Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ruminations on Marquee Names

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead.

Hávamál, trans. W.H. Auden and P.B. Taylor


I've been thinking about the concept of fame lately, viz. who's famous and who's not. This is mostly in the context of writing historical fiction, an area in which a longstanding debate continues to simmer: must a book have what some call a “marquee name” to sell, or is that not necessary? Agents and publishers largely seem to favor having someone in your book who everyone's heard of, whether that person is the main character or not, but various surveys and informal discussions suggest that this may not be as important to readers as it is to publishing professionals.

I don't want to wade in to this particular debate, which appears to be set to continue indefinitely. But I am starting to wonder exactly what constitutes a “marquee name.” And I've concluded that one person's famous person is someone else's “Huh?”

Part of this wondering comes from my own writing experience. While I can't remember a time when I didn't know the story of the headstrong knight Buondelmonte, the jester whose prank provoked him, and the cavernous split between the Guelfs and Ghibellines that resulted, I have had to come to grips with the fact that most people have absolutely no clue who these people were.

Buondelmonte, slain
Yes, they're mentioned in every contemporary chronicle; yes, some of them are in Dante's Divine Comedy; yes, Machiavelli cites the incident in his history of Florence. But it's understandable that modern Americans would not know the tale, unless they have, as I do, a particular interest in Italian history. And heaven knows there are plenty of people others consider famous who I've never heard of. You can't be an expert in everything, no matter how many crossword puzzles you work.

And it's entirely possible that a book about, say, Betsy Ross would occasion nothing more than a shrug from an audience outside the U.S.

But I have long believed that Buondelmonte is a household name in Italy, or at least in Florence, and now I'm not so sure.

What has made me doubt? I was reading about the making of Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome With Love. It's said that Allen hated that title. He wanted Bop Decameron, which makes perfect sense to me. But apparently when they tried it out on various groups of people, including Italians, nobody got it.

Okay, so maybe not so many people have actually read Boccaccio's masterpiece. I'd have to say they're really missing something, but so be it. That title wouldn't work.

So next they tried Nero Fiddled. And, believe it or not, nobody got that.

 They don't know about Nero? And his fiddle (even if it was probably a lyre)? And Rome burning? Even in Italy?

Well, then, who exactly is still famous?

If you throw in the preference many agents and publishers have for historical fiction written from a woman's point of view, you are then trying to identify the available field of women in history who an audience – an American audience, let's say – would actually know something about.

The Big Three
That, I figure, would be the Big Three. Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Anne Boleyn (described by a well-known literary agent as “the poster girl of historical fiction”). Check 'em out. You won't find any shortage of books about any of these three women.

But surely people know about other famous women, you say. Well, yes, probably; these runners-up would get high marks for recognizability:

They would be Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Marie Antoinette. Of those, Queen Victoria probably graces fewer books than the other two, but at least people know her name. After all, she and Elizabeth each had a whole age named after them. Marie Antoinette, of course, shares with Al Gore the predicament of being famous for a particularly dippy statement that she/he never actually said. (Hint: one of them advocated eating cake, and the other invented the internet.)

But I wanted to explore this idea of who's famous and who isn't, to see if I could make any sense of it. In the course of checking to see where a particular Italian was buried, I checked a fascinating site called Find a Grave. I went to the Italy version, and was interested to learn that they had two categories of well-known people interred somewhere in Italy: Very Famous, and Somewhat Famous.

(This reminds me of Miracle Max, in the movie The Princess Bride:  "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead.  There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."  I think there must be a big difference between Very Famous and Somewhat Famous, too.)

So I scanned Very Famous. I was expecting to find Dante there; how could the great poet not be Very Famous? I mean, he's so famous that people who've never read his work pretend they have. It doesn't get much more famous than that.

Dante is not there.

Boccaccio is (remember Boccaccio?). Enrico Caruso is. Luciano Pavarotti (or “Provolone,” as my former co-worker insisted on calling him) is there. Saint Francis of Assisi is there. Igor Stravinsky is there. (Yes, I know he's not Italian, but he is buried on Venice's funeral island.) And three guys who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their military heroism are there.

Very famous? Three men, no doubt heroic and in all ways laudable, but one of whom earned his award in a war I hadn't even heard of? (No, I'm not going to tell you which one that was.) More famous than Dante?

I don't think so.

So I checked out Somewhat Famous. Dante did at least make it to Somewhat Famous, I was relieved to see, but his presence there and that of some of his co-listees still surprised me. Is Saint Benedict really that much less famous than Saint Francis? Is Lucrezia Borgia really less famous than Marcello Mastroianni? And how is it that Boccaccio and Caruso and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all managed to be both Very Famous and Somewhat Famous? If they could do it, why couldn't Dante?

