‹‹ JSCM Home

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 18 (2012) No. 1

Published 2016

Monteverdi and Some Problems of Biography

Tim Carter*

1. Introduction

2. A Case (and a Crisis) in Point

3. What We Know (and What to Make of It)

4. The “Crisis” Revisited

5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

1.1 Although the broad outlines and even specific details of Monteverdi’s career have been well articulated since the pioneering research of Stefano Davari and others in the late nineteenth century, the facts have not always been matched by explanations for them. In other words, although we often know what the composer did, we do not always think about how or why he did it, or why he did not do something else. Here I propose a more nuanced view of Monteverdi’s career strategies, in particular as he negotiated his path as a member of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s extended household. My thoughts draw on relatively recent scholarship on notions of the court society as well as on new thinking on the composer by Monteverdi scholars.

2. A Case (and a Crisis) in Point

2.1 Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567–1643) departure from Mantuan service in the summer of 1612 clearly marked a watershed in the composer’s professional career. He had joined the musicians of the Gonzaga court probably in the first half of 1590 and had risen through the ranks to become Duke Vincenzo’s maestro della musica (succeeding Benedetto Pallavicino) in 1601.[1] The duke’s death in February 1612 and the succession of his eldest son Francesco threw matters into some disarray: it also pointed toward the terminal decline of the mainline Gonzaga dynasty when Francesco died without a surviving male heir in December 1612 and was succeeded by Vincenzo’s second son, Ferdinando (a cardinal from December 1607), and then his third, Vincenzo, in 1626 (Ferdinando and Vincenzo also died without legitimate male issue).[2] Duke Francesco needed to cut back on his father’s lavish expenditures and also had his own favorites to promote. He took advantage of, or perhaps manufactured, a case of insubordination on Monteverdi’s part, and abruptly dismissed him and his brother, Giulio Cesare, from service.[3] Monteverdi returned to stay with his father in his native Cremona, and it was pure luck, it seems, that the position of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s, Venice, came open the next year. His qualifications for it were clear to the procurators of the basilica, to the extent that in August 1613 they appointed him as the first non-Venetian to hold the post in fifty years. Monteverdi moved to Venice and stayed there for the rest of his long life.

2.2 This outcome has suited those modern scholars who prefer to view princely courts as inherently repressive: in this reading, Monteverdi was bound to flourish, his talents better rewarded, in the more liberal (it is assumed) environment of the Republic of Venice. The composer himself made a similar point—if without the political overtones—in several later letters in which he used his better working conditions in Venice to justify his reluctance to accept invitations to return to Mantua instigated by Duke Ferdinando (in 1619–20), and later, Duke Vincenzo II.[4] There is also no doubt that Monteverdi was periodically unhappy in Mantua: a well-known crunch came in late 1608 as the composer was attempting to recuperate from what seems to have been something akin to a nervous breakdown caused by, among other things, overwork on the festivities held in Mantua in May and June of 1608 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy. In November 1608, the composer’s father petitioned both the duke and the duchess of Mantua for his son’s honorable discharge from court service, with or without strings attached (we shall see what they might have been);[5] Monteverdi himself made a similar appeal in an incandescent letter to the court secretary, Annibale Chieppio, on December 2. We might even read the same negative view of court life in Monteverdi’s two surviving Venetian operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (the representation of Penelope’s suitors and of the parasite Iro) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (via Seneca).

