Ritus Orphæos  /  Simone Sorini

The Cantore al Liuto in history, from the Middle Ages to the Golden Era


The release of this CD corresponds to my wish to offering a collection of the most beautiful and significant pieces that I have interpreted and which left a mark in me during over 20 years of live performances around the world, selected among those that I consider the most representative of how the figure of the "cantore al liuto" evolved, from the Middle Ages to its Golden Era, the 16th century.

Accompanying your own singing with a string instrument makes it possible to recover an intimate and vibrant vocal performance, although distant from those consolidated musical attitudes, passed on by generations of interpreters that tend to homologate any repertoire. On the other hand it favours the organic development of both the rhythmic breathing and the natural emotional crescendo, peculiar to every single piece.

My vocal interpretation is suggested in every case by the melodies themselves, but it is generally characterized by the greater sweetness of the sound — considered the most indispensable requirement by and for the interpreters from the past — besides the intelligibility of the literary text.

In almost every piece I added some of my personal improvisational variations to the melodies, an attitude towards the interpretation of the ancient page that I now consider fundamental and altogether plausible; this is more evident in the tracks no. 1, 2, 13, 15 and 16.

I also wanted to differentiate the music of the 14th century from later periods, based on my particular attention to the general aesthetics of the different historical moments, a research that led me to reinterpret the medieval pieces in a simpler way — certainly rich of beauty, intensity and sacredness, but without a contrived attitude — to try to convey the same essence found in paintings, sacred buildings, in the poetry and literature of the 14th century: therefore the contemporary musical counterpart of the works by Giotto, Gentile, Martini, Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, to name the most famous ones.

For the pieces included in the section of "The Golden Era" I used several testimonies relative to the executions of "Cantori" and "Donne a Liuto" (female singing-lutenists) especially from the Della Rovere period (like Serafino Aquilano and Virginia Vagnoli), as well as the treatise "Prattica di musica" — vol. 2 — by Lodovico Zacconi from Pesaro.

Regarding the instrumental performance I considered out of place for this project any redundant virtuosity: for the cantore al liuto the instrument is supporting the voice, never and in any case prevails over it.

In order to postulate and differentiate the different modalities of accompaniment, the instrumental reductions of some Renaissance pieces are mainly chordal and centred on the melodic movement of the bass, as I believe it was done once; only some polyphonic passages are reproduced as in the score (tracks no. 10, 13 and 15), in other cases all parts are played in polyphony as in the intabulatures (tracks no. 8, 9, 11, 12 and 16).

About instruments: I played eight different types — all closely related to the music played — aiming at to differentiate and enrich the overall sound of the disc.

In "The Middle Ages" you can listen the guitarra morisca (tr. 2), the guinterna (3, 4, 7), the citole (6), the fretless big lute (1) and the little 4-course lute with frets (5); in "The Golden Era" section I played the 11-string Renaissance lute (10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16), the cithara (14) and the 5-course lute (8, 9).

Simone Sorini


Since ancient Greece music was poetry's inseparable companion, and in particular the string instruments, plucked or stroked with a bow, were the ones to accompany the epic, troubadour and goliardic song in ancient times.

Tragedies were recited singing (a practice that was rediscovered at the beginning of the 17th century with the well known results for the birth of Opera), and there was no poet that wasn't also a musician.

The epic-solemn and religious poetry were indeed passed on through music, as well as the simple transmission of news from one place to another. It is for this reason that an instrument like the lyre became a symbol for poets and their art: mythological characters like Jubal, Orpheus, Apollo are always represented with such instrument, or one derived by it in their arms, an instrument that over the years will take different shapes, transforming itself by each century in the one that was more popular at the time — but always and invariably a stringed one, and in many cases played by plucking the strings.

It is precisely because of this mythicization of both the character carrying it, and the instrument itself — of which it was said it had the power to tame wild beasts and move mountains — that the humanist poets of the Renaissance, in an evident desire of identification, began taking up the said instruments, often making people believe that those lutes or guitars were the mythical lyre: cantore al liuto defines indeed the one who sings accompanying himself with a stringed instrument in a generic sense, therefore not necessarily a lute.

It is well known that Mediterranean people always preferred the sound of plucked strings to the one produced by stroking the strings with a bow, due to this there's an absolute dominance of lutes belonging to such family — well before the use of the bow — in southern Europe, like Spain and Italy.