Lucrezia Borgia
It appears that there is a sort of voting system, a popularity contest, if you will, to determine levels of fame for this site. And poor old Dante only gets 4.5 stars out of a possible five. He must have been required reading for too many people.

On this site it is possible to leave messages for the deceased, as well as to post virtual flowers and candles, other appropriate pictures, and holiday greetings. Thinking that this might tell me something useful, I scanned the 204 notes various people have left for Dante.

Since I've taken a special interest in Gemma Donati, Dante's wife, I was pleased to see this one:

Happy Easter to you. (♥ Beatrice and Gemma also ♥)”

Hardly anybody seems to wish Gemma a happy Easter these days, so I was pleased. (She isn't any flavor of famous, at least not until I get my next book finished.) But my favorite was the note from the librarian looking for a good illustration from the Inferno so she could use it for a tattoo. I can think of some real doozies; wonder which she chose? There are some great ones by Botticelli, who was Very Famous.

If that's the best that Italy's great poet could do, I thought, I wonder how Shakespeare fared? Over to England we go...

…and you will be pleased, Gentle Reader, to learn that Shakespeare is Very Famous. Not only that, he merited no fewer than 900 notes, the most outstanding of which said “You write good plays, Shaky.”

So we have people I think are famous who apparently aren't, and people I know nothing about who apparently are, and yet we are supposed to be writing about marquee names.  
Is it any wonder we historical fiction writers get frustrated sometimes? I personally enjoy finding the obscure stories; they haven't been done to death. And as a reader, I love finding out about people and places and times that never really crossed my radar screen before. I read the Author's Notes. I look things up to find out what's real and what's invented.

And if the writer is really good, then maybe, just maybe, someone who I knew nothing about before becomes just a little more famous – maybe even enough to oodge her (or him) up to Very Famous.

Images in this post are all in the public domain.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dads & Sons 3: The Musician and the Scientist

This is the third and last installment of Dads & Sons:  a series of posts about famous men in Italian history and about their fathers.  The sons are people whose names we still know today, and while the fathers are not totally forgotten (if they were, I wouldn't be able to write these posts),  they are much less familiar to us than their sons are.  Each father is known for a different activity than is his son.  I hope to find connections between the lives of the fathers and the lives of their well-known offspring.

Also, I propose to spend more time on the fathers than on the sons, because you have so many opportunities to learn about the famous sons, whereas the fathers are a bit more elusive.

And that is especially true today, when the famous son is none other than Galileo Galilei.

The Son

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans
What can I tell you about the great Galileo?  Astronomer, physicist, mathematician, philosopher, sometimes called the Father of Science (also the father of modern physics, of modern observational astronomy, and of modern science), born in Pisa in 1564 and died in 1642.  Writer, teacher, experimenter, observer, Galileo did not exactly invent the telescope, but he improved and fine-tuned it and then used it to make some remarkable discoveries, including the phases of Venus, the four satellites of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn.

And as everyone knows, he stood up to the vast power of the Church in defense of heliocentrism, ending his life under house arrest (and under "vehement suspicion of heresy").

What can I possibly tell you about Galileo that you don't already know, or can't easily find out from someone much more expert in these matters than I am?  There is so much.  His work in physics.  His writings.  I can't do him justice, but there are those who can.  Suffice it to say that he was a great and original thinker, a brilliant scientist, a man who changed the way people thought about the world they lived in.  Go to the experts for details - you won't regret it.  The man's life is fascinating.  But from me, what you get is pictures.

Galileo's drawing of the phases of the moon
Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope, by Giuseppe Bertini
Galileo's beloved daughter Virginia (Suor Maria Celeste)
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti
Galileo's tomb, Santa Croce, Florence
 Galileo is buried in an elaborate tomb in Santa Croce, in Florence, though his original resting place was in a humbler section of that church, since the Catholic officials would not permit his body to lie in the main part of the basilica.

When his body was relocated to its present location in 1737, a tooth and three fingers were removed.  The middle finger of his right hand is on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence, where I have seen it.  Somehow, given all that he went through, it seems appropriate.

The Father

Vincenzo Galilei(c. 1520-1591), father of Galileo, was a composer, music theorist, lutenist, and an expert in early music.  A member of the prestigious Florentine Camerata, Vincenzo was influential in the early development of opera.  He conducted studies of acoustics and pitch that were as elegant as many of the experiments later conducted by his famous son, and his writings had a great influence on late Renaissance and early baroque music.

