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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art

Sixteenth-Century Church Music; New Instrumental Genres

CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


  • In this splendid, noble art
  • So many have been famous in our age
  • They make any other time seem poor.1

The lines quoted as epigraph were penned in 1490 by Giovanni Santi, court painter to the Duke of Urbino, when his son Raffaello Santi, known to us as Raphael, was seven years old. That boy, of course, whose gifts were recognized early and stimulated with papal patronage, would soon make his father’s time seem poor. The art of Raphael is now a standard of perfection in painting, “the clearest expression,” according to one modern authority, “of the exquisite harmony and balance of High Renaissance composition.”2 That standard of perfection has remained in force, so to speak, whenever and wherever “perfection,” as a standard, has been valued (see Fig. 15-1)

Something similar may be observed in the music of the sixteenth century, particularly as practiced in Italian centers of patronage. Fifteenth-century writers—Tinctoris, for one—were often as complacently sure as Giovanni Santi was of the unprecedented richness of their age. But in the sixteenth century there was an enormous striving after an objective standard of perfection—of surpassing “harmony and balance”—that, once achieved, would remain good for all time.

Chapter 15 A Perfected Art

fig. 15-1 Raphael (Raffaelo Santi or Sanzio, 1483–1520), Alba Madonna, ca. 1510.

This happy status quo, many musicians of the latter half of the sixteenth century believed, had been reached in their time. Music, they argued, was now an ars perfecta, a “perfected art.” After floundering in the “lowest depths” of decay during an age of barbarism (what those who believe in the Renaissance call the Middle Ages), it had rescaled the “heights of perfection” it had known in ancient times.3 Its technique now admitted of no further development. What was needed was codification: the casting of the perfected style in permanent rules so that it might never be lost again, so that its harmony and balance might be preserved and passed along even to those who had not the genius to discover it for themselves. For no one needed to rediscover what had already been discovered. The age of discovery was past. All was known. An age of “classicism”—of conformity with established excellence—had dawned. It was a great age for theorists.

The outstanding codifier of the ars perfecta was Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–90), from whose great treatise Le Istitutioni harmoniche, first published in 1558 and reissued twice thereafter, the historical judgments in the preceding paragraph were taken. The title of Zarlino’s four-volume manual was itself a sign of the times. Often translated as “Elements” or “Principles of Harmony,” or something equally neutral, it really means “The Established Rules of Harmony.” And harmony, both in the narrow musical sense and in the wider esthetic sense, was what it purported to impart by methods tried and true. “If we follow the rules given up to now,” Zarlino promised at the conclusion of his third volume, on counterpoint, “our compositions will be free of reprehensible elements, purged of every error and polished, and our harmonies will be good and pleasant.”4 Harmony and balance are matters of proportion, and proportion is a matter of quantities. Therefore it will not surprise us to find Zarlino writing that “music is a science subordinate to arithmetic.”5 He even appended one final chapter to the last volume that carried the cautionary heading, “The Senses are Fallible, and Judgments Should Not Be Made Solely by Their Means, but Should Be Accompanied by Reason.”6 That begins to smack of Boethius. If we are hasty to invoke the dueling Zeitgeists, we may be tempted to slap the label “medieval” on the quintessential “Renaissance” theorist.

Chapter 15 A Perfected Art

fig. 15-2 Gioseffo Zarlino, anonymous portrait at the Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, Bologna.

But like most paradoxes, this one is only seeming. Zarlino was merely trying to lend authority to his rules and discourage whimsical experimentation on the part of his students. New ideas, to say nothing of thrill-seeking, could degrade a perfected art. Elsewhere he invokes something that would never have occurred to Boethius to invoke, namely “natural philosophy.” That is what we would call science, in the modern empirical (or “Galilean”) sense that is thought to have arisen during the “Renaissance” as a by-product of its secularism. Those who think of the sixteenth century as the cradle of modern science tend to call it the “early modern” period. Zarlino was the first “early modern” theorist.

The really valuable fruit of Zarlino’s rationalized empiricism was his recognition of harmony, as it actually functioned in “early modern” music, as being worthy of theoretical attention, and his ingenuity in devising a rationale for it. For a long time now—at least since the beginning of the fifteenth century, and most likely before that in unwritten repertories—the triad, first imported into continental music from England, had been the de facto normative consonance for all European polyphonic music. Before Zarlino, however, no theorist had recognized it as an entity, given it a name, or legitimized its use.


(1) Giovanni Santi, Cronaca rimata (1490), l.424–26.

(2) The Columbia Encyclopedia, s.v. “Raphael” (6th ed., New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

(3) Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutione harmoniche (Venice, 1558), Vol. I, Proemio; quoted in Jessie Ann Owens, “Music Historiography and the Definition of ‘Renaissance,”’ MLA Notes XLVII (1990–91): 314.

(4) Zarlino, The Art of Counterpoint (Istitutione harmoniche, Vol. III), trans. G. Marco and C. Palisca (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 289.

(5) Zarlino, On the Modes (Istitutione harmoniche, Vol. IV), trans. V. Cohen (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 102.

(6) Zarlino, On the Modes, p. 104.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-015.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 15 A Perfected Art. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-015.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-015.xml