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Canto dello zibetto

First line:
Donne, quest’è un animal perfetto
3vv; attributed to Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517); superius part reconstructed
possible composer
author of text
stanzas 1-3, 6 & 10 of 11

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, and the last section preserves five Carnival songs on texts by Lorenzo de’ Medici, but none provide an attribution to a composer.

In addition to these five songs, 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’). 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. 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. 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’), 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.

from notes by Patrick Macey © 2022


The Florentine Renaissance
CDA68349 Available Friday 7 January 2022


Track 10 on CDA68349 [5'08] Available Friday 7 January 2022

Track-specific metadata for CDA68349 track 10

Recording date
9 January 2020
Recording venue
Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. The Florentine Renaissance (CDA68349)
    Disc 1 Track 10
    Release date: 7 January 2022
    Available Friday 7 January 2022
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