2.3 But not everything came up roses in Monteverdi’s Venetian garden. In terms of St. Mark’s, there were occasional flare-ups among the singers and instrumentalists under his control, and he did not always get on well with the procurators.[6] More seriously, he was also denounced anonymously (but perhaps, one might guess, by a vengeful musical colleague) sometime after 1623 as a traitor to the Republic because of his apparent loyalties to the Holy Roman Empire.[7] While that denunciation might seem plausible in the light of Monteverdi’s associations with the Habsburg court in Vienna from the late 1620s on—witness among other things the dedication of his Eighth Book of Madrigals, the Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi (1638), to Emperor Ferdinand III and the Selva morale e spirituale (1640–41) to Eleonora Gonzaga, Ferdinand III’s mother—it also stemmed from two incontrovertible facts: first, Monteverdi was a foreigner in Venice, and second, as a Mantuan citizen he did indeed owe fealty to the Gonzagas and therefore, by definition, to the Empire (given that Mantua was an imperial fiefdom). Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga had granted the composer Mantuan citizenship, and the benefits that accrued thereby, in 1602: this was the duke’s fairly common practice with artists associated with his court.[8] We shall see that Monteverdi’s ongoing relations with the Gonzagas even after his discharge from Mantua make perfect sense in this and related lights.

2.4 Nor was Monteverdi necessarily averse to the idea of returning to some kind of court service, albeit not a Mantuan one. In 1623 he was reported to be taking seriously an offer to move to the court of King Sigismund III of Poland—precisely because of current difficulties with officials at St. Mark’s—and in 1627–28 he spent considerable time at the Farnese court in Parma to provide music for the festivities celebrating the wedding of Duke Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici. Some of his subsequent connections with the Habsburgs may have had an ulterior motive: securing a benefice to provide the income equivalent to the lifetime pension he had been granted by the Gonzagas during his time in Mantua. They can also be explained by the presence there of Eleonora Gonzaga, daughter of Duke Vincenzo and wife of Emperor Ferdinand II, as well as of numerous Mantuan musicians escaping the troubles in their home city consequent on the death in late 1627 of the childless Duke Vincenzo II. Yet there, too, Monteverdi seems to have been attracted by the idea of some association with a princely environment, if kept somewhat at arm’s length. He was not alone: Monteverdi’s almost exact contemporary Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), with whom the composer is sometimes compared as a similarly iconoclastic modernist, made almost the reverse professional shift, from a position at the University of Padua to one at the Medici court in Florence. Galileo did very well out of it, at least until he fell afoul of the Inquisition.[9] Florence under the Medici may have been more stable than Mantua under the Gonzagas in the early seventeenth century, and it had stronger civic, social, and economic foundations.[10] Nor should one presume that every court (and every patronal relationship) necessarily operated in the same way. But in broad terms, working for a court clearly had its advantages depending on how one played the game: one question in Monteverdi’s case is whether he did so well or badly.

3. What We Know (and What to Make of It)

3.1 We have a reasonably clear picture of Monteverdi’s life: the Appendix presents what one might call a chronicle of known events and circumstances pertaining to it. This is fairly complete, to the best of my knowledge, always accepting an inevitable need for correction, additions, and, of course, revisions as new information comes to light. The challenge, however, is to move beyond these known facts to join up their dots, as it were. While the large corpus of Monteverdi’s surviving letters might seem to help in that regard, their texts, intertexts, and subtexts need more careful reading than has sometimes been the case. We must also consider how individuals on the one hand, and societies on the other, functioned in the early modern period. Of course, none of this concerned the composer’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biographers: Stefano Davari, Alessandro Ademollo, Antonio Bertolotti, and Angelo Solerti. Thanks to the pioneering work of these distinguished archivists and antiquarians, there has been surprisingly little left to find out about the composer in broad terms; however many new details have been added here and there by more recent scholars.[11] But while the desire to document Monteverdi’s career has remained constant—Paolo Fabbri’s 1985 monograph is a model of its kind—explaining it has been a different matter. We tend to know the what, where, and when, but we have not always considered the how and the why.[12] The various prejudices seemingly at work here—that biography is largely a matter of chronicling facts; that it is only a basis for, but secondary to, our task of interpreting the music—go beyond the scope of my present argument. But they have certainly set limits on how we have sought to come to terms with Monteverdi’s life and works.