The lute and "the lutes"

Every maker or repairer of any type of instrument is up until today referred to as a luthier: this should be enough to clarify and confirm the importance of the lute during centuries, an instrument with an individual character, seldom used in ensemble or consort, and perhaps for this reason chosen by solo artists as an irreplaceable support to accompany their voice. The singing poet found in the lute a rhythmic support, solid and vibrant as he wished, that never overshadowed his voice exalting instead the timbric characteristics, and could also be sweet, rich with a thousand shades. It was the instrument of Princes and Kings, but also the loyal travelling companion of troubadours, wondering poets, jesters and saltimbanchi (street performers), that took it with them looking after it with much care in the thousands of adventures encountered by street musicians.

The history of the lute begins in ancient Egypt, were it was used a lot — as demonstrated by the many iconographies — already found in the Pre-dynastic period. A specific hieroglyphic called "nefer" confirms its existence, being represented in many inscriptions, showing the image of a lute conveying the meaning.

Most likely, at least judging by the images that have survived to our day, it was an instrument mainly played by priestesses, therefore feminine and ceremonial.

The Egyptian lute was assimilated by the Arabs and Persians that modified its shape: it became bigger, and more strings were added up until it resembled what we recognise today as the oud. It was only much later following the invasions and the several caliphate dynasties in southern Spain that the instrument took hold in the rest of Europe, where it remained for centuries, also originating numerous variants as regarding the morphology and the materials used for its construction.

The first evidence of a pyriform lute in Italy is of quite a big one and similar to the Arabian oud and is found in Sicily, in the mosaics of the Palatina Chapel in Palermo, built in 1140: the images showing dancers and musicians are considered among the first artistic examples of the passage of the Arabian culture in Italy.

Some of the most detailed European iconographies of lutes are found in the miniatures of the Cantigas de Santa Maria in the codex of El Escorial, where several string instruments appear, like the guitarra morisca or saracenica and the guitarra latina, terms that could refer to the particular shapes that the lute took during the Spanish Middle Ages (both are mentioned in a treatise by Johannes de Grocheio), and that today are commonly given to the two long neck instruments with a small rounded body, or slightly oblong and shaped on the sides, as clearly visible in the miniatures of the manuscript.

To better understand the evolution of the lute from the christian Middle Ages to the 1500s — the century of its maximum splendour — it's necessary to consider some details: the first is the fretboard of the neck; the second is the use and the variations of the plectrum.

The presence or not of frets allows us to understand how the instrument was used.

The absence of frets denotes a use that was essentially melodic and rhythmic of the lute, firmly excluding almost every usage, broadly speaking, of chords or harmonies.

By adding frets — in most cases movable — it meant that there was a spreading of a repertoire most likely dedicated to an instrumental execution potentially for soloists; later, the improvement and use of the fretboard gave birth to the first tablatures for the instrument. About the plectrum, there are two techniques: an older one, using the wrist, with a wide and long plectrum, and a more "modern" one, with a much thinner plectrum held between two fingers; it is the latter that's the clear origin of the technique so called "thumb-under" developed from the end of the 15th century onwards. The technique of the wide plectrum (or "wrist technique") was alive in the western world until the 14th century, representing a melodic style of playing, exactly like in the Arabian music.

The technique of the thin plectrum is shortly and naturally followed by the "fingers technique", that will completely substitute the use of such tool.

It has to be said though that in some representations the position of the right hand lead us to believe that there was a transition period, which is to say a "mixed technique" where the plectrum was used, yet without excluding the help of the fingers, to obtain effects of accompanied improvisation, or sudden changes of tone and touch, from arpeggio to chordal "stroke". A technique that perhaps only survived for few years between the 15th and 16th century, and that today some virtuosos tend to reconsider not only plausible, but even essential.

The lute in Naples in the 16th century

The lute was defined by the treatise writers — especially Neapolitans like, to just mention a couple, Scipione Cerreto and Luigi Denticethe most complete and perfect of all instruments. Its rhythmic potential, together with the sweetness of the sound of the strings lightly touched by fingers, made it ideal to interpret successfully any kind of repertoire of the music of the whole Renaissance, from the popular and choreutic to the more elevated and cultured, if not indeed sacred.

