Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dads & Sons 2: The Musician and the Goldsmith

This is the second installment in a series of three posts about fathers and sons:  men in Italian history who were famous in their lifetimes and are still well known to us today, and their fathers, who in each case were much better known in their lifetimes than they are now.  Dads and sons in each case are known for very different things.  My intention is to spend more time on the fathers than on the sons, because it is so easy to gather information about the sons, and also to try to trace connections between the two - what the father might have taught the son, and perhaps what qualities they shared.

This week's pair:  sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, and his musician father, Giovanni Cellini.

The son: 

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) was a Florentine sculptor and goldsmith who almost followed in his father's footsteps and became a musician.  He was also a larger-than-life character who brawled and swaggered and boasted his way across Italy and France, creating brilliant art and no end of trouble.  He quarreled and fought with his colleagues and fellow citizens, and often had tempestuous relationships with his wealthy patrons.

Over the course of his life he was accused of murder, embezzlement, sodomy, and fighting in the streets.  It appears that the embezzlement charge may have been false.

Life was never simple for Benvenuto.  He battled passionately against artistic rivals, insufficiently attentive patrons, and the very real dangers and difficulties involved in casting a monumental sculpture in bronze (e.g. his Perseus, shown below, which is now in the Loggia dei Lanzi next to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence).

Cellini's Perseus with the head of Medusa
The harrowing details of the near-disaster during the casting of Perseus can be found in Benvenuto's fascinating Autobiography, which reads like a thriller.

Benvenuto Cellini was a fighter as well as an artist.  He claims to have wounded Philibert of Chalon, prince of Orange, and to have killed Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, in the Siege of Rome (1527).  Someone did indeed kill the Duke, but no one knows whether it was really Benvenuto or not.

Charles III, Duke of Bourbon

Philibert of Chalon, prince of Orange

 Benvenuto served dukes, cardinals, and Francis I of France.  Below is his bust of Duke Cosimo de' Medici.

Duke Cosimo de' Medici, by Benvenuto Cellini
Saltcellar of Francis I of France
Benvenuto lived a violent life.  As a teenager, he was banished from Florence for brawling; he killed the man who had killed his brother Cecchino (though he knew the man had acted in self-defense); he killed a rival goldsmith, one Pompeo from Milan; he wounded a notary, ser Benedetto; he killed at least one other man.

He was imprisoned, escaped, was recaptured, and was close to execution, until the intervention of powerful friends saved him.  Florence wasn't the only city he left in a hurry when things got tense.

(He did have a softer side, though.  He took financial responsibility for his widowed sister and for her six daughters.)

However flamboyant Benvenuto's life, he was a serious craftsman and a great artist, and it is unfortunate that so many of his works have not survived.  (One famous work, the gold clasp he made for Pope Clement VII, appears to have been sacrificed by Pope Pius VI to help satisfy Napoleon's demand for 30,000,000 francs after his campaign against the Papal States in 1797.)  He did, however, make a written contribution to his art, in the form of his Treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture.

And finally, Hector Berlioz wrote an opera based on Benvenuto's Autobiography.  It is not currently part of the standard repertoire, but we still hear the overture sometimes, in concerts.  Somehow it seems fitting that at its premiere the audience rioted, and the musicians pronounced the music impossible to play. 

The Father:

Giovanni Cellini(1451-1527) was a member of the Florentine pifferi for 34 years.  (Pifferi were players of wind instruments, typically shawms accompanied by bagpipes, slide trumpets or, later, by trombones; they were employed by cities and courts during the middle ages and the Renaissance.  Shawms are very loud double-reed instruments, originally introduced to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades, a sort of hyper-aggressive ancestor to the oboe.)

Pifferi - a Renaissance wind band
Many of his son Benvenuto's biographers describe Giovanni as an engineer, or a craftsman, perhaps believing that because he worked in these trades as well and his musical responsibilities were not always full-time, music was a peripheral part of his professional life.  I believe, rather, that being a professional performer was Giovanni's main employment, although it is certainly true that he, like his brilliant son, was multifaceted and took part in other activities, many of them artistic.

Most of the information to follow is derived from an article about Giovanni written by musicologist Timothy McGee, augmented by the article about Benvenuto in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, an enormously useful work that is now available online. 

Let's take a quick look at Giovanni's personal life:  he married Elisabetta Granacci, a match described in Benvenuto's autobiography as for love only, as she had no dowry.  In order to make that marriage, Giovanni sought a position in the Florentine pifferi because he needed steady employment.  This would have been, then, in about 1480. The couple was not blessed with children for eighteen years, but they did finally have at least two sons (of which Benvenuto was apparently the second-born) and a daughter.  Giovanni appears to have lived in Florence all his life. 

And his professional activities outside of music?  He was said to be a very skillful worker of ivory, and he made musical instruments:  an organ with wooden pipes, harpsichords, lutes, and harps.  His artistic talent must have been recognized by his fellow Florentines, because in 1504 he was one of eleven citizens - including the civic herald and several artists:  Andrea della Robbia, three goldsmiths, an embroiderer, and Giovanni - chosen to form a committee to decide on the placement of Michelangelo's statue David.

As an engineer, he made machines for lowering bridges and other mechanical devices.  He is also said to have constructed the scaffolding that Leonardo da Vinci used to paint his lost Battle of Anghiari on the walls of the Sala del Consiglio in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio - a work that art historians are currently searching for, very carefully, under a later work by Giorgio Vasari, in case Leonardo's work may have somehow survived.

