai che fora son’ (track 7) a young woman exults after escaping the convent and discarding her habit. One copyist labelled the song a ‘canzona Napoletana’, and a performance for Ippolita Sforza, daughter of the duke of Milan, is documented in Siena in July 1465. She was travelling from Milan to wed the prince of Naples, and in the previous week Florence honoured her with a host of festivities. The music reappeared with a different text in Florence by the 1470s, when Feo Belcari used it for his lauda Ora mai sono in età. Belcari reversed the meaning of the original song: now the singer is eager to take religious vows and don the habit. In the 1480s and ’90s the friar Girolamo Savonarola fostered the singing of this lauda (track 18).

In the 1470s the young Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote texts for almost a dozen Carnival songs. The season of Carnival climaxed with ‘martedì grasso’ (‘Fat Tuesday’, or Mardi Gras). The next day, Ash Wednesday, marked the start of the season of Lent, when the populace turned to fasting and penitence. The annual observance of Carnival was banned for a decade after the horrific events that unfolded in the cathedral on Sunday 26 April 1478. While Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano were attending high Mass, disgruntled magnates staged an attack with daggers in what is known as the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo escaped with his life, but Giuliano, aged twenty-four, died from his wounds; the perpetrators were summarily hunted down and executed. Further challenges to the stability of civic life followed, with an outbreak of plague in the summer of 1478, then war with Naples. Carnival was cancelled during these years, but a decade later city officials restored the festivities. In 1490 Lorenzo revived his Carnival songs from the 1470s, now with sparkling new musical settings; these were likely composed by Isaac, Lorenzo’s preferred composer.

The vast archival resources in Florence preserve multiple details about Isaac’s life. Almost nothing is known of his early days in Flanders, but by July 1485 he was inscribed among the singers of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. This was part of Lorenzo’s campaign to recruit highly skilled northern singers for services at the city’s most important churches: the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the cathedral and Santissima Annunziata. Within a month of his first payment as a singer, Isaac married Bartolomea Bello, daughter of a butcher with a very modest dowry. Unlike many chapel singers from this period, Isaac was a layman and not a priest; his companionable and steady nature allowed him to mingle actively in the artistic life of his adopted city. At the Santissima Annunziata he joined a confraternity of northern European artisans and musicians, and he was buried in its side chapel in 1517.

Dozens of texts for Florentine Carnival songs survive, and musical settings are extant for many of them. The most important source is a manuscript copied around 1515, now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence (Banco rari 230). Isaac is well represented in the manuscript with a variety of songs, including the Trionfo delle dée (track 14) and Lasso quel ch’altri fugge (track 16). The last section preserves five Carnival songs on texts by Lorenzo de’ Medici, but none provide an attribution to a composer. Unfortunately, various voice parts are missing due to the removal of several leaves. Only the superius part survives for Lorenzo’s song of the perfume makers (track 9), but luckily all three parts are preserved in a lauda anthology printed in 1563. Here one finds Lorenzo’s lauda O maligno e duro core (track 11), based on a penitential text suitable for Lent, and sung to the same music as the Canto de’ profumi (track 9). The substitution of the sacred text deliberately erases the bawdy words of the Carnival song. This act of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (condemnation of memory) traces its origins to Egyptian and Roman antiquity, when images of past rulers were obliterated.

In addition to the five songs with texts by Lorenzo in Banco rari 230, a further Carnival song is missing the superius part and its text, but it likely preserves the music for Lorenzo’s Canto dello zibetto (‘Song of the civet’, track 10). The phrasing makes an excellent fit with the prosody of Lorenzo’s text, and the setting offers a rich palette of harmonic colour and lively rhythmic syncopation. After establishing the central pitch on D in the refrain, the stanzas move further afield, with cadences on C at the end of line 2, then F and G in line 3. The missing superius has been reconstructed for this recording by taking as a model the music of complete Carnival songs on other texts by Lorenzo. Although the settings of Lorenzo’s songs for Carnival do not name a composer, each one features unique melodic and rhythmic formations that recall other secular songs securely ascribed to Isaac, including Lasso quel ch’altri fugge. As Lorenzo’s favourite composer, Isaac is the likely candidate for creating musical settings for these songs.

The cover of a book of Carnival texts, titled Songs for going in masks during Carnival, depicts a typical performance of a Carnival song. (Canzone per andare in maschera per carnesciale. For a colour image, see: https://g.co/arts/GqMb8QyX6KaDb5Ef7.) The five masked and costumed singers comprise two boys and three adults. Two of them hold up pastries in the shape of doughnuts, the subject of their song. The onlooker on the left is apparently Lorenzo de’ Medici himself. The young women listen from the safety of their upper-storey windows; one commentator notes that their faces were shielded by thin curtains. In this manner, the identities of both parties in the exchange were hidden. The texts are filled with double entendres in which the singers brag about their sexual prowess and offer their services to the ladies. This erotic play unfolded in a tightly controlled space: the masked singers in the piazza addressed young women safely ensconced behind the sheer curtains in their windows.