Vincenzo Galilei's Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna

What did it mean for someone living in the 16th century to be a student of early music?  When I say I perform early music, I mean music from about 1300 up to and including Vincenzo's own time.  What he meant by it, however, was that he sought to understand the music of the ancient Greeks.

(Warning:  oversimplification follows, necessary to prevent this post from turning into a book).  Vincenzo maintained an extensive correspondence with Girolamo Mei, a historian and humanist who wanted to revive ancient Greek drama.  Mei believed that Greek drama had been mostly sung rather than spoken, and on the strength of that belief he helped evolve the new recitative style of singing, which supported the development of musical drama and eventually of opera.  His ideas on Greek music were extremely influential in the Camerata and with his colleague Vincenzo.

The Florentine Camerata, which both shaped Vincenzo's professional life and was shaped by him, was a group of eminent humanists, musicians, poets, and other intellectuals who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de' Bardi.  The heyday of the Camerata was roughly 1577-1582, though it was in existence in a less prominent form both before and after those dates.

Members of the Camerata were concerned that music of their day had become corrupt, and that an excess of polyphony was obscuring listeners' emotional responses to the poetry being sung.  They favored a single line of music, sung to a simple instrumental accompaniment, believing this to be close to the performance practices of the ancient Greeks, whom they revered.

Vincenzo's life:  He was born in Santa Maria a Monte, in Tuscany, and studied lute from an early age.  He moved to Pisa as a young man and married Giulia Ammannati.  They had six children, four of whom survived infancy.

Galileo Galilei was their firstborn.  A younger son, Michelagnolo, followed his father's example to become a lutenist anda composer.  Michelagnolo was to become something of a financial drain on his father, and later, on his older brother Galileo, for he was never able to contribute his share toward his sisters' dowries, which in time would result in legal proceedings taken by Giovanni and Michelagnolo's brothers-in-law.

The distinguished teacher of Vincenzo's early years, composer and music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, did not go along with the Camerata's thinking.  He was said to question what, exactly, musicians had to do with the writers of tragedies and comedies.  His own compositions were in a more solidly Renaissance style than Vincenzo's, who was both exploring and helping to define the early baroque.

Gioseffo Zarlino
It seems likely, though, that Zarlino's extensive work on temperaments in music, specifically the various forms of meantone (no, I'm not going to explain that here - it would take too long), had an influence on Vincenzo's later work in the area of music theory.  Vincenzo's theoretical contributions included the treatment of dissonance in composition, especially in the use of suspensions; the very definition of "dissonance" is dependent on temperament.

Vincenzo also studied acoustics, notably the physics of vibrating strings and columns of air.  He was the first to identify certain mathematical relationships involving frequencies, and he studied the effects of different degrees of tension applied to a string.

In terms of composition, Vincenzo was noted for his madrigals and also for his lute music, and for music for lute with voice.  His music is still in the repertoire; here are a couple of examples:

 Vincenzo's influence on Galileo must certainly have included his emphasis on exacting experimentation.  It is said that Vincenzo wanted Galileo to study medicine, but when Galileo became fascinated with mathematics, Vincenzo steered him away from abstract mathematics and toward experimentation and toward quantitative descriptions of his results.


And this brings our three-part series on famous Italian fathers and sons to a close.   I hope you've found something of interest here, maybe enough to make you want to read more about the lives of some of these remarkable men.

Will we do women and daughters next?  I don't know yet.  Women in medieval and Renaissance Italy were considerably more limited in what they could do, or at least what they could do that actually made it into the history books; nuns may have had a few more scholarly options, and female lay saints led interesting lives, but those populations don't yield a lot of mother-daughter relationships, for obvious reasons.  I can think of one pair in the political arena, though, so maybe it will happen.

Images in this post are all in the public domain.

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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dads & Sons 1: The Painter and the Musician

With this post I propose to begin a three-part series exploring the lives of three sets of famous fathers and sons in Italian history.

In each case, it is the son whose name is best known today.  In each case, this was not necessarily so during the years when the sons' lives overlapped with the fathers'.

In each case, father and son are remembered for excellence in two different spheres of activity.  In each case, I propose to try to find a connection, a way in which the famous (in his day) father influenced or taught his famous (even today) son.

And I propose to spend more time on the father than on the son, as it is very easy to find information on the latter, but the former presents more of a research challenge.

It would be much more difficult to do this with mothers and daughters, given the paucity of records about the lives of Italian women in the middle ages and Renaissance, but I just might give it a try anyway, once this is done.  We'll see.

