Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Portraits and Masks in the Art of Lorenzo De' Medici, Botticelli, and Politian's 'Stanze per la Giostra.'

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Portraits and Masks in the Art of Lorenzo De' Medici, Botticelli, and Politian's 'Stanze per la Giostra.'

Article excerpt

Il Lasca and Vasari both report that Lorenzo de' Medici reshaped the traditional Florentine civic celebrations attending events such as the official welcoming of a distinguished visitor, or feasts such as San Giovanni, Calendimaggio, and in particular Carnevale, with the invention of new forms of poetic presentation and musical performance called mascherate (masques) and canti, or canti carnascialeschi.(1) This does not mean that the wearing of fancy dress and masks in public festivals had not occurred earlier in Florence and in Italy during the Trecento and Quattrocento, as Giovanni Ciappelli is the most recent to document.(2) It is only necessary to recall the ban, enacted in 1447 by the Consiglio Maggiore of Florence, expressly forbidding celebrants of Carnevale to go about the city "cum facie coperta vel simulata cum aliqua tintura et seu ut vulgo dicitur cure mascheris."(3) And Lasca indeed acknowledges that "[b]efore [Lorenzo's time] men celebrated Carnival by masking themselves and dressing as women, and they also used to go about at Calendimaggio cross-dressed [travestiti] as women and girls, singing canzoni a ballo."

Although nothing about Lorenzo is without controversy, the prevailing view is that Lasca was right in saying that it was he who adapted and artistically refined the pre-existing traditions within polished and more sophisticated poetical and musical forms that were, in Lasca's words, "more beautiful, well made, and well ordered." Having found the traditional festival songs always the same, Lorenzo sought to vary "not only the canti but also their inventions and the way the words were composed." In this way the canzoni lost their monotony and came to be written "with varied and different rhythms, and music composed for them with new and diverse airs." Moreover, Lasca's claim is supported by a letter of 1491 written by Lorenzo himself to Pietro Alamanni in Rome, promising to send him some canti composed by Heinrich Isaac "in diverse manners, et gravi et dolci et ropti et artificiosi."(4) Lorenzo is no doubt referring to laude as well as canti, both of which Isaac set to music, and which really are two sides to the same coin and often sung to the same music. This appears from frequent manuscript annotations on the pattern of Cantasi come. An example is that for the lauda "Quanto e grande la bellezza / di te Vergin santa e pia," directing "Cantasi come la canzona di Bacco" (the famous canto di carro that begins with the words "Quanto e bella giovinezza / che si fugge tuttavia").(5) However, it is also clear that neither Lorenzo nor Lasca are referring merely to the simpler repetitive forms of popular versifying and street singing that had been transmitted in the old traditions passed down by the canterini, or street singers. They refer to music and poetry arising from such a popular base to be sure, but also to forms of art that are more highly refined, and indeed professionalized.

The new mascherate with their freshly composed canzoni and music are characterized by a transformation and artistic ennobling of the arts and traditions of civic celebration in a way that coincides with Lorenzo's cultural ambitions as stated both in the prefatory letter to the Raccolta Aragonese and in the Comento he wrote to his own sonnets.(6) In both Lorenzo invoked the example of ancient Roman trionfi - with their richly decorated triumphal cars, their sculptures, trophies, lavishly ornamented theaters, and with their publicly-sponsored oratorical and poetic competitions - as being praiseworthy for giving nourishment to the arts and bringing honor to the city. "For this alone," he wrote, "were designed the carri, the triumphal arches, the theatrical displays and funeral laudations."(7) (One inevitably thinks of those poetic competitions among Florentine writers inspired by Albiera degli Albizzi's death in 1473, and Simonetta Vespucci's in 1476, to which Lorenzo himself contributed four sonnets.) The ancient spectacles and certamina merited emulation as providing spurs to competing poets, orators, and artists, offering opportunities to them to acquire personal honor by stimulating a new and higher perfection in their individual performances. …

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