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This book takes its departure from an experiment presented by Vincenzo Galilei before his colleagues in the Florentine Camerata in about 1580. This event, namely the first demonstration of the stile recitativo, is known from a single later source, a letter written in 1634 by Pietro dei Bardi, son of the founder of the Camerata. In the complete absence of any further information, Bardi’s report has remained a curiosity in the history of music, and it has seemed impossible to determine the true nature and significance of Galilei's presentation. That, unfortunately, still remains true for the music, which is lost. Yet we know a crucial fact about this experiment, the poetic text chosen by Galilei: it was an excerpt from the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the Lament of Count Ugolino. Starting from this information the author examines the problem from another angle. Investigation of the perception of Dante’s poetry in the sixteenth century, as well as a deeper enquiry into cinquecento poetic theories (and especially phonetics) leads to a reconstruction of Galilei’s motives for choosing this text and sheds light on some of the features of his experiment.
Taylor and Francis
152 / 159
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:
Royal Musical Association Monographs 26
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Singing Dante:
The Literary Origins of
Cinquecento Monody
This book takes its departure from an experiment presented by Vincenzo
Galilei before his colleagues in the Florentine Camerata in about 1580.
This event, namely the first demonstration of the stile recitativo, is known
from a single later source, a letter written in 1634 by Pietro dei Bardi, son
of the founder of the Camerata. In the complete absence of any further
information, Bardi’s report has remained a curiosity in the history of
music, and it has seemed impossible to determine the true nature and
significance of Galilei’s presentation. That, unfortunately, still remains
true for the music, which is lost. Yet we know a crucial fact about this
experiment, the poetic text chosen by Galilei: it was an excerpt from
the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the Lament of Count Ugolino.
Starting from this information the author examines the problem from
another angle. Investigation of the perception of Dante’s poetry in the
sixteenth century, as well as a deeper enquiry into cinquecento poetic
theories (and especially phonetics) leads to a reconstruction of Galilei’s
motives for choosing this text and sheds light on some of the features
of his experiment.

General Editor: Simon P. Keefe
This series is supported by funds made available to the Royal Musical
Association from the estate of Thurston Dart, former King Edward Professor
of Music at the University of London. The editorial board is the Publications
Committee of the Association.
Recent monographs in the series (for a full list, see the end of this book):
Johann Mattheson’s Pièces de clavecin and Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre

Margaret Seares

The Politics of Verdi’s Cantica

Roberta Montemorra Marvin
Heinrich Schenker and Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata
Nicholas Marston
Regina Mingotti: Diva and Impresario at the King’s Theatre, London
Michael Burden
Brahms Beyond Mastery: His Sarabande and Gavotte, and its Recompositions
Robert Pascall


Singing Dante:
The Literary
Origins of
Elena Abramov-van Rijk

First published 2014 by Ashgate Publishing
Published 2016 by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
Copyright © 2014 Elena Abramov-van Rijk
Elena Abramov-van Rijk has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised
in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or
hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information
storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and
are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Abramov-van Rijk, Elena, author.
Singing Dante : the literary origins of Cinquecento monody / by Elena
Abramov-van Rijk.
pages cm. -- (Royal Musical Association monographs ; 26)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4724-3799-0 (hardcover) 1. Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321. Divina
commedia. 2. Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321--Musical settings--History and
criticism. 3. Music and literature--Italy--History--16th century. 4. Vocal
music--Italy--16th century--History and criticism. I. Title.
ML80.D2A37 2014
ISBN 9781472437990 (hbk)

Preface and Acknowledgements


Part I
The Ancient Theory of Poetics as
Interpreted in the Cinquecento

Performing Poetry in the Cinquecento and the
Neglect of Dante



Performing Epic Poems



The Problem of Dante’s Comedy: Genre and Performance


Part II

The Sonic Effects of Italian Verse


The ‘Sound of Words’ as a Quasi-musical Experience



The ‘Sound of Verse’: Auditory Parameters



Syllable Length in Music Theory


Part III

Galilei’s Monody


Vincenzo Galilei’s Presentation of Dante


The Rhythm of Verses and
Ugolino’s Lament as an ‘Aria’



Monody after Galilei


Appendix: Metrical Analysis of Two Music Examples



Preface and
The idea of writing this book was already glimmering in my mind
while I was working on my doctoral thesis on the practice of reciting
verses in Italy. Because my interest then was mainly in the earliest
phases of this fascinating activity, especially in its development during
the fourteenth century, the latest stages did not receive the attention
they deserved. The recitation of verses in the sixteenth century has
been seen, and rightly so, as a culmination of long-standing practices,
brought to technical perfection and avidly discussed by literary figures.
This development, however, needed a more scrupulous investigation
than was feasible for the thesis. I have now come back to this topic and
give it fuller treatment here.
The book takes its departure from an experiment presented by
Vincenzo Galilei before his colleagues in the Florentine Camerata in
about 1580. We know about this event, namely the first demonstration
of the stile recitativo, from a single later source, a letter written in 1634
by Pietro de’ Bardi, son of the founder of the Camerata. In the complete
absence of any further information, Bardi’s report has remained a
curiosity in the history of music, and it has seemed impossible to
determine the true nature and significance of Galilei’s presentation.
That, unfortunately, still remains true for the music, which is lost. Yet
we know a crucial fact about this experiment, the poetic text chosen by
Galilei: it was an excerpt from the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the
Lament of Count Ugolino. This knowledge enabled me to investigate
the problem through another angle. Investigation of the perception of
Dante’s poetry in the Cinquecento, as well as a deeper enquiry into
Cinquecento theories of poetics (and especially phonetics) has allowed
me to reconstruct, with a certain degree of reliability, Galilei’s motives
in choosing this specific text and some of the features of his experiment.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to Bonnie Blackburn, with
whom I discussed this work throughout its preparation. Her advice,
suggestions and critiques, from the most general to the subtlest,
contributed greatly to the finished version. I owe special thanks to
Leofranc Holford-Strevens for his help with the Greek texts.
Over a long time I have discussed the ideas in this book with
Dorothea Baumann during our frequent conversations, at the time
when they were gradually receiving their present shape. I am happy to
acknowledge her help.
My literary research would not have been feasible without the
encouragement I have had from literary scholar Aldo Menichetti, who has
always welcomed the discussion of any difficult philological question.

Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

I am also grateful to Agostino Ziino, who expressed his warm
interest in my research at an earlier stage of this work (presented
partly at the Congress of the International Musicological Society in
Rome in 2012).
And of course my work could not have been accomplished without
the constant support of my husband Meir van Rijk.
Elena Abramov-van Rijk


The new musical style of accompanied solo singing in Italy at the turn
of the sixteenth century evoked almost immediate interest in its origins
and early history. The prefaces to the editions of the first musical
dramas, written by the authors themselves or by someone else with
the authors’ consent,1 contain detailed explanations of the principles
of the new music; thus they provided a good basis, theoretical and
factual, for the earliest histories of opera. The first writings on this topic
from the outside, so to speak, such as Pietro della Valle’s Della musica
dell’età nostra (1640) and Severo Bonini’s Discorsi e regole sovra la musica
(1649–50), though paying homage to the rediscovery by Cinquecento
humanists of the ancient theory of musical affects and monophonic
singing, date the beginning of this practice to the first musical dramas –
Dafne, Euridice, Rappresentazione di Anima et di Corpo – and discuss the
question of priority claimed by the inventors of the so-called stile
recitativo, the two Florentine composers Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini,
and the Roman Emilio de’ Cavalieri.
However, the link between the ancient Greek theory of singing,
or rather the presentation of poetic texts with music in public, and
contemporary musical dramas was not clearly evident even to the first
writers on this issue. In his Trattato della musica scenica (1633–35), Giovan
Battista Doni noted several times the break between the contemporary
practice of musical drama and theatrical practice in ancient Greece,
as he understood it from his meticulous scrutiny of numerous works
of ancient authors.2 The gap between them has only partially been
bridged in modern musicological studies: how could ancient musical
and theatrical practices have resulted in the phenomenon of opera,
when it does not seem to be a direct realization of those practices?3
The examples of the former are the prefaces by Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini and
Ottavio Rinuccini to the Euridice, and for the latter the preface written by Allessandro
Guidotti for Emilio dei Cavalieri’s Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo.
Several chapters at the beginning of Doni’s treatise on theatrical music, and some of
his lectures, for example the Lezione del modo tenuto dagli antichi nel rappresentare le tragedie
e le commedie, reveal his doubts on the question.
The following quotation from ‘Orfeo (1607)’, by Joachim Steinheuer (in The Cambridge
Companion to Monteverdi, ed. John Whenham and Richard Wistreich (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 119–40), is especially relevant in this regard, also
for its summation: ‘Early opera is often regarded as a completely new genre, created ex
nihilo by a small circle of theorists and musicians in Florence and Rome as a conscious
attempt to reinvent Ancient Greek tragedy which, some believed in the later sixteenth
century, was sung throughout. Although this view has been justifiably criticized on a
number of occasions, it still tends to be the prevalent model for the rise of opera even
in recent encyclopedias and textbooks. However, none of the dramatic pieces which
were, or may have been, performed musically in their entirety between 1590 and 1608 in
Florence, Rome and Mantua, can be regarded as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense …’
(p. 119).

Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

Nino Pirrotta’s essay ‘Temperaments and Tendencies in the
Florentine Camerata’ subjected the activities of the Camerata to
scrutiny, concluding that its role in the creation of opera had been
overestimated: ‘The truth is that the meetings in Bardi’s house
represented only the first, vague, indeterminate stages of the work that
gave rise to opera.’4 He demonstrated that the main ideas and activities
that shaped the concept of opera had been developed in the 1590s, after
Bardi’s departure for Rome, and in a somewhat different environment
in the house of Jacopo Corsi, who was much more interested in theatre.
Pirrotta concluded: ‘I have tried to show that the so-called Camerata
was not guided – or was guided hardly at all – by predetermined
theories. It was not theories and ideas that brought about opera, but the
practical attempts of certain men, each following the dictates of his own
temperament and sensibility, to realize their own ideas.’5
Is this verdict correct? Were there indeed only vague ideas about
the influence of ancient music on the human senses and only individual
practical attempts to transfer them to contemporary practice? Or did
the idea of ‘speaking through singing’ have a more solid basis in the
ideology of the Camerata? Unexpectedly, an answer was suggested
while investigating Doni’s research in seeking the primordial stages of
the stile recitativo: not only did it shed light on this problem, but it also
provided the present study with a precious starting point, turning it in
a direction that so far has only sporadically and sketchily been taken
into consideration.
The Florentine nobleman Giovan Battista Doni (1595–1647), a man
of vast culture and multifaceted interests, wrote on different aspects
of human knowledge. Some of the works mentioned or quoted in his
extant writings, for example the Trattato degli accenti, are unknown,
and, if they do not lie undiscovered in libraries and archives, seem to be
lost. Even his printed works have now become bibliographical rarities.6
Only three of his treatises on music were published by the year of his
death, and it was not until more than a hundred years later that his
most important writings on music were collected and published in a
two-volume edition of 1763 under the title Lyra Barberina, in honour
of the Barberini Pope Urban VIII.7 The chief editor of this publication,
Nino Pirrotta, ‘Temperaments and Tendencies in the Florentine Camerata’, in Music
and Culture in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Baroque: A Collection of Essays (Cambridge,
MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 217–34, at p. 218. See also Nino
Pirrotta and Elena Povoledo, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1982).
Pirrotta, ‘Temperaments and Tendencies in the Florentine Camerata’, pp. 233–4.
For example, his treatises Compendio del Trattato de’ generi e de’ modi della musica
(Rome: Fei, 1635) and Annotazioni sopra il Compendio del Trattato de’ generi e de’ modi (Rome:
Fei, 1640). On Doni, see Claude Palisca, ‘G.B. Doni, Musicological Activist, and his Lyra
Barberina’, in Studies in the History of Italian Music and Music Theory (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1994), pp. 467–507.
Lyra Barberina amphichordos: accedunt eiusdem opera, vol. 2, ed. Anton Francesco Gori
and Giovanni Battista Passeri (Florence: Stamperia Imperiale, 1763).