The young women of Florence represented the honour and the future of the city. In an age of uncertainty, when plague struck on an average of every ten years, and when the lifespan was only forty, the young women promised the flourishing of the city through the crucial acts of child-bearing and raising families. This concern is central to the song of the civet (‘zibetto’, track 10), a cat-like animal native to Africa. Instead of offering delicacies—bottles of perfume or Carnival pastries—the singers praise the civet as a perfect animal. (Lorenzo in fact owned a civet, a gift from a visiting dignitary.) Oil from the scent glands formed an essential base for perfume, and the song explains the proper means for extracting it. But the song pivots quickly from the civet to a lesson in sex education. It explains how the young women could become pregnant after marriage, particularly as many of them would marry older men who might perform poorly in the bedroom. The poetic rhyme scheme highlights key words. The two-line refrain establishes the rhyme with ‘perfetto’ and ‘zibetto’ (rhyme: XX), and the stanzas conclude with it: AAAX. With the central rhyme firmly planted, the engaged listener could often predict the rhyming final word of each stanza. The typical shift to triple metre for the last line of the stanza signals the imminent arrival of the closing rhyme.

After the rigours of Lent, and the singing of penitential laudas such as Lorenzo’s O maligno e duro core, the city returned to festivity in the spring. Poliziano wrote the text for Ben venga maggio (track 12) in the 1470s for the May festival, when jousting by the wealthy sons of Florentine magnates was still common. The song bears a rubric in one source: ‘Performed by the young women while the jousters were entering into the arena.’ Various Florentine lauda poets adopted the music of this song, as did Savonarola (see track 19).

The next works on this album are ascribed to Isaac in Florentine sources. The motet Prophetarum maxime (track 13) celebrates St John the Baptist, patron saint of the city. His importance in Florence is emphasized by the splendour of the Baptistery. This octagonal structure stands opposite the cathedral entrance, and Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors are on the exterior, while lustrous gold mosaics adorn the interior. Florentines celebrated the feast of St John on 24 June, starting with morning Mass in the Baptistery church; here Isaac’s motet was probably sung. It celebrates the city’s patron with melodic subjects that declaim the words clearly in repeated notes and ascending lines. The concluding texts are drawn from the liturgy of St John, including antiphons for Matins and Vespers. Isaac quotes the appropriate chant melody, either in the top voice, where it is clearly audible, or in all voices in imitative entries.

The festival of San Giovanni featured parades, and Isaac’s Trionfo delle dée (‘Triumph of the goddesses’, track 14) is well suited for such use. A trionfo features costumed characters on an elaborately decorated wagon pulled by oxen, comparable to a modern parade float. Each stanza of this song in turn highlights the distinctive benefits promised to Florence by Juno, Minerva and Venus.

Other songs by Isaac were performed in the intimacy of private chambers, such as those in the Palazzo Medici. Corri, Fortuna (track 15) was long regarded as an instrumental work, but the incipit in the source matches the opening words of a poem by Serafino Aquilano. This wildly popular poet-improviser was known for the irony of his lyrics and his captivating vocal delivery. This performance of the texted version of Isaac’s song may be the first recording in this format. The text is a strambotto, with eight lines rhyming ABABABCC. The music fits the first half of the poem, and then repeats for the last four lines, a typical procedure for settings of strambotto verse. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger aptly described the goddess of Fortune and her turning wheel: ‘For what is there in existence that Fortune, when she has so willed, does not drag down from the very height of its prosperity?’ It has been suggested that Isaac’s music captures the motion of Fortune’s wheel as it turns. The second half of the musical setting climbs steadily upward as the wheel ascends. Fortune inevitably turns her wheel downward and plunges into the dust anyone who clings to it, as one can hear in the song’s conclusion.

Isaac’s Lasso quel ch’altri fugge (track 16) is missing its bass part in the only surviving source, but the reconstructed part allows the modern premiere of another of his secular songs. The lovesick speaker suffers but remains doggedly steadfast. The downcast mood of the text suggests a slow tempo, but the music has similarities to melodies and rhythms in Lorenzo’s Carnival songs. The firm ascription of this song to Isaac supports the possibility that he also composed the music for several of Lorenzo’s Carnival songs (tracks 9 & 10).

Lorenzo died unexpectedly in early April 1492 after suffering from long periods of ill health. The occasion required a commemorative motet in short order, and Poliziano provided the Latin text 'Quis dabit capiti meo aquam?' (track 17). For his part, Isaac turned to music from his four-voice Missa Salva nos, based on the chant for the last antiphon of the evening office of Compline, a translation of which reads thus: ‘Protect us, Lord, in our waking, and guard over us in our sleeping, so that we may keep vigil with Christ, and may we rest in peace.’ The plea for peace in the closing phrase (‘Et requiescamus in pace’) may have prompted Isaac to borrow the sections of the Mass that employ this phrase of the antiphon as the basis for the first, second and fourth sections of his lament. He added a new phrase at the opening of the first section, and it quotes the chant melody for ‘Et requiescamus in pace’ in the top voice. In fact, throughout the lament this chant melody sounds in each of the vocal parts in turn. Even though Isaac borrowed much of the music from one of his pre-existing works, the lament makes a highly unified impression on its own. His procedure resembles Bach’s method of borrowing and rewriting music from his previous compositions for his Leipzig church cantatas and the Mass in B minor.