The Painter and the Musician

Our first father-son pair is comprised of 14th century painter Jacopo (or Iacopo) del Casentino and his son, the composer and organist Francesco Landini.  In this pairing the son will get particularly short shrift, because he interests me, a lot, and I plan to focus on him in a later blog post, so I don't want to use up all my material now.

Tombstone of Francesco Landini, San Lorenzo, Florence
The Son

Luminibus captus, Franciscus mente capaci cantibus organicis quem cunctis Musica solum pretulit, hic cineres, animam super astra reliquit.

"Deprived of the light, Francesco, whom alone Music extolls above all others for his great intellect and his organ music, rests his ashes here, his soul above the stars."  (translated by musicologist Leonard Ellinwood)

So reads the inscription on the tombstone of Francesco Landini, was was born in either Fiesole or Florence, in 1325 or 1335.

Francesco's image shows a dignified and sightless man, holding a portative organ.  The best-known Italian composer of his day and a virtuoso on the organ and on several other instruments, Francesco Landini was a poet as well as a musician.  He received a laurel crown for his poetry from the King of Cyprus in Venice in 1364 (and Petrarch was one of the judges).

Landini was well-versed in philosophy and was a follower of William of Occam.  He was also thoroughly educated in the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, dialectic, rhetoric, and grammar), and he took an active part in the various political and philosophical debates of his time.

He was a maker of instruments as well.  A consultant to organ builders and a tuner of organs, he is also said to have invented an instrument called the "syrena syrenarum," which may have been an ancestor to the bandora.

The birds themselves were said to respond to Francesco's organ music, and as for his human listeners, his contemporaries tell us that Francesco "delighted the weary with pleasing sweetness," and that "the sweetness of his melodies was such that hearts burst from their bosoms."

And he accomplished all this despite having been blinded by smallpox as a child.

Today we still have over 150 of Francesco Landini's compositions.  In fact, his output comprises a quarter to a third of the Italian trecento repertoire known to have survived.  It is still performed regularly by early music ensembles, and many recordings have been made.

We'll return to Francesco in a future blog post.  In the meantime, though, since when dates are unknown or confusing a medieval musician is often said to have "flourished" during a certain time period, I thought I should give you a picture of Francesco flourishing a bit more than he was in the picture above:

Francesco Landini (from the Squarcialupi Codex)
 The Father

Jacopo del Casentino (maybe)
For many years, most of what we knew about Jacopo del Casentino came from Giorgio Vasari's vast work, Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects, published in 1550 and heavily revised in 1568.  Vasari is, in fact, the source of much of what we know about many of the artists up until his time.

But while Vasari's work is a treasure trove of information, not all of it holds up.  He gave it his best shot, but considering the volume of information he was working with, it's not surprising that he would occasionally be taken in by confusion regarding names or dates, or report legend or hearsay as fact.

Victorian art historian Herbert P. Horne wrote a commentary on Vasari's life of Jacopo, in which he says that confusion about Jacopo's date of death, combined with the existence of a slightly later painter with a very similar name, has resulted in a muddled identity for Francesco Landini's father.  Thus, the portrait above (from Vasari) may well not be Jacopo after all.

Triptych by Jacopo del Casentino, Uffizi
 So what do we know for sure?  Not very much, actually.  Jacopo (or Iacopo) del Casentino (or da Prato Vecchio) was a painter of some distinction, working in Tuscany in the 14th century.  (The surname "Landini" was applied to Francesco Landini only after his lifetime; it comes from the given name of one of his forebears.  "del Casentino" means that Jacopo came from the Casentino region, one of the valleys of the Arno River, the river which runs through Florence and once constituted the city's southernmost border.)

Jacopo is said to have been born around 1297, but wildly differing death dates have been suggested for him:  1349 (suggesting that he might have succumbed to the plague), or 1358, or, if Vasari is correct that Jacopo died at the age of 80, he might have died as late as 1377 (or else been born considerably earlier than 1297).  He is described as being "of the school of Giotto" (Dante's famous contemporary Giotto di Bondone is a topic for another future post).

Triptych by Giotto
Let's wrestle with the death date issue a bit, because it's important.  We know that Jacopo was one of the co-founders of the Company of San Luca, a confraternity of painters in Florence, and we know that it was founded in 1339.  If he was born in 1297, he'd have been 42 at that time, and his son Francesco would have been either 4 or 14, depending on which birth year is correct for him.  If the former, he might still have had his sight; if the latter, he probably didn't.

