Music at a Time of Distress: Francesco Corteccia’s Passions

by Mauricio Roman

The year of 1527 was one of war, plague and uncertainty, as mercenaries arrived from the North to sack Florence and Rome. Everyone, musicians and artists included, had to adapt. We will follow four of them: Michelangelo, who directed the fortification of Florence; one of his friends, painter Sebastiano del Piombo, who hid with the Pope at the Sant’Angelo castle in Rome; Flemish composer Jacob Arcadelt (1507-68), who left Florence for France as troubles brewed; and young composer Francesco Corteccia (1502-71), recently ordained as a priest, who joined the baptistry of St. John the Baptist at the heart of Florence, where he wrote one of the first polyphony responsorials for the Passion of Christ, his Passion according to St. John.

Baptistry of St. John the Baptist in front of the Florence Cathedral

The Sack of Rome and the Plague of Florence

In 1525, the French and Spanish kings clashed for control of Italy and for the title of “King of Italy” — a requirement for becoming Holy Roman Emperor. With the help of German bankers, Charles I from Spain had bribed his way to be elected Holy Roman Emperor; and then emerged victorious after destroying the French army at Pavia and capturing Francis I. Charles was unable; however, to pay his 30,000 mercenaries, who were promised part of the spoils of war. Seeking to punish Medici Pope Clement VII for betraying his alliance with him, in 1527 he let his restless mercenaries descend onto Florence, which was allied with Rome, Venice and France in the League of Cognac against Charles I.

Florence was well defended. The mostly German Lutheran (landsknechte) and Spanish Catholic mercenaries continued onto Rome, along with contingents from allied Italian states (such as the one from Mantua led by Ferrante I Gonzaga). The dense morning fog of that May 6 rendered the city’s defensive artillery useless. By the time it dissipated, the city’s walls by the Janiculum had been breached; this was the beginning of a period of utter destruction that lasted nine months, with a Summer interlude.

The Pope, who was celebrating Mass that morning, ran to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo while the Swiss guards who defended him were massacred. Clement VII was joined by 13 cardinals and a few citizens, including painter Sebastiano del Piombo.

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome

In his book “The Sack of Rome”, Florentine Luigi Giucciardini (1478-1551), elder brother of the noted Italian historian and Medici administrator Francesco, recounts the gory details of the sack of Rome under the perspective, common at the time, of it being a divine punishment for the sins of the Roman court and curia. He adds particular details, such as a cardinal being lifted up the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo on a basket held by cables. Others, taken prisoner by the Imperial soldiers, preferred to commit suicide rather than endure tortures.

The news of the sack of Rome stunned Europe. Citizens of Florence revolted against the despotic rule of the young Alessandro de’ Medici and to attempt once again to have a Republican form of government, allied with other republics such as Venice, in the hope of staving off foreign control and fulfilling the dream of Machiavelli (who died that very same year) of uniting the country under one leader.

The sack was accompanied by plague, which affected Florence as its citizens returned from Rome. A “Description of the Plague at Florence in the Year 1527” by Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi records this plague in detail:

“Our pitiful Florence now looks like nothing but a town which has been stormed by infidels and    then forsaken. One part of the inhabitants…have retired to distant country houses, one part is dead, and yet another part is dying. Thus the present is torment, the future menace, so we contend with death and only live in fear and trembling. The clean, fine streets which formerly teemed with rich and noble citizens are now stinking and dirty; crowds of beggars drag themselves through them with anxious groans and only with difficulty and dread can one pass them.”

Some of his descriptions seem familiar to us in the current pandemic:

“Shops and inns are closed, at the factories work has ceased, the law courts are empty, the laws are trampled on. Now one hears of some theft, now of some murder. The squares, the market places on which citizens used frequently to assemble, have now been converted into graves and into the resort of the wicked rabble. … If by chance relations meet, a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, they carefully avoid each other. What further words are needed? Fathers and mothers avoid their own children and forsake them. … A few provision stores are still open, where bread is distributed, but where in the crush plague boils are also spread. Instead of conversation … one hears now only pitiful, mournful tidings – such a one is dead, such a one is sick, such a one has fled, such a one is interned in his house, such a one is in hospital, such a one has nurses, another is without aid…”

Further plague epidemics accompanied the Siege of Florence (1529–30); religious buildings became hospitals and 600 temporary structures were built to house the infected.

Michelangelo’s Hidden Art

At this time, Michelangelo worked on directing the fortifications of the city’s walls. Even though he had lived in the Medici household for three years during his teenage years, he did not support the increasingly tyrannical Medici regime. After several months of hiding, Clement VII, nephew of Lorenzo de’ Medici, paid a ransom and escaped Rome; he then formed an alliance with Charles I of Spain and crowned him emperor as Charles V in 1530.