A sketch for Leonardo's lost painting
But it is as a musician that Giovanni interests us most.  As a member of the exclusive group of musicians supported by the city of Florence, he had certain well-defined responsibilities and with them came certain perks.  It is clear both from Benvenuto's writings and from city documents that Florence's pifferi were men of considerable talent and ability.  In addition to learning and performing written polyphonic music (at a time when not every performing musician could actually read music), much of what they played involved considerable improvisation.  They needed enough memory to store a lot of repertoire, a thorough knowledge of the rules of discant for purposes of improvising, and the flexibility to play more than one instrument, for the pifferi would, as needed, shift to softer, indoor instruments such as flutes and recorders.  Giovanni, then, played different woodwind instruments; he also played bowed strings and probably lute, harp, and keyboard, which, while not rare at that time, may have been less typical.  And Benvenuto tells us that Giovanni taught him to play the cornetto, the shawm, and the recorder, as well as to sing and to compose.

Florence's pifferi played public concerts.  They played for the members of the ruling body, the signoria, as they dined.  They probably, from time to time, performed the function of signalmen, and accompanied armies into battle - a shawm's voice will carry a long way, over lots of competing sound.  They may have shared with the trumpeters responsibility for fanfares, for jousts and public occasions.  And when they were not busy doing those things, they were free to work at other professions or to take private musical jobs, such as weddings or processions put on by confraternities or other organizations.

Shawm players at a wedding
Their rewards were considerable, so much so that at certain points in his career, Giovanni served without salary, accepting benefits alone.  (The number of pifferi was established by law, and one couldn't be added until one resigned, so sometimes players served gratis as an extra so they would be established as next in line for a vacant position.)  Twice a year, the players' uniforms were replaced (at Christmas and at the feast of St. John); they were free to collect extra fees when they accepted private jobs; they and their families could eat at the table of the signoria on the days that they performed for those meals; they received a housing allowance; and if they stayed with the ensemble long enough, they qualified for a pension for the rest of their lives.

Giovanni's career was interrupted from time to time.  He was dismissed from the ensemble in 1491, according to Benvenuto by the request of Lorenzo de' Medici and his son Piero, who supposedly wanted Giovanni to devote his time to his other artistic pursuits.  Unlikely as this sounds, there is a mention in the city's documents of "some private individuals" having made the request for Giovanni's removal.

Piero de' Medici

Lorenzo de' Medici
However it happened, Giovanni sat out the next few years, presumably doing other types of work, and he was reinstated (working without pay) in 1495, by which time Lorenzo had died.  When Adamo d'Adamo resigned in 1497, Giovanni moved into the paid position (assigned, according to official records, to play the contre basso and soprano parts).

And herein is an interesting story:  Giovanni was later accused of having bought the position.  Two men (a German hatmaker and a Milanese cloth weaver, resident in Florence) who had allegedly witnessed the agreement testified that Giovanni had paid Adamo fifty florins to resign his post, which was against the law.  We don't know the facts of the case, but the charges were eventually dismissed. 

Things went along uneventfully for Giovanni then, until time for him to retire.  Yet another Medici, Lorenzo's son Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, ascended to the papacy as Pope Leo X.  He's the pope known for commenting, "God has given us the papacy - now let us enjoy it!"

Pope Leo X
 Part of Pope Leo's enjoyment involved music - not surprising, considering that he had probably studied music with the great composer Heinrich Isaac (who Giovanni almost certainly knew and worked with).  According to Benvenuto, the pope invited Giovanni to Rome, but Giovanni refused the invitation, and as a result was dismissed from the Florentine musical ensemble.  (This was the point where Benvenuto began to turn his attention to metalwork, since he now was not going to be in a position to inherit his father's post with the musicians.)

But Benvenuto tells another story elsewhere:  Giovanni's dismissal was due to underhanded activity by his former student, Pierino da Volterra, who had recently received a promotion within the ensemble.  Benvenuto describes a confrontation between the two men, in which Giovanni accuses Pierino of causing his (Giovanni's) problems and curses him.   And so, says Benvenuto somewhat smugly, it was no surprise when soon afterwards Pierino, telling the story to friends while making some repairs on his house, fell through the floor and sustained injuries which killed him.

The public records tell yet a third story, that Giovanni did not play very well any more, and was too old for the job.  (Shawm playing is fairly aerobic.)  McGee points out that there may be some convergence of the stories, in that age may have been the reason that Giovanni refused to travel to Rome, which may have been considered being unable to fulfill performance requirements; he also says that perhaps Pierino was the one who told the officials that Giovanni no longer played well.

Be that as it may, however humiliating his retirement may have been, the city (calling him a "pauper") authorized the usual pension for musicians:  8 lire per month.

We do not know how Giovanni passed the remaining years of his life; Benvenuto reports that his father died of the plague in 1527 (while Benvenuto was away at Mantua).

Connections between father and son?  Both of them seem to have been hotheads; both of them multifaceted; both of them artistic, musical, intelligent, and capable; both of them willing to take a legal shortcut now and again.  There appears to have been a strong affection between the two.

And if you've made it this far, you deserve a reward.  Here's a link to some shawm music for a Medici procession, performed by the group Piffaro (a variant spelling).  It's music Giovanni may well have played.


Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  the photo of the saltcellar is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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