Anton Francesco Gori, gathered as many of Doni’s dispersed works
on music as he could find and inferred from the extant texts that ‘the
greater part [of his legacy] was lost for not being well preserved by his
heirs’. But from the extant works it becomes clear:
quanto vaste fossero le cognizioni
del Doni, e nelle Sacre e profane
scritture, e segnatamente nell’istoria,
e nella filosofia, nella matematica e
segnatamente nella metafisica, apprese
nei veri fonti colla perizia profonda della
lingua greca, dirette da lui per illustrare
la musica.8

how vast Doni’s knowledge was
in sacred and secular writings, and
above all in history and philosophy,
in mathematics, and especially in
metaphysics, which were studied in the
primary sources with profound expertise
in Greek, which he used to elucidate the

The second volume of Lyra Barberina contains Doni’s works on
theatrical music, which include a number of discorsi and lezioni presented
at the assemblies of academies, and two versions of the treatise that
forms our main interest, the Trattato della musica scenica.9 The earlier
version is placed at the end of the volume with a justification by the
second editor, Giovanni Battista Passeri, of the reasons that induced
him to publish it as well. In fact, Gori had already prepared 96 pages
of this version for printing when he realized that there must be another
one, more complete and detailed. He succeeded in finding the later
version and then printed it at the beginning of the Lyra Barberina II,
omitting the first version. On Gori’s death, Passeri decided to complete
the edition of the first version and include it as well, stimulated by the
motives he explains as follows:
Dei gran pittori si apprezzano ancora le
bozze, quantunque imperfette delle loro
grandi opere, raccogliendosi da quelle la
verità di un concetto, e come prima nasca
dalla fantasia, e come poi collo studio
si vada sviluppando verso la perfezione.
Con questo consiglio medesimo ho
unito in questo corpo anco il primo
embrione della Lira Barberina, sebbene
in paragone della stess’opera più studiata
potrebbe sembrare cosa manchevole.
Parecchi tratti però si trovano nel primo
lavoro che non sono nel secondo, e
questi non dovevano perire. Ciò che nel
primo è detto alla sfuggita, si amplifica
nel secondo.10

Of the great artists we appreciate even
the sketches, however imperfect, of their
great works, since we discover from
them the essence of an idea, that is, how
it is born from fantasy and then gradually
developed towards perfection. For this
reason I added to this corpus also the
first embryo of the Lyra Barberina, even
though, when compared to the main and
more developed work, it might seem
somewhat defective. However, many
passages are found in the first version
that are missing in the second, and these
should not be lost. Some things, which
were only slightly touched upon in
the first version, were amplified in the

Lyra Barberina II, p. vi. The introduction was written by Giovanni Battista Passeri
after Gori’s death.
The first version occupies pages 1–144 at the beginning of the volume, and the second
version appears at the end of the same volume with separate pagination, 1–97.
Lyra Barberina II, Appendix, p. i.


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

Indeed, the comparative study of all the items, not only both
versions of the treatise but also the lectures, gives us a good idea of
Doni’s research methods. One instance is especially important for
our enquiry.
In the earlier version of the Trattato della musica scenica, written
about 1633, and surely before December of 1634, Doni too linked the
beginning of the new monophonic style of singing with the activity of
Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio Rinuccini, as restorers of the stile recitativo
together with, or rather within, theatrical music:
Questa usanza cominciò in Firenze là
intorno al 1600 con la fatica e industria
dei sigg. Jacopo Corsi e Ottavio
Rinuccini … l’uno dei quali cioè signor
Jacopo fu grandissimo amatore della
musica e liberalissimo con tutti i virtuosi
e massime coi professori di essa, onde
la casa sua fu un continuo ricetto di
musici, cantori e suonatori sì del paese
come forestieri. Ed il signore Ottavio
come ognuno sa, fu un leggiadrissimo
poeta come si conosce nelle sue opere
che hanno mirabilmente del patetico,
del nobile e leggiadro, del naturale e
sonoro, onde riescono ottimamente nella
musica e dai cantori sono volentieri
abbracciate. Questi dunque virtuosissimi
due personaggi si possono dire li primi
restauratori della musica scenica e
autori dello stile recitativo, imperoché
riconoscendo che la maniera d’oggi non
era troppo idonea all’espressione degli
affetti e al cantare in scena: e dall’altra
banda, avendo letto i miracoli, che faceva
anticamente la musica, fecero tanto con i
più perfetti musici che si trovavano allora
che s’indussero a tentare una nuova
strada, e a provare che riuscita sarebbe
una melodia che s’avvicinasse al parlare
familiare e movesse gli animi degli

This practice began in Florence around
1600 through the efforts and labours
of signori Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio
Rinuccini … one of whom, that is signor
Jacopo, was a great lover of music and
on the most friendly terms with all the
gifted musicians and especially with
teachers of music, so that his house was
a steady “harbour” of musicians, singers
and players, both local and foreign. As
everybody knows, signor Ottavio was
the most exquisite poet, as appears from
his works, which wonderfully combine
passionate, noble and graceful, natural
and sonorous [characteristics], so that
they fit perfectly in music and are
happily embraced by singers. Thus, these
two most virtuous men can be called the
first restorers of theatrical music and the
authors of the stile recitativo, for having
acknowledged that the contemporary
manner [of singing] was not appropriate
enough for the expression of the feelings
and for singing on stage, and on the other
hand, having read about the miracles
produced by music in ancient times, they
succeeded, together with the most perfect
musicians living then, in trying a new
path and in proving that a melody would
succeed if it were close to normal speech
and touched the souls of listeners.

For some reason Doni was not satisfied with this version.
Therefore, towards the end of 1634 he got in touch with Pietro de’
Bardi – the son of Giovanni de’ Bardi, the founder of the Camerata, and
Doni’s colleague in the Accademia degli Alterati. At Doni’s request,
Pietro de’ Bardi communicated his memories about the activity of this
circle during his youth. The new information from Bardi’s letter of
Italics mine. Lyra Barberina II, Appendix, p. 14. Doni had aired this opinion earlier in
his ‘Lezione prima recitata in camera del Sig. Cardinale Barberino nel 1624 se le azioni
drammatiche si rappresentavano in musica in tutto o in parte’ (Lyra Barberina II, main
pagination, p. 148).



16 December 163412 was then incorporated in the new version of the
Trattato della musica scenica in Chapter 9, Dell’origine che ebbe ai tempi
nostri il cantare in scena.13 Here we learn a strikingly different version
of the origins of monody:
Era in quei tempi in Firenze il sig.
Giovanni Bardi dei conti di Vernio …,
dotato di molte nobilissime virtù; e
soprattutto grande amatore dell’antichità
e della musica, e nella quale aveva fatto
studio particolare, così intorno la teorica
come la pratica, componendo anco
per quei tempi assai acconciamente.
Era perciò la casa sua un continuo
ricetto dei più ameni studi, e come una
fiorita accademia, dove si adunavano
spesso giovani nobili per passare
onestamente l’ozio in virtuosi esercizi
ed eruditi discorsi: e in particolare
delle cose di musica vi si ragionava
molto frequentemente e discorrevasi
del modo di ridurre in uso quell’antica,
tanto lodata e stimata e già per molti
secoli spenta insieme con le altre nobili
facoltà …, così a volere avvicinarsi
a quella, era necessario trovar modo
che le cantilene si potessero più
acconciamente profferire, sicché la
poesia si sentisse scolpitamente e i versi
non si storpiassero. Era in quel tempo
in qualche credito tra i musici Vincenzo
Galilei, il quale invaghitosi in quella
dotta e virtuosa adunanza, molte cose
vi apparò, e sì per l’aiuto che ne ebbe,
e sì per il suo bell’ingegno e continue
vigilie, quell’opera compose sopra gli
abusi dell’odierna musica che è stata poi
due volte divulgata con le stampe. Per
la qual cosa animato il Galilei a tentare
cose nuove e aiutato massimamente dal
signor Giovanni, fu il primo a comporre
melodie a una voce sola, avendo
modulato quel passionevole lamento del
conte Ugolino scritto da Dante, che egli
medesimo cantò molto soavemente sopra
un concerto di viole. La cosa, senza fallo,
piacque assai in generale,

There was in Florence in that time signor
Giovanni Bardi, count of Vernio …,
blessed with many noble virtues, who
was first and foremost a great admirer
of antiquity and of music, of which
he had made a special study, both in
theory and in practice, also composing
in a very elegant style for that time.
Therefore, his house became a steady
“harbour” for the most agreeable studies,
like a flourishing academy, where noble
youths often gathered to pass the time
honourably in virtuous exercises and
erudite conversations. Most frequently
they disputed on music, discussing how
to bring back into use that ancient music,
once so much praised and esteemed,
but then for many centuries vanished
altogether with other noble faculties ….
Hence, wanting to bring themselves
closer to this [ancient] music, it was
necessary to find a [specific] way in
which the melodies could be delivered
more appropriately, so that the poetry
would be heard more distinctly and
the verses would not be mangled. At
that time Vincenzo Galilei, who had
some authority among musicians, was
welcomed in this virtuous assembly and
many things became evident to him. And
thus through the help that he had and
his own talent and continuous studies,
he produced that work on the abuses of
modern music, which subsequently was
published twice. For this reason, Galilei,
inspired by the idea to try new things and
helped especially by signor Giovanni,
was the first to compose melodies for
one voice only, having performed that
passionate Lament of Count Ugolino
written by Dante, which he himself sang
sweetly, accompanied by a consort of

Angelo Solerti specified neither the location of Bardi’s letter nor whether it had
survived, but he informs us that it was published three times before his own edition in Le
origini del melodramma (Turin: Bocca, 1903), pp. 143–47. The relevant parts of Bardi’s letter
are quoted in Chapter 7 below.
Ibid., Main part, pp. 22–5. This chapter is also printed in Solerti, Le origini del
melodramma, pp. 207–14. Doni acknowledged the help of Pietro de’ Bardi, ‘da cui mi sono
comunicate cortesemente molte notizie’, at the end of this chapter (p. 25, or p. 213 in


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody
sebbene non vi mancarono degli emoli
che, punti da invidia, nel principio se
ne risero. Onde nel medesimo stile egli
compose parte delle Lamentazioni di
Geremia profeta, che furono cantate in
devota compagnia.14

viols. Undoubtedly, this was generally
liked, although jealous persons were not
lacking, who, green with envy, at first
even laughed at this. Whence Galilei set
to music in the same style a part of the
Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah,
which was sung in devout company.

