- The Man Who Fell out of a Tree
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On the morning of October 19, 1559, the organist and sometime mathematician Stefano Di Pasqua assumed the position of choirmaster of the Basilica of Saint Anthony the Lesser in the city of San Egregio del Costos. Had you [End Page 69] arisen early that day to observe the city fathers as they greeted the new arrival at the basilica, you would have been disappointed. Stefano Di Pasqua was not a popular choice for the position (actually, no one had ever heard of him), and the city fathers stayed home. Far more qualified men had been not beaten out for the job but rather swift in beating their retreats from it. Cardinal Moschella’s determined search for a harmonious replacement for the disgraced former choirmaster Giuseppe Russo yielded in the end but a single candidate, Signor Di Pasqua.
We enjoy the belief that Italy was in excellent shape in those days. This conviction arises from a well-meaning but misinformed inclination to equate the splendors of Rome, Venice, Florence, and a few other centers of high culture with those of the rest of the country—those of, say, San Egregio del Costos, an unpleasant city far from any such center, whose principal church’s only claims to fame were that it had been snubbed by Michelangelo (this after Cardinal Moschella invited Il Divino to paint what he termed the “Sistine-like” ceiling of Saint Anthony’s main chapel, or, were that not feasible, the floor; in a somewhat crisp letter to Cardinal Moschella declining the offer, the Master blamed his decision on a lingering backache) and that three others of the church’s chapels were hung in ghastly paintings by a local “artist” named Giovanni Monforto, who later gained renown as a swindler, a pimp, and Mayor of San Egregio del Costos. (One critic does award points to Monforto for his “interesting” idea of depicting a scene that was somehow omitted from the Gospels, “Jesus Embracing the Moneychangers.”)
To put it another way: Neither the city of San Egregio del Costos nor the basilica of Saint Anthony the Lesser was enjoying what you would call a renaissance. Now, Cardinal Moschella was a good man. His heart was pure, he labored unceasingly and selflessly on behalf of the poor and the afflicted, and he did not resent his appointment seventeen years earlier as chief cleric of his archdiocese, despite the snickers that inevitably accompanied the announcement of his name at any conclave he attended with his peers. In his morning prayers the Cardinal always thanked God for the Basilica of Saint Anthony the Lesser and for the city of San Egregio del Costos and then asked humbly for strength to endure another day.
What he faced were no small challenges. Driving nearly all of them was the plague, then in its so-called second pandemic. The basilica seated twelve hundred. Rarely were more than a tenth of the pews occupied, and then only for mass funerals. On such occasions, as many as [End Page 70] fifty believers at a time were sent off to their rewards. Left behind for the Cardinal and his small staff to minister to were hordes of grief-stricken relatives and a less and less livable city. Rome made frequent promises to render financial assistance, but somehow the monies never arrived. Managing the day-to-day affairs of the basilica was bad enough; to Cardinal Moschella fell the additional tasks of providing for his despairing flock not only spiritual guidance but sometimes food, medicine, and even shelter.
Given those distressing circumstances, the matter of Russo, the recently dismissed choirmaster, might have seemed minor. But no succor that Cardinal Moschella could provide for his people was more healing than music, especially the music of the Saint Anthony the Lesser Boys Choir. Each week for nearly seven years, Giuseppe Russo, by all accounts a genius, had composed an anthem of soaring beauty for the boys to perform. The choir—twenty-four boys aged eight to nineteen—rehearsed to exhaustion five days a week and performed three times on Sundays. Their effect...