3.2 There are two commendable exceptions. At the 1993 Monteverdi conference in Mantua, marking the 350th anniversary of the composer’s death, Claudio Annibaldi offered some provocative comments on the composer’s career in the light of new theorizing on early modern patronage within a post-Marxist framework. In his paper “Per una teoria della committenza musicale all’epoca di Monteverdi” (“Toward a theory of musical patronage in the age of Monteverdi”), published in 1998, Annibaldi built on his earlier critique of the “music in.…” monographs that proliferated in Renaissance studies in the 1980s which tended, he claimed, to adopt an almost hagiographical treatment of Renaissance patrons in terms of their power and virtue in a manner dating back to Jakob Burkhardt’s classic Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860), better known in English as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (the shift in the title is interesting).[13] Annibaldi instead adopts a harder-headed view of composers in courtly society submitting to, and suffering under, the patronal yoke: “We can thus … define every type of musical patronage practised in that society as a patron-client exchange of protection and submission, determined by the musical competence of the client and also by the use made of that competence by the patron for the purpose of symbolising his own social rank by way of appropriate sonic events.”[14] One might quibble at Annibaldi’s axiomatic rigidity (every type of musical patronage?) and his singularity of purpose (musical acts, which include not just composition but also performance and related activities, serve only to symbolize social rank?). But his conclusion merits further consideration in terms of the extent to which it might or might not apply to Monteverdi.

3.3 In 2007, Roger Bowers drew on his own previous investigations into late Medieval and early modern (English) courts and related institutions, as well as on new research in the Gonzaga and other archives, to produce a significant re-reading of “Monteverdi at Mantua, 1590–1612.”[15] He did not acknowledge Annibaldi’s theoretical framework but probably would have expressed a mixed view of it if he had, accepting the exchange of protection and submission as a necessary, and not always maleficent, part of courtly society, but disagreeing with the patron-client terminology and what it might imply. Bowers goes further than Annibaldi, however, to interrogate and elucidate certain of Monteverdi’s actions in Mantua in the context of typical courtly systems. To give one of several possible examples, he is particularly good on how Monteverdi’s evident anxieties over Mantua in late 1608 through 1609, and the composer’s attempts to engage with and even resolve them, stemmed from various power vacuums at court: the death of Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, maestro di cappella of S. Barbara, in early January 1609 (he was eventually replaced by Stefano Nascimbeni); a duke succumbing to dangerous bouts of ill-health; and Prince Francesco and Margherita of Savoy’s impending move to Casale Monferrato (a separate, and often disputed, part of the Mantua dominion) and the consequent establishing there of an institutionally distinct court, also with its own musical cappella. To this one might usefully add Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga’s evident attachment to Florentine musicians, including Marco da Gagliano (in his December 2, 1608 letter, Monteverdi is quite bitter about the seemingly favorable treatment granted Gagliano during the 1608 Mantuan wedding festivities) and Santi Orlandi. Here, at least, Monteverdi’s fears were to prove well grounded: Prince Francesco’s return to Mantua as duke in early 1612 led to a wholesale reorganization of the court as many of Duke Vincenzo’s retainers left of their own volition or were forcibly discharged, and Monteverdi was indeed to be replaced by Orlandi. Yet Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga had responded surprisingly reasonably to Monteverdi’s complaints of late 1608, confirming an annual pension of 100 Mantuan scudi on January 19, 1609, and increasing his salary from sc.20 to sc.25 per month (sc.300 per year) on the 27th (in addition to his housing allowance of sc.35 per year).[16]

3.4 Bowers would also accept the need for a more nuanced understanding of the possible terminologies used to describe Monteverdi’s relations with the Gonzagas and his place within the ducal household. Viewing the composer as a “client” to a ducal “patron,” or as the employee of a ducal employer, does not quite catch the drift. Monteverdi himself uses in his letters two sets of terms to indicate his and his family’s obligations: as servants to a master, and, quite properly, as vassals to a (feudal) lord. Thus when Monteverdi sought a favor from Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga in late 1610 and early 1611—support for obtaining income from a benefice so that the composer’s eldest son, Francesco (then nine years old), might pay board and lodging at the Seminario Romano—he carefully reminded the cardinal (December 28, 1610) that his son was “a vassal of the Most Serene House of Gonzaga, born of a father and mother who served Your Most Serene Highnesses for a long time, and of a marriage solemnized with the specific consent of the Most Serene Lord Duke Vincenzo” (essendo vasallo della serenissima casa Gonzaga, nato da padre e madre servitori di lungo tempo delle Altezze Vostre Serenissime e da matrimonio fatto con particolar consenso del serenissimo signor ducca Vincenzo). But this is no mere flim-flammery: Monteverdi in effect places the cardinal under a three-fold obligation: to a vassal, to a servant, and, moreover, to the fruit of marriage done with the particolar consenso of the duke.