Although Doni did not specify the chronology of these events, he
placed them at a somewhat earlier period than the first operas, during
the time when Vincenzo Galilei was working on his Dialogo della musica
antica et della moderna, published in 1581.15 This chronology fits well with
Galilei’s letter to Guglielmo Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, on 13 March
1582, in which he mentions the Lamentations and Responses:
Contento che i suddetti discorsi siano
stati accettati, fu incoraggiato a … metter
in musica i Responsi et le Lamentazioni
composte però secondo l’uso degli
antichi greci; che tra li altri importanti
particolari accidenti che intorno ad
essa osservarono, era, come ella sa, il
far ragionare uno solo cantando et non
tanto da nello istesso tempo come oggi
(contr’ogni dovere) si costuma. La qual
musica per quello ne giudicarà quelli che
sino ad hora l’hanno udita non è priva
di quello affetto nel quale lamentandosi
horando il Profeta Hyeremia cercava
indurre gli ascoltatori …16

Being happy that the above-mentioned
discourses [about ancient Greek music]
had been accepted, I was encouraged
to … set to music the Responses and
Lamentations, but composed following
custom of the ancient Greeks, which,
among other particular characteristics
that they observed, was, as you know,
having only one person sing, and not
many simultaneously, as is the custom in
our days (without any need). This music,
as judged by those who have heard it
up to now, does not lack that affect that
the Prophet Jeremiah, when lamenting
through prayer, tried to impart to his

The most important feature of Doni’s revised version was that
he definitively separated the origins of the new stile recitativo from
theatrical music, noting that:
questo stile [recitativo] cominciò
parimente in Firenze intorno i medesimi
tempi, sebbene più tardi fu introdotto
nelle scene, cioè là intorno al 1600.

this style [recitativo] started in Florence
around the same time, although it was
introduced on the stage later, that is,
around 1600.

Bardi’s letter will be considered in more detail later, in Chapter 7,
but for now it is important to note that the change Doni made in Bardi’s
description of Galilei’s singing is no less significant. Bardi wrote
as follows:
Perciò fu egli [Galilei] il primo a far
sentire il canto in istile rappresentativo.

Thus he [Galilei] was the first to let us
hear singing in stile rappresentativo.

Lyra Barberina II, Main part, p. 23, or Solerti, Le origini del melodramma, pp. 209–11.
Fabio Fano argued that the Dialogo was published in 1582, though on its title page the
year is 1581.
Cf. Antonino Bertolotti, Musici alla Corte dei Gonzaga in Mantova: Dal secolo XV al XVIII
(1890; repr. Bologna: Forni, 1978), pp. 60–61.



In Doni’s formulation this phrase now becomes:
il Galilei … fu il primo a comporre
melodie a una voce sola.

Galilei … was the first to compose
melodies for one voice only.

Doni avoided using the term stile rappresentativo, writing ‘a melody
for one voice only’. Evidently, it was not a question of varietas when
copying from Bardi’s letter. In his revised vision of the history of
monophonic style, he distinguished between stile recitativo and stile
rappresentativo, chronologically and functionally, dedicating an entire
chapter to this question in the new version of the Trattato della musica
scenica: Capitolo XI, ‘Si risponde ad alcune obiezioni e si mostra in che
differisca lo stile recitativo dal rappresentativo ed espressivo’:
Non è interamente il medesimo stile
recitativo, rappresentativo ed espressivo,
sebbene comunemente non ci fa
differenza. Per stile dunque recitativo
s’intende oggi quella sorte di melodia
che può acconciamente e con garbo
recitarsi, cioè cantarsi da un solo in
guisa tale che le parole s’intendano, e
facciasi ciò sul palco delle scene o nelle
chiese e oratori a foggia dei dialoghi,
oppure nelle camere private o altrove;
e finalmente con questo nome s’intende
ogni sorte di musica che si canti da un
solo al suono di qualche instrumento con
poco allungamento delle note e in modo
tale che si avvicini al parlare comune, ma
però affettuoso …
Ma per rappresentativo intendere
debbiamo quella sorte di melodia che è
veramente proporzionata alla scena, cioè
per ogni sorte di azione drammatica che
si voglia rappresentare (i greci dicono
μιμεθαι imitare) col canto che è quasi
l’istesso che l’odierno stile recitativo,
e non del tutto il medesimo, perché
alcune cose se gli dovrebbono levare
per perfezionarlo e altre aggiungerli. Più
dunque mi piace di chiamare questo stile
accomodato alle scene, rappresentativo o
scenico che recitativo.17

The styles recitativo, rappresentativo
and espressivo are not entirely the same,
even though normally people do not
distinguish between them. Thus, for stile
recitativo, we nowadays understand that
kind of melody which can be elegantly
and graciously recited, that is, it can be
sung by one performer in a way in which
the words will be understood, and this
can be done on the stage, or in churches
and oratories in the form of a dialogue,
or in private rooms or elsewhere; and
finally with this term one understands
any kind of music which is sung by one
person to the sound of some instrument
with a slight prolongation of the notes so
that it will be close to ordinary speech,
albeit affecting …
By rappresentativo we should mean
that kind of melody which is truly
appropriate to the stage, that is, to any
kind of dramatic action to be performed
(the Greeks say μιμεθαι, to imitate)
with singing, which is almost the same
as the modern stile recitativo, and yet
not completely equal to it, since some
features must be removed in order
to make it more perfect, and others
added. Thus I would prefer to call
this style, when adapted to the stage,
rappresentativo or scenic rather than

Tim Carter, reflecting on these terms, noted an ‘obscure difference’
between the stile recitativo, stile espressivo18 and stile rappresentativo, as
Lyra Barberina II, Main part, pp. 29–30.
Regarding the stile espressivo, Tim Carter defined it as ‘more a heightened recitative
than a separate style’ (‘Stile rappresentativo’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians, 2nd edn, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001) (hereafter New Grove
II), vol. 24, p. 391). Doni explicates it as follows: ‘Ma per stile espressivo vogliono alcuni


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

described in the Trattato della musica scenica.19 Regarding the further
development of these definitions in Doni’s theory, Carter noted that
later, in his Annotazioni sopra il Compendio de’ generi e de’ modi della musica
(1640), Doni provides a more explicit differentiation within the ‘stile
detto recitativo’, subdividing it into ‘narrativo’ (e.g. Daphne’s report
of Eurydice’s death in Peri’s Euridice, 1600), ‘recitativo’ or ‘recitativo
speciale’ (e.g. the prologue to Euridice, with its more formal strophic
organization) and ‘espressivo’ (e.g. Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna,
1608).20 Frederick Sternfeld has an interesting discussion of these terms,
either as used by the composers on the title pages of operas or in Doni’s
writings, pointing to their ambivalence and vagueness, but he noted
that Doni applied an ‘umbrella term … for these three subdivisions’ –
stile monodico.21
However, it appears that Doni’s main concern was focused on the
differentiation between recitativo and rappresentativo. In his writings,
including the above-mentioned Annotazioni, he always emphasized
that the stile recitativo was, above all, the one in which heroic poems
must be delivered:
Lo stile recitativo (il quale però è più
convenevole ai poemi heroici e rapsodie
che alla vera musica teatrale) …22

The recitative style (which is more
suitable for heroic poems and rhapsodies
than for true theatrical music) …

che s’intenda quello che meglio esprime il senso delle parole e gli affetti umani, con che
però non mostrano alcuna particolare osservanza che possa formare una propria sorte
di melodia, onde più presto si deve reputare per una qualità e particolare perfezione di
canto che una specie diversa.’ (Some people want stile espressivo to be understood as that
which better renders the meaning of words and human affects, though they do not specify
any particular characteristic, so that it would form its own kind of melody. Therefore, it
should be considered as a specific quality and particular perfection in singing rather than
a separate species.) (Lyra Barberina II, Main part, p. 30).
‘The confusion reflects the difficulties faced by composers of the “new music”
in giving a rational account of their essentially intuitive endeavours.’ Carter, ‘Stile
Ibid. And also in Tim Carter: ‘Today, the term stile rappresentativo is most often
identified with the new music for the stage, which Giovanni Battista Doni called the
“stile detto recitativo”’ (‘Resemblance and Representation: Towards a New Aesthetic in
the Music of Monteverdi’, in Con che soavità: Studies in Italian Opera, Song, and Dance,
1580–1740, ed. Iain Fenlon and Tim Carter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 118–34,
at p. 120). On the same subject see the section ‘The stile rappresentativo’, in Carter’s
article ‘The Search for Musical Meaning’, in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century
Music, ed. Tim Carter and John Butt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005),
pp. 189–94). On the differentiation Doni made within the stile recitativo see also Claude
V. Palisca, Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2006), pp. 118–19.
Frederick Sternfeld, The Birth of Opera (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 41.
Giovanni Battista Doni, Annotazioni sopra il Compendio de’ generi e de’ modi della musica,
p. 363.



Hence, thanks to Doni’s meticulousness as a researcher,23 we know
that the first experiment in the new art of accompanied solo singing,
which according to him should be called stile recitativo, was Vincenzo
Galilei’s performance of an excerpt from Dante’s Comedy.24 Although
this fact has sometimes been mentioned in modern musicological
studies, it has not yet received the attention it deserves.
Nigel Fortune hinted at Galilei’s performance, yet almost denying
its connection with later theatrical music in stile recitativo.25 Nino
Pirrotta, in his above-mentioned essay, supposed that Galilei’s reason
in choosing such texts was to cover the whole field of music, sacred
and secular, so that the Lamentations of Jeremiah can be classed as
a motet, and the Lament of Ugolino as a madrigal.26 Pirrotta tried to
explain Galilei’s strange choice of Dante as follows: ‘The madrigalists
hardly ever turned to Dante’s Comedia; when Galilei did so, he showed
his lack of critical acumen and perhaps also his desire to conform to
the spirit of linguistic purity and burning passion for the supremacy
of the Tuscan idiom.’27 Silke Leopold remarks that Galilei’s intention
was to demonstrate his theory, for which he chose two texts, one from
the Bible, the other from Dante; but ‘it is not certain to what degree
the practical musician in Galilei was able to meet the demands of the
This seems to do little justice to Galilei, and raises the question
whether the choice of Dante’s verses had more specific significance for
the realization of ancient ideas of monophonic singing. Why indeed
should Galilei have preferred Dante for his experiment? His choice
can be understood only when we take into account the approach
of Cinquecento humanists to the performance of epic poetry and
specifically to Dante’s Comedy.
The importance of Doni’s studies was brought to more general attention when Charles
Burney, in his General History of Music, based his own research on the activity of the
Florentine Camerata on the Lyra Barberina, and his understanding of the ancient Greek
theory of music on Doni’s interpretations of Girolamo Mei. Claude Palisca noted that ‘it
is to Doni, therefore, more than to anyone else, that we owe the perpetuation of Mei’s
renown’. Girolamo Mei, Letters on Ancient and Modern Music to Vincenzo Galilei and Giovanni
Bardi, ed. Claude V. Palisca (Rome: American Institute of Musicology, 1960), p. 4.
Bardi’s letter and Doni’s chapter are the only sources that contain the information
about the excerpt from Dante as the first example of monophonic singing. The
Lamentations (but not Dante) were also mentioned by Galilei in his letter to Guglielmo
Gonzaga of 1582, quoted above.
‘Most monodies have little to do with the early declamatory experiments of the
Florentine Camerata.’ Nigel Fortune, ‘Italian Secular Monody from 1600 to 1635: An
Introductory Survey’, Musical Quarterly, 39 (1953), pp. 171–95, at p. 172.
Pirrotta, ‘Temperaments and Tendencies in the Florentine Camerata’, p. 220.
Silke Leopold, Monteverdi: Music in Transition, trans. Anne Smith (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1992), p. 44. Gary Tomlinson traces the origins of the stile recitativo back to the
Ficinian concept of Orphic song (Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 11–12), though he calls Jacopo Peri ‘the first master
of the style’ (ibid., p. 16).


