Throughout the Renaissance, music formed a central element in the activities of the curia and a bright thread in the rich tapestry of Roman religious and artistic life.

From Gregorian Chant to Opera's Origins

The singers and composers of the papal choir--recruited at first from northern Europe, but in the sixteenth century chiefly from Spain and Italy--appeared at daily services in the Vatican Palace and on greater occasions in the Sistine Chapel. They performed both the traditional chants of the Middle Ages, using splendid chant manuscripts, a few of which are exhibited here, and modern, polyphonic music of great richness and difficulty. In the course of the sixteenth century, the authorities became dissatisfied with the traditional melodies, which seemed to obscure the words of the liturgical texts (humanists and Reformers had long complained about this). Palestrina and others were commissioned to revise the Gregorian chants, and the new versions, printed by the Medici Press in Rome, provided the music that popes heard every day for centuries. Meanwhile music flourished in other Roman institutions as well, like the choir of Saint Peter's, which Julius II reconstituted in 1513, and where Palestrina served as maestro di cappella. The manuscripts shown here present only a few samples of the extraordinary musical life sponsored by the Renaissance papacy and the remarkable musical libraries of the papal singers. Together with the image of the papal choir in the Sistine Chapel on display in this section [Ris. Strag. 7], they give a vivid idea of the ways public performance and high art could enhance the majesty of the papacy.

Etienne Dupérac, Maiestatis Pontificiae dum in Capella Xisti Sacra Peraguntur Accurata Delineatio (The Papal Majesty in the Sistine Chapel)

An early engraving of the Sistine Chapel shows the full pomp of a papal religious ceremony, with the pope, the entire papal curia, and the singers in their box (lower right) gathered around a lectern. Every important participant is identified by a number corresponding to a legend at the bottom of the page. The pope on his throne at the left is no. 4, and the papal singers in their "cantoria" are no. 51.

Etienne Dupérac, Maiestatis Pontificiae dum in Capella Xisti Sacra Peraguntur Accurata Delineatio (The Papal Majesty in the Sistine Chapel). Engraving. 1578

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Constitution of the Sistine Chapel singers

The earliest complete extant constitution outlines the singers' duties, privileges, and code of behavior and offers detailed rules for their daily personal and professional life. The beautiful illuminated full-page opening miniature portrays the reigning pope Paul III presenting the constitution to the master of the papal chapel, with the singers of the chapel kneeling behind him.

Constitution of the Sistine Chapel singers. 1545

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Stefano Landi, Sant'Alessio

Stefano Landi (ca. 1586-1639) was a member of the papal chapel in Rome and also worked for the powerful Barberini family. In 1632 his opera "Sant'Alessio," with a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), later Pope Clement IX, was premiered in the Barberini palace in Rome; the score was published two years later. Although most early operas drew their plots from pagan mythology, this work is based on Christian hagiography--the life of the fifth-century Saint Alexis--yet also contains comic characters and elaborate scenic effects. The woodcut illustration displayed here shows one of those scenes, depicting nothing less than Hell itself.

Stefano Landi, Sant'Alessio. Rome. 634

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Treatises on Music [image not available at this time]

This collection of the most important ancient Greek treatises on music, includes works by Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, Plutarch, Cleonides, and many others. It has been elegantly copied in the original language and was owned by Cardinal Marcello Cervini, whose coat of arms can be seen at the bottom of the page on display--the beginning of a treatise by Aristoxenus. In 1555 Cervini was elected pope as Marcellus II, and his name was attatched to the title of Palestrina's famous "Missa Papae Marcelli."

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Treatises on Music [image not available at this time]. In Greek. Mid-sixteenth century

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Elzear Genet (Carpentras), Lamentations

The composer Carpentras was master of the papal chapel during the reign of Pope Leo X and wrote, among other things, polyphonic settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah--part of the liturgy of Holy Week. Returning to Rome for a visit after Leo's death, he heard performances or saw copies of his Lamentations that were so different from what he had originally composed that he decided to present the reigning pope Clement VII (1522-1534) with a decorated parchment manuscript, on display here, containing the "correct" and "authentic" version of his music.

Elzear Genet (Carpentras), Lamentations. Early sixteenth century

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Costanzo Festa, Collection of Polyphonic Hymns and Magnificats

This work of Costanzo Festa (ca. 1480-1545), an Italian who served as a singer in the papal choir from 1517 until his death in 1545, is the earliest collection of polyphonic hymns and Magnificats by a single composer in the Sistine fondo. The opening of his hymn Conditor alme siderum is shown here, with the arms of the reigning pope Paul III on the elaborately decorated "Q" in the upper left. The coat of arms at the bottom of the right-hand page--lions holding a wreath with a fleur-de- lis--may be the composer's personal coat of arms.