3.5 Neither Annibaldi nor Bowers note this obvious instance of the composer’s apparent need for ducal “consent” in the case of a matter that one might nowadays regard as purely personal: his marriage. We do not know how Monteverdi was recruited to the Gonzaga court in 1590, but his prowess as a string player was certainly part of the equation. It seems likely, therefore, that he was somehow placed under the supervision of Giacomo Cattaneo, the leader of Duke Vincenzo’s string band, whose task would have been to show the new recruit the ropes and maybe even to provide him lodging in his house. Such apprentice-type relationships (though Monteverdi was clearly hired as something more) were not unusual in court-musical circles: Monteverdi took in the young soprano Caterina Martinelli in 1603 on similar terms, and there are parallel examples in Florence.[17] Whether or not because of that proximity to the Cattaneo household, in May 1599 Monteverdi married Giacomo’s daughter, Claudia, who was a singer. Paolo Fabbri has suggested that insofar as Claudia was concerned, this was probably a marriage “arranged” by Duke Vincenzo as a typical means of rewarding, but also distancing, a temporary recipient of his sexual favors.[18] But while the notion of some kind of arrangement would seem to be appropriate given Monteverdi’s choice of words about the marriage in December 1610 (and elsewhere),[19] one need not go to such extremes. It was very common for female court singers to marry (or be married off to) a court musician so as to tie the husband still more to service while enabling the wife to retain an active performing career: contemporary examples include Francesca Caccini and Giovanni Battista Signorini (in Florence), Settimia Caccini and Alessandro Ghivizzani (in Florence, then Mantua), and Ippolita Recupito and Cesare Marotta (in Rome, working for Cardinal Montalto), among many others.

3.6 This is not to pass any judgment on the professional and personal nature of Monteverdi’s relationship with his wife;[20] nor should we necessarily read a lack of affection into the composer’s evident concern, after Claudia’s untimely death in September 1607, for the loss of income from the court that ensued (she was paid sc.94 per year, it seems).[21] But one should probably view the marriage as part of Monteverdi’s evidently stellar rise within the Gonzaga household. His move to Mantua was clearly an upward professional and even social move, in a manner not uncommon for musicians with unusual talent.[22] Soon after his arrival, he made the predictable response, dedicating his next book of madrigals, the Third of 1592, to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. This was also the first of Monteverdi’s publications not to describe him as a “discepolo” of his teacher, Marc’Antonio Ingegneri: he had graduated to a different level of protection. The benefits were tangible. He had a salary of £75 per month, i.e., sc.150 per year, second only to Giaches de Wert (£84.6s.3d. per month) and more than Benedetto Pallavicino (£39.3s.), who would be Wert’s successor. Even accepting that salaries did not reflect the total income that long-established musicians received from court service, Monteverdi’s seems high. He was also in sufficient favor with the duke in 1595 to head the musicians that accompanied Vincenzo on the first of three military campaigns against the Turks in Hungary. Although the duke then chose Pallavicino to replace Wert as his maestro di cappella on Wert’s death in May 1596, this was not surprising given Pallavicino’s seniority at court, and also his stronger track record in terms of publications, including seven books of madrigals. But through Monteverdi’s marriage, the choice of godparents for his children among Mantuan and other notables, his appointment as Duke Vincenzo’s maestro della musica after the death of Pallavicino on  November 26, 1601, and then the granting of citizenship on April 10, 1602, one can see the composer becoming increasingly embedded in Mantuan society. His appointment as maestro della musica increased his salary to sc.20 per month (sc.240 per year),[23] and consequent upon his citizenship, he moved to a house closer to the ducal palace for which he received additional payment from the duke to cover the rent (presumably he and Claudia had previously lived with her father).