Scipione Cerreto wrote in 1608:

Being the lute instrument more perfect than any other rhythmic instrument, I wanted to first start talking about it, for the perfection found in said instrument it is common opinion that it was given the regal name calling it King of the rhythmic instruments, something that it's not said of the other string instruments like the Theorbo, Harps, Bordelletti, & Spanish Guitars, the lute is so perfect that the player can easily lower and raise the tones and semitones of the voices, adjusting the frets, obtaining from a single string three, four or five voices, so we can say for the reasons stated above that the Lute Players have been placed on the seventh grade of the Tree.

From this passage it's easy to understand how important the instrument in Naples was at the end of the century; besides it is worth remembering that when a treatise writer wrote about some news regarding the use or the executional praxis of an instrument, this implies that this was already consolidated and commonly used for years.

Cerreto's words also shed light on another interesting aspect concerning even closely the executional praxis of the instrument: he is in fact presenting the lute as "the king of the rhythmic musical instruments" — not just of the delicate, melodic or harmonious ones as someone might have imagined.

The fact that Cerreto classifies the lute as the absolute best among the rhythmic string instalments make us ponder about its real use and which, among the various possible ones still capable of producing today, was the privi leged sound of the time and in that area.

Cerreto also informs us about the versatility and sweetness of the sound of the lute, but firmly favouring its rhythmic aspect.

Another clue that leads us to think that the lute, at least in the Naples of the late 1500's, was mainly played to accompany rhythmically the singing and with a chordal modality, are some passages in the text of some "villanelle" or "moresques".

Based on this we can therefore state that the history of this instrument, although it's been under serious scrutiny, is still in great part to be re-written concerning many aspects of the executional praxis, at least in the Neapolitan repertoires or anyway in southern Italy during the late Renaissance.

The origins of poetry for singing

The same terminology of the poetic construction induce to think that there was always a strong affinity or at least a common root with music and was always present in the mind and the poets' creative moment - probably it's not a coincidence that the chapters in the Divina Commedia are called "canti" (songs), and the same rhythm produced by the rhymes is a musical rhythm. And on the other hand didn't Petrarca compose a "Canzoniere"?

Many terms used in poetic form correspond indeed exactly to those of musical forms such as, just to mention some: ballad, sonnet, "cantare" (chanson de geste), canzona, canzonetta, frottola, inno, lauda, madrigal, mottetto, pastorella, ritornello, romanza, rondeau, sequenza, stornello, strambotto, villanella.

Each one of these terms define a literary/poetic genre and a relative musical composition, and these examples being just the most immediately recognizable due to the assonance that the same term evokes between music and poetry; there are also many other correspondences between the two disciplines that refers to a single common matrix, like the rhetoric discipline.

Dante Alighieri

The possibility that the Divina Commedia was originally thought to be also a poem sung in rhymes, passed on by the jesters like the epic sagas of ancient heroes and brought to the squares by storytellers, can't be excluded. We know with certainty that Dante Alighieri was a musician and a singer besides being a rhymer; he was with all probability one of those ancient cantori al liuto whose experience was based on the then widespread figure of the troubadour, the poet singer that accompanies himself with a lute or viella, whose origin lies in Provence, in the south of France.

Dante was a fervent admirer, and in many cases friends with some of those famous troubadours that also found fortune in Italy.

In the Trattatello in laude di Dante, Boccaccio writes in chapter XX:

"He amused himself supremely with the sounds and songs in his youth, and to everyone back then that was an excellent singer or player he was friends with; and many things he did compose, which were pleasing and masterful to these ears".

Dante took a stab more than once at facts and annotations concerning music, and in particular the lute, its features and protagonists — so much so that makes us think that such a knowledge was the fruit of a direct knowledge of the instrument — both in the Divina Commedia, and in a piece of the Convivio, where he compares to a big spoon (a 'nappo') the instrument that was then defined "chitarra italiana", a small size lute that later will become the mandolin or mandola, a metaphor from which we must deduce that the latter was undoubtedly carved from a single wooden piece, and not with the shell formed by ribs glued together.

Continuing with the Divina Commedia, Adamo da Brescia, the forger punished by hydropsy in the XXX Canto of the Inferno, is described as such:

"I saw a man, shaped like a lute,
As if he had been cut at the groin,
From where a man is forked".

Troubadours and Jesters, the musicians of the Divina Commedia

In the famous poem are represented some of the better known musicians of the time, like for example Arnaut Daniel, italianized in Arnaldo Daniello or Daniele. He was originally from Riberac in Dordogne (a region of Aquitaine); Dante meets him instead among the dead, in the Canto XXVI of the Purgatory, where he burns among the flames of the luxurious, and he's indicated as the best poet ever to have written vernacular verses. Dante admired the sound of Arnaut's verses and music so much that he made him speak in his own language and with the poetic-musical forms so typical of him: those "stone-like rhymes" bitter and harsh, and sometimes with the "trobar clus", known as "closed form", the double meaning verse.

