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  • Orpheus in the Marketplace: Jacopo Peri & the Economy of Late Renaissance Florence by Tim Carter and Richard A. Goldthwaite
  • Pierpaolo Polzonetti
Orpheus in the Marketplace: Jacopo Peri & the Economy of Late Renaissance Florence. By Tim Carter and Richard A. Goldthwaite (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2013) 479 pp. $49.95 cloth $49.95 ebook

The title of this book refers to Jacopo Peri, the composer of the first opera that has survived from beginning to end, Euridice (Florence, 1600). As a virtuoso singer, he interpreted the role of Eurydice’s husband, the mythical musician and singer Orpheus. Although every historical account of the birth of opera acknowledges Peri’s fundamental contribution, his life and work still remain evasive and have not attracted sufficient scholarly interest. This book sheds light on Peri’s personal and artistic life but, surprisingly, even more on his role as a financial operator. The project is the outcome of Goldthwaite’s fortunate discovery of a massive well of documents in the Archivio di Stato of Florence documenting Peri’s assets and financial operations. This collection, baptized the “Peri Archive,” inspired this thorough, vivid, and methodologically impeccable study in micro-history and micro-economics. Goldthwaite, who has already offered important contributions to the economic history of Renaissance Florence, worked with Carter, a distinguished opera scholar whose co-authorship guarantees the solidity of the musicological concepts presented in the volume.

Readers of this journal will find this book interesting regardless of their taste for opera. Its most relevant scholarly contribution concerns the analysis of Peri’s financial portfolio, but it also opens plenty of windows on the whole social fabric and economic system of the world that Peri inhabited. The unique body of source documents “has provided the material for . . . the first economic biography of anyone—international merchant bankers for which the city is famous not [End Page 235] excepted—operating in the completely unstudied marketplace of late Renaissance Florence” (1). This financial market offered new opportunities to a man of middling status like Peri (see especially Chapter 2 on the “Economic World”).

Having acquired substantial capital by marriage, thanks to the institution of the dowry, Peri was able to manage his resources through skilled accounting techniques. He diversified his investments between traditional sectors, like real estate, and new tools that increasingly replaced property and cash exchange, causing wealth and money to become an abstraction—bonds and government securities, emerging forms of annuities from property, bills of exchange of various kinds, and shares in the flourishing cloth industry. As the authors put it, Peri’s financial activities reveal that “the economy had developed to the point of offering some, if limited, outlets for saving and investment even for those who had only modest amounts of disposable wealth, and more important, it had opened up plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurial initiatives” (122).

Contrary to what one would expect, Peri’s portfolio shows that music was only a small part of his income; it “scarcely occupied center stage in his life” (206). Yet, it provided him invaluable opportunities for social networking and business. Indirectly, this study confirms that music was central to the culture of late Renaissance Florence, at the Medici court, in the Church, in local academies, and among private citizens. For example, court musicians were paid as much or even more than prominent poets and artists (232). The authors make excessive and potentially misleading use of the term entertainment (repeated seven times in only two pages, 245–246). Like art, poetry, and drama, music was not merely “entertainment,” as we conceive it today, but a lofty and highly valued intellectual activity that made Florence not only an international financial center but also a world-leading cultural center.

Peri’s personal life, like his opera, was saturated with drama. Around the time when he was performing the role of Orpheus, who laments the death of his bride, Peri lost his young wife and all four of their little children. After marrying again, Peri fathered a large family, but tragedy struck him repeatedly; six of his sixteen children died. Most of his daughters became nuns, allowing him to save money on excessively expensive dowries, and four of his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 235-237
Launched on MUSE
2014-08-21
Open Access
No
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