Architecture and Music Reunited: A New Reading of Dufay's Nuper Rosarum Flares and the Cathedral of Florence

By Trachtenberg, Marvin | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Architecture and Music Reunited: A New Reading of Dufay's Nuper Rosarum Flares and the Cathedral of Florence


Trachtenberg, Marvin, Renaissance Quarterly


The proportions of the voices are harmonies fir the ears; those of the measurements are harmonies for the eyes. Such harmonies usually please very much, without anyone knowing why, excepting the student of the causality of things.

--Palladia (1567)

The chiasmatic themes of architecture as frozen music and music as singing the architecture of the world run as leitmotifs through the histories of philosophy, music, and architecture. Rarely, however, can historical intersections of these practices be identified. This study proposes a transient nexus of architecture, sacred music, and theology in early modern Florence.

Nuper rosarum flores has long been known to musicologists and historians of Florence as the brilliant isorhythmic motet commissioned from Guillaume Dufay for the dedication of the new Cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore on March 25, 1436 (fig. 1). [1] But only in 1973 did the piece acquire its current renown, as the result of the seeming discovery by Charles Warren of a strong connection between its musical structure and the dimensions and proportions of the new Cathedral (92-105). The composition now became an icon of music history, a work that seemed deeply embedded in an architectural context framed by ascendant Renaissance humanism, and its reinterpretation was regarded among many musicologists as a model of interdisciplinary scholarly practice. Recently, however, Warren's reading has been sharply undermined, in particular by Craig Wright, who in 1993-1994 showed that while Warren's analysis of the musical structure was essentially correct, his reading of the architecture was so deeply flawed as to be invalid . [2] In Wright's view, Dufay's score was informed not by the design of S. Maria del Fiore but instead by a numerological and symbolic nexus sited in biblical and exegetical descriptions of Solomon's Temple and in Marian lore. The referentiality of the music was not to the real architecture of the Cathedral, with which it had nothing to do specifically, but to the imaginary Solomonic architecture (and related numerological sets) that was the universal model for all church construction. This is where matters currently stand.

It is difficult to find fault with Wright's critique, whether regarding his refinement of Warren's musical reading, his own presentation of the textual, Solomonic-Marian syndrome, or his refutation of Warren's architectural analysis. Nevertheless, it is possible that Wright made one important tactical error, a fault not of commission but omission: having invalidated Warren's reading of S. Maria del Fiore, he walked away from the building without looking back, and this may have been a mistake (albeit one virtually unavoidable for anyone not a specialist in Italian architecture of the period). Wright tacitly excludes the following intriguing possibility: Warren's architectural analysis may have been wrong, but a different reading of the architecture -- different from both Warren and Wright (and also all other published readings) -- might yield grounds for reestablishing Warren's idea of a connection between music and the built Cathedral.

It is this possibility that I want to explore. [3] In doing so my intent is not to undermine Wright's reading but to overlayer it with another, quite compatible interpretation, in which Nuper rosarum flores references not only the imaginary Solomonic Temple but also the real S. Maria del Fiore. Indeed, I propose to go further, by arguing that what we may be dealing with here is not two independent binary relationships -- music to building, and music to biblical/exegetical text -- but a triadic nexus in which all three factors are densely interrelated: the Cathedral directly related, in its morphogenesis, to Wright's textual model, as well as retroactively to the motet, which itself refers to both text and (real and biblical) image. Rather than seeing building and/or text as "causal" models for the music in the manner of Wright and Warren, I suggest instead that a more complex, bidirectional circulation of referentiality may have been at work, producing a complex cultural entity that we might call "word/image/ music. …

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