I wrote "speaking", but it's highly probable that the troubadour Daniel was singing his verses in the Purgatory, also because his speech begins with the incipit of one of the most famous troubadour songs — "Tant m'abellis l'amoros pessament" — composed by Folquet de Marselha, that Dante will also mention in the Divina Commedia.

Bertran de Born is the second of the troubadours mentioned in the Commedia by Dante. Lord of Hautford in Guascogne, he dedicated himself to poetry singing and war, two occupations apparently incompatible but that he could instead manage, composing tens of Sirventes, Coblaz, Cansons and some songs about Crusades. In his lyrics we often read an exaltation of war and the physical clash that Bertran, a knight and a soldier in his life, practiced and loved; but in the Canto XXVIII of the Inferno, in the VIII ring — that of the sowers of discord — Dante presents him in one of the most macabre infernal representations: he walks and speaks holding in his hands his own head that had been cut off.

Among the Italians we find Sordello da Goito, that although he was originally from around Mantova, he also served in Provence besides various Italian courts; placed by Dante in the Purgatory, in the most "political" section of his poem, Sordello remains by Dante and Virgilio's side from Canto VI to VIII, almost serving as an extra guide and earning so a noteworthy significance and the deserved fame. There remain about 42 songs of his.

And again, Casella, that was a musician and cantore al liuto from Tuscany: supposedly born around 1250 in Florence or Pistoia, and possibly died just before the spring of 1300 according to what Dante himself says about him in the Canto II of the Purgatory, where he appears.

The old commentators of the poem describe him as a well appreciated musician and a great friend of Dante, although it is not known how much of it is based on the reading of the actual poem; his name is found in the Vatican Code 3214, at the bottom of a madrigal by Lemmo of Pistoia, a poet from the 13th century, that recites: Casella sonum dedit (Casella set music to it, which is coherent with Dante's narration of the episode).

Dante places him among the repentant souls; when he finds him he begs him to sing a song to comfort him from the exertion of his journey, and the musician intones the song "Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona" of Dante himself, commented in the III Treatise of the Convivio. Legend has it that Casella was the music teacher of the great Florentine poet.

Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio

Time to talk about Petrarca, that it's known that he was a cantore al liuto, one of the first of whom we have certainty. The Florentine chronicler and biographer Filippo Villani wrote about him that he played the lyre remarkably well, and that he had a resounding voice, full of charm and sweetness.

One of the reasons Petrarca felt the need to play the lute was indeed because of the practice of singing verses accompanied by an instrument to render them more musical.
The poet in fact noted, in the draft of one of his sonnets, that he still had to adjust and improve the rhyme of two verses and that he would have done better by singing them.

A second important reason was certainly that he privileged the symbolic meaning of the lute deriving from its mythological-musical origins: the poets of the early humanism mistook and somehow assimilated, as mentioned above, the lute for the mythical lyre of Orpheus and Amphion, and for them wasn't probably very important to be able to play or being a virtuoso of the instrument, but rather to identify themselves and their poetry to those figures of the musical myths.

Petrarca was close and maintained regular correspondence with almost every great musician of his time, first of all Philippe de Vitry, the great composer of the new musical season of the 1300s known as Ars Nova, name taken from his own treatise from 1322.

In the poet's testament it is written that he would leave his lute to one of his friends, Tommaso Bambagi, so that he could sing hymns to the Almighty and not just profane songs, therefore also telling us how the instrument was used in sacred and paraliturgical repertoires.

"Magistro Thome Bambasie De Ferraria lego luutum meum bonum, et eum sonet, non pro vanitate seculi fugacis, sed ad laudem Dei eterni".

So, he owned one and used it to accompany himself when singing. It's suggestive to think that with the help of such an instrument he composed and intoned some of his most famous songs.

It is worth noting that not only Petrarca's sonnets were set to music for centuries after his death (and still are), but he was one of those poets whose lyrics were immediately set to music (same thing happened with Dante): the oldest intonation of one of his lyric — Non al suo amante, madrigal for two voices by Jacopo da Bologna — is in fact dating back to the years when the poet was still alive.