3.7 By virtue of these various ties, Monteverdi was secure enough in the Gonzaga household not to suffer from a setback that might, on the face of it, have been very damaging indeed: the attack on musical improprieties in his madrigals launched by the Bolognese music theorist, Giovanni Maria Artusi in his treatise L’Artusi, overo Delle imperfettioni della moderna musica (Venice: Giacomo Vincenti, 1600; a second part appeared in 1603, and other treatises followed). Artusi harked back to a performance of Monteverdi’s madrigals at the house of Antonio Goretti in Ferrara in November 1598, as Margaret of Austria passed through a city newly annexed to the Papal States (after the death of Duke Alfonso II d’Este in October 1597). Monteverdi also situated his next book of madrigals, the Fourth (1603), in a similar context via its dedication to the Ferrarese Accademia degli Intrepidi: this book contains scant overt reference to the Artusi-Monteverdi controversy, though I argue elsewhere that it contains at least one covert musical response to it.[24] But the composer addressed the issues directly in a statement in his Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605), which was then elaborated upon by his brother, Giulio Cesare, in a “Dichiaratione” appended to the Scherzi musicali a tre voci (1607). Here the Monteverdis came up with the well-known construct of the seconda pratica, to be distinguished from the “first” practice by the fact that the oratione was the master and not the servant of the armonia.[25] Regardless of the aesthetic consequences (which are open to discussion), this was a convenient move, vitiating Artusi’s criticisms by arguing that he was unreasonably comparing apples with oranges.[26] Also mentioned in the Monteverdis’ response, however, was the composer’s heavy involvement in musical activities at the Gonzaga court, which is used not only to explain his lack of time to formulate a more coherent text, but also to turn the debate, at least implicitly, into one of a courtly—therefore elevated—view of music versus a churchly one.[27]

3.8 Academic disputes were an acceptable part of the courtly ritual provided they were conducted according to certain protocols, which often included token anonymity and/or the use of proxies.[28] Artusi kept Monteverdi’s name out of the debate in his treatises of 1600 and 1603, and Monteverdi was initially defended by “L’Ottuso Academico” (whom we still have not identified). The dedication of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals of 1603 to the Accademia degli Intrepidi continued the game, even if the cognoscenti by now must have known who was who.[29] The composer went more public with his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1605, dedicated to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga (who is also prominently mentioned on the title page) and including a statement announcing Monteverdi’s intention to publish a treatise on the seconda pratica, referring also to the objections taken against “certain minimal particles” of his madrigals made by “l’Artusi” (all’oppositioni, che fece l’Artusi contro alcune minime particelle d’essi). Artusi may himself have invited Giulio Cesare Monteverdi’s casuistic explanation in 1607 that the composer was referring to the title of Artusi’s treatise and not to the author, but Monteverdi was bold, or brash, enough to name names in 1605. Furthermore, he was confident enough of his position to bring Duke Vincenzo into the fray (by virtue of the dedication) even if he felt the need to hedge his bets by displaying the support of the Mantuan court theologian, Cherubino Ferrari—a neat way of countering Reverend Artusi—who provided two poetic madrigals in the Fifth Book variously lauding its contents.[30] There is nothing to suggest that Duke Vincenzo took any of this amiss; perhaps he even enjoyed the new-found notoriety of his musical maestro. Ferrari was also an admirer of Orfeo, praising its text and music to Duke Vincenzo in August 1607, and that opera, too, seems to have served its purpose in garnering the favor of the duke and also Prince Francesco Gonzaga, the patron of the first performance in the Mantuan Accademia degli Invaghiti on February 24, 1607. Prince Francesco then received his own dedication in the Scherzi musicali a tre voci, published in July. None of this was outside the realm of typical conduct in courtly relationships.