Isaac provided entirely new music for the third section. Here, in a symbolic move, the tenor drops out, and an instruction states: ‘tenor laurus tacet’ (‘tenor, the laurel, is silent’). The laurel symbolizes Lorenzo, and the text mourns the fact that the laurel has been felled by lightning. Poliziano startled listeners with this depiction; ancient Romans believed wearing a wreath of laurel protected them from lightning. The bass stands out by singing, six times in a row, the chant melody and the text for the last phrase of the antiphon: ‘Et requiescamus in pace.’ It sounds each time on a progressively lower step of the scale. Isaac created this ritual keening and its plea for peace with good reason: Lorenzo was the peacemaker of Italy, who in 1481 successfully negotiated an end to war with Naples, and who continued for the next decade to broker peace among the fractious Italian states. His death opened the door to war, and in September 1494 King Charles VIII invaded the peninsula to enforce his hereditary claim to the throne of Naples. For the next fifty years Italy was, on and off, the battlefield of Europe.

A second lament, Quis dabit pacem populo timenti? (track 21), also cries out for peace, and addresses Lorenzo in heaven, as if he were a secular saint. The text of the first part is drawn from a Roman play about the death of Hercules, once thought to be the work of Seneca the Younger, and concludes with a heaping up of impossible images: ‘Sooner shall the harvest grow in the deep [sea]’ etc. The logical continuation is left hanging until the opening of the next section with: ‘than the nations cease from thy praises.’ The music builds to the final plea in an urgent exchange of low and high duets: ‘redde, Laurenti’ (‘restore, Lorenzo’). Restore what? After several intervening phrases, the voices declaim the long-awaited word: ‘pacem’.

Friar Girolamo Savonarola arrived in Florence in the early 1480s, and there became acquainted with the rich Florentine culture of lauda-singing. He responded by writing his own lauda texts, and copied them—along with passages of scripture and sermon notes—in a book for his personal use. He also wrote out the musical notation for just the melody of a single lauda, Feo Belcari’s Ora mai sono in età (track 18), and this is the only example of such notation from his hand. The friar must have been attracted by Belcari’s message; the singers express their desire to enter religious life so that they can spend their days praising God by reciting psalms and singing laudas. This accords with Savonarola’s influence in the 1490s, when many young Florentine men and women entered the Dominican order. The friar wrote his own text for another lauda, Che fai qui core? (track 19), and adopted the music of Poliziano’s Ben venga maggio (track 12). The same music had already been used for laudas written by Feo Belcari and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, so the friar was emulating a well-established Florentine tradition.

Savonarola rose to dominance in Florence’s political life after Lorenzo’s death in 1492. When the French army passed through Florence in late 1494, Lorenzo’s son Piero quickly ceded several strategic fortresses, and this so angered the citizens that they expelled the Medici. The friar filled the political vacuum by preaching fiery sermons in the cathedral, urging religious, social and political reforms. In addition to his prophecy-laden sermons, he gained credibility from the populace by taming the unruly boys of the city and gathering them into the cathedral before his sermons. Hundreds of boys would stand on wooden risers in the nave and sing laudas before the friar began preaching. In August 1496 the pharmacist Luca Landucci wrote in his diary that ‘there was such a feeling of grace in that church, and such sweetness in hearing those boys sing … that it did not appear to be something done by boys … Truly the church was full of angels.’ Landucci likely heard the boys sing Che fai qui core?, along with other laudas.

By early 1496 Savonarola had engineered a ban on Carnival festivities and songs during the season before Lent; in their place he substituted processions of boys singing laudas. In 1497 the new observances culminated in the notorious ‘bonfire of vanities’. The populist friar and his followers proclaimed Christ as king of Florence, and several laudas use versions of the phrase ‘Viva Cristo’. One of these is Viva, viva in nostro core (track 20), which takes over the music of the Carnival song Viva, viva la ragione. The lyrics are overtly political and call for Christ to combat Pharaoh, an apparent reference to Pope Alexander VI (Borgia). In late 1495 the Pope had ordered the friar to cease preaching, but the defiant sermons continued. A sentence of excommunication finally followed in May 1497. In spring 1498 the friar was arrested and charged with heresy; he confessed under torture that his prophecies had not come from God, and he was executed in May. In the aftermath, the Florentine Republic carried on for more than a decade, but the Medici regained control of the government in 1512. In the next year, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s son Giovanni was elected as Pope Leo X, increasing the family’s power and wealth so that by the 1530s they were able to ascend to noble status as hereditary dukes of Florence. Their reign was to endure for the next two centuries.

Patrick Macey © 2022

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