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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 21 (2015) No. 1

Published 2017

Orpheus in the Marketplace: Jacopo Peri and the Economy of Late Renaissance Florence. By Tim Carter and Richard A. Goldthwaite. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. [xiv, 479 pp. ISBN 978-0-6747-2464-8. $52.50.]

Reviewed by Anthony M. Cummings*

1. Introduction

2. Micro and Macro Histories

3. Peri’s Social Status: Aristocratization and Imperial Aspirations

4. A Context for Peri’s Musical Activities

5. Conclusion

References

1. Introduction

1.1 In my experience, there is no more eloquent witness than Tim Carter and Richard Goldthwaite’s book to what can be achieved when scholars of uncommon stature from different disciplines collaborate fully and generously with each other on an “interdisciplinary” project. In the English-speaking world (perhaps in the entire scholarly community, irrespective of nationality), Tim Carter is the unsurpassed authority on Jacopo Peri, composer of the earliest extant opera, the Euridice of 1600. Carter’s relevant publications, principally his edition of Peri’s Le varie musiche and the monograph Jacopo Peri, 1561–1633, have justifiably secured an enviable status for him within the musicological discipline.[1] Similarly, in the English-speaking world (perhaps in the entire scholarly community, irrespective of nationality), Richard Goldthwaite is the preeminent figure among historians of the economy of late Medieval and early modern Florence, author of such commanding monographs as Private Wealth in Renaissance Florence, The Building of Renaissance Florence, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600, and his magisterial The Economy of Renaissance Florence.[2] (One might otherwise be tempted to call this last title Goldthwaite’s “culminating” contribution to scholarship, were it not for the fact that his coauthored work with Carter postdates it, and that he remains impressively active, full of ideas for future publications similar in scholarly design and intention to the book on Jacopo Peri.)

1.2 One’s understanding of the lives and artistic attainments of composers of the Medieval and early modern periods may suffer from an act of de-contextualization: such figures are sometimes (even often) studied and understood in a way that uproots them from the world in which they lived. Carter and Goldthwaite’s book succeeds so admirably because the act of re-contextualization is so complete: Jacopo Peri’s life and artistic accomplishments are as thoroughly nested in the relevant contexts—“material” (by which I mean economic and social), cultural, historical, political, and musical—as the current state of information permits, and far, far more thoroughly than ever before, more so than for any other composer before the modern era. If my understanding is correct, we now know more about Jacopo Peri (and considerably more) than about any other such figure before the eighteenth century.

1.3 In this achievement, the discovery of crucial primary sources served Carter and Goldthwaite (see “The Peri Archive,” 16–20). These sources comprise a series of ledgers and journals that reveal the economic conditions of Peri and the families of two of his three wives, as well as many of the composer’s personal reflections, entered as ricordi (notes or memoranda) in a separate section of his registers devoted to annotations of various kinds, common in Florentine ledgers. These documents yield exceptional, vivid detail on Peri’s life and material circumstances: his marriages and family life, the sources of his material situation (real estate possessions, etc., compensation for his performance activity, and his work as an accountant), and his artistic attainments. In all cases, when Carter and Goldthwaite undertake their act of re-contextualization, the different landscapes in which Peri is situated are reconstructed first, so that one understands Peri’s profile and achievements against that background. The reconstruction of his life thus suffers from little of that common (inadvertent?) historical tendency to extrapolate a particular figure excessively from his setting and thus misinterpret or exaggerate what characterizes him. There is little to none of that “telescoping” effect where one focuses inordinately on the figure in question, removing the contextual material unduly from view.

2. Micro and Macro Histories

2.1 The fact that one of the coauthors is an economic historian means, inevitably, that the materialist potential in such a study is foregrounded. The book is thus a particularly well-informed and well-documented example of that kind of approach to music history of the type practiced earlier by Nino Pirrotta and somewhat later by Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker. It cannot be a coincidence that the subject matter of the publications of all these scholars is Italian music of the Medieval and early modern periods, and specifically Italian opera (at least in part). Musical performance generally, and the performance of Italian opera specifically, are enterprises that demand a robust material infrastructure, and Carter and Goldthwaite thus illuminatingly reconstruct not only Peri’s private, familial material conditions, but also the material conditions of the formal establishments within which he functioned, specifically the Medici grand ducal court. (The “Italianate” cast of such an approach was first shaped in good part by Italian Marxist historian Antonio Labriola.[3])

2.2 The crucial primary sources that permit this study afford a superabundance of detail that might otherwise have become, well, “superabundant”! But one of the many virtues of Carter and Goldthwaite’s book is the skill with which they handle such detail. The book is so systematically organized at the macro level, and so clearly argued at the micro level, that the detail is absorbing, when it might well have become tedious. The detail yields such a concreteness, historicity, and sharpness in the resultant image of Peri and his world that the presentation succeeds.

3. Peri’s Social Status: Aristocratization and Imperial Aspirations

3.1 There is much in this book that one would dearly like to comment on. A few especially resonant passages have been selected. The section on “Social Status” (80–96) made for particularly compelling reading. One now understands Peri’s experience as an example in microcosm of that macrocosmic process of Medicean “aristocratization” (to use J.R. Hale’s phrase), resulting from their ennoblement in the sixteenth century. Medici ennoblement is to be understood in relation to a more universal phenomenon of aristocratization in sixteenth-century Italy, a phenomenon reflected in such classic texts as Machiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (“handbooks” of such aristocratization, in David Quint’s view) and in a renewed interest in epic as emblematic of empire and (in Cinquecento Italy) of imperial aspiration.[4] More locally, R. Burr Litchfield’s excellent book on the creation of a bureaucracy with the passing of the Florentine republic and the emergence of the Medici principato illuminates the context (further developed by Carter and Goldthwaite) for Peri’s self-fashioning.[5] Somewhat later in the book, adapting the title of one of Goldthwaite’s own books, the coauthors consider “the demand for music” (104) and thus address the role music (and the arts more generally) can play, and did play, in an act of aristocratic self-fashioning.

4. A Context for Peri’s Musical Activities

4.1 The material on Jacopo Corsi (104–21) is of particular interest to a musicologist, as are the sections on “Music at the Medici Court” (219–53), with its subsections on “The Medici Musical Establishment” (222–45) and “Court Musical Entertainments” (245–53) (this last section was especially “vivid”). These three aforementioned sections serve as especially revealing illustrations of that practice I mentioned earlier, where the context is first developed so that Peri’s profile within it can then be accurately positioned and understood. We proceed thereafter to a consideration of “Peri as Court Musician” (253–75), “Peri as Singing Teacher” (275–81), “Altri favori e carezze” (281–91), and “Peri’s Music” (291–310), somewhat more familiar matters for many musicologists, perhaps, but now—more successfully than before—apprehended in a more nuanced, textured way.

5. Conclusion

5.1 This is a wonderful book, a most excellent book, stimulating not only for what it furnishes specifically as for what it models more generally. In its highly contextualized portrait of Peri, achieved as the result of a pooling of multidisciplinary skills and the application of a “materialist” sensibility, Peri the human being (as well as the artistic figure) emerges as never before, and the coauthors have demonstrated the virtues and benefits of generous collaboration. They have succeeded brilliantly.

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