Giovanni Boccaccio notoriously fills his most famous work, the Decameron, with music and concerts. During the ten days of games, stories and music of the ten Florentine youngsters, as many ballads follow, interpreted with instruments in vogue, among which Dioneo's lute that accompanies dances and songs. We can then safely think that the young Dioneo was one of those cantori al liuto from the late 1300's Florence that are of interest to us.

Simone Prodenzani and other "Jesters"

With his rhymes, in his most famous work Sollazzo e Saporetto, Simone Prodenzani demonstrates a marked musical competence: enter the scene the jester Sollazzo, an expert singer and guitar player (chitarra italiana, therefore a small lute), Prodenzani offers a very precious service to the current musicologists — that consider his work a real treasure trove of information — illustrating with plenty of details the performance and repertoire of the time, as well as the arrangement and re-adaptation of polyphonic pieces for solo instruments.

Also deserving a brief mention is the great and famous Francesco Landini, poet musician crowned with laurel of whom everything is known, although often his passion for the lute and the interest he had for string instruments surprises (him being famous as a virtuoso of the organ), that even took to invent and make string instruments like the Syrena Syrenarum, a sort of lute with strings fixed to the body like a psaltery or harp (a fact of the greatest relevance knowing that he was blind since he was a child).

Finally, with some regret and the certainty of having left behind many others of undeniable value, I would like to briefly mention Francesco di Vannozzo, a curious figure of a jester of the late 1300s, cantore al liuto and a player of many instruments that became famous in northern Italy, and whose father was an intimate friend of Petrarca.

The acclaimed "Cantori al Liuto": the Masters

The noble practice of "cantare al liuto" was mainly a prerogative of the humanists, that as it's been said found an entire mythical and legendary universe.

Let's talk about the actual, real Cantore al Liuto, acclaimed at the end of the 1400s and celebrated during the whole of the following century. For reasons of space I will only mention the many historical figures and trace, just for some, brief biographical and stylistic traits. In this first list I will name those whose practice of cantare al liuto has been historically confirmed by several sources, first among all the treatise Lucidarium in Musica by Pietro Aaron of 1545, privileging — surely wrongly — the names of some characters also known to be distinguished in other disciplines at least apparently very different like philosophy and painting.

Leonardo Giustiniani  (Venezia ca. 1383–1446)

Besides poet and musician, he was a humanist, a public and political man, that hold prestigious offices in Venice like Procurator of San Marco, the second most important figure of the Republic.

The influence of his work on his contemporaries was so pervasive that the genre of Venetian song created by him was called "giustiniana". They were songs with mainly a love theme that he used to sing in an elegant Venetian dialect — accompanied by his lute — characterized by a particular way of embellishing the melody, a style practically disappeared since it was improvised by interpreters during the execution, something that served to feed the myth of the so-called "secret of the 15th century", in other words a combination of musical practices, especially related to singing, that was lost since it was never passed on in writing. However some musicologists have recently identified, in some frottole of the sixth book by Ottaviano Petrucci, certain passages that would recall the typical style of the giustiniana.

Serafino Ciminelli Aquilano o dall'Aquila  (L'Aquila 1466–Roma 1500)

He was responsible for an important innovation in the singing accompanied by lute genre: the changes he introduced had to do with a greater and rich fusion between the text of the words sung and the instrumental part and with much probability the playing style of the lute. This news is told by the humanist Paolo Cortese that saw him performing. It's difficult to recreate the traits of his lute style, while it is known that the singing was characterized by the greatest sweetness.

The lute during his lifetime was mainly played with a plectrum, which means broadly speaking that a melodic line was played but as mentioned, there was a mixed technique of plectrum and finger, that left the players the freedom to play chordal passages, for example together with a tenor voice. It's right to think that Serafino's style could be connected to this lost technique, that apparently only survived for few years.

There is no doubt that his influence and fame were enormous: he attended various courts among which Naples, Urbino, Mantova, coming into contact with the greatest scholars and humanists of his time, of which it's easy to say he represented one of the most important. He was the author of the rhymes that he sung, among those that survived there are love epistles in rhyme, three pastoral eclogues and two acts written to be represented (l'Oroscopo and l'Orologio), a "Rappresentazione allegorica della voluttà" and another titled "Virtù e fama" that was represented between 1495 and 1497 in the court of Mantova, besides numerous rhymes of various kind like strambotti, sonnets and tercets.

