by Mauricio Roman
After a year-long winter as trees blossom all around us here in Seattle, it is the ideal time to celebrate springtime with family and friends. There is a certain freedom of spirit, a liberation so to speak that arrives with this particular season.
But how to celebrate? We can get a cue from a circle of humanists who gathered at Villa del Paradiso near Florence in the Spring of 1389, at the onset of the Italian Renaissance.
Between lively conversations, they listened to Francesco Landini’s portable organ performances and ars nova compositions.
The details of this meeting, lost to history for almost 500 years, were recovered in 1867 by a Russian scholar, Aleksandr Veselovski. While this work may contain some historical fiction, it is worth exploring to understand the effects which Landini’s music produced on his audience.
The recovered manuscript, known as Il Paradiso degli Alberti (1426), written by Giovanni di Gherardo da Prato, describes in Book III the experience of this ideal circle of friends, which we will explore — how they got to the villa, who they were, how they were received and, finally, how they reacted to the wonderful music they heard.
While there are other literary works that give detailed descriptions of the way music was executed in trecento Italy, such as Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) and Simone Prodenzani’s Il Saporetto (ca. 1400), none is directly connected with a composer as brilliant as Landini.
The Way to Villa del Paradiso
The year 1389 was a year of peace; everyone in Florence was celebrating. The threat from Milan, however, loomed in the horizon, as its duke expanded his sphere of influence with a plan to absorb all of Italy under him; Florence was one of his main targets.
In this tranquil year, the friends would have met at the Duomo, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, (from right to left in the painting below), and then turned East (towards the viewer), walking along the banks of the Arno river.
“The Ponte Vecchio in Florence” (1747) by Bernardo Bellotto, Private Collection
Upon exiting the city through the Porta San Niccolò and taking a turn towards the South, as they looked back towards the city, they would have seen a view like the one depicted below.
“View Of Florence” (1832) by August Ahlborn (1796-1857), Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
There was one exception: the cathedral dome was not yet built (it was finished by Brunelleschi in 1436). The trip would have taken, by foot, about an hour. Even today, the location of Villa del Paradiso is set on green space at the edge of Florence — exactly where the Convent of Santa Brigida al Paradiso now stands (see map).
Map by Leonardo da Vinci showing the location of “paradiso” relative to Florence (source)
Antonio di messer Niccolò Alberti (ca 1354-1415) was the host; he personally invited his friends to a three-day sojourn at his magnificent villa. He was a Florentine banker, merchant, politician, intellectual, rimatore (maker of rhymes), and teacher of algebra and astrology.
His father Niccolò (1327-77) was known in Florence as the “father of the poor” for his charitable works, which included the founding of a hospice for the poor, the Ospizio di Orbatello, adjacent to Santa Maria Annunziata.
The Alberti were a leading merchant family in Florence, owners of a trading company with branches in multiple cities: Bologna, Genoa, Venice, Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, London, Syria and Greece, among others. They were also leaders in the patronage of arts and music in the city.
About to enter the scene were the Medici, the nouveau riche papal bankers who during the next century would come to dominate above all other families (with the support of the Alberti).
The Medici and the Alberti focused their patronage on different churches. The Medici centered their attention on the Basilica of San Lorenzo (and on the saints Lorenzo and Cosme), whereas the Alberti beautified the Santa Croce Church (and later, San Miniato) and took Saint Catherine of Alexandria as their patron.
With regards to St. Catherine, the Alberti built the frescoed Oratorio di Santa Caterina delle Ruote located not far from the Villa del Paradiso (finished in 1387). Nowadays, one can attend early music presentations there, such as this rendition of Il Combatimento di Tancredi et Clorinda. They also commissioned works of art in her honor: for example, the Santa Caterina e donatore, shown below (with an Alberti family member shown in blue cape and red hood).
“Santa Caterina e donatore” (1370-75) by Giovanni del Biondo, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
The above painting uses soft red and earthen harmonic colors coupled with strong blues with a near absence of greens — a vivid color palette characteristic of Florence, and very different from that found in Venice, with its sharper colors.
Landini was part of a select group of humanists reflecting his personal qualities as well as the rising stature of musicians, who were transitioning from craftsmen to artists.
The guests included, among others, the Chancellor of the city of Florence, a physician, two monks, and a philosopher. Several of them had lost relatives and friends during the Black Death which ravaged Italy forty years prior, killing two-thirds of Florence’s population.
Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) was chancellor of the Republic of Florence from 1375 until his death. Salutati is known as the “inventor of humanism” for his ability to draw on the deep roots of Antiquity while not being a prisoner of an “antiquarian” mindset — he had a fresh and original writing style formed on the classics but not slavish to them.
He also played a key role mentoring younger humanists. To teach them Greek, Salutati brought the scholar Manuel Chrysoloras over from Constantinople in 1397 (and ensured that the city paid him a salary). In his time, only a few Latin translations of philosophical works, arriving from Toledo and Sicily, were available. Salutati made it possible for Florentine scholars to read Aristotle and Plato in the original ancient Greek.