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

This book is not intended as one more history of early opera.
It has a more modest task, namely to explore and understand the
earliest pre-operatic phases of the crystallization of the stile recitativo.
Thus, it will not be an investigation of musical theatrical dramas on
the stage. Neither will the musical theories of the Cinquecento nor
the first glimpses of the recitative style in the musical compositions
of this period be the focus. Rather, important insights into the origin
of monody emerge from a study of Cinquecento literary theories of
poetics concerned with the practice of performing poetry.
The book has three parts, each subdivided into three chapters. The
first part discusses the formation of ideas on how to present poetry in
correlation with ancient theory, as it was understood and interpreted
by the humanists. Chapter 1 deals with the idea of delivering poetry
through singing, a traditional Italian practice, but now viewed in the
light of the ancient theories. The theorists asserted that Dante’s poetry
was not designed for singing, which may explain its almost total and
consistent disregard by contemporary musical practice. Chapter 2
presents a survey of the ideas expressed by humanists regarding the
performance of epic poems, also supported by ancient theories,
according to which epic poems must in principle be declaimed without
music, though everyday oral practice showed the contrary. Chapter 3
describes the so-called ‘quarrel over Dante’ and the attempts to find the
best definition of the genre of the Comedy. In turn, the suitable definition
must imply the most fitting way of performing it.
The second part explores the sonic effects of Italian verse as they
were discussed in Cinquecento literary theory. Chapter 4 deals with
the question of accents (stress) in the language and poetry, the main
phonetic factor for endowing the verse with acoustic beauty. Chapter 5
is dedicated to the question of the length of syllables in Italian. The
polemics between men of letters shows that it was an important issue
that influenced the auditory perception of poetry in this period. Chapter
6 describes the problem of accents and the length of syllables from the
viewpoint of music theory in the Cinquecento.
Based on the analysis of Cinquecento theories of language and
poetics in the second part, the third part returns to Galilei’s experiment
in performing Dante. Chapter 7 analyses those parts of Galilei’s
treatise Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna which show his ideas
about the presentation of epic poems with music in public. Chapter 8
scrutinizes the rhythmic aspects of this experiment, according Galilei’s
own principles as well, and presents an attempt to restore the rhythmic
design of his ‘aria’ for the excerpt from Dante, based on the modern
technique of scansion of the verse combined with the ideas extracted
from Cinquecento theory. The final chapter provides a perspective
on the further development and modification of the stile recitativo
up to the time it reached the theatrical stage. In an Appendix, two



excerpts from contemporary operas, the Prologue to Peri’s Euridice and
‘Possente spirto’ from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, are analysed to show how
the composers took into account the metrical scansion of the verses.


Part I
The Ancient Theory of Poetics as
Interpreted in the Cinquecento

Performing Poetry in the
Cinquecento and the
Neglect of Dante
The continuity of the ancient classical and Italian worlds was a longstanding conviction of humanists, encompassing the widest spectrum
of culture, including language and the verbal arts. In the course of the
Quattrocento, as Vittorio Formentin has noted, Latin rose to the level of
a pan-Italian language of culture.1 However, already at the beginning
of the Cinquecento, ‘the vernacular wins its battle with Latin’.2 In the
sixteenth century, the awareness of the continuity of classicism, now
transferred to the Italian language, acquired a solid theoretical basis.
In his Prose della volgar lingua (printed in 1525), Pietro Bembo
argued, putting words into the mouth of Federico Fregoso,3 the most
natural affinity between the Italian vernacular and Latin:
[Ercole Strozzi]: … se la nostra volgar
lingua non era a que’ tempi nata, ne’
quali la latina fiorì, quando e in che
modo nacque ella? … Il quando – rispose
messer Federigo – sapere appunto, che
io mi creda, non si può, se non si dice
che ella cominciamento pigliasse infino
da quel tempo, nel quale incominciarono
i Barbari ad entrare nella Italia e
ad occuparla, e secondo che essi vi
dimorarono e tennero piè, così ella
crescesse e venisse in istato. Del come,
non si può errare a dire che, essendo
la romana lingua e quelle de’ Barbari
tra sé lontanissime, essi a poco a poco
della nostra ora une ora altre voci, e
queste troncamente e imperfettamente
pigliando, e noi apprendendo similmente
delle loro, se ne formasse in processo di
tempo e nascessene una nuova, la quale
alcuno odore e dell’una e dell’altra

[E.S.] … if our vernacular language
was not born in the time when Latin
flourished, when and how was it
born? … Just when, answered Federigo,
I believe it is impossible to know,
unless one says that it began at the time
when the barbarians began to invade
and occupy Italy, and according to how
they remained and settled here, the
[new vernacular language] grew and
came to fruition. On how it came about,
it is undoubtedly because the Latin
language and the Barbarians’ tongues
being very different from each other, the
latter started to take over now one, now
another of our words, borrowing them
one from another in corrupted form, so
that in time a new language was created,
which retained a flavour of both sources,
and this is the vernacular we use now.
That this [vernacular] has more similarity

‘mentre i più grandi letterati di Firenze fecero ricorso anche al volgare …, fuori
di Firenze è di regola l’impiego esclusivo del latino’. Vittorio Formentin, ‘La “crisi”
linguistica del Quattrocento’, in Storia della letteratura italiana: Il Quattrocento (Rome:
Salerno, 1996), vol. 3, pp. 159–210, at p. 161.
‘il volgare vince la sua battaglia con il latino’. Vittorio Formentin, ‘Dal volgare
toscano all’italiano’, in Storia della letteratura italiana: Il primo Cinquecento (Rome: Salerno,
1996), vol. 4, pp. 177–250, at p. 177.
Also a protagonist of Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano.

Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody
ritenesse, che questa volgare è, che ora
usiamo. La quale se più somiglianza
ha con la romana, che con le barbare
avere non si vede, è perciò che la forza
del natìo cielo sempre è molta, e in
ogni terra meglio mettono le piante che
naturalmente vi nascono, che quelle che
vi sono di lontan paese portate.4 (Libro
1, VII)

with the Latin language than with the
Barbarian ones, is because the strength
of the native sky is always greater, and
in every soil those plants better take root
that are native of it than those which
were brought from far away.

Eventually, all the arts were encompassed in this continuity,
interrupted and damaged during the Dark Ages because of barbarian
invasions. This notion became a commonplace in practically all treatises
written in the Cinquecento. Giovan Battista Doni, whose view on
Renaissance culture was somewhat retrospective and summary, has left
an interesting survey of all known disciplines, including mathematics,
medicine, architecture, painting, etc., which were destroyed by
barbarians but revived in Italy in recent times.5 The art of poetry, of
course, was not left out:
L’arte nobilissima del poetare è stata
molti secoli sepolta tra le rovine della
bella Italia, questa è stata da Dante e dal
Petrarca ritornata in vita.6

The very noble art of versification was
buried among the ruins of beautiful Italy,
and [then] it was recalled to life by Dante
and Petrarch.

Poetic theory in the Cinquecento treated vernacular poetry as a
legitimate art form, resting on a strong historical and philosophical
basis. The principal interest of the literati was focused on Aristotle’s
Poetics, but also on Horace’s Ars poetica and other works of ancient
Latin and Greek authors.7 Thus it is not surprising that sixteenthcentury writings on poetics show attempts to adapt Italian versification
to the classical Greek and Latin principles of poetic metre (for example,
in tracing parallels between this or that poetic metre according to its
role in a given poetic genre or drama), despite the dissimilarity of

Pietro Bembo, Prose della volgar lingua, ed. Carlo Dionisotti (Milan: Editori Associati,
1989), p. 86.
‘Lezione prima del modo tenuto dagli antichi nel rappresentare le tragedie e le
commedie’, in Lyra Barberina II, pp. 165–7.
Ibid., p. 165.
In her research on Venetian musical life in the sixteenth century, Martha Feldman
provides a comprehensive discussion on the perception of the art of poetry as rhetoric
and the art of oratory: ‘This perspective owed its conception to Horace as well as to Cicero,
since Horace’s Ars poetica largely translated Ciceronian rhetoric into poetic principles.
First printed in Italy around 1470, the Ars poetica became widely known in Cristoforo
Landino’s annotated Florentine edition published in 1482. Landino’s annotations
established the pattern for a hermeneutics that mixed more and more of the rhetorical
tradition (as well as bits of Plato and Aristotle) into the Ars poetica … The particular set
of stylistic axioms codified by Horace were especially fruitful for the Italian poetics that
emanated from northern Italians like Trissino, Daniello, and Muzio.’ City Culture and the
Madrigal at Venice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 136–7.


Performing Poetry in the Cinquecento and the Neglect of Dante

their phonetic structures, especially the nature of the syllables (stress
versus duration).
It was not only the poetry, however, but also the ancient art of
the performance of poetry that was of supreme importance to Italian
humanists of the Cinquecento; they viewed reconstructing it as an
important task. Nevertheless, it was difficult to achieve because the
unwritten nature of the art required scrupulous research in order to
reconstruct it. Humanists approached this problem not only through
the meticulous reading of ancient authors but also by analogy with the
contemporary Italian practice of reciting poetry, an elitist art that was
used for the performance of poetry of the highest level, particularly epic
poetry and drama. Indeed, as Brian Richardson has noted with regard
to the growing quantity of printed editions, ‘another and much more
universal and significant explanation for the continuation of the practice
of oral performance [of poetry], even when written transmission was
possible, must have been the combined aesthetic and social pleasures
that it could provide for reciter and listeners alike’.8
Sixteenth-century theoretical writings on the art of poetry mention
the performance of verses, but most often they leave it to the discretion
of singers and actors, as for example in La poetica (1529 and later
editions) by Giangiorgio Trissino (1478–1550):
Dico, adunque, che la poesia (come
prima disse Aristotele) è una imitazione
de le azioni de l’homo; e facendosi
questa cotale imitazione con parole, rime
et harmonia … sia buono … trattare di
quello con che essa imitazione si fa, cioè
de le parole e de le rime, lasciando la
harmonia o vero il canto da parte; perciò
che quelle possono fare la imitazione
senza esso, e di queste due il poeta
considera e lascia il canto considerare al

And so I say that poetry (as Aristotle said
before) is an imitation of man’s actions;
and even if such imitation is made with
words, rhymes, and harmony … it would
be well … to treat only those [factors]
with which this imitation is made, that
is, the words and the rhymes, leaving
the harmony, that is, the singing, to the
side; because it is possible to produce the
imitation without it, and only to the first
two does the poet give consideration,
leaving the singing to the discretion of
the singer.

As we know, the performance of poetry was a kind of solo singing
to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. This practice, however,
was multifaceted, as we can gather from a well-known contemporary
Brian Richardson, ‘Recitato e cantato: The Oral Diffusion of Lyric Poetry in SixteenthCentury Italy’, in Theatre, Opera, and Performance in Italy from the Fifteenth Century to the
Present: Essays in Honour of Richard Andrews, ed. Brian Richardson, Simon Gilson, and
Catherine Keen (Leeds: Society for Italian Studies, 2004), pp. 67–82, at p. 67. See also
the chapter ‘Orality, Manuscript and Circulation of Verse’, in his Manuscript Culture
in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 226–58. Both
the book and the article provide innumerable examples of the recitation of verses in
Cinquecento Italy.
Giangiorgio Trissino, La poetica, vol. 1, p. 24, in Trattati di poetica e retorica del
Cinquecento, ed. Bernard Weinberg (Bari: Laterza, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 21–158 (Parts I–IV)
and vol. 2, pp. 5–90 (Parts V–VI).