With the help of Spanish troops, the Medicis regained control of Florence. The city capitulated in 1530 after almost ten months of siege as it was abandoned by its allies and betrayed by its mercenaries. Over the next few months, many of the Republic’s leaders were executed or banished.  Michelangelo went into hiding in a secret room under the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence

Once victorious, Clement VII pardoned Michelangelo, his childhood friend, who emerged from hiding after three months at the end of 1530. The next year, he worked at San Lorenzo finishing the sculpture “La Notte” for the Medici chapel; Francesco Corteccia, meanwhile, had become canon at that same basilica. There, he composed the Passion according to St. Matthew.

Consecrated in the Spring of 393 by Saint Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, the Basilica of San Lorenzo was the first cathedral in Florence. It was rebuilt during the Renaissance, and was supported financially by several families centered around the Medici. According to this study, its 13 canons were priests who doubled as musicians and singers; each was paid by a different family. Also, each of the basilica’s 12 side chapels had a family sponsor. Thus, all of the 13 priests could say his own mass simultaneously, with an independent set of intentions, on his own altar, following an arrangement similar to the example below. At San Lorenzo, Corteccia would have been one of those priests.

Photo of priests celebrating Mass on side altars simultaneously at an unknown church. Source: New Liturgical Movement

The interior of San Lorenzo has an elegant set of arches designed by Bruneleschi framing each of its side altars. In the Ginori family chapel, the first on the right hand side, lies the tomb of Francesco Landini, a pioneer of the ars nova who was employed at San Lorenzo from 1365 until his death. Prior to the 19th century, there were no benches. Regularly, the faithful congregated around the side altars for quiet Low Masses; the main nave was used mostly on feast days and usually for High Masses, which were accompanied by singing.

Interior of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence

It is likely that Corteccia and Michelangelo met at San Lorenzo, where both worked. Michelangelo certainly knew Corteccia’s teacher, Bernardino Pisano, from his time in Rome, where both worked for Leo X. Michelangelo and Corteccia would have found that they had a common sympathy for the ideals of Savonarola who had preached returning to the essence of the Gospel. Despite having been burned at the stake in 1498, in 1527 the dominican friar still had many admirers, called the Piagnoni.

Another thing in common between the artist and the composer is that some of their work connected to San Lorenzo was lost and found only centuries later. The drawings which Michelangelo left on the walls of his hiding place were discovered in 1975 by Paolo dal Poggetto, director of the Medici Chapel Museum. Francesco Corteccia’s Passion of St John and his Passion of St Matthew were found in 1970 in the musical archive of the Florence Duomo by Florentine musicologist Mario Fabbri.

The secret room where Michelangelo hid was opened to the public in 2020; Corteccia’s Passion according to St. John has been produced, but his Passion according to St. Matthew is currently under production and will be released in 2021.

Michelangelo’s Hiding Room Under the Basilica of San Lorenzo

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Passion Artwork

The well-delineated and muscular human forms with dynamic poses that we observe in Michelangelo’s drawings are a feature that his friend Sebastiano del Piombo learnt well.

Below, we see three of Sebastiano’s paintings related to the passion of Jesus.  In his Christ Carrying the Cross, Sebastiano uses color to accentuate the suffering expressed in the face of Jesus and underscore his innocence. Simone of Cyrene appears with partial shadow and a bewildered look, whereas the soldier is mostly in shadows and with a menacing face.

Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515-17 by Sebastiano del Piombo, Art Institute of Chicago

In the Viterbo Pietà, del Piombo highlights Mary’s firm character in the midst of disaster and death, which remain mostly in shadows, presaging the destruction that the city of Rome would undergo a decade later.

The Viterbo Pietà, 1515 by Sebastiano del Piombo, Viterbo Museo Civico

In the Descent into Limbo, Christs’s clothes are slightly tainted red, as if to show that his vestments bore the signs of his Passion, just as his body did. This theme, which is very unusual for a painting at the time, shows the telos of Jesus’ Passion, and is not part of the Gospel, but rather is based on the Nicene Credo and was proclaimed as dogma by the Lateran Council of 1215. Del Piombo makes use of Dante’s image of Hell being disrupted by Christ (Inferno 12.31-45), even to the point of creating partial destruction and confusion.

Descent into Limbo, 1516 by Sebastiano del Piombo, Museo del Prado

In each of the above paintings, Sebastiano del Piombo uses color only insofar as needed to create the desired effect. It is almost as if he started with the line drawings — similar to those Michelangelo drew in his secret room — and added color to fill in the volumes and guide the eye to the emotional center of gravity in the painting.

