Vacation Day 1: Ferrara!

Our modern view of buildings enhanced by the patina of age owes much to them, but was not the accepted view in earlier centuries. In Italy the consequences of industrial wealth arrived almost a century later and many ancient monuments were preserved through poverty. Old buildings could normally be replaced only when there was money to pay for them. Thus the shell of quattrocento Ferrara survives, but this same poverty was responsible for lack of maintenance, and what would formerly have been a city of gaily painted buildings was reduced to a city of plain brick facades.”   — Tuohy, Herculean Ferrara, 2.

For many of us in this year’s Ostiglia course, Thomas Touhy’s words were our first in-depth contact with Ferrara. Through Touhy (and also Lockwood), many of us came to know the past splendor of Herculean Ferrara, from the ornate tapestries to the ephemeral sugar sculptures of the Estense court. This past Monday, our group had the pleasure of exploring Ferrara in person and walking through many of the spaces and streets discussed by Touhy. Though the trip lasted only a few hours, our visit allowed us to experience in person the spaces about which we have heard and read so much.

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Palazzo Bentivoglio

After the usual confusion of arranging travel to the city — naturally a train station wouldn’t sell train tickets, but rather a store down the road sells them — we caught our train to Ferrara. The short train ride gave us a taste of the north Italian country side, as we passed corn and soy fields and the occasional patch of red poppies. Upon our arrival at the train station, we headed straight for the ducal palace. Most striking about the city? The number of bicycles. Compared to Amsterdam with its enormous bike garages, the number of bikes in Ferrara pales in comparison, but for a city of only 135,000, the number of bikes is astonishing. The little “bike meters” installed on bike lines boast thousands of passing bicyclists each day.  Our stroll took along Via Garibaldi and by the Palazzo Bentivoglio. Built by Borso d’Este in the 15th century, the building was home to a variety of wealthy individuals and now functions as an apartment building.

Dr. Ossi discusses Renaissance grotesque painting in the Stanzino della Duchese at the Palazzo Ducale in Ferrara

Dr. Ossi discusses Renaissance grotesque painting in the Stanzino della Duchese at the Palazzo Ducale in Ferrara

From the Palazzo Bentivoglio, we continued to the Palazzo Ducale (better known as the Palazzo Municipale). The steps to the Palazzo Ducale have become famous among the M603 Ostiglia participants, as they provide the backdrop for one of the annual group pictures. Because the Palazzo Ducale is now used as an administrative office for the city of Ferrara, only a few rooms of the original structure are available for the public to see, and even fewer retain original art and furnishings. One of the rooms with original decoration is the studiolo or camarino of the duchesses. The room was decorated between 1555 and 1560 and was meant for the two duchesses, Isabelle and Lucrezia d’Este, daughters of Hercules II. The decorations are rich in color and elaborate in design, featuring both painted panels in the grotesque style, marble and wooden borders, and abundant symbols of fertility and wealth.

The other room we were able to see was the Sala dell’Arengo, which features frescoed walls painted in the nineteenth century. The images vary from scenes of daily life to a ring of Zodiac symbols arranged on the ceiling. It’s a strange series of paintings which left me with more questions than answers (as usual), and perhaps my next summer reading will be on Fascist painting in Italy. As the rest of the Palazzo Ducale has been taken over by the city government, we left the palace after only a brief stay and headed on to our next adventure: lunch.

Lunch is no small matter in Italy, especially for a group of foodies like ourselves. We happened upon a nice restaurant which marketed itself as serving authentic Ferrarese food, and as the saying goes, when in Rome Ferrara….

One of the main plates they offered was a dish called salma da sugo, which they served on a bed of mashed potatoes. The paper placemats, complete with a basic English translation, told the story of the dish:

This special Ferrarese dressed pork dish has benn [sic] appreciated by famous people, like Lorenzo il Magnifico, Mascagni, Ungareti, Greta Garbo, D’Annunzio and many others. It’s made of pork meat, liver, and tongue, mixed with red wine (with some drops of marsala or cognac or rhum), pepper, cinnamon and clove. It is left for at least one year hung in a dark, fresh [cool?], and ventilated room. It must be boiled in water for at least four hours before serving.

The (remaining!) salma dall sugo from lunch at Ca'd'Frara

The (remaining!) salma dall sugo from lunch at Ca’d’Frara

I felt famous just eating it. I also found myself drinking water constantly for the next 24 hours, but the salt intake was entirely worth it! After our usual afternoon espresso, we headed off to the duomo. The Cathedral of Ferrara sits opposite the Palazzo Municipale/Ducale (call it what you want; according to Tuohy this has been a problem for lots of folks before us). The church is a large Romanesque and Gothic construction with later Baroque decorations filling its inside.

From the church we walked over to the Castello Vecchio, which is marketed as the Castello Estense to tourists. Complete with a moat and drawbridge, the Castello Vecchio is everything one imagines an old castle to be. There are dark, dank dungeons with early modern graffiti (prisoners got bored back then, too), a rooftop orange garden, and numerous rooms with fresco-filled ceilings. Many of the frescoes serve as reminders of the recent earthquake, as restorative tape covers cracks and areas where the paint has begun to flake off.

