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Volume 11, no. 1:

Honoring God and the City: Music at the Venetian Confraternities, 1260–1807. By Jonathan Glixon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. [xvi, 372 pp. ISBN 0-19-513489-3. $72.]

Reviewed by Giulio M. Ongaro*

1. The Venetian Scuole

2. Glixon and the Scuole

3. Organization of the Book

4. Introduction to the Scuole

5. The Scuole Grandi

6. The Scuole Piccole

7. Glossary and Appendices

8. Critique

References

1. The Venetian Scuole

1.1 The history of music in Venice during the Republic, especially in the glory days of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi, was greatly enriched by the contributions of the confraternities of the city, known as scuole. The confraternities, at least as much, and perhaps more, than almost anywhere else, were an integral part of the civic fabric, providing much-needed support and social services for their members, dispensing charitable contributions, helping in obtaining the divine blessing on the Serenissima, and offering an outlet for the civic aspirations of an entire class of citizens who were excluded from the levers of power in the Venetian system of government. Some were associations of workers or professionals in the same trade, not too different from what elsewhere would be called guilds. Others, especially the most magnificent among them, the so-called scuole grandi, were devotional in nature, with a membership that represented a cross section of Venetian society. Music was not the most important part of their original mission, but over the centuries it developed from relatively humble beginnings, when a few brothers might sing simple music for the funeral of one of their numbers, to the lavish musical presentations of the early Baroque, when the English traveler Thomas Coryat, attending a service presented by the Scuola Grande di San Rocco could exclaim:

This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not: for mine owne part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.1

1.2 The scuole participated in virtually all the civic ceremonies that helped forge a sense of civic identity, sometime quarrelling fiercely amongst themselves on matters such as the correct order of appearance in state processions. Their largesse has left us a tremendous wealth of art works, such as the magnificent cycle of paintings by Tintoretto housed in the Scuola di San Rocco, splendid buildings, such as those for the Scuole di San Marco and San Rocco, and, of course, music, which was commissioned and prized by the officers of the scuole so much that in a famous letter to Mantua, Monteverdi claimed he could easily earn, on top of his salary of 400 ducats a year as maestro di cappella at the basilica of St. Mark’s, another 200 ducats from commissions from the scuole.2

2. Glixon and the Scuole

2.1 The study of music at the Venetian scuole, after some early work on the subject, primarily by Denis Arnold, has been dominated by Jonathan Glixon, whose extensive and unprecedented research in Venetian archives is the basis for this book. Glixon’s presence in the Sala di Studio of the Archivio di Stato di Venezia and in other Venetian archives and libraries, together with his musicologist wife Beth, has become part of the normal landscape of the city, and their work continues to unearth significant treasures. Glixon’s research on the scuole began in earnest when he was preparing his dissertation, “Music at the Venetian Scuole Grandi, 1440–1540” (Princeton University, 1979), a work that established the foundations for his subsequent research. Glixon’s dissertation, although focusing on a relatively short chronological period, was fundamental not only for the wealth of documents made available to scholars, but also for being the first book-length work on the subject, and therefore for describing the mechanisms that governed the use of music at the scuole and their connections to Venetian society. In the years between his dissertation and the publication of this book, Glixon conducted a remarkable amount of research in Venetian archives; here he presents the fruits of this research in a book that from the historical and archival perspective can be described as the fundamental and definitive work on the subject. The book takes us from the establishment of the first scuole in 1260, at a time of intense religious penitential fervor, to the fateful date of 1807: not the date of the fall of the Venetian Republic (1797), but the year when the Napoleonic administration suppressed by decree a large number of Venetian religious institutions, including virtually all scuole. Some were later revived, while other institutions were dissolved forever. At any rate, most had been declining for a long time, and the decree of the occupying forces was simply the coup de grâce after a long, slow agony that mirrored that of the Serenissima.

3. Organization of the Book

3.1 The book is organized in two main segments: the first and longest is dedicated to the scuole grandi, those that for the most part originated as flagellant confraternities, and the second to the scuole piccole, the lesser confraternities. The space allotted to each section is a reflection of the respective importance of each to the development of music in Venice, and also of the amount of surviving documentation. The history of the lone scuola grande not suppressed by the French, the Scuola di San Rocco, is documented in a much more complete fashion than any of its sister institutions. Music at the scuole piccole had been a rather neglected topic until Glixon’s work, and even though most of the scuole piccole cannot match their larger counterparts, the collective impact of these institutions was considerable. As Glixon reminds us, at times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over 200 scuole piccole existed simultaneously in Venice, and the total amount of musical activity was significant.

