Music & Spaces in Mantua

On Friday 11 May we went to Mantua and saw some remarkable buildings and pieces of music. First we had a private tour of Palazzo Ducale by Paola Besutti. We were incredibly fortunate to have her as our guide. The tour began with the recently rediscovered Hall of Mirrors, a place where Monteverdi’s music was frequently performed. There will be more on that in a separate post. Next we explored the palace areas that are open to the public. Some sections are still closed due to the earthquake damage last year, but there was still a ton to see. It was really interesting to see the different levels of private and public space within the palace and how different people living there marked their spaces. The entire palace was richly decorated with symbols that displayed messages for the room’s intended visitors. It was especially interesting to see all of these spaces after having taken Giovanni’s seminar on Music & Space two years ago in which we often discussed Renaissance palaces and the various spaces and meanings within them. To actually walk through these rooms made made our discussion points immediately relevant.

I found this to be especially striking when we saw Isabella d’Este’s apartments. Her studiolo was one of my favorite parts of the Palazzo Ducale. You could clearly see her interest in music present in these rooms.  The ceiling is richly decorated with gold including her name and important personal symbols. The walls are wooden with panels that open into cabinets.  There are so many musical and philosophical symbols in these rooms.  One cabinet panel had a landscape carved into it with a with a musical work underneath, while another had a viol and several other instruments on it.  At a higher level was the canon of silence, a work entirely composed of rests with four mensuration signs at the beginning. It is easy to see how this room functioned as a space for ideas, personal reflection, and the pursuit of passions.  All the symbols would stimulate thought and connectivity between ideas. Giovanni compared it to a very elaborate carrel, which can function in a similar fashion. I only wish my carrel was half that nice.

After the ducal palace, we headed to the home of the Accademia Virgiliana for lunch followed by a most wonderful dessert of music manuscripts belonging to this academy. We saw a program for a performance of the 14 year old Mozart at the academy showing off all of his musical tricks.  The music manuscripts we saw were performing parts for works played by the academy members. This provided very interesting discussion of the differences between the academy’s holdings and the Greggiati collection.  The parts at the Accademia Virgiliana are remnants of this group’s function in the 18th century.  They would meet and play music together for their own enjoyment. The Accademia commissioned pieces and brought in composers such as Mozart for private performances.  They were not trying to collect music, but rather had music made for their own use and never got rid of it.  These are very important distinctions from the Greggiati collection.  Greggiati purposefully sought out scores that interested him and frequently had them copied (by his own hand or that of his copyists).  He then went through them and made annotations and corrections as he saw fit. There are so many ways that groupings of musical works can occur. Our class has now encountered two of them in our first week in Italy. I am excited to find more types for comparisons in functions, reasons for existence, and the layers of meaning it can add to the reception of the works.

On our way out from the academy we got to see the theater in which the academy’s guests of the 18th century would have performed.  There was a conference going on so we couldn’t fully explore it, but we did get to sit in some of the boxes and take in the grandeur of the space.

Theater 2

Next we went to the Basilica di Santa Barbara, a church made by the Gonzagas. The wonderful church guide led us through almost every crevice of the building from the depths of the crypt up to the base of the bell tower! It was easy to see the many ways music could have been performed in this space. There are three different galleries that have a great line of sight to the organ loft and the choir’s location. In the vicinity of the organ we saw the organist’s room for writing music, the bellows (now mechanized but we pulled at them anyways), and the organ itself. The organ has split keys to accommodate more keys within the mean tempered tuning.

We saw so many spaces within the church that it was very easy to feel disoriented. Without going outside we wound up in a different part of the ducal palace than we had seen before. We also saw former tunnels and passageways connecting the palace to the theater, the church, and other nearby buildings. All of these connections create a city within a city atmosphere within Mantua. The duke and his family could go many places without having to go outside and be obligated to wear their full noble wardrobes. It also gives the duke access to separate entrances both setting himself apart from others in the space and allowing him to carefully construct his entrances and presentation in the space.  The whole day made for an amazing first hand lesson in how and why Renaissance cities were constructed in this manner.



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