Pietrobono Bursellis o del Chitarrino  (Ferrara? Bruxelles? 1417–Ferrara 1497)

Although he is generally known as a virtuoso of the instrument — chitarrino or chitarra italiana from which he got his pseudonym — and as a music teacher, having made history by teaching the art of the lute to important characters of his time, he was also a cantore accompanying himself with a cetra while intoning poems in verses inspired by real life famous love stories, transforming those characters in semi-mythological ones.

So Antonio Cornazzano tells us in the Canto VIII of his poem Sforziade, where is found Laudes Petri Boni Cytariste, a praise in verses whose only copy is today conserved in Paris. In the De Excellentium virorum principibus, another poem by Cornazzano, Bursellis is described as a cantore a liuto besides lutenist. The celebration of Pietrobono's fame, when he was still alive and especially after his death, reached eulogistic tones: many poets and humanists wrote poems in his praise and he even had the honor to be represented in two coins from Ferrara.

His technique was mainly that of the plectrum, ornamenting the upper part of the polyphonic pieces for which during the execution was accompanied by another lutenist, that himself defined my "tenorista" performing the tenor parts, the base of the compositions with more voices. Tinctoris praised his "superinventiones", that very probably were "improvisations" of instrumental kind born out of his imagination or derived from popular melodies, then adapted to every technical possibility offered by the lute.

Like for Giustiniani and Serafino, his style survived for many years after his death, until it was completely lost in the oblivion of the unwritten tradition; but we can try to reconstruct it based on the various praises mentioned above that describe in fine detail the most important traits.

Hayne Van Ghizeghem  (ca. 1447–1497)

Composer from northern Europe, heir of Master Ockeghem's style. The poet Guillaume Cretin wrote about him in the poem about the death of the great composer Ockeghem, that Hayne sang with the lute the motet Hut Heremita Solus, sweetening the souls of those present mourning with sadness, a testimony that consolidates the theory that the lute also accompanied the sacred and liturgical music.

Among the better known and important cantori al liuto of the first generation, of which much it's known, there were Francesco Bossinensis, Marchetto Cara, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Cosimo Bottegari; belonging instead to the second Ippolito Tromboncino, Scipione Cerreto, Giacomo Gorzanis, Giulio Caccini, Bartolomeo Barbarino, Bartolomeo Gazza.

Philosophers, Painters and Princes, the "Cantori al Liuto" for pleasure

Marsilio Ficino  (Figline Valdarno 1433–Careggi 1499)

Son of Cosimo de' Medici's personal doctor, he was a famous philosopher and humanist, besides a translator of Latin texts. It is also known about him, due to the widespread neo-platonism of which he was a fundamental prophet and spokesperson, that he loved playing music for pleasure, like all his contemporary scholars. He was friends with Poliziano and Pico della Mirandola, and his writings about music are fundamental — especially some of his letters like the one from 1484 about the principles of music addressed to Domenico Bentiveni, a member of the Florentine Platonic Academy — where the relation between macro and microcosm is often proposed (he was also an astrologer and interested in the aspects of magic) in the Pythagorean and Ptolemaic concepts of the celestial mechanics.

He loved to intone verses accompanying himself with his orphica lyra, perhaps a particular lute of his or another string instrument that thanks to its harmony he could find the ancient precepts of the universal harmony.

Pico della Mirandola  (Mirandola 1463–Firenze 1494)

A neo-platonic intellectual close to Ficino that was also a friend, he travelled Italy during his short and adventurous life. He was not immune to the fascination of music, and as referred by Walker in his study Le chant Orphique de Marsile Ficin, sung his poems "ad lyram".

Federico da Montefeltro - Lorenzo de'Medici - Leonello d'Este

The pairing of sovereign/music finds in these three Renaissance Princes and Dukes its clearest expression, responding to the humanist ideal of harmonia mundi. "The prince must resemble the musician" wrote Ficino in his Politica, "he must be able to combine the grave and acute voices to found his reign on harmony". It seems to see in these affirmations the figure of Federico da Montefeltro and his harmonious government, him that was distinguished among the pupils of Vittorino da Feltre for his musicality, whose voice — as informed by Vespasiano da Bisticci in his biography — "delightful and melodious", and excelled in that new practice in use to accompany himself with a string instrument (perhaps the lute itself, seeing the love for this instrument judging by the many representations in the decorations of his palace).

Lorenzo de' Medici loved to set to music the rhymes for which is still well known today, and played them himself accompanied by a lute.