3.9 At the same time, however, other actions by Monteverdi in Mantua early in the first decade of the century suggest that the composer had a tendency to overreach his position. One cannot blame him for keeping an eye on the main chance, but there is an air of unseemly haste in his petition to the duke (November 28, 1601) for the position of maestro della musica following the death of Pallavicino just two days before: he had already marshalled his arguments and in some sense drafted his text before approaching a professional scribe to produce the final version sent to the duke. This may be an early sign of a certain lack of tact, and even, perhaps, inappropriate behavior, that would become increasingly typical of the composer’s courtly interactions. Duke Vincenzo was currently on a military campaign once more in Hungary, and Monteverdi’s letter (the first that survives in his name, though it is not in his hand) must have been included in dispatches from Mantua, perhaps even including the one notifying the duke of Pallavicino’s demise. Protocol would surely have encouraged a less direct approach through a court functionary or some other intermediary. Similar problems of tact and decorum arise in Monteverdi’s second and third surviving letters from the second half of 1604, also to Duke Vincenzo, the second (October 27) containing the beginning of what would become a long series of complaints about the non-payment of his salary, and the third (December) initiating an equally long series of excuses at not being able to compose quickly because of ill health. Monteverdi played the health card, and the financial one, with the Gonzagas on numerous other occasions, perhaps because he judged this an effective way to place them under some kind of obligation to protect his well-being: it was the quid pro quo in return for a vassal’s fealty to his lord. The fact that Duke Vincenzo seems not to have taken affront may have been due to some recognition of Monteverdi’s stature; a similar impression is given by the duke’s treatment of the composer in early 1609 after the breakdown caused by the 1608 Mantuan wedding festivities. The duke also seems at times to have cultivated, and allowed, somewhat less formal relationships within his household: Monteverdi writes in quite direct and even familiar terms. But lines remained drawn, and this kind of behavior could also get the composer into trouble.

4. The “Crisis” Revisited

4.1 Courtly societies operated on the basis of reciprocal obligations, regardless of the (in)equality of the parties involved.[31] While the “exchange of protection and submission,” to cite Annibaldi, between ruler and subject was certainly part of the equation, there was more to this reciprocity, and more room for maneuver within it, than his formula might suggest. Much hinged on the gaining of reputation—and associated concepts such as honor—through the performance or receipt of favor(s). There seems no doubt, for example, that Monteverdi was concerned about his own reputation. His 1610 Missa … ac vespere may or may not have been intended to advertize his skills specifically for a position outside Mantua as is commonly argued (although the point is moot, it seems to me), or to establish the composer’s (and the Gonzaga’s) religious orthodoxy. But one can also read it as an aggressive response to Stefano Nascimbeni’s appointment at S. Barbara and its possible impact on Monteverdi’s standing within the Mantuan and perhaps broader musical community.[32] This sense of worth was matched by one of entitlement: he felt able to communicate his intentions, and to make his demands, directly to the duke and members of his immediate family (Prince Francesco and Cardinal Ferdinando), at least during his time in Mantua (later in Venice, he tended to adopt the more normal, it would seem, recourse to intermediaries-cum-brokers, not least Alessandro Striggio, Jr.).[33] However, what might perhaps seem most surprising of all—especially to those who take only a top-down view of courtly rigidity—is that the composer had a fair degree of agency within the system: he might have been both a subject and (during his time in Mantua) a servant of the Gonzagas, but he stood up to them when he could. Perhaps he occasionally went too far, but not usually enough, it seems, to upset the courtly equilibrium until greater forces intervened.