4. Introduction to the Scuole

4.1 Glixon’s treatment of the subject begins with a very comprehensive discussion of the origin and nature of the scuole grandi and of their use of ritual and ceremony, occupying the first 76 pages of the book. It is only in the subsequent chapters that he begins to delve into the musical activities of these scuole. If this seems like too long an introduction to the subject, we must keep in mind that readers are very likely to be ignorant of the peculiarities of the history and organization of the scuole in Venice. Among the most important differences in comparison with other Italian centers is the fact that the vast majority of Venetian confraternities were founded by laymen. Thus, in Venice the primary relationship was not between the confraternities and church authorities, but between the scuole and the state, a very important point to keep in mind if we wish to understand the history and function of Venetian scuole. Furthermore, Glixon points out that quite early in their history, right around the time when membership in the aristocracy was defined by the so-called “Serrata del Maggior Consiglio” of 1297, scuole began excluding the aristocracy from positions of leadership and severely restricted their membership. In practice, this decision was of great help in maintaining social peace in Venice, even though that might not have been the original intent. Now non-noble citizens, such as the middle-class cittadini, not only had an outlet for their social and political activities—albeit one that did not threaten the established order—but also gained a stake in the increasingly elaborate state pageantry that played a major role in civic identity. The scuole grandi slowly accumulated a rather large patrimony, mostly through bequests and gifts, and by the sixteenth century only a very small portion of their income came from membership dues. In 1601, the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista received about 3% of its income from dues, while a whopping 57% came from rents and another 35% from interest from government bonds. The total income of this scuola in 1601, 9115 ducats, was quite large, and it is astonishing to note that no more than a third of the income was spent on charitable deeds, ostensibly one of the raisons d’être of these institutions. Glixon is very comprehensive in his discussion of the organization of the scuole: the discussion is sometimes rather dense, but, as some of the documents show, the organization of the scuole could be complex. This introduction is not only of great help in understanding the organization and inner workings of the scuole, but is also invaluable to help us understand the context for music in Venice, and especially for its ritual and ceremonial use. For someone who is solely interested in the musical activities, some introductory sections might be skimmed, especially since in later chapters Glixon often makes a point of reminding the reader of important information regarding the organization of the scuole.

5. The Scuole Grandi

5.1 The chronological discussion of the activities of the scuole grandi is not evenly spaced, as is appropriate for the subject. The longest segment (Chapters 4–6) deals with the scuole grandi from about 1445 to 1650, the golden age of music at the scuole, while much shorter chapters are dedicated to the musical history of the scuole before and after those dates. The period between 1500 and 1650 receives almost twice as much coverage as that between 1650 and 1807, reflecting the decline of the scuole in the later stages of the Republic, when other forms of entertainment had become popular, and the Serenissima’s civic pride had taken some rather severe blows. Still, it was a magnificent decline: organs at San Rocco in the eighteenth century were built or repaired by great organ makers;3 and musical celebrations still displayed the compositions of maestri such as Galuppi and Furlanetto, performed by the best sacred music musicians of the city.

5.2 The organization of the “historical” chapters seems sensible: many of the subsections deal with specific groups at the scuole, such as the wind players and instrumentalists, or the outside singers hired for specific occasions; other subsections are arranged by scuola to allow better comparison of the activities of these institutions. The organization makes it easy to find specific information, but at times I wish for a slightly more integrated approach, that might have avoided some of the fragmenting effect of this system. On occasion I also wish that more information could have been supplied on individual singers, perhaps in an expanded index, or in a “personalia” section. I will cite one example: when discussing the singers of the Scuola della Carità, Glixon mentions a quartet of singers from St. Mark’s active at the scuola in the late 1550s. He gives the names of the four as “Luca Gualtiero, Perissone Cambio, Giovan Zelst, and Gerardo Molin” (p. 116). This is a group whose service was deemed so satisfactory that the singers were hired as cantadori nuovi “forever” and were also given admission to the scuola as brothers. The interesting part about this group is that, in spite of the Italianized names, these singers were all northerners. Luca Gualtiero, a bass, was also listed in St. Mark’s documents as “Luca francigena,” or “Luca Galterio de francia”; we know, of course, about the Flemish origins of Perissone Cambio and we can imagine that Zelst, a tenor, was also a foreigner (he was, in fact, Flemish), but it might be hard to guess that Gerardo Molin was the “Girardo Mollino fiamengo” hired by St. Mark’s in 1558, especially since Molin is a surname found with frequency in the Veneto. This group is unusual in being entirely composed of foreign signers, an even more remarkable situation considering that the total number of non-Italian singers at the basilica in the 1550s was relatively low. In a chapel list of 1556 there were only three northeners, including Willaert, plus the Greek Francesco Londariti; the Flemish Molino and Zelst were hired shortly after the compilation of the list. Thus the Scuola della Carità seems to have “cornered the market” on oltremontani in Venice at the time; the prestige derived from this coup at a time of intense competition among scuole might explain why the scuola was so ready to grant these singers lifetime employment and benefits. It is interesting also to speculate as to why the foreigners decided to stick together. Was it simply a question of national origin? Was it a consequence of being excluded by the Italian singers of St. Mark’s from the best jobs? Would they bring a particular style or repertory to the scuola, perhaps different from that of the Italians? At any rate, I think that a biographical section might have helped the reader find more quickly information about the musicians who served the scuole.