Salutati’s archenemy was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the tyrannical duke of Milan who sought to unify Italy under his rule, and who once remarked that one of Salutati’s letters could “cause more damage than a thousand Florentine horsemen”.
Marsilio di Santa Sofia (1338-1405) was a renowned medical doctor belonging to a family of physicians, the Santa Sofia, who emigrated from Constantinople in 1292; his life story underscores the importance of this Eastern city in transferring knowledge to the Italian republics at the onset of the Renaissance.
Luigi Marsili (1342-1394) was an Augustinian friar at the Santo Spirito convent where the group of humanists regularly met; he was a friend of Petrach and Bocaccio. His friends had a great reverence for him due to his scientific knowledge and holy life.
Grazia Castellani (c. 1350-1401), an Augustinian friar at the Santo Spirito convent, was a theologian and mathematician. He later became ambassador of Florence to Milan and forged alliances to defend Florence in case war broke out.
Biagio Pelacani (1355-1416) was a mathematician, philosopher and astrologer from Parma. He furthered the development of perspective. His Quaestiones de perspectiva (ultimately resting on Ibn al-Haytham’s research in optics) influenced masters of the Renaissance.
Arrival at Villa del Paradiso
Upon their arrival, all went inside the Villa’s chapel where a priest celebrated Mass. How was such an experience in those times? This video with the Harpa Dei sacred music choir shows how it must have felt to participate in a celebration at a house chapel.
The guests proceeded to sit in plush chairs in the garden next to the fountain surrounded by fir, pine and cypress trees, where they enjoyed good wine, fresh cold water and delicacies, including soft and delicious fruits: cherries, melon, and figs. They saw in the garden diverse and strange animals, and felt as if they were in the most beautiful paradise, according to Da Prato.
Among the topics of conversation, one that stood out was on the foundation of Florence: was it founded during the Roman Republic? Having a republican lineage for this city at that time was important in the face of the despotic regime which intended to dominate it.
Francesco and His Music
Da Prato describes Francesco Landini as a theoretical and practical musician, blind from his birth, who had an almost divine intellect which allowed him to master the subtle proportions of musical numbers, which with his organ he practiced with such sweetness and purity that his music seemed out of this world when heard; moreover, he discussed with the philosopher and artist guests not only about his music, but also about every liberal art, because he was well versed in all of them.
At the time of this sojourn, Francesco was organist at San Lorenzo Church in Florence (where he was later buried). A brilliant player of several instruments, he excelled in the portative organ, and was at the same time a distinguished poet, receiving a laurel crown in Venice.
Allegory of music, illuminated page from De Institutione Musica by Boethius, Italy, manuscript V A folio 27, Italy 14th Century. Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale
Among the instruments played at the time, the portative organ was considered the most elevated and pure, as seen in the manuscript image above with the Allegory of Music as a lady in blue with a laurel crown — the earthly counterpart to the divine lyre played by King David, shown above.
After the guests had eaten, Francesco arrived with his portable organ, and started to play it in such a pleasant way with such a sweet harmony that all were marveled; in this radiant place he inebriated everything with an infinite fragrance, according to Da Prato.
We can get a sense of the musical effects of the portative organ by listening to Catalina Vincens, a Chilean-born specialist of this instrument. The guests at Villa del Paradiso would have been delighted to listen to her music (and the host even more so since she bears the name of his family’s favorite saint).
Listen to Benedicamus Domino played by Catalina Vicens
After eating, a group of young people which included Alberti’s sister Ginevra arrived to dance a ballata celebrating the arrival of Spring accompanied by Francesco’s music. Several of the dancers were sons and daughters of the guests.
Listen to Ecco la Primavera, performed by Catalina Vicens and Enea Sorini.
Below are the lyrics, along with my translation using Fioro’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary. Between stanzas, I share some photos taken by me at the Seattle Arboretum that echo the theme of Landini’s primaveral ode. As we strolled through Seattle’s Arboretum, we saw grassy spots where the group of friends would have felt quite comfortable for their gathering.
Everyone we met at the Arboretum had a joyful expression; families, mothers with children, friends, lovers were all placidly strolling with a smile on their face: in this season love, in all its diverse forms, is in the air.
|Ecco la primavera
che ‘l cor fa rallegrare;
temp’è da ‘nnamorare
e star con lieta cera.
|Here comes springtime,
Which makes the heart rejoice,
It is the season for love
and to have a joyful semblance.
Seattle Arboretum (4/20/21)
Everything that once looked dry and ugly has sightliness, becoming attractive to the eye; the overall ambiance produces happiness.
|No’ vegiam l’aria e ‘l tempo
che pur chiama allegreza;
in questo vago tempo
ogni cosa ha vagheza.
|The air and the season, we note
both produce happiness;
In this lovely time
everything has sightliness.
