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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

Italian Music of the Fourteenth Century

CHAPTER 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As we know, the rise of European vernacular literatures began in Aquitaine, toward the end of the eleventh century, with the troubadours. By the end of the twelfth century, there was a significant body of vernacular poetry in French. By the end of the thirteenth century, the current had reached Germany. In all cases, the rise of a vernacular literature was accompanied by the development of song genres as the medium for its performance and dissemination.

Why then, with the marginal (that is, marginally literate) exception of the lauda, did Italy wait until the fourteenth century before developing a vernacular literature with its attendant music? The answer seems to be that for a long time the Italian aristocracy preferred their courtly songs in the “original”—that is, Occitan (or, less precisely, Provençal), the language of southern France. Throughout the thirteenth century, Aquitainian troubadours, some of them refugees from the Albigensian Crusades, were officially attached to the feudal courts of northern Italy and to the royal court of Sicily down below, where their work was imitated by local poets who took over not only their models’ subject matter and their forms but their language as well. Even Dante, in his unfinished treatise De vulgari eloquentia (“On high style in the vernacular”) of 1304–1306, tells us that, before making up his mind that it would after all be possible to write poetry of profound intellectual substance in the Tuscan dialect of his native Florence, he, too, had at first planned to use the time-honored and internationally prestigious Occitan tongue.

And yet Dante was also among the earliest writers to attempt a separation of poetry and music, holding that for stylistically ornate, philosophically weighty “cantos” (canzoni) in high style, the decorative addition of music would only be a distraction. He advocated the creation of special “mediocre” (that is, “in-between”) genres of pastoral poesia per musica—bucolic, descriptive poetry that would not be the main attraction, so to speak, but would furnish an elegant pretext for the creation of a secular music that, unimpeded by great verse, might itself aim higher than ever. Thus the Italian song genres, when they were at last established in the fourteenth century, gave rise from the beginning to a predominantly polyphonic and exceptionally decorative repertory.

That repertory had its own notation and its own generic forms, related by a common ancestry to those of contemporary France, but nevertheless distinctive and in some ways mysterious. It has been likened to a meteor or even a nova, “suddenly flaming into existence against an obscure background and, its fireworks spent, disappearing just as abruptly,” in the words of its leading recent historian, Michael P. Long.1 Thanks to Long’s own research and that of several other scholars, that background is no longer quite as obscure as it once seemed.

The characteristic song-poem of “trecento” music—so-called after the Italian word for the fourteenth century (the “[one-thousand-and-]three hundreds”) to distinguish it from contemporary French “ars nova” developments—was called the madrigale (in English, madrigal). The name evidently descends from the Latin matrix (womb), the root of the Italian word for “mother-tongue” (matricale, whence cantus matricalis, “a song in the mother tongue”), and thus simply means a poem in the vernacular. It consisted of two or more three-line stanzas called terzetti (tercets), which are sung to the same music, and a single concluding one- or two-line “ritornello” in a contrasting rhyme scheme or meter. (The familiar sonnet form associated with Petrarch, and later of course with Shakespeare, is a related form that substitutes quatrains for tercets.)

The use of the word ritornello, seemingly a diminutive form of the word ritorno (“return”), to denote the one part of the song that does not repeat seems paradoxical on its face. The word is more likely derived not from ritorno, but from the Provençal tornada (“turnaround” or flourish), the “sendoff” verse that ended a stanzaic troubadour poem—for example, the sestina, a particularly dazzling trobar clus genre that had been invented by the twelfth-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, for Dante the model of models (as he tells us in his Purgatorio.)

A striking confirmation of Dante’s view of Arnaut Daniel as the supreme forerunner or progenitor of Italian mother-tongue literature is an illustration, discovered by the musicologist Kurt von Fischer, from a Bolognese legal treatise (Fig. 10-1).2 It shows the three main practitioners of the early madrigal—Giovanni de Cascia, a certain “Maestro Piero,” and in the middle, standing on a pedestal and with arm raised triumphantly, Jacopo of Bologna, the greatest musician of his generation. The three madrigalists are flanked, on the right, by a group of chanting monks, evidently representing music at its highest and best; on the left, they are flanked by Arnaut Daniel.

Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

fig. 10-1 The troubadour Arnaut Daniel and his madrigalist offspring, Giovanni da Cascia, Jacopo da Bologna, and Master Piero, depicted in a fourteenth-century Bolognese legal treatise now in the Hessian Provincial Library at Fulda, Germany.

The three madrigalists, Piero, Giovanni, and Jacopo (to put them in order of apparent descending age), served side by side during the 1340s and early 1350s at the two richest north Italian courts, that of the Viscontis in Milan and that of the Scalas in Verona. Giovanni is shown holding a vielle or fiddle, which indicates that these poets may have performed their own songs as entertainers. The fact that they sometimes set the same texts suggests that they competed, as the troubadours had done, for prizes and favors. Their songs often address the same putative patrons—particularly a certain ANNA, whose name, though often concealed within other words like a troubadour senhal or code-name, is always written in the manuscripts in majuscules that proclaim her high birth and importance.

And sure enough, the Florentine chronicler Filippo Villani, in his Liber de civitatis Florentiae famosis civibus (“Book of famous citizens of the city of Florence”), tells us that Giovanni da Cascia, who came from the environs of Florence, “when visiting the halls of Mastino della Scala, lord of Verona, in search of a position, and competing in artistic excellence with Master Jacopo of Bologna, who was most expert in the art of music, intoned (while the lord spurred them on with gifts) many madrigals [and other songs] of remarkable sweetness and of most artistic melody.” The sources of trecento polyphony often look like the big presentation chansonniers in which the music of the troubadours was retrospectively preserved. In particular this is true of the so-called Squarcialupi Codex (named after a famous organist who was one of its early owners), a magnificent compendium that was put together around 1415 as a memorial to the art of the trecento when that art was moribund or, possibly, already dead. Its expensive materials and lavish illuminations make it literally priceless; but it is priceless in another sense as well: it preserves dozens of compositions that would otherwise have been lost. Its contents are organized, like troubadour chansonniers, by authors, each section being introduced by a (no doubt fanciful) portrait of the composer. (Compare the “portrait” of Bernart de Ventadorn from the Paris 12473, Fig. 4-2.) Nowhere do we get a more vivid sense of how consciously the poet-musicians of the trecento thought of themselves as the inheritors and reanimators of the lost art of Aquitaine.

Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

fig. 10-2 Jacopo da Bologna’s portrait page in the huge retrospective anthology of trecento polyphony known as the Squarcialupi Codex after one of its owners (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS. Palatino 87).


(1) Michael Long, “Trecento Italy,” in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. J. McKinnon, Music and Society, Vol. I (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 241.

(2) Kurt von Fischer, “‘Portraits’ von Piero, Giovanni da Firenze und Jacopo da Bologna in einer Bologneser-Handschrift des 14. Jahrhunderts?” Musica Disciplina XXVII (1973): 61–64.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-010.xml