Francesco Corteccia’s Use of the Vernacular

According to a hypothesis by various musicologists, Francesco Corteccia used the plain recitation of the Gospel text in Tuscan, adding just enough “color” through Latin-based polyphony so as to provide moments of contemplation, where the mind should not be so focused on the meaning of the words but on the mystery itself. Below, we see the Florentine early music group “L’Homme Armée” who are producing Corteccia’s works following this hypothesis.

Musical Group L’Homme Armée, Florence

In the late Middle Ages, harmonized narratives of the four Gospels were composed in the vernacular; these works were popular at religious confraternities, which were abundant in Florence. Passion music following this harmonized narrative is called a Summa Passione. The harmonization of the Gospels was a theme first explored by Tatian of Adiabene in the second century.

Once printing became available in the 1460s, harmonized narratives were broadly disseminated. One example is Niccolò Cicerchia’s La Passione di Gesu Christo; its 1483 edition can be read online, while a modern edition is found here. In the decade of 1460, Rome and Venice were already two out of seven important printing centers of incunabula.

A Tuscan translation of the Bible was first printed in 1471 in Venice. This edition was prepared by the venetian monk Nicolò Malermi, who used and modified manuscripts with prior translations from the Latin Vulgate. The Malermi translation was widely used in Italy until the 18th century. An example from the Malermi bible is shown below: a page out of the last chapter of the Gospel of St. John.

Introduction to chapter 19 of the Gospel according to St. John in the Malermi Bible, 1491 edition

Given the above evidence, it is plausible that the Passion’s recitative parts were read in the Tuscan language. This choice is not strictly liturgical; yet, since Florence had many confraternities who conducted many activities outside of the liturgy, this is where Corteccia’s work is most likely to have been performed, according to this assessment.

As such, the narration using Tuscan led to an exact and immediate comprehension of the text, while polyphony, using ecclesiastical Latin, was used for the turbarum, or responses of the people, soldiers and high priests, as well as the responsories, which are contemplative moments when the narrative stops.

Francesco Corteccia’s Passions

The recounting of Christ’s Passion is one of the main moments of the pasqual liturgy, which between Palm Sunday and Holy Friday is presented in diverse versions as reported by the four evangelists. This narration, which in the traditional liturgy was delivered through salmody, appears for the first time in Corteccia in a polyphonic version, using the new musical style that was being developed in Florence in those years, based on the earlier work by Jacob Obrecht. This style, simple and intense, tries to render a more dramatic narrative of the Gospel.

The Gospel narrative is interrupted at critical moments by responsori about prophecy and lamentations which represent moments of devoted meditation. For the Good Friday liturgy, when the Passion according to St. John is read, they are:

Omnes amici mei
Velum templi scissum est
Vinea mea electa
Tamquam ad latronem
Tenebrae factae sunt
Animam meam dilectam
Tradiderunt me
Jesum tradidit impius
Caligaverunt oculi mei
All my friends have deserted me
The veil of the temple was rent
O vineyard, my chosen one
You come as against a robber
Darkness fell
I delivered my beloved soul
They delivered me
The wicked man betrayed Jesus
My eyes are darkened

Set as motets, they are the most inspired parts of Corteccia’s Passion According to St. John: in particular, the touching Tristis est anima mea, the dramatic Caligaverunt oculi mei and the Tenebrae factae sunt are considered a masterwork of the motteistic genre. At the conclusion, after Christ’s death, the chorus concludes with the Evangelium that is the retelling of the deposition of the cross and sepulture.

Corteccia’s Passions are composed in a simple and linear style, following the wake of his tutor Bernardo Pisano; in it, the homorhythmic progression of the voices prevails over the display of counterpoint ability as the composer seeks to make firm the comprehension of the words of the text and to provide an atmosphere that best corresponds to the dramatic moment, looking to render the music expressive of the sacred text, according to a principle that Corteccia states in the introduction to his Book of Hymns in 1543, where he writes that the goal of a musician is:

“to enhance the pleasure of the ear of the worshiper through variety and to keep his mind steadfast and attentive to God by presenting it with the notes and melody adapted to the words and in a certain way, expressive of their meaning”

A musical group in Florence, L’Homme Armé, is raising funds through crowdfunding to finish their rendition of St. Matthew’s Passion by Corteccia, which has never been produced. Their works should be ready by the 2021 FloReMus (Florence Renaissance Music Festival) which takes place this coming September 3-12.

Michelangelo’s Madrigals

Jacob Arcadelt, the Flemish composer of madrigals, was living in Florence in 1527, but due to the political situation, left for Lyons, only to return in 1532 once the Medici’s were back in power.

Michelangelo, who was also a poet, commissioned Arcadelt to compose music for several of his madrigals. One is particularly moving, Deh dimmi, Amor, composed in honor of Michelangelo’s friend Vittoria Colonna. Yet, at least one of Michelangelo’s madrigals (Se qui son chiusi) was composed by Corteccia around 1539. Perhaps after all, Corteccia and Michelangelo did know each other.