Seattle Arboretum (4/20/21)
The grass, the fields on the ground and the trees are similarly adorned with the common fashion of the season.
|L’erbe con gran frescheza
e fiori copron prati
e gli alberi adornati
sono in simil manera.
|The grass with its great freshness
And the flower-covered fields
And the trees similarly adorned
All share a common fashion
Seattle Arboretum (4/20/21)
The Reaction in 1389
As stated already, the audience felt the music was luminous and radiant. When coupled with dance, the combination elicited superlative “reviews” expressed in numinous terms. Birds even responded and engaged with the music!
These three reactions to Landini’s music, as documented by Da Prato, can serve as “tests” that we can apply to gauge a particular performance of this very early music.
The luminous test: when the music is described as being “out of this world” with unusual sweetness and purity that radiates over the surrounding reality.
The numinous test: When someone reacts to the beauty of a secular performance with a religious-like homage. In particular, Biagio Pelacani, one of the guests, upon contemplating the dancers animated by Francesco’s music, exclaimed: “O bone, o bone, domine mee! Bone, bone, domine mee!” as he made a reverence (to which Alberti’s sister, Ginevra, responded that she was not his Madonna but rather wished to be his student).
The nature test: when music is in harmony with the sounds of nature, and even animals react to the beauty of the music. Once, two ladies sang one of Landini’s ballate and everyone was much affected. Even the birds became silent, and then started to sing with redoubled energy. Finally, a nightingale came and perched on a branch right above Francesco.
Our Modern Reaction
Searching for evidence of whether modern renditions of trecento music pass these tests, I could not verify if any passed the nature test, mainly because of our tendency to perform early music in churches and other indoor spaces instead of outdoor gardens, where music can be in harmony with the sounds of nature and open to its response.
At home, we are quite familiar with the nature test — my wife learnt in Costa Rica how to imitate bird songs and entices, even in Seattle, birds to sing back at her. We welcome any musician to our garden — which has a beautiful cherry blossom — to try out their portative organ!
One of Catalina Vincen’s performances elicited a reaction that I think passes the numinous test. James Louder, a master organ builder, reacted to this performance by Catalina, expressing himself in these terms:
Musicae quoque magistra.
Nowadays, Youtube is a virtual “garden” where we can find reactions to musical experience. With respect to the luminous test, when she plays the portable organ — like Francesco Landini, with her eyes closed — the response is clearly positive:
“That’s what a medieval painting of Saint Cecilia would sound like…”
“Tremendously beautiful. You play like every sound is bliss.”
“Extraordinary – beautifully expressive, nimble, nuanced – I just love it to bits.”
“Incredibly beautiful and haunting all at once. Very different from modern pipe organs with constant and regulated wind supplies. It breathes and sings very much like the human voice.”
“Music from another world.”
“Un ange de la Renaissance qui redescend sur terre et nous livre cette musique de louange!” (A Renaissance angel who comes down to earth and gives us this music of praise!)
“C’est magnifique : quelle belle musique, et en même temps quelle simplicité ! On sent en vous une vraie musicienne : vous êtes radieuse.” (It’s magnificent: what beautiful music, and at the same time what simplicity! We feel in you a real musician: you are radiant)
In conclusion, it is possible to generate similar effects (according to our tests) as those experienced by the illustrious guests as reported in Il Paradiso degli Alberti, with the only missing ingredient being the incorporation of nature’s sounds — and her reaction. This can be corrected, at least during springtime, by venturing to perform outside.
After the Meeting
A year after the springtime reunion of humanists, in 1390, the Alberti converted the villa into a convent which exists today: Santa Brigida al Paradiso. It hosted a monastery of followers of Brigid of Sweden (1303-1373). Some years later, the daughter of the convent gardener, Domenica del Paradiso (1473-1553) entered the convent and became one of Florence’s best-known religious mystics. Her name reminds us of that day when, after Mass, friends heard Landini’s splendid and luminous music.
With regards to Florence and Milan, most of the guests at Villa del Paradiso used their intellectual skills to combat Milan’s power. The unexpected death of its duke, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, in 1402 spared Florence from a certain conquest and opened up the doors for the Italian Renaissance — which, in a sense, was a kind of historical Spring.
Despite their services to Florence, the Alberti were temporarily banned from the city and had much of their wealth confiscated by their political enemies. Yet, their good works survive to this day, for not only the convent of Santa Brigida al Paradiso is extant, but also the Ospizio di Orbatello, which became in 1980 the art history library at the University of Florence.
In Florence, there was a lively tradition of organists which drew inspiration from Landini. According to this study, “this is frequently testified by visual arts: think of the innumerable portative organs portrayed in coeval Florentine frescoes, paintings, miniatures or even sculptures, a subject enlivened by its being strictly linked to representations of angel musicians in Marian altarpieces (which became a very common as a subject in the long period from 1350 up to 1500).”
Not all contemporary renditions available produce the effects we describe, so one must be careful and selective. I find that the following groups produce at least some of the described effects when performing either Landini’s works or other works on the portative organ: