Notes 60.2 (2003) 417-420
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Music and Culture in Late Renaissance Italy. By Iain Fenlon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. [xvi, 265 p. ISBN 0-19-816444-0. £30.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
Philip Larkin said of literary journalism that he found reading the books hard, thinking of something to say about them hard, and saying it hardest of all. Collections of essays pose special challenges, since they may lack the organicism characteristic of books conceived along other lines. Fortunately, few reviewers, if any, would find Iain Fenlon's book hard to read, since his arguments are expressed in a graceful prose that renders his subject matter entirely accessible to readers. Nor is it hard to think of something to say, principally because Fenlon has established himself, over two decades, as one of the ablest practitioners in historical musicology and multidisciplinary studies. The musical developments that are his primary concern are placed within the broadest historical, political, ecclesiastical, artistic, and literary contexts, and this produces rich, provocative results for readers. In Fenlon's book, that multidisciplinary nature is most obviously exemplified in the aptly chosen figures with which the book is illustrated; in most instances, these illustrations document in other areas—principally the visual arts—those same historical developments reflected in the musical phenomena he discusses. Fenlon's purpose in collecting and rewriting these ten essays was to increase their accessibility "to colleagues, from whatever discipline, with an interest in the cultural history of the period" (p. viii). That rewriting consisted partly in the removal of "technical discussions of musical language," and although Fenlon does not always succeed in making his text fully comprehensible to nonmusicologists (for example, the reference on page 57 to "falsobordone settings performed alternatim"), colleagues from other disciplines interested in the place of music in early modern Italian society could hardly do better than consult Fenlon's stimulating and evocative essays.
Any potential lack of organicism is overcome by the principle of selection; there is a relatively small number of global themes that explain the inclusion of the essays reprinted. The following taxonomy is mine: (1) what has been described elsewhere under the rubric "kingship and the gods," the investing of political or ecclesiastical authorities in premodern Europe with complementary sacred and secular prerogatives, thus making ruling monarchs quasi-divine, and preeminent clerics consequential as political figures, and the contribution of the arts to that process; (2) the role of music in establishing and enhancing a distinctive political identity, whether the polity were civic or ecclesiastical in nature; (3) the institutional infrastructure of patronage, that is, the types of institutions that supported the musical life of the period: principates, ecclesiastical institutions, confraternities, academies, presses, educational institutions, etc., which were sometimes invested with new purpose as the century progressed and leveraged in service of new objectives (see, for example, page 80, where Fenlon provides an account of a press redirected toward reformist goals); (4) ritual spaces and their artistic adornment, whether static (architectural), kinetic (musical), or other; (5) the dynamic between continuities with the past on the one hand and innovation on the other, and the purposeful evocation of tradition in legitimating current practice. Despite the essays' diversity—embodied in the fact that they concern several centers of Italian musical [End Page 417] patronage (Florence, Mantua, Milan, Rome, Venice)—they therefore relate closely to one another by virtue of their demonstration of one of the overarching themes. They also serve as persuasive musico-historical demonstrations of the late Eric Cochrane's insistent observation that Italian cultural vitality did not cease with the sack of Rome in 1527, and that, despite historians' tendency to shift their attention to developments north of the Alps after the end of the Renaissance, Italy remained immensely productive (p. vii).
Understandably, Fenlon is not often able to relate surviving musical repertories to the liturgies and ceremonies reconstructed, since the references in the documents are typically imprecise (e.g., "con musiche rari," p. 19) and therefore do not permit one to connect them with confidence to an extant repertory; in other cases, a repertory that might...