4.2 Clearly, the death of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in February 1612 was one such moment of force majeure, tipping the scales to set in train a series of events that would lead to Monteverdi’s discharge from Mantua. The issues had an impact on more than just the court musicians. Rumors quickly ran rife that Duke Francesco intended a complete overhaul of the Gonzaga administration, both for financial reasons but also in the manner of cleaning house (and perhaps of a son exploiting new-found independence). Just one week after Vincenzo’s death, Alessandro Guarini (nephew of Battista and himself a poet) reported from Mantua to Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio in Ferrara on the fears and suspicions being whispered through the corridors of the Gonzaga palace: that Francesco proposed to retain only one ducal councillor, with the rest (which would have included Alessandro Striggio) being demoted to court secretaries; that the court would be reformed in the manner of Savoy; and that Duke Vincenzo’s servitori would all be discharged and, in effect, be invited (or not) to reapply for their former positions.[34]

4.3 While this was in part just the scuttlebutt typical of any organization in transition, prominent Mantuan court officials either kept their heads down or saw the writing on the wall and moved elsewhere. But although there would be cuts in the court musical establishment (by about a quarter), the new duke seems not to have taken any action against Monteverdi in the first instance: after all, the composer had made some effort to remain in Francesco’s favor during the latter’s time in Monferrato.[35] Indeed, on March 16, 1612, the duke provided him with a recommendation to Rome to aid the gaining of a place for his son in the Seminario Romano. By June, however, Monteverdi was reported to be seeking on his own behalf a discharge from court service, and to be attempting to have his brother, Giulio Cesare, replace him: again, this may have been scuttlebutt, although it was not implausible given that Giulio Cesare had served as Francesco’s maestro di cappella in Casale Monferrato. In early July, Duke Francesco complained to his brother, Cardinal Ferdinando, that both Monteverdis were treating him with little courtesy and claiming that they had other places of shelter (trattino meco con ogni termine di poco cortesia facendo professione che non manchi loro altro ricovero), were pressing their own advantage and interests to an unreasonable degree (se sapessi con che vantaggi et come interessatamente egli et il fratello trattino meco), and had mutinied so as to force his hand (hora parere [a] me che per farmi saltare o per altro si siano ammutinati). Therefore he now had the idea to discharge them both unexpectedly so as to recover his reputation (perché vorrei risentirmene con mia riputatione mi è venuto in pensiero di licentiarli tutti due d’improvviso), which he did on July 29.[36]

4.4 There are various possible readings of these events: Monteverdi was the innocent victim of court cutbacks under the new duke; he was the subject of malicious actions engineered by his competitors; he presumed too much on the basis of his prior relationship with Francesco; he deliberately manipulated the situation, achieving what he had requested in late December 1608. None of these readings necessarily excludes the other. One might also suggest that the events of summer 1612 were simply a consequence of the composer in effect landing on the forty-third square of the well-known board game (in the manner of Snakes and Ladders) created by Alonso de Barros in his Philosophia cortesana moralizada (Madrid, 1587), wherein “Your patron dies” meant starting over from scratch.[37] Yet on the face of it, it seems surprising that Duke Francesco went to such lengths to explain his treatment of the Monteverdis to Cardinal Ferdinando, and in terms the cardinal would understand and could not question: the two musical brothers had fundamentally breached the terms of courtly behavior in ways that undermined the duke’s riputatione. Clearly Duke Francesco felt vulnerable and open to criticism, not least from someone who knew a great deal about music and musicians (as Cardinal Ferdinando, a sometime poet and composer, did).

4.5 Moreover, while Monteverdi’s discharge bears all the hallmarks of a typical fall from princely favor, once honor had been satisfied the new duke seems to have taken a more solicitous view of the former Mantuan maestro della musica: on September 26, 1612, he sought confirmation or denial of a report that Monteverdi was seeking the position of maestro di cappella of the Duomo in Milan, and that a performance he had directed there had gone down badly. One cannot tell whether Duke Francesco was merely curious, was seeking vindication for his actions taken less than two months before, or was genuinely concerned for the interests of a Mantuan subject (and so, again, his own reputation). Therefore we do not know how he might have responded to Alessandro Striggio’s firm scotching of the rumor, noting (with some satisfaction on Striggio’s part, one senses) that far from having left Milan with little reputation (con poca riputazion), Monteverdi had been honored in the extreme, that his works were performed there with great praise, and that he had no pretensions to the position of maestro di cappella because it was not vacant (which is true).[38] Cardinal Ferdinando, however, knew what Mantua had lost. Although he retained Santi Orlandi as his maestro di cappella when he became regent and then duke, he sometimes expressed his preference for Monteverdi;[39] he commissioned theatrical and other music from him; and when Orlandi died in July 1619, he made considerable efforts to entice Monteverdi back to Mantuan service. One assumes, too, that Ferdinando in some sense supported (however minimally) Monteverdi’s appointment at St. Mark’s, Venice, in August 1613, or at least did not impede it, as he could have done by diplomatic intervention (if Venice cared about its relations with Mantua).[40] One wonders, however, whether he imposed some kind of condition that the composer should continue to compose theatrical music for Mantua on request (as Monteverdi continued to do, if not always with much eagerness).