A View of the Outside of the Castel Vecchio

A View of the Outside of the Castel Vecchio

Early Modern Graffiti in the Castello Estense dungeon

Early Modern Graffiti in the Castello Estense dungeon

Reminders of the recent earthquake seen in a painting from the “Chamber of Dawn” room in the Castello Estense











Ceiling of the Ducal Chapel depicting the Four Evangelists

Ceiling of the Ducal Chapel depicting the Four Evangelists

The ducal chapel in the castle made a lasting impression on many of us, as it gave us perspective on the size of rooms in which early music was made. The room, perhaps no more than 8’x10’ (I’m terrible with estimating sizes) serves is a testament to the intimacy of private music making for the court.   The room is covered in marble and painted glass, and looking up, one finds the four evangelists painted on a vaulted ceiling. Curiously these are the only religious figures in the entire room.

Our trip back to the train station involved a much needed stop for gelato.(Can you believe we had gone a week in Italy without gelato?) With satisfied stomachs and tired legs, we headed back home to Ostiglia, ready for another week in the archive!



Fellowship and Charting (Coding) New Territory

When I was offered the opportunity to participate in the Greggiati project this summer, I jumped at the chance without hesitation, sensing that this was going to be a special experience. My intuition was correct, because the past two weeks have been an exciting whirlwind filled with delicious food, hard work, and breathtaking views of the Italian countryside. To be honest, the aforementioned perks of traveling to small town Italy were somewhat expected. It should not have surprised me, though, that scholarship and fellowship would go so hand-in-hand during this project.

Our days begin with breakfast and cafe around 8:30. We walk to the Greggiati archive to start work at 9, at which point we all peer- review records that have already been completed. This has been an invaluable experience, demonstrating that the best musicology is done with the help of peers. We catch coding problems, ponder bigger questions about searchability, and discuss theories about what Greggiati was really doing with all of these manuscripts. Dr. Ossi indulges even our wildest speculations, calmly reasoning through them with us. He has the patience of a saint. Elisa’s never-ending supply of chocolate and magic USB drive (which we affectionately call “the magic coffee stick”) that purchases espresso from the coffee machine upstairs certainly help our productivity, too.


The first few days of work were difficult as we struggled to understand the capabilities of our XML schema. Through much trial and error and a lot of hard work on Christine’s part (plus a few panicked Facebook chats with Devon, and a Skype session with Bill), we managed to pull together a system for tackling the Greggiati collection. Since those harried first few days, we have been cataloguing manuscripts by one identified copyist, Mortellari. We share the wonderful, the silly, and the bizarre we find within each book. A particular subject of interest has been the discovery of watermarks and charting their diversity across manuscripts.


As we near the end of the identified Mortellari manuscripts, we plan to conduct a group comparison of scripts and handwriting to attempt formulating answers to some of the bigger questions Dr. Ossi mentioned in his previous post, and to test some theories that Elisa has formed over the years. It seems only fitting that we wrap up our work with a group endeavor, since that’s just the way we began.


2014: Midway Through the Project

It seems impossible, but our project is now in its third of five years, and this year’s seminar is under way. We all arrived on the weekend of May 10-11, and the owner of the California Hotel, Signor Carlo, prepared a mid-afternoon snack for everyone … local ham, parmesan cheese, and bread; this will become a theme throughout our stay, as it has in all previous years. Good food and goood scholarship complement each other!

After a “jet lag morning” we convened at the library on Monday afternoon, where Elisa Superbi greeted us with cookies and soft drinks and gave us an overview of the contents of the library. On Tuesday, after our first few hours of work, Elisa treated us to a tour through the jewels of the library … the contents of what we have come to call the “armoire of treasures” or the “wonder cupboard.”

Each “new edition” of the seminar involves a rethinking of our research goals. Work accumulates from one year to the next—manuscripts to be photographed, data to check and edit, new software, changes to our collecting schema (those horrible files, spiky with code, that will someday become “clean,” user-friendly, searcheable records). And of course new areas of this vast collection to explore: this year we have decided to focus on one important copyist, Alessio Mortellari, from whom Greggiati bought over one hundred manuscripts. While the seminar members work on Mortellari’s scores—identifying his handwriting and its variants, separating his work from that of other scribes sometimes present in manuscripts that appear to be “his,” and separating the manuscripts that he owned and sold to Greggiati from those he actually copied—I am focusing on a census of previous owners by culling through the information already present in the SBN catalog (Servizio Nazionale Bibliografico), as well as keeping track of other copyists whose names appear in the catalog. From a preliminary survey, it appears that Greggiati may have bought the holdings of other collectors’ libraries as well as buying individual scores from dealers and others. He also seems to have acquired large numbers of manuscripts from composers, including works by others which they owned for their own study or performance.

In addition, the time seemed ripe for an overview of the archival documents that have survived from Greggiati’s own papers. Not a great deal has surfaced so far, but the files include two intriguing lists of manuscripts, including some fifty titles, complete with prices. They are not in Greggiati’s hand, and it is unclear what they represent: most of the titles listed do not appear in the collection, and the way the lists are drawn up makes it difficult to tell if they were drawn up by a book seller offering them for Greggiati to choose from, or if they represent orders that were fulfilled. Stay tuned for further details to emerge!

What is clear is that every time we return to the Greggiati Library with fresh eyes we discover new aspects of his musical interests and of his character as a bibliophile. His books, which clearly occupied a prominent place in his life, give us glimpses of his personality, which have been waiting dormant, as it were, for nearly two centuries to reveal themselves to like-minded scholars.