6. The Scuole Piccole

6.1 In the second section of this volume, Glixon turns his attention to the scuole piccole, the much more diverse and ubiquitous institutions that ranged from purely devotional to trade associations, to societies whose primary goal was offering social services and insurance to their members. The contributions of the scuole piccole to the history of Venetian music has not been hitherto documented or studied as thoroughly as it is here, yet it is almost impossible to get a complete picture of Venetian society without understanding the role played by these organizations in the social, religious, and civic life of the average Venetian. A very important first step in this direction was taken by Elena Quaranta in her Oltre San Marco: organizzazione e prassi della musica nelle chiese di Venezia nel Rinascimento,4 where she studied a more limited chronological period, outlining the collective contribution of the scuole piccole to Venetian musical life. Glixon goes beyond the chronological period studied by Quaranta and offers the first comprehensive study of this important topic, and this is, of course, one of the most significant features of this book. The material about the scuole grandi presented in the first part is very interesting, but, in a sense, we could already perceive that these were magnificent patrons of the arts; the importance of the contribution of the scuole piccole is more surprising, and should change our perception of the entire landscape of the city. Not all scuole piccole were actually small in size, or smaller than the scuole grandi. There was tremendous variety among them: some were very small in membership and of limited means, others, such as the Scuola di Sant’Orsola and Scuola di San Gregorio, rivaled in size the scuole grandi. Nor were their celebrations necessarily inferior in quality to those of their more important sister institutions. For example, Glixon provides documentation showing that in the late sixteenth century, between 1577 and 1597, the Scuola della Trinità hired for their annual festa some of the most prominent musicians active in Venice, including the singers (and maestri di cappella) Baldassare Donati and Giovanni Croce, the wind players Girolamo da Udine and Francesco Laudis (as well as the ensemble known as “i Favretti”), the violinists Michiel Bonfante and Giacomo Rovetta, and the organists Vincenzo Bell’haver, Paolo Giusti, and Giovanni Gabrieli, all musicians with connections to St. Mark’s. If we take into consideration the number of total feste celebrated by the scuole (grandi and piccole) throughout the year, we can imagine the amount of first-rate musical performances that must have been heard in Venice. We can also see why service at St. Mark’s, both for singers and instrumentalists, tended to be a long-term commitment. The number of opportunities to supplement their salary at the basilica must have been considerable, not just for the maestri, but for virtually all other musicians, and the potential income must have made Venice one of the most desirable work places in Europe.

7. Glossary and Appendices

7.1 The volume includes a glossary, primarily listing Venetian terms found in legal documents, and three detailed appendices. The first presents a listing of all ceremonies and processions involving the scuole grandi throughout the liturgical year. The second appendix is a listing of all religious occasions celebrated by the scuole, both grandi and piccole, around 1700, and it is an amazing list indeed. More than perhaps any other discussion of the subject, this list gives us a vivid picture of how truly pervasive the scuole were in the social life of the Republic. The vast majority of the days in a year show at least one celebration by one scuola, while more important days show multiple ceremonies and processions. A very pious Venetian of the time could have spent most of the year going from one to the other of these celebrations in locations scattered throughout the city. The last appendix is a listing of musicians hired for the feast of San Rocco from 1595 to 1634, a period that is without a doubt one of the most splendid in the musical history of the scuole. In this list we find virtually all the most important musicians active in Venice at the time, from Giovanni Croce, to Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Grillo, Giovanni Picchi, Monteverdi, Alessandro Grandi, to Francesco Cavalli, together with many others who have not left us musical compositions but had prominent roles in the musical life of the time. This list is, in fact, a very good indication of the effort and expenses put into these celebrations by one of the most powerful of the scuole grandi.