4.6 As for Monteverdi, presumably he felt that Duke Francesco had not lived up to his side of the courtly bargain in the first half of 1612.[41] Yet he continued to express and enact his obligations to the Gonzagas. In part that was because of his efforts to secure regular payment of the pension confirmed by Duke Vincenzo in January 1609: a matter that preoccupied the composer for the rest of his life and in which he clearly used the providing or withholding of music as a bargaining chip. But there were also other issues involved. Given that he remained subject to the Gonzagas, Monteverdi’s career, and his reputation, remained legitimate Mantuan concerns. Thus whenever the possibility of a new appointment arose, particularly within a court, he had to act with caution and with due regard for protocol. This is clear in the reported negotiations in 1623 for Monteverdi to become maestro di cappella of King Sigismund III of Poland. These were brokered by the musician Antonio Taroni (formerly employed in Mantua and now in Poland), who took advantage of Monteverdi’s dispute with unnamed officials at St. Mark’s to make the offer to move northward. The composer was interested, so Taroni says, but wanted Taroni (again, so he says) to write to Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga seeking his permission for the move, which he did on July 25, 1623.[42] Similar concerns arose from Monteverdi’s work for the festivities in Parma celebrating the wedding of Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici in 1627–28, when the composer had to tread quite carefully when explaining the circumstances to Alessandro Striggio, who had taken the opportunity to remind Monteverdi of his Mantuan obligations and to encourage him to return to Mantuan service.[43] As a counter-example, however, it is striking that Monteverdi’s arguments for resisting the invitations to return to Mantua in 1619–20 and 1627—that it would damage his professional and personal well-being (so, the welfare card again)—appear to have been accepted by the Gonzagas: they had power over him, but not to an unlimited extent.

4.7 Despite all the undoubted frustrations, there were rewards still to be had from court service. Monteverdi’s initial salary in Venice was 300 Venetian ducats per year, increased to du.400 in 1616. In return for the dedication to Caterina de’ Medici (wife of Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga) of Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals in 1619, the composer received a gold chain worth at least du.100: this was a standard means of rewarding service done by someone living outside the state, given that precious metal could be sold or pawned in the currency of the recipient’s choice.[44] A one-time gift worth a quarter of one’s annual salary is no small matter, and it reveals the benefits that could be gained from the court under the right circumstances. Venice offered Monteverdi a secure position and a steady, even high, income—no bad thing, as the composer himself noted. But a court, or at least, a well-functioning one, certainly had opportunities for those with the luck and the skills to reap them. Monteverdi’s problem with Mantua was that he ran out of both.

5. Conclusion

5.1 No doubt there are more facts about Monteverdi’s career, particularly in Venice, waiting to be uncovered by the enterprising archivist. It is clear, too, that any narrow reading of these “facts” will do an injustice to a complex dynamic of social and other relations, and to issues of agency and motive that are no doubt as difficult to disentangle for our composer as for anyone in any period. My argument, however, is that we also need to work harder to place such facts, and the various kinds of documents that convey them, within a thicker web of interpretation. This joining up the dots—as I put it earlier—relies on inference and speculation, but that is a typical part of the biographical enterprise. In Monteverdi’s case, it seems to me, we still have much to understand.[45]

Copyright © 1995-2017 Society for Seventeenth-Century Music. All Rights Reserved.