A selection of Michelangelo’s madrigals, composed by Arcadelt and Corteccia among others, were presented at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence in 2017.


Composing at a time of war led Francesco Corteccia to focus on the essentials; his work was most likely performed at the confraternities which abounded in Florence, when its citizens most needed to understand that there was a higher purpose for their present suffering. The direct appeal to the viewer’s direct and immediate comprehension of the scene without sacrificing the contemplative dimension that we see in Sebastiano del Piombo’s paintings found an echo in Francesco Corteccia’s work.

As to the results of the war, most of Italy fell under the control of Spain and remained so for almost two centuries. Spain had direct control of Milan, Naples and Sicily, where it governed, and maintained indirect control in other places. In Florence, Spain built a giant pentagonal-shaped fortress — the Fortezza da Basso — with guns pointed at the city.

Fortezza da Basso, Florence, with the Duomo visible on the background to the right

Spain removed its soldiers from Florence a few years after Cosimo I de’ Medici married the daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. A civilian contingent of Spaniards remained in Florence, with their own neighborhood and parish, Santa Maria Novella, located next to the fortress. Among the Spaniards in Florence, we find Baltasar Suárez de la Concha, who became Cosimo I’s brother in law and was second cousin of composer Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Sebastiano del Piombo fled Rome with the Pope, and after a brief sojourn in Venice, returned to the Eternal City, where in 1534 his friendship with Michelangelo became strained over the methods to use for painting The Last Judgement.

Michelangelo left Florence, never to return. In 1539, he most likely met Arcadelt in Rome, who wrote music for many of his madrigals. Arcadelt left Rome in 1544 to go back to France.

Many years later, Corteccia would lead the music at Michelangelo’s funeral, which took place at San Lorenzo on the 14th of July, 1564 in the presence of the body of the artist who died in Rome but was transported back to Florence, hidden among merchandise, by his nephew Lionardo.

In 1539, Corteccia became chapel master for duke Cosimo I. One of his students, Luca Bati, became chapel master at San Lorenzo and was associated with the members of the Camerata Fiorentina. Corteccia was still at work on his counterpoints in June 1571 when death overtook him. He did not pay too much attention to printing his own music: his sacred and secular works were copied by his assistant Michele Federighi, and are published by the American Institute of Musicology in six volumes edited by Frank A. D’Accone.

As to the mercenaries who sacked Rome, a few became rich enough to buy their own castle. One Spanish mercenary, Juan de Mayorga Salazar, seized a painting depicting Jesus during his Passion, called the “Ecce Hommo”. He later became a conquistador and brought it to South America; in 1620, his descendants donated it to a newly-built monastery named after the painting: Monasterio Ecce Hommo in Colombia.


Altar painting at the Ecce Hommo Monastery in Colombia

Charles I could not pay back some of his loans. To the German Welser family, he offered colonial rights in 1528: they became owners of the colony of Klein-Venedig in Venezuela. In 1551, a German explorer working for the Wesler family, Ambrosius Ehinger, founded the mining town of Vetas, Colombia, which was settled by artisanal miners. Gold from its mines helped pay for Spain’s mercenary troops in Flanders and Italy. When gold-carrying galleons were delayed, its soldiers remained unpaid.

The Sack of Rome scattered many painters living in the city, disseminating the fruits of the Renaissance across Europe, and particularly France.

Spain’s control of Italy and Flanders fostered musical exchange among these regions. Many northern musicians moved to Italy and were influenced by the native Italian styles, and often brought those ideas with them back to their homeland, blending their dynamic musical lines and contrapuntal complexity with the homophonic textures of the Italian lauda. This resulted in the formation of an international musical language, of which the most famous composers that would follow included Palestria, Lassus and Victoria.




  • Deh dimmi, Amor, a madrigal by Michelangelo composed in honor of his beloved friend Vittoria Colonna

Composers who influenced Corteccia:

Sebastiano del Piombo & Michelangelo:

  • Clip on Michelangelo and Sebastiano, showing how they collaborated on the mural painting “The Flagellation of Christ” at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome (and what led to the end of their friendship)

Sack of Rome:

  • Unser Liebe Fraue, a war song of the Landsknechts, the German mercenary soldiers who along with Spanish and Italian mercenaries sacked Rome in 1527
  • Read The Sack of Rome by Luigi Guicciardini, translated by James H. MacGregor in 1993 and reviewed here


  • Baptistry of St. John the Baptist — short documentary; while working here, Francesco Corteccia composed the Passion according to St. John.
  • Basilica of San Lorenzo — short documentary; while working here, Francesco Corteccia composed the Passion according to St. Matthew.
  • Fortezza da Basso — short documentary on the military fortress built by Spain and which supported the Medici’s power after 1532