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

source – the famous, indeed epoch-making, work, Il libro del Cortegiano
(printed in 1528) by Baldassarre Castiglione:
Bella musica … parmi il cantar bene a
libro sicuramente e con bella maniera;
ma ancor molto più il cantare alla viola
perché tutta la dolcezza consiste quasi in
un solo, e con molto maggior attenzion
si nota ed intende il bel modo e l’aria10
non essendo occupate le orecchie in più
che in una sola voce, e meglio ancor
vi si discerne ogni piccolo errore; il
che non accade cantando in compagna
perché l’uno aiuta l’altro. Ma sopra tutto
parmi gratissimo il cantare alla viola
per recitare; il che tanto di venustà ed
efficacia aggiunge alle parole che è gran
maraviglia. (Book 2, Ch. 13).11

In my opinion, the most beautiful
music is in singing well and in reading
at sight and in fine style [from the
book], but even more in singing to the
accompaniment of the viola, because
nearly all the sweetness is in the solo
and we note and follow the fine style
and the melody with greater attention in
that our ears are not occupied with more
than a single voice and every little fault
is the more clearly noticed – which does
not happen when a group is singing,
because then one sustains the other.
But especially it is singing for reciting
[verses12] with the viola that seems to me
most delightful, as this gives to the words
a wonderful charm and effectiveness.13

Singing from the book aside, from the excerpt above we learn that
the performance of poetry through accompanied solo singing was
of two kinds, well distinguished from each other, and that they had
different objectives. The first one gave preference to the musical aspect
of singing poetry, so that the listener would be able to enjoy the beauty
of solo melody, since it was not blurred by other voices. In fact, it could
be any kind of solo singing, with the other part(s) played on the lute
or other instruments, ‘arie da cantar versi’, on the one hand, and solo
singing to composed music, such as the performance of frottolas, on the
other. Perhaps such ‘arias’ were not very interesting in themselves, but
with embellishment and performed by beautiful trained voices they
certainly could provide great musical pleasure to the listeners.
The second kind, ‘il cantare alla viola per recitare’, appears to
be esteemed by the author more than the singing of melodies with
James Haar analyses ‘the two interesting words, modo and aria’ that appear in the
excerpt in question: ‘The latter [aria] may be taken to mean melody, or more specifically
the fusion of text and music; implied here is the necessity for correct and effective fitting
together of words and melody … Aria may also mean “air” in the sense of an individual
manner of singing melodies. Modo does not mean “mode” in the technical musical sense
but must here be used approximately in the way Petrucci was using it for paradigmatic
pieces in his frottola collections’; ‘The Courtier as Musician: Castiglione’s View of the
Science and Art of Music’, in The Science and Art of Renaissance Music, ed. Paul Corneilson
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 20–37, at p. 26. For more on this, see
below, Chapter 6, pp. 81–4.
Cf. Baldassarre Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano, ed. Ettore Bonora (Milan: Mursia,
1972), p. 117.
The modern translation of Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano by Charles Singleton
(1959) also misses the nuance of recitare, suggesting instead of the delivery of verses,
‘singing recitative’, which is fairly untenable in the given context.
Cf. Baldassar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, ed. Daniel Javitch (New York and
London: Norton, 2002), p. 76.


Performing Poetry in the Cinquecento and the Neglect of Dante

accompaniment; the main aim here was the delivery of words, the
effectiveness of which was increased through music. To what degree
the phenomenon of ‘cantare per recitare’ was exclusively Italian we
learn from an intriguing comment by Stefano Lorenzetti.14 Lorenzetti
examined contemporary translations of the Cortegiano, which saw 125
editions between its original publication in 1528 and 1619, including
nearly 50 in foreign languages. He notes that, except for a few minor
instances, the phrase ‘il cantare alla viola per recitare’ was hardly ever
translated correctly as ‘singing with viola for reciting [verses]’. For
example, Jacques Colin’s French translation (1537) reads: ‘mais sur
tout chanter sur le luc est pour recreer se me semble plus agreable’,15
and in another French translation, by Gabriel Chapuis (1580): ‘mais sur
tout me semble une chose fort agréable de chanter pour plaisir sur la
viole.’16 Lorenzetti observes that the French writers mistranslated the
word recitare as recreer – to divert (Colin), and plaisir – to please or for
pleasure (Chapuis), and thus substantially corrupted the meaning of
the phrase. And although Thomas Hoby’s translation (1561) – ‘But
singing to the lute with the dittie (me thinke) is more pleasant than
the rest, for it addeth to the wordes such a grace and strength, that
it is a great wonder’17 – is closer to the original, his version still does
not render the exact meaning of the original text. For Transalpines the
phenomenon of cantar per recitare appeared foreign and indecipherable.
In this connection, Vincenzo Calmeta (or Colli, c. 1460–1508)
deserves special attention, although Pietro Bembo blamed him for his
concept of the ideal vernacular as the artificially combined language
of the northern courts and the Roman curia (‘cortigiana lingua quella
della romana corte’; Libro 1, XIII).18 Calmeta’s best-known work is a
biography of his contemporary, the famous poet and performer of
poetry Serafino Aquilano (or Serafino Ciminelli d’Aquila, 1466–1500),19
written in 1505. Among his other works there are a number of short
treatises in which he touches on questions of versification and the
recitation of poetry. In one of these, Qual stile tra’ volgari poeti sia da
imitare (Which of the vernacular poets’ styles is to be used as a model),20
written as recommendations for novice poets, Calmeta discusses three
levels of mastery of the art of poetry, the first two of which refer to the
Stefano Lorenzetti, Musica e identità nobiliare nell’Italia del Rinascimento (Florence:
Olschki, 2003).
Ibid., p. 101.
Ibid., p. 102.
Bembo, Prose, ed. Dionisotti, p. 107. Calmeta’s work on language has not survived
and we know about it only from Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua.
Vincenzo Calmeta, Vita del facondo poeta vulgare Serafino Aquilano, in Prose e lettere edite
e inedite, ed. Cecil Grayson, Collezione di opere inedite o rare, 121 (Bologna: Commissione
per i testi di lingua, 1959), pp. 60–77. See further Elena Abramov-van Rijk, Parlar cantando:
The Practice of Reciting Verses in Italy from 1300 to 1600 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 159–67.
Calmeta, Qual stile tra’ volgari poeti sia da imitare, in Prose e lettere edite e inedite, pp. 20–25.


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

style of performance and the third to the style of versification, that is,
composing poetry.
The first and lowest level of the art of poetry is a love lyric delivered
in richly melismatic singing:
Saranno alcuni altri i quali, dilettandosi
d’arte di canto, desiderano col cantar,
massimamente diminuito, gratificar la
sua donna, e in quella musica parole
amorose inserire.21

There will be some others who,
delighting in the art of singing, will
want, with the most melismatic style of
singing, to give pleasure to their women,
and in such music will insert words of

Any young poet who has no greater ambitions than this level
of poetic art must limit himself to such genres as stanzas, barzelette,
frottolas and the like:
e non fondarsi sopra arguzie e
invenzioni, avendo ben per le mani
Morgante, l’Innamoramento d’Orlando,
le frottole di Galeotto del Carretto e
simili altre composizioni, le quali,
quando con la musica s’accompagnano,
sono non solo adombrate, ma coperte per
modo che non si possono discernere.22

and not descend into cleverness and
inventions, following the examples of
Morgante, Innamoramento d’Orlando,
the frottolas by Galeotto del Carretto
and other similar [poetic] compositions,
which, when they are accompanied
by music, are not only blurred but are
covered to the point where one cannot
distinguish [their words].

The second, higher, level is a simpler style of singing, without
melismas, with a rather static and quiet musical accompaniment that
allows better discernment of the beauty of words:
Altri saranno che, esercitandosi in
un altro modo di cantare, semplice e
non diminuito, vorranno di qualche
arguzietta, o vero affetto, dilettarsi
per uscir fuora della vulgar schiera,
quelle con lo instrumento di musica
accompagnando, per poter meglio
non solo negli amorosi ma ancora
negli eruditi cuori imprimere. Questi
tali nel modo del cantare deveno
Cariteo o Serafino imitare, i quali a’
nostri tempi hanno di simile esercizio
portata la palma, e sonosi sforzati
d’accompagnar le rime con musica stesa
e piana, acciocchè meglio la eccellenza
delle sentenziose e argute parole si
potesse intendere.23


Ibid., p. 21.
Ibid., p. 21.
Ibid., pp. 21–2.


There will be others who, practising
another mode of singing, simple and
not melismatic, will wish to enjoy
some sort of cleverness or affect
(sensation, emotion) in order to separate
themselves from the common herd, those
accompanied by musical instruments,
[and] in order to better impress the
hearts, not only of those who are in love
but also of learned persons. Those [poets]
must emulate, in their style of singing,
either Cariteo or Serafino, who, in our
time, are first in such practice, and they
made an effort to accompany the poems
with restrained and quiet music, so that
the excellence of their emotional and
wise words could better be heard.

Performing Poetry in the Cinquecento and the Neglect of Dante

Calmeta likens this style, in a beautiful comparison, to the finest and
whitest pearl, which can better be seen on simple black silk than on gold
clothes.24 This was, then, Serafino’s style, which could delight not only
amorous young ladies but also erudite men. The genre most suitable and
most frequently used for this performance style was the strambotto, the
most popular verse form among Calmeta’s contemporaries:
Questo, sopra ogni altro stile da’
moderni frequentato, è a qualche parte di
perfezione aggiunto.25

This [form (strambotto)], which is more
frequently used than any other style by
the moderns, in some instances reached
the level of perfection.

In effect, the objectives of these two kinds or levels of performance
of poetry are similar to those that Baldassarre Castiglione described in
his book.
When Calmeta turns to the third and highest level of the poetic art,
he does not mention music of any kind, either melismatic or simple.
Here, for the first time, he begins to examine the characteristics related
to poetry: the style and quality of poetic texts and some devices of the
structure of the verse. He recommends beginning this study with the
best examples of Italian poetry, first and foremost with the poems of
Petrarch. At a more advanced stage, he advises learning the poetry of
Dante, which could be somewhat difficult for novices ‘per la profondità
delle sentenze, che più presto ammirano che non muovono’ [because of
the profundity of the pronouncements, which cause marvel more than
they move]:
Con ogni studio si deveno le opere di
Dante abbracciare per essere il supremo
culme della volgar poesia.26

One must bend every effort to embrace
the works of Dante because these are
the highest achievement of vernacular

Even though this kind of poetry was sung – Calmeta warned not
to sing heroic poems and other high-quality poetry in melismatic
style – the music was not its most substantial component. The genres
recommended for this level of poetry are the sonnets, canzoni according
to Petrarch’s model, and the terzinas (or terza rima), which have to
be modelled after Dante, who used this form in his Comedy. Calmeta
defined it as the stile grandiloquo, apparently intending here the
composition of epic or heroic poems.
Calmeta’s treatment of high-quality poetry, and above all that of
Dante, as outside any musical context (we should recall that this is
a treatise which deals, among other things, with the musical setting
See also Pirrotta, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi, p. 27: ‘for they have
the judgment of a discerning jeweller, who, wanting to display the finest and whitest
pearl, will not wrap it in a golden cloth, but in some black silk, that it might show
up better.’
Calmeta, Qual stile tra’ volgari poeti sia da imitare, p. 22.
Ibid., p. 23.


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

of poetry), is intriguing. Of course, when he was writing this treatise
around 1500,27 Calmeta could not yet know how greatly in demand
Petrarch’s poems would become by composers for musical settings in
polyphonic style, although he was certainly aware of the popularity
of Petrarch’s poetry among Quattrocento singers, including Serafino
Aquilano.28 Petrarch indeed rose to the top of the list of the most popular
poets for Cinquecento musicians, but it was not the same with Dante.
Alfred Einstein observed once that ‘the role of Dante’s poetry in the
vocal music of the 16th century was a very small one, especially when
one compares it with the popularity which the Canzoniere of Petrarch
enjoyed among Italian musicians’.29 He also noted that ‘None of the
really great Michelangelesque figures of the time – neither Rore nor
Lasso nor Monteverdi – set a line of Dante’s poetry to music’.30 In this
regard Martha Feldman’s analysis of Rore’s choice of poetic texts for
his Madrigali a cinque voci (1542) elucidates this specific situation very
well. From 20 poems set to music, 12 are by Petrarch and others by
contemporary poets, but most of them show an unusually hard language
and verbal tension, ultimately contradicting Bembist aesthetics.
Feldman rightly defines their style as Dantean,31 which is particularly
explicit in Petrarch’s sonnet Per mezz’i bosch’inhospiti e selvaggi, inspired
by the initial verses of the Comedy.32 Nevertheless, Rore did not touch,
or perhaps did not dare to touch, the verses of Dante himself, even
in the context of his Madrigali a cinque voci, which certainly appears to
have been inviting Dante’s own verses.
Therefore, it is not surprising that, referring to Luzzasco Luzzaschi’s
selection of a small excerpt from Dante’s Comedy, ‘Quivi sospiri, pianti,
ed alti guai’, Anthony Newcomb noted that Luzzaschi’s choice was
striking because the madrigalists of the previous several decades simply
did not set Dante. Except for a single and not especially expressive
three-voice setting of the first three tercets of the Inferno by Giovanni
Battista Montanaro, published in 1562, ‘there is nothing, at least nothing

On the possible dating of this treatise, c. 1499, see Cecil Grayson’s introduction to ‘La
vita del Calmeta’, in Prose e lettere edite e inedite, p. xvii.
‘Redutto poi in la patria soa, nella quale per tre anni fece dimora, ad imparare sonetti,
canzoni e Trionfi del Petrarca tutto se dispose, li quali non solo ebbe famigliarissimi, ma
tanto bene con la musica li accordava che a sentirli da lui cantare nel liuto, ogni altra
armonia superavano.’ (After returning to his native city, where he stayed for three years,
he devoted himself wholly to learning Petrarch’s sonnets, canzoni, and Trionfi, which he
not only learned by heart, but also combined them with the music so well that hearing
him sing with the lute, [one felt that his songs] surpassed all other harmony.) Calmeta,
Vita del facondo poeta vulgare Serafino Aquilano, p. 60.
Alfred Einstein, ‘Dante, on the Way to the Madrigal’, Musical Quarterly, 25 (1939),
pp. 142–55, at p. 142.
Ibid., p. 143.
Feldman, City Culture and the Madrigal at Venice, p. 263.
Ibid., pp. 267–8. See also Feldman’s article ‘Rore’s “Selva selvaggia”: The “Primo
libro” of 1542’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 42 (1989), pp. 547–603.


Performing Poetry in the Cinquecento and the Neglect of Dante

that we know of, until Luzzaschi’s setting of 1576’.33 In 1576–81 a series
of polyphonic compositions appeared, written by seven composers
(initiated by Luzzaschi) to six lines from the Inferno, ‘Quivi sospiri,
pianti, ed alti guai’. Newcomb, considering this choice, notes the huge
sonic potential in these verses that invited the most daring musical
language: ‘these lines present a self-contained and extraordinarily
dense description of a group of sounds, mostly preverbal, offering
promising material for musical illustration.’34 In this specific case,
however, the very fact that seven composers set to music the same six
lines and did not expand their textual choice allows us to understand
that Dante’s verses remained a kind of reserved territory, with rigid
restriction of deviation from marked paths. Alfred Einstein wondered
why Cinquecento composers ignored other verses of the Comedy that
invited musical setting: ‘the description of Fortuna (Inferno, VII), the
wonderful opening of the eighth canto of the Purgatorio; the Pater
Noster (Purg., XI), the description of the Terrestrial Paradise (Purg.,
XXVIII), Dante’s powerful maxims and apostrophes.’35
The very fact that Dante was not a favoured poet among composers
of the sixteenth century indeed appears to be odd. Einstein assumed that
the reason for such an approach was reflected in, and partly provoked
by, Pietro Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua, where he criticized Dante’s
grave poetic style and particularly the frequent use of inelegant and
dialectal words (Libro 2, XX).36 However, the idea that it was caused
by Dante’s harsh language (‘voci rozze e disonorate’) seems to be an
oversimplification. Francesco Degrada observed in this regard that
neither Einstein nor other scholars provided a more cogent explication
of this phenomenon, and limited themselves to Bembo’s comment.37
Indeed, in the atmosphere of fervid polemics among humanists,
whatever the subject, where each opinion would immediately occasion
opposing views, we might expect that some musicians would have
chosen Dante’s verses simply in order to demonstrate the contrary.
That this did not happen indicates a more substantial reason for
Cinquecento musicians to ignore Dante’s poetry.

Anthony Newcomb, ‘Luzzaschi’s Setting of Dante: Quivi sospiri, pianti, and alti guai’,
Early Music History, 28 (2009), pp. 97–138, at p. 100.
Ibid., p. 107.
Alfred Einstein, The Italian Madrigal, 3 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1949), vol. 1, p. 202.
Prose, ed. Dionisotti, p. 178. Feldman too discusses this aspect of Bembo’s theory
of poetics (‘These biases led Bembo to his now famous condemnation of Dante, whose
writing he claimed allowed unacceptable breaches of decorum’). Feldman, City Culture
and the Madrigal at Venice, p. 141), explaining the lesser interest of musicians in Dante’s
poetry versus that of Petrarch.
Francesco Degrada, ‘Dante e la musica del Cinquecento’, Chigiana 22 (1965), pp. 257–75,
at p. 258. Degrada proposes another explanation, which will be discussed later.


Performing Epic Poems
The popular practice of performing epic poems and chivalrous romances
by cantastorie, cantimbanchi or canterini1 – performers who sang them to
certain melodies with the accompaniment of an instrument – was at least
three centuries old by the end of the Cinquecento. A number of treatises
on poetics, however, describe this kind of performance as inappropriate
for delivering verses at the level of Dante’s Comedy, particularly within
the learned circles of connoisseurs of the art of poetry.
The complaint about the improper performance of Dante’s verses
goes back at least to Franco Sacchetti (1332–1400), in his novella CXIV,
Dante Alighieri fa conoscente uno fabbro e uno asinaio del loro errore,
perchè con nuovi volgari cantavano il libro suo (Dante Alighieri informs a
blacksmith and a donkey rider about their error, because they sang his
book in new (strange) vernacular [words]):
battendo ferro uno fabbro su la ’ncudine,
cantava il Dante come si canta uno
cantare, e tramestava i versi suoi,
smozzicando e appiccando, che parea
a Dante ricever di quello grandissima

a blacksmith, while beating iron on the
anvil, sang Dante as one sings a cantare,
and confused his verses by omitting and
adding words, so that it seemed to Dante
that he received great injury.

Indeed, the performers of Dante’s Comedy were mostly men
of letters, not singers. One of the earliest readers of Dante we know
was Antonio Pievano da Vado, a teacher of grammar, rhetoric and
philosophy, and, as Franco Sacchetti noted, ‘eccelente Dantista e di
quello lettore’ (an excellent expert in Dante and reader of his [poem]).3
By the term ‘lettore’ he means a person who was giving public lectures

On these performers see more in Ezio Levy, ‘I cantari leggendari del popolo italiano
nei secoli xiv e xv’, Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, 16 (1914), pp. 1–22; Bianca
Becherini, ‘Un canto in panca fiorentino: Antonio di Guido’, Rivista musicale italiana,
50 (1948), pp. 241–7; James Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music in the Renaissance,
1350–1600 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 77–85 and ‘Monophony
and the Unwritten Tradition’, in Performance Practice: Music before 1600, ed. Howard
Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 240–66; Francesco Luisi,
‘Minima fiorentina: Sonetti a mente, canzoni a ballo e cantimpanca nel Quattrocento’, in
Musica Franca: Essays in Honor of Frank A. D’Accone, ed. Irene Alm et al. (Stuyvesant, NY:
Pendragon, 1996), pp. 79–95; Timothy McGee, The Ceremonial Musicians of Late Medieval
Florence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), pp. 69–104.
Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentonovelle (Turin: Einaudi, 1970), p. 345.
Cf. Sacchetti, Il libro delle Rime, ed. Franca Brambilla Ageno (Florence: Olschki and
University of Western Australia Press, 1990), p. 337.

Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

on Dante’s works accompanied by commentary and, of course, by
recitation aloud of excerpts from them.4
Returning to sixteenth-century theory, in his La poetica, Giangiorgio
Trissino, after discussing the poetic genres that operate with words,
rhymes and melodies (‘sermone, rime et armonia’), such as ballatas,
canzonas and madrigals, promises to deal with the genres that are not
designed for music, among them Dante’s Comedy:
tratteremo ancora di quelle che fanno la
imitazione solamente con parole e con
ritmi, come sono li eroici, le cantiche
di Dante, i Trionfi di Petrarca e simili;
benché questi cotali possono anco avere
il canto, ma l’hanno a caso e non per la
intenzione del poeta.5

we will deal also with those genres that
make (poetic) imitation with words and
rhymes only, such as heroic poems,
Dante’s cantos, the Triumphs by Petrarch
and similar verse; even though these
poems may also have a melody [or can
be sung], they have it only by chance and
not because of the poet’s intention.

Discoursing on the different ways in which poetic imitation in
heroic poems versus tragedies was made, Trissino notes:
[Tragedia] ha similitudine con lo eroico
in questo, che ambidui imitano le notabili
azioni degli uomini prestanti, con parole
legate in versi; ma sono poi differenti,
ché lo eroico ha una sola sorte di versi e
fa la sua imitazione per enunciazione, e
la tragedia la fa per la rappresentazione
et ha più sorti di versi … cioè la
rappresentazione et il canto che sono sue

Tragedy is similar to heroic verse in
that both imitate important actions
of given personages, through the
words arranged in verses; but they are
different, since the heroic poem has
only one type of verse [hendecasyllables
only] and makes its imitation through
pronunciation, whereas tragedy does
it through performance and has more
types of verse … That is, performance

Alessandro Wesselofsky has provided a chronologically organized list of the
Florentine ‘lettori di Dante’ from Boccaccio to Cristoforo Landino, many of them clerics:
‘La cronologia dei lettori di Dante fino al Landino sarebbe la seguente: Boccaccio; Antonio
Pievano di Vado (1381); Filippo Villani (1391?–1401, riconfermato nel 1404 per cinque
anni); Giovanni Malpaghini succede al Villani e vien raffermato nel 1412 e 1419 a leggere
pubblicamente la Divina Commedia nei giorni festivi; 1417, 1421, 1423, 1424: Giovanni di
Gherardo da Prato; 1430: padre Antonio dei Minori legge in S. Maria del Fiore; 1431–2:
Francesco Filelfo, al quale succede Giovanni da Corella; Lorenzo di Giovanni da Pisa,
canonico di S. Lorenzo, nel 1431 e 1435; Antonio da Castello San Niccolò, legge nel 1432 in
S. Firenze; Antonio da Arezzo 1432–3; Cristoforo Landino 1457.’ (Il Paradiso degli Alberti:
ritrovi e ragionamenti del 1389 (Bologna 1867), vol. 1, Part 2, p. 215.) Especially interesting
is the example of Giovanni Malpaghini: a native of Ravenna, but since 1394 a teacher of
rhetoric at the Studium florentinum, he gave public readings of Dante’s Comedy on festive
days in 1412 and 1419 (the presumed year of his death). This information is supported
by the research by Maddalena Signorini that ‘nel 1412 il Malpaghini ottenne un contratto
quinquennale per insegnare retorica, gli autori antichi e Dante, legato anche a un
cospicuo aumento retributivo.’ Il Dizionario biografico degli italiani, online edition (http://,
acc. 13.01.2013.
Giangiorgio Trissino, La poetica, in Trattati di poetica e retorica del Cinquecento, ed.
Bernard Weinberg (Bari: Laterza, 1970), vol. 2, pp. 5–90 (Parts V–VI), at p. 11. The two
last parts of this treatise, ‘divisioni quinta e sesta’, were published towards the end of the
author’s life, in 1550. Weinberg notes that they were substantially reworked (Trattati di
poetica e retorica, vol. 2, p. 653).
Trissino, La poetica, vol. 2, pp. 13–14.