I took an interest in Jacopo when I realized that this man was an artist with a son who would never be able to see his father's work.  I started (years ago) keeping an eye open for works by Jacopo, so that I could look at them for Francesco.  (I know, it's silly, but when I get mentally and emotionally involved with medieval Italians, I do that sort of thing.)  Here's the one we saw most recently, in the Vatican collection:

Vasari says that Jacopo was a student of Taddeo Gaddi, in Giotto's workshop.  Gaddi's proposed birth years - as usual, we're not sure - are 1290 or 1300, making him either slightly older or slightly younger than Jacopo, an unusual but not impossible teacher-student relationship.  Some scholars believe they were simply contemporaries and colleagues, which could suggest that Jacopo was trained directly by Giotto.

Triptych by Taddeo Gaddi
Vasari claims that Jacopo was the teacher of Spinello Aretino.  But Spinello lived from  ca. 1350-ca.1410 (we think...), which would make it pretty hard for Jacopo to have been his teacher if he had died in 1349.  Or, for that matter, 1358, unless Spinello was quite precocious.  (This would make him - Spinello, I mean - Gaddi's grandstudent and Giotto's great-grandstudent.)

Triptych by Spinello Aretino
And yet... Horne has the last word, to my mind, because he produces evidence.  He cites the death records of the Company of San Luca, which lists the painter's death in 1349.

Which means he cannot have been Spinello's teacher, though it does not rule out his being Gaddi's student.  It also means that my theory of father-son connections just imploded, because I was relying on Vasari's statement that Jacopo supervised the rebuilding of the ancient Roman waterworks of a public fountain in Arezzo - in 1358.  My idea:  Jacopo engineered the flow of water, and Francesco, when he worked on building organs, engineered the flow of air.

Nope.  Oh, well.  The engineer must have been that later artist with a similar name.  Our Jacopo, then, probably died of plague (though I'm sure people did manage to find other things to die of, even in 1348-9).  He left Francesco and at least one brother, though Horne draws up a family tree that includes two brothers:  Cristofano, and Matteo who was a painter.

But music history research reveals that Francesco Landini had a brother named Nuccio, also an organist, though when he performed with Francesco he was relegated to pumping the bellows.  Is Nuccio another name for Cristofano or Matteo, or yet another brother?  I have no idea.

And needless to say, we also have no idea who Francesco's mother was, or whether he had sisters.  We do know that somewhat post-plague, he and one unnamed brother were under the guardianship of someone other than their father, which reinforces the 1349 death date for Jacopo.  Francesco, with the later of his two possible birthdays, would have been a minor at that time, though because of his blindness, even had he reached the age of majority (i.e. the earlier birthdate is the right one), he might still have found himself in the care of a guardian.

We also know that Cristoforo Landino, the Florentine humanist and intimate friend of Lorenzo de' Medici, was Jacopo's great-grandson.  Landino wrote about his great-uncle Francesco in his commentary on Dante's Divine Commedy written in 1481.  Jacopo begat Crostofano who begat Bartomommeo who begat Cristoforo Landino (or Landini), now securely bearing a surname that may have derived from one Landino in his ancestry, who may have fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289.

(Dante also fought in that battle.  However, since there are rumors that Jacopo's family hailed from Arezzo, we don't know whether they fought on the same side. Perhaps the Arezzo connection was with that other, later painter, who lived well into the 1370s.)

Jacopo painted altarpieces to adorn Florence's churches, and tabernacles to inspire devotion in her streets.

Tabernacle by Jacopo del Casentino
Many of his works have not survived the ravages of time, but some are in museums for us to enjoy, or even still in their original church locations.

One of them has recently had an adventure.

Last year, officials of Louisville's Speed Art Museum agreed to return a stolen painting to Italy, nearly 40 years after it was taken.  On October 2, 1971, burglars entered the Villa La Giraffa in Goito, Italy early in the morning, cutting through metal bars and a glass window, and absconded with fourteen pieces of art, worth over $30 million at the time.  One of these was a triptych by Jacopo (and I don't have a picture of it, but this whole post has been fairly triptych-intensive, so you probably have a pretty good idea what it looked like). 

Agents of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tracked the painting down, and the museum, which purchased the painting in 1973, agreed to return it to its rightful owners once the agents brought the theft to its attention.  A press release describes the painting as "one-of-a-kind," which makes me wonder what exactly they were expecting - paint by number, maybe?  Be that as it may, Jacopo's work was freed to go home.

And on that note, we leave this mass of confusing dates and names and guesses behind us, and move on.  Next installment will be Dads & Sons 2:  The Musician and the Goldsmith.  See you then.

Images in this post are in the public domain by reason of antiquity, except for two:  our photo of the painting in the Vatican, and the photo of the tabernacle by Jacopo, which is by Sailko and is licensed on Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.