The Opera Quarterly 19.4 (2003) 631-643
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The Myth of the "Birth of Opera" in the Florentine Camerata Debunked by Emilio de' Cavalieri:
A Commemorative Lecture
On 11 March 2002, exactly four hundred years after the death and burial of Emilio de' Cavalieri, a commemorative marble inscription formulated by the author of these pages 1 was unveiled in the Cavalieri chapel in the church of the S.P.Q.R., Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Roman capitol (fig. 1). It could be translated 2 as:
EMILIO DE' CAVALIERI
INNOVATIVE AND TALENTED COMPOSER,
CREATOR OF THE FIRST OPERAS,
SUPERINTENDENT OF ALL THE MUSICIANS
AND ARTISTS AT THE COURT OF THE MEDICI,
CONSERVATOR OF THE ROMAN SENATE AND PEOPLE.
BURIED HERE 11 MARCH 1602
* * *
ON THE FOUR HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH
The ceremony, patronized by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici, included the lecture published here in English translation with the addition of two introductory paragraphs and endnotes, 3 and concluded with an exquisite concert of Cavalieri's music performed by the Choro Romani Cantores conducted by Daniela Condemi (excerpts from the Lamentationes and the Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo in the church, and then the famous ballo from the intermedi of 1589 on the illuminated Piazza Campidoglio). The following remarks can be considered as a commentary on lines 3-4 of the inscription and [End Page 631] on the commemoration of the "birth of opera" celebrated in Florence in October 2000.
Forty years of research on Cavalieri and on the other composers active during the last decades of the sixteenth century in Florence 4 have convinced me that the Roman master was not only by far the best and most original of these, but also the most important of all those born in Rome. I therefore limited my work on the Florentine composers to bio-bibliographical aspects, 5 having decided that for me an extensive study of the music would be worthwhile only in the case of Cavalieri. 6 His social position and his high responsibilities at the court of Grand Duke Ferdinando Medici also made him a much more important personality than all the musicians in Florence. 7
The paternal grandfather of Emilio was a member of one of the oldest, most illustrious Roman families, the Orsini; he assumed the surname "Cavalieri" from his mother in order to become the heir of her brother. The father of Emilio, Tommaso, if not Emilio himself, is well known to art historians as pupil and most beloved friend of Michelangelo Buonarroti, recipient of amorous letters and famous poems and drawings by the great artist that eventually became, with paintings of Raphael, Emilio's property. The Cavalieri, like other families of the minor Roman nobility, participated actively in the government of the city. Both Tommaso and Emilio were councillors, caporioni, and even conservators. As Michelangelo's artistic executor, Tommaso supervised the completion of the senators' palace on the Capitoline hill. He directed various archaeological and urbanistic projects and thus had access to ancient sculpture, retrieved [End Page 632] especially in his rione (district) of Sant'Eustachio. The author of an inventory of his collection (1556) speaks of the "most famous museum" of Tommaso. Important for Emilio's income were also the offices, quasi sinecures, bought by Tommaso for him: that of the customs of the studio, which financed the university with taxes on imported wine, and that of the bridges and city gates—both left to his heirs "in perpetuity." The Roman palace of the Cavalieri, mentioned in old guidebooks of the city, was demolished in 1880 during the construction of the Largo Arenula. Emilio owned also one of the most elegant and panoramic villas of Florence, today known as Villa Spelman, the Johns Hopkins Center for Italian Studies, in Via San Leonardo (fig. 2). He occupied also an apartment in Palazzo Pitti, directly to the west, where he received visiting cardinals.
When Francesco Medici died suddenly in 1587, his younger brother Ferdinando...