Performing Epic Poems
and singing are its [tragedy’s] particular

The humanistic activity of Giangiorgio Trissino was particularly
important for his attempt to apply the principles of Greek tragedy and
epic poems to Italian verse. In close connection with Aristotle’s Poetics,
which he could read in the original, he composed the tragedy Sofonisba
(1514), the first example of classical Greek drama in Italian written in
versi sciolti (unrhymed verses), and the heroic poem L’Italia liberata dai
Goti (1527).7 The excerpt quoted above is interesting also because it
chimes in with the passage cited earlier from Doni’s Trattato della musica
scenica about the difference between stile recitativo, which is more a
generic notion concerning the style of delivery of poetic texts especially
suitable for epic poems, and the stile rappresentativo, which is an attribute
of scenic performance, and therefore consists of more elements.
Doni’s and Trissino’s awareness regarding the different norms of
performance of heroic poems and tragedies was certainly rooted in the
Greek theory of poetics, or rather in its interpretation by the humanists.
This particular aspect of poetic theory concerns the way in which these
literary genres achieve imitation: by verses only, or with additional
aids, such as music and dance.
Bare Words [λόγοις ψιλοῖς] and Bare Metric [ψιλομετρία]
At the beginning of the Poetics, when listing the poetic genres then in
use, Aristotle discusses the methods that each genre uses for poetic
imitation. Thus, lyric genres use melody and the accompaniment of
instruments; comedy and especially tragedy use the whole arsenal
of tools of expression including, among others, action, gesture and
dance; whereas epic succeeds with the words only, as it were, even
without music.
Giuseppe Gerbino rightly pointed to the definition of epic genre
in the Poetics by Aristotle when he tried to explain why Antonio
Minturno, in his L’arte poetica (1564), listed the pastoral genres as a kind
of epic poetry.8 As Gerbino noted, the passage in question, on which
the sixteenth-century literati based their discussion, is as follows: Ἡ
δὲ [ἐποποιία] μόνον τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς <καὶ> ἡ τοῖς μέτροις (There
On his life and activity see the volume Convegno di studi su Giangiorgio Trissino, ed.
Neri Pozza (Vicenza: Accademia Olimpica, 1980), published for his 500th anniversary.
The article by Giulio Cattin, ‘La musica nella vita e nelle opere di Giangiorgio Trissino’,
pp. 153–74, presents an analysis of the musical traces in his writings. Trissino was one of
the first writers who referred to Greek poetic theory, taking it from the primary sources,
being knowledgeable in Greek. He also contributed to the discussion of the vernacular,
promoting the idea of ‘Italianity’ versus ‘Tuscanity’, and even proposed to reform
orthography by introducing Greek letters for some vowels. Cattin noted that Trissino’s
especial attention to the sound of the vowels (e and o) bears witness to his awareness of
phonetics, an interest of a rather musical nature (p. 157).
‘How is Pastoral Poetry a Category of Epic?’ Giuseppe Gerbino, Music and the Myth
of Arcadia in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 57.


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody

is another art that imitates by means of language alone, and that either
in prose or verse).9 The word ἐποποιία was a later addition to the
Aristotelian text; today this reading is ‘no longer accepted’. However,
not only Minturno, but in fact all Cinquecento writers did relate this
sentence to epic poetry. Yet, they were concerned with another aspect
surfacing here.
In the Aristotelian text it was not sufficiently clear what kinds
of words the great philosopher had in mind. That is why a complex
discussion developed among the Cinquecento literati over two fairly
obscure Aristotelian terms used, as they believed, in connection with
epic poetry: λόγοις ψιλοῖς (logois psilois, bare words, Poetics 1447a29)
and ψιλομετρία (psilometria, bare metric, 1448a11).
The term λόγοις ψιλοῖς was challenging for all writers who ever
touched on the subject, because it opened up a discussion of whether
poetic imitation could be made in prose as well. The first translator of
the Poetics in the modern vernacular, Bernardo Segni (1549), interpreted
it univocally as ‘prosa’: ‘Ma l’Epopoeia fa l’imitazione solamente con la
prosa o col verso.’10
Dove egli dice “Ma l’epopoeia fa
l’imitazione”, mostra quivi con che cose
il poema heroico faccia l’imitazione,
cioè col verso e con la prosa, esprimendo
questo secondo con quelle parole greche
logis psilis.11

Where he says “but the epopoeia makes
imitation”, he thereby shows the means
with which the heroic poem makes its
imitation, namely, by verse and by prose,
expressing the latter notion with the
Greek words logis psilis.

Some theoreticians, like Alessandro Piccolomini, held fast to this
opinion when discussing the problem with opponents. In his Annotationi
nel libro della Poetica d’Aristotile (printed c. 1575), Piccolomini argued,
against Pietro Vettori, that the notions in question could not have
indicated anything other than ‘prose’:
Con l’occasione di quelle parole
d’Aristotile λόγοις ψιλοῖς che in nostra
lingua importano nudi parlari, s’allontana
Pier Vittorio dall’opinione degli altri
scrittori … in voler contra di loro
che poeta in alcun modo non si possa
domandare che non scrive in versi.12

Through the interpretation of the
Aristotelian words λόγοις ψιλοῖς, which
in our language signify “bare speaking”,
Pier Vittorio distances himself from other
writers … wishing to argue against them
that in no way can the poet claim that
one does not write in verse.

Cf. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry, ed. Ingram Bywater (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909),
pp. 4–5. The modern translation of this Aristotelian term, truly obscure, is aligned with
those theoreticians who believed that poetry could also be made in prose. The last edition
of this passage (in 1995), quoted in Gerbino, no longer referring to the genre of epics,
understands the λόγοις ψιλοῖς as ‘plain language’ (cf. Gerbino, Music and the Myth of
Arcadia, p. 57).
Cf. Bernardo Segni, Rettorica et poetica d’Aristotile (Venice, 1551), p. 163.
Ibid., p. 165.
Cf. Alessandro Piccolomini, Annotationi nel libro della Poetica d’Aristotile (Venice:
Guarisco, 1575), p. 19.


Performing Epic Poems
Per nudi parlari non intende Aristotile
spogliati e privi degli altri due
instromenti d’imitare che sono il
ritmo e la melodia, percioché a questa
separazione basta la parola μονον cioè
“solamente”, ma intende il parlare non
misurato dal verso, ma fatto in prosa,
si come con le seguenti parole ἡ τοῖς
μέτροις cioè “o con metro” intende,
come noi abbiam tradotto “o sciolta da
misura di versi”.13

By “bare speaking”, Aristotle does not
intend speech naked of the two other
means of imitation, which are rhythm
and melody, since for such a distinction
the word μονον, that is “only”, should
be enough, but he means speech not
measured with verse, but shaped in
prose, since with the words ἡ τοῖς
μέτροις, that is “or with metre”, he
intends it just as I have translated it: “or
lack of the measure of verse”.

However, ‘many other Renaissance commentators refused to admit
the possibility of prose as a medium for poetry’.14 Baccio Neroni in his Se
il verso è necessario nella poesia (1571) asserts that Aristotle does not mean
specifically prose but rather language without rhythm and melody:
Ma per quello che si vede detto di poi
dal medesimo Aristotele, chiaramente
s’intende queste parole ἡ τοῖς μέτροις
essere una emendazione e dichiarazione
delle antecedente λόγοις ψιλοῖς, e che
“orazione nuda” non volse intendere la
prosa, ma quella che fusse senza ritmo
et armonia, dicendo che “l’epopeia imita
con l’orazione nuda o con versi, e questi
o mescolati infra di loro di più sorte, o
usandone una sorte solamente come ha
fatto sino a ora”.15

But from what the same Aristotle says
in what follows, it appears clear that
the words “with the metres” are an
emendation and explanation of the
previous “bare words”, and that the
“bare speaking” did not mean prose, but
[speech] that was without rhythm and
melody, saying that “the epopeia imitates
with bare speech or with verses, and the
latter are either mixed of various kinds,
or use only one kind, as has been done
up to now”.

Pietro Vettori, in his Commentarii in primum librum Aristotelis de arte
poetarum (published in 1560), insists, with regard to λόγοις ψιλοῖς, that
verse is an indispensable characteristic of poetry, and that the element
which makes of a man a true poet is ‘metrical discourse’:
Aperit nunc quae nam sit species
illa imitationis, quae oratione sola
sine rhythmis et harmonia imitetur,
atque epopoeiam ipsam esse dicit,
quae exprimat, quod intendit, solum
sermonibus nudis: … intelligit autem
orationem nudam spoliatamque rhythmis
et harmonia: quibus tanquam ornatibus
quibusdam ac festivitatibus, vestitae sunt
multae partes imitationis. Ut autem hic
λόγοις ψιλοῖς vocavit, ita in viii libro
politicorum appelavit musike psile, quae
non haberet adiunctam melodiam et
tanquam destituta foret illa, quae crebro
comes eius est et concinniorem ipsam

He [Aristotle] now explains what this
kind of imitation is, which is made
by speaking only, without rhythm and
harmony, and which he calls epopoeia,
which expresses all its content through
bare speech. … He understands [by
λόγοις ψιλοῖς], bare speech stripped of
rhythm and harmony, with which (as it
were) ornaments and charms many forms
of imitation are clad. Whereas here he
spoke of λόγοις ψιλοῖς, in book 8 of his
Politics he spoke of musike psile, saying
that it had no attached melody and was
so to speak devoid of that [sc. melody]
which is often its companion and renders

Ibid., p. 21.
Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1961), vol. 1, p. 405.
Baccio Neroni, ‘Tre lezioni sulla poetica’, in Trattati di poetica e retorica, ed. Weinberg,
vol. 2, pp. 615–28, at p. 628.


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody
reddit. … Neque tamen puto prosam
orationem hic esse accipiendam: loquitur
enim hoc libro auctor de poetica oratione,
quae necessario certis quibusdam
pedibus ac mensuris vincta est.16

speech more elegant. … But I do not
think that this passage refers to prose:
indeed, the author of this book talks
about poetic speech, which necessarily
is achieved with certain feet and
measures …

The word ψιλομετρία, within the Aristotelian phrase καὶ [τὸ]
περὶ τοὺς λόγους δὲ καὶ τὴν ψιλομετρίαν (whether by words or
verse unaccompanied by music [literally: bare metric]),17 was normally
understood as ‘pure verses, without musical dress’,18 as for example
in Vettori:
Appellat autem primum eam speciem
poetices, quae oratione utitur, pedibus
tantum quibusdam vincta et non
praeterea ornata rhythmis aut harmonia.
Unde vocat ipsam ψιλομετρίαν, id est
hexametros versus, nisi fallor, spoliatos
illis ornatibus, quibus alia quaedam
genera carminum vestitur, id est rhythmo
et cantu: neque enim puto λόγοις hic capi
debere pro soluta oratione: remotamque
ipsam penitus extimo ad officio poetae.19

First of all, he calls that species poetic
which uses speech arranged in certain
feet, and not because it is embellished
by rhythm and harmony. So that he calls
it ψιλομετρίαν, namely the hexametric
verse, if I am not wrong, stripped of such
embellishments, with which some other
poetic genres are furnished, that is by
rhythm and singing. Likewise I did not
believe that λόγοις must be understood
for the speech only, since I consider it to
be far outside the poet’s remit.