7.2 It is worth mentioning that Glixon presents here only a small percentage of the thousands of documents he has transcribed over the years. This is a very practical solution, of course, and it avoids adding hundreds of pages to the volume, but researchers will be happy to know that he is also planning to make all of the documents on the scuole available online, in searchable format. Needless to say, this project would become instantly the single most important documentary resource for music in Venice outside of the Archivio di Stato di Venezia.

8. Critique

8.1 The overall organization of the book seems eminently sensible, although it could be argued that it would have been equally appropriate to merge the discussion of scuole piccole and grandi into a single narrative. The drawback might have been in the fact that we have so much more documentation for the scuole grandi, and that, in a very real sense, these form a well-defined group, set apart from the scuole piccole; discussing them together might have slighted the contribution of the scuole piccole. On the other hand, I think the integration of scuole grandi and piccole in one thread would have perhaps given the reader a better sense of the overall impact of these institutions.

8.2 There are, of course, some points that require comment. At times, I find that Glixon’s desire to cover all the bases and to offer the largest possible amount of information can be a hindrance to the prose of the volume and to the clarity of his arguments. Here is an example from a discussion of the organs of the scuole (p. 83):

By 1427, however, the old organ was apparently beyond repair, and the scuola hired Thomaxo Inzegner (who would in 1444 also make an instrument for the great Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore) to build a new instrument like the one he had recently completed for San Salvatore (a convent of Augustinian regular canons) only bigger (by two keys at each end) and better (using a higher quality leather for the bellows).

And later (p. 92):

a series of annual registers of the Scuola di San Marco (thirteen survive for the period 1448–1500) maintained by the vicario (the officer of the scuola charged with the supervision of the fadighenti and the organization of the processions, excluding the one for the annual festa, which was the responsibility of the guardian grande) contain revealing information on the development of the vocal ensemble at this scuola.

And further (pp. 95, 96):

In 1483, between the two lists cited (both of which appear in books maintained by the vicario, the officer in charge of the fadighenti) the guardian grande and members of the banca reached a new agreement (which also expresses with vigor the importance of music to the scuola) with the singer who had first been hired nine years earlier to teach the cantadori de laude, Batista de Felipo.

This list (which would be updated for more than forty years) is notable for several reasons. Separate from the list of regular brothers (which includes both fadighenti and full brothers) it is one of several special lists (others include priests and nobles) of those whose membership or participation in the activities and benefits of the scuola was limited in some way.

8.3 I find sentences like these sometimes disorienting and, in the long run, a bit tiring, as the main thrust of the argument can be lost in a flurry of asides. In the second example, for instance, it might have been sufficient to direct the reader in a note to page 20, where he or she could find a description of the office of vicario, and certainly one can hope that the reader, once given the information regarding the vicario, can retain it from page 92 to page 95. I think the problem here might stem from Glixon’s unparalleled knowledge of the topic, and his desire to be precise and absolutely comprehensive in his discussion, trying to be as informative as possible for the reader. And yet, it might have been better to allow the reader to follow the main point without clutter, rather than create prose that is ultimately more confusing and distracting.

8.4 I would also question a couple of minor conclusions in Glixon’s discussion regarding singers at the scuole. On pages 89–90 he quotes a 1446 document from the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista: a petition to the Council of Ten (one of the most important deliberative bodies of the Republic) to accept singers as apprentices in order to insure the proper performance of music. Glixon thinks that the mention of an apprenticeship period for singers might mean that the music required at the scuole was becoming more complex, but another possible explanation is that these men might have had to learn a substantial repertory of relatively simple music entirely through oral instruction, similar to the way a novice would learn Gregorian chant, although on a smaller scale. In effect, a singer might have had to learn a repertory and (perhaps more importantly) the particular ritual of the scuola in order to be able to perform satisfactorily, and this learning process would have taken time, even for a relatively simple repertory. In our print-oriented culture, we sometimes forget how dependent on orality musicians of the past were.