Leonello d'Este was also a cantore al liuto besides being one of the greatest patrons and musical commissioner of his time.

Donato Bramante – Leonardo da Vinci

Little is known of Bramante the poet: several sonnets have come to us, love ones or of a playful nature written while he was in Milan before 1499, his rhymes revealing a profound love for Dante. And less is known about his activity — although it was for pleasure — of musician and singer: Vasari states in fact that the famous architect loved to go to the taverns with his lira (a lute?) to sing his verses in public.

Leonardo, besides a musician and cantore was also a designer of instruments, one of his constructions is of a strange lira da braccio, whose harmonic body was made out of a horse's skull.

Other cantori al liuto mentioned by Pietro Aaron in the Lucidario in Musicalibro IV, furono: Conte Ludovico Martinengo, Messer Ognibene da Vinegia, Marc 'Antonio Fontana Arcidiacono di Como, Francesco da Faenza, Angioletto da Vinegia, Jacopo da San Secondo, Camillo Michele Veneziano, Paolo Milanese.

Women singing-lutenists

A particular mention goes to the so-called "Donne a Liuto", in other words the feminine correspondent of cantori a liuto, as defined by Aaron in his already mentioned treatise. The women lutenists were virtuoso singers, improvisers and obviously lute players. Just like their masculine colleagues, often entered the dynamics of the high society becoming fully part of it thanks to their musical gifts. Among the many artists of this kind, of which in many cases we only have the names left, the following exceptional personalities stand out:

Virginia Vagnoli (Pienza 1540?–?)

Daughter of Pietro, a lutenist, she was the biggest and most celebrated star at the Della Rovere court until when the Duke of Urbino Guidubaldo II employed her in 1564, together with other musicians and composers of the stature of Costanzo Porta and Paolo Animuccia, for the musical service of his private chapel.

Virginia performed at the court of Guidubaldo, in the secretness and implicit preciousness of the private musical performances of Della Rovere or conceded for the presence of some illustrious guests, but always in the unrepeatable estemporaneity of the improvisational performance rendered tangible by the form of the accompanied solo singing, that was especially in Urbino and Pesaro always researched and practised.

In a 1567 Card. Giulio della Rovere's letter we read

"for entertainment in the evening they listened to music and in particular madame Virginia that pleased them infinitely".

Virginia then sung and diminuted madrigals with her lute; a book was dedicated to her, the Primo libro dei madrigali a 4 by Giovanni Maria Rosso from Mantova in 1567.

Lodovico Agostini, a courtesan from Pesaro, paints her in his Giornate Soriane as busy "singing some madrigals by Alessandro Striggio accompanied by her lute". To her were also dedicated poems in rhyme and praises that underline both her excellence and her new and exceptional professional figure.

Irene da Spillinbergo  (Spillinbergo 1540–1559)

News about her life reached us thanks to Dioniso Atanagi, courtesan and jester in the court of Urbino at the end of the 16th century. The character that comes through has a unique vigour and charm: she was an enfant prodige, despite her very short life (she died in 1559, at only 19) she achieved much and fully dedicated herself to music, poetry and painting with incredible success.

She was born in the castle of Spillinbergo near Udine in 1541 and was formed in the Venetian society. She began to study singing with Bartolomeo Gazza, (esteemed Venetian cantore al liuto, mentioned by Aaron) where very soon she demonstrated that she was incredibly gifted: in a very short time she achieved such a knowledge that "she sung a libro anything with ability". Later on dedicated herself to the noble and refined practice of cantare a liuto, where soon excelled, so much so that Atanagi said:

"She learned an endless number of madrigals by lute, odes and many Latin verses, and she sung so decidedly, delicately and full of melody that the most experts were left in awe".

Having listened in Venice to some pupils of Tromboncino singing in his style, she learned it with her simple natural instinct and judgement and very soon she was able to sing many songs in that particular style that favoured singing with the greatest sweetness.

Irene was also a painter and an apprentice of the great Tiziano that chose her as his favourite pupil, him that so reluctantly accepted disciples.

Other "donne a liuto" mentioned by Aaron: Antonia Aragona di Napoli, Costanza da Nuvolara, Lucretia da Correggio, Ginevra e Barbara Pallavicina, Isabella Bolognese, Susanna Ferra ferrarese, Franceschina e Marieta Bellamano, Helena Vinitiana.

Simone Sorini
Translation: Aldo Reali