However, Vincenzo Maggi called this term into question in his In
Aristotelis Librum de poetica communes explanationes (1550), assuming it
indicated prose, translating the word psilometria, unlike other theorists,
not as ‘nude metric’, but ‘nude of metric’:
Cum igitur per nudos sermones, vel
solutam orationem, vel verbum nudis,
pro eo quod est seorsum, intelligi posse
pateat, quomodocunque accipiatur
nostrae explanationi optime accomodatur,
quoniam infra dicit ψιλομετρίαν, id est
nuda carmina, id est seorsum ab harmonia
et rhythmo.20

Therefore, since we may understand the
[expressions] “nude sermon”, or “free
speech”, or “nude words” from that said
above as being nude of [meter], in this way
it perfectly accords with my explanation,
seeing that later he says psilometria, that
is, “nude poems”, namely “separate from
harmony and rhythm”.

This issue was of great interest to Girolamo Mei, who discussed it
with Vettori, his teacher, in a letter written in Rome on 20 January 1560,
Cf. Pietro Vettori, Commentarii in primum librum Aristotelis de arte poetarum (2nd edn,
Florence, 1623), p. 11.
Cf. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry, p. 5.
Regarding humanist commentary on this word, Bernard Weinberg observed: ‘at
ψιλομετρία (related to the same problem [as λόγοις ψιλοῖς]) Castelvetro gives “intorno
a parlari e a nudi versi” and Piccolomini “intorno al parlare e allo stesso verso, da per
se solitamente preso”; the latter is a kind of paraphrase, but it attempts to explain the
meaning of “nudi”.’ (Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian
Renaissance, vol. 1, p. 518.)
Ibid., p. 23.
Vincenzo Maggi, Vincentii Madii Brixiani et Bartholomaei Lombardi Veronensis in
Aristotelis librum de poetica communes explicationes (Venice: Valgrisius, 1550), p. 52.


Performing Epic Poems

pinpointing the difficulty of understanding the term and introducing
into the discussion a query on the inseparable unity of metre and
rhythm within poetic discourse:
Or su questi fondamenti, io giudico che
il luogo che seguita ἡ δὲ ἐποποιία μόνον
τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς ἡ τοῖς μέτροις si
debba intender per due membri. L’uno,
quello che imita μόνον τῷ λόγῳ, il quale
egli dice τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς, e l’altro,
per quello che imita ῥυθμῷ καὶ λόγῳ, il
che egli ha detto τοῖς μέτροις, dove voi
volete intendere tutte queste parole per
un membro solo e che ἡ τοῖς μέτροις sia
quasi una ἐπίδειξις dell’aver detto τοῖς
λόγοις ψιλοῖς, cioè per quella maniera
che imita col parlar ignudo spogliato
di ritmo e di armonia. Or questo, se io
non inganno, non può star così, perché
lasciando or da parte ogni altra cosa,
è che egli non può mancar il ritmo,
conciosiaché la division della scienza
mostra chiaro e Aristotile, in questo
presente libro, lo testifica. Specificamente
la musica appresso gli antichi si divide
εἰς μελικὴν καὶ εἰς ῥυθμικήν: ἡ μελική
è quella che considera delle differenze
e proporzioni buone e cattive de’ suoni,
secondo acutezza e gravità, ἡ ῥυθμική
è quella che considera le differenze e
proporzioni in buone e cattive, secondo
la lunghezza e brevità di tempo, e
questa si ridivide εἰς ὀρχηστικὴν καὶ
μετρικήν, in modo che stando la cosa
così, μέτρον non si può trovar ἄνευ
ῥυθμοῦ, essendo spezie di lui, il che,
essendo vero, non si può intendere
a patto alcuno per il parlar ignudo e
spogliato di ritmo e d’armonie τὸ μέτρον.
Ma mettiam questo caso da l’un de’
lati, come sciorren noi, intendendo il
luogo così, una contraddizion manifesta
che si nasce? Conciosiaché il Filosofo
apertamente mostra, col testimonio suo,
tutto contrario. Sue parole son poco poi
Κατὰ φύσιν δὲ ὄντος ἡμῖν τοῦ μιμεῖσθαι
καὶ τῆς ἁρμονίας καὶ τοῦ ῥυθμοῦ τὰ
γὰρ μέτρα ὅτι μόρια τῶν ῥυθμῶν ἐστι
φανερὸν. Or se μέτρα son parti τῶν
ῥυθμῶν, non posson esser i versi parlar
igniudo e spogliato di ritmo e d’armonia,
perché tutte le parti tengono della natura
del suo tutto, né non può il Filosofo, se
noi intendiamo il luogo così, non

Regarding these fundamentals, I posit
that the passage that follows, “epic
poetry (imitating) by bare words,
that (imitating) by metre”, must be
understood as having two components.
One of them, which imitates “only by
word”, he calls “the bare words”, and
the other, which imitates “by rhythm
and word”, he called “metre”, whereas
you wish to understand all these words
as one unity only and to present “metre”
as a kind of ἐπίδειξις (“expression,
synonym”) for “the bare words”, that
is, [applying] it to that manner which
imitates by bare speaking, stripped
of rhythm and harmony. If I am not
mistaken, this cannot be so, since,
leaving everything else aside, he could
not have ignored rhythm, because
the very [definition] of this science
[poetics] shows that clearly, and Aristotle
transmits that in his book. Specifically,
the ancients divided music into melike
and rhythmike: melike considers the
differences and proportions, good or
bad, of sounds, according to highness
and lowness; rhythmike considers the
differences and proportions, good or bad,
according to the duration, long or short,
of the time. The latter is subdivided
into music for dance [orchestiken] and
music for poetry [metriken], so that it
becomes clear that the meter cannot be
ἄνευ ῥυθμοῦ [without rhythm], being
a species of it, and that being the case,
τὸ μέτρον cannot be understood at all
as speech which is nude and stripped
of the rhythm and harmony. But this
apart, how we could show that such
contradiction arose, if we interpret this
excerpt in such a way, bearing in mind
that the Philosopher openly shows, by
his testimony, the opposite? Further,
he continues: “Now, since imitation is
natural for us, along with ‘harmony’ and
rhythm (for it is obvious that metres are
segments of rhythms)”. If the metre is a
part of rhythm, then the verses cannot be
“bare speaking” and stripped of rhythm
and harmony, since any part contains
characteristics of the whole, and if we


Singing Dante: The Literary Origins of Cinquecento Monody
si contraddire, dove faccendone due
membri secondo che ci son distinti, e per
λόγοις ψιλοῖς intendendo la prosa, che è
certamente parlare igniudo di ritmo e di
armonia. Di ritmo, dico, vero e proprio,
perché io mi ricordo ben di λόγος
ἄρυθμος καὶ ἔρρυθμος della Rettorica,
la qual non cade al presente in questa
considerazione, perché non è veramente
ritmo come intende qui Aristotele,
né per sé (ma a comparazione) e per
ὴ τοῖς μέτροις i versi, cioè il parlare
accompagnato col ritmo, non ci nasce
occasion di sforzar la locuzione e non ci
nasce contraddizione alcuna.21

understand this passage in such a way,
the Philosopher cannot but contradict
himself, presenting it as two different
components, understanding “bare words”
as prose, which is indeed speaking
stripped of rhythm and harmony. I mean
“rhythm” in its proper sense, since
I remember well the “rhythmic and
non-rhythmic speech” of the Rhetoric,
which does not fall under the present
consideration, since it is not really
rhythm as Aristotle understands it here,
either by itself or as metres, that is
speech accompanied by rhythm; thus
there is no case to spoil the expression
and there is no contradiction.

The polemic between Cinquecento theorists on the meaning of
Aristotle’s ‘bare words’ reflects not so much an interest in the nature
of epic poetry as in the more general concern with the definition of
‘poetics’. In contemporary writings, the terms ‘poetry’ and ‘poet’
often served to mark the quality of a literary text. Such a metaphorical
use can be discerned in the following remark by Girolamo Muzio, in
his treatise Dell’arte poetica (1551), considering the literary legacy of
Giovanni Boccaccio:
E ’l Certaldese molte volte sciolto
Da’ numeri di rime è più poeta
Che quando a poetar si mette in rima.22

And the Certaldian, being many times
Of the verse rhythm, is more a poet
Than when he sets himself to compose

The discussions outlined above indeed went deeply into the very
essence of poetry, namely, whether metre was obligatory for poetry
in general and for the epopoeia in particular. Most of the theorists of
poetics, however, did not recognize the composition of texts in prose
as an ‘officio poetae’, in the words of Pietro Vettori. For the majority
of the writers, not all of whom discussed the Aristotelian terms,
poetry was defined as metric discourse. For them epic poetry was in
no way ‘nude of metric’, but inasmuch as it must have been ‘nude of
some component’, according to Aristotle, it appears that this missing
component was understood as music.
The Musical Performance of Heroic Poetry: Theory and Practice
Insofar as the discussions above give the impression of abstract
theorization, they nevertheless did not reflect mere academic interest
Cf. Donatella Restani, L’itinerario di Girolamo Mei dalla ‘Poetica’ alla musica (Florence:
Olschki, 1990), pp. 176–7.
Girolamo Muzio, Dell’arte poetica, in Trattati di poetica e retorica del Cinquecento, ed.
Weinberg, vol. 2, pp. 163–209, at p. 172.


Performing Epic Poems

in ancient theory: these debates were relevant to the contemporary
Italian practice of versification and the performance of poetry as well.
In Italy, the notion of ‘parlar nudo’ has been linked since the early
Trecento with poetry not accompanied by music, normally within the
dichotomy ‘versi nudi’ – ‘versi vestiti’, that is, poetry set to music. The
word ‘nudo’ (the literal translation of ψιλος – psilos) in this specific
context appears in poems by Dante, Giovanni Quirini, and Francesco
di Vannozzo.23 Singing was practically obligatory for lyric poetry,
but, as everyday practice proved, it was also essential to the epic, or
heroic, poems, which were enthusiastically sung by cantimbanchi with
instrumental accompaniment.
Undoubtedly, this long tradition must have influenced Cinquecento
theorists in their understanding of poetry as an art that would remain
somewhat incomplete without music. However, scrupulous scrutiny
of the Aristotelian Poetics revealed to them that the performance of
epic poetry should be an art of pure reading or recitation, not one of
singing. This discovery strikingly contradicted the common practice of
their time. This understanding can be seen, for example, in a remark by
Pomponio Torelli (1539–1608), in his treatise Della poesia lirica del perduto
academico innominato (1594). Like many of his colleagues, he examined
the terms, definitions and rules of poetry, applying the writings of
ancient authors to contemporary Italian poetic practice. According to
him, epic poetry was not intended for singing but only for reading or
simple recitation, even if it was an ordinary practice for the rhapsodes to
sing them:
E se mi si dicesse: i rapsodi con la lira
cantano anco gli eroici, dico che questo
è per ravvivar la voce, non per necessità
del poema, che è fatto per leggersi, non
per recitarsi cantando.24

But if they tell me: rhapsodes sing heroic
poems as well with a lyre, I will say that
this is only to liven up the voice, not
because it is required by the poem, which
is meant to be read rather than recited in

Claude Palisca reports a quotation from the unpublished treatise by
Girolamo Mei De modis musicis antiquorum (c. 1573) regarding the idea
that ancient tragedy was totally sung. The discourse begins, however,
with the epic genre, about which Mei writes the following words, which
I give here in Palisca’s translation: ‘There was a genre of poetry that
was content, as it were, in its imitation with verses alone. Even this too
sometimes either by the poet himself or later musicians was applied to
a melody to recite singing to the lyre. Those who practiced this art were
in turn mainly called epic [poets].’25 Therefore, the logical e