8.5 A related question is that of professionalism among the singers. I have become more and more convinced that applying categories such as ”amateur” and “professional” in a strict manner might be inappropriate for most sources before the sixteenth century. Glixon remarks that at the Scuola di San Marco in the fifteenth century, “very few of the men are indicated as being professional singers; they were instead practitioners of a wide variety of trades, such as goldsmith, shoemaker, seller of pots and pans, stonemason, or bargeman” (p. 92). This is of course true, but I wonder whether those church singers who were also priests or canons, for example, identified themselves primarily as singers or as members of the clergy. In other words, the question of identity in this particular group seems to be a complex one. This question was raised many years ago by Nino Pirrotta in his article “Music and Cultural Tendencies in 15th-Century Italy,”5 and perusal of early documents shows how often known composers and singers of church chapels were not identified as musicians, but as priests, canons, abbots, and so forth. My suspicion is that in the fifteenth century the group of individuals who did identify themselves exclusively as singers must have been extremely small, and that a large class existed that straddled two worlds, as it were. If I may introduce a modern parallel, this is similar to the way that many regional orchestras in the U.S. today are populated with musicians who have a different “day job,” or the way that church choirs today are full of amateurs who can sometimes tackle rather difficult music. It might very well be true that many of the part-time singers of the scuole were identified as having a different profession, but I am not sure what kind of conclusions we can draw from that, except perhaps to imagine that works of great complexity, such as Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum, or even highly contrapuntal polyphony, were most likely well beyond their capabilities, which was probably true of the vast majority of sacred choirs of the time.

8.6 On the positive side of the ledger is the sheer mass of information in the volume, not only on the topic of music at the scuole, but also, given the central importance of these institutions, on music in the entire city of Venice. I have already spent a great amount of time double checking the names of singers of St. Mark’s who were also active at the scuole (a fairly high number), and supplementing my own data from St. Mark’s with those presented by Glixon. I am also excited to see Glixon cover the later history of the scuole, a segment of history that has largely been ignored, since scholarship on eighteenth-century Venice tends to dwell on the operatic stage and the conservatories. It is telling that institutions so closely associated with the Venetian government endured their decline at the same time as the Republic, even as other musical genres and institutions in Venice still held the attention of Venetians and foreigners alike.

8.7 A couple of remarks are in order about the book’s bibliographic aspects, whose overall quality is quite high. I suppose it is by now a losing battle, but I still much prefer true footnotes to endnotes in order to avoid having to shuffle back and forth. In this day of computerized text setting, I do not understand why footnotes should create problems for publishers. Also, the font sizes are rather small: the tables, longer quotes, endnotes, etc. are set in an even smaller font size than the text, both of which, in my opinion, are too small for easy reading. Finally, in what is probably another decision dictated by considerations of cost, the volume lacks the kind of illustrations that would add greatly to its impact. There are several paintings, some well known, such as Gentile Bellini’s “Processione in Piazza San Marco” of 1496, and some not as famous, that are relevant to both music in Venice and the activities of the scuole which would have made wonderful illustrations.

8.8 Some might object that this is a work of “positivistic” musicology, and that this type of volume is somewhat old fashioned, but such criticism does not take into consideration the high level of work presented. I think only those of us who have spent time mining the archives and libraries for information can appreciate what a truly virtuoso performance this book is, and the amount of work that went into it. I don’t think any future historical work on music during the Venetian Republic can possibly ignore or downplay the importance of this book. In his “Conclusions,” Glixon points out one of the most important aspects of his study: the historiography of music in Venice has traditionally concentrated on a few institutions (such as the opera theaters in the seventeenth century, or the church of St. Mark’s) that were primarily under the control of aristocratic patrons; but this volume, by bringing to light the importance of the patronage provided by large groups of non-noble cittadini, merchants, and even popolani can help us form a much more complete picture of the musical life of the city, and explains why these institutions were so important not just to the arts, but also to the political well-being of the Serenissima. Although Glixon does acknowledge that no volume dealing with one or more institutions can give us a satisfactory picture of the artistic life of a city, it is also true that any future synthesis of Venetian music history will have been made possible only because works such as this volume exist, thanks to the dedication of an exceptional researcher.

References

* Giulio M. Ongaro (ongaro@usc.edu) is Associate Professor of Music History and Literature and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at the Flora L. Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California.

1 Quoted in Glixon, 157.

2 Letter of March 13, 1620; English translation in Denis Stevens, The Letters of Claudio Monteverdi, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 188–94. Monteverdi repeats the same comment in a letter of September 10, 1627; see Stevens, 360–4.

3 Glixon, pp. 181–3. The 1743 organ by Pietro Nacchini, later modified by Gaetano Callido, commissioned by the Scuola di San Rocco, survives to this day. See Sandro Dalla Libera, L’arte degli organi a Venezia (Venice: Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale, 1962, 1979), 142–4. Both Callido and Nacchini left many magnificent examples of eighteenth-century organs in and around Venice.

4 Florence: Olschki, 1998. See especially 105–42.

5 Journal of the American Musicological Society 19 (1966): 127–61.


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