Costanzo Festa, Collection of Polyphonic Hymns and Magnificats. ca. 1538

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Records of the Papal Singers

The constitution of the papal singers required that individual singers be fined varying amounts if they came late or missed any of the daily services. Beginning in 1535 these fines were recorded in books known as the Diarii Sistini. Occasionally these documents tell us other things, such as in the entry on this folio (translated below). Many people in the late sixteenth century were very concerned that the congregation could not understand the sacred words of a Mass sung in polyphony. Here the papal singers try out some Masses--unfortunately not named--that addressed this problem:

At the request of the Most Reverend Cardinal Vitellossi we were assembled in his residence to sing some Masses and to test whether the words could be understood, as their Eminences desire; and those who were absent were fined:

  • Federicus  |  baiocchi 15
  • Petrus  |  baiocchi 15
  • Petrus Paulus  |  baiocchi 15
  • Mathias  |  baiocchi 15
  • Soto  |  baiocchi 15

Records of the Papal Singers. 28 April 1565

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Diary of Paris de Grassis

Paris de Grassis (ca. 1450-1528) was papal master of ceremonies during the reign of Pope Julius II (1503-13). He kept the extensive diary shown here. In this entry describing the vespers that took place on 31 October 1512, de Grassis mentions that Michelangelo's newly-painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel was displayed to the public for the first time.

Diary of Paris de Grassis. 31 October 1512

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Chigi Codex

The Chigi Codex, one of the richest sources of Franco-Flemish polyphony of the last quarter of the fifteenth century, is also one of the most elaborate and precious of all illuminated music manuscripts. It contains thirteen masses of the great Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-97), including this piece, the opening of Ockeghem's Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini. The Annunciation scene appears in the illumination in the cantus part. The shields and crests were overpainted by the later Spanish owners of the manuscript.

Chigi Codex. Netherlands, with Flemish miniatures. Last quarter of the fifteenth century

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Liber quindecim Missarum

This large folio choirbook of polyphony, printed entirely by woodblock and containing fifteen masses by Josquin, Brumel, de la Rue, and others, is the first major Roman publication of sacred polyphonic music. Here we see the table of contents, listing the masses included in the work.

Liber quindecim Missarum. Rome: Andreas Antico, 1516

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Editio Medicea

The Editio Medicea, the revised edition of Gregorian chant, was published in Rome in 1614. It was the product of a long and concerted effort initiated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1577 to reform the musical settings of liturgical texts and to rid the melodies of certain perceived barbarisms that had crept into sacred music over the centuries. Contributors to this important revision of the liturgical chant included the composers Palestrina, Annibale Zoilo, and, later, Felice Anerio and Francesco Soriano. The page shown is an introit for Christmas Day.

Editio Medicea. 2 vols. Rome: Typographia Medicea. 1614

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Ptolemy, Harmonics

Music was a mathematical science in its own right in the classical tradition. This copy of a Latin translation of Ptolemy's important theoretical work, Harmonics, was owned by the Italian music theorist Franchinus Gaffurius (ca. 1451-1522) and ends with a colophon in his own hand.

Ptolemy, Harmonics. In Latin. Late fifteenth century

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Antoine Brumel, Laudate Dominum

Antoine Brumel's setting of Laudate Dominum for four voices is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm. It is found in a manuscript copied during the reign of Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II (1503-1513), whose coat of arms appears in the upper left-hand corner of the opening.

Antoine Brumel, Laudate Dominum. Early sixteenth century

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Letter from Girolamo Mei to Vincenzo Galilei

This copy of an important letter from the humanist Girolamo Mei to the Florentine musician Vincenzo Galilei, father of the great astronomer, concerns the nature of Greek music. The letter includes a discussion of the presumed power of Greek music to move the emotions; from these ideas Galilei and his colleagues in Florence developed a new musical aesthetic that led to the creation of opera and other baroque forms.

Letter from Girolamo Mei to Vincenzo Galilei. 8 May 1572

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Second Book of Masses, 1597

The kyrie from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli was printed in his Second Book of Masses. The work is famous because it was said to have been composed to convince Pope Marcellus II not to ban polyphonic music from the liturgy. The story is probably apocryphal, but the masterly work is representative of Palestrina's mature style. It clearly expresses the text and avoids polyphonic elaboration that would obscure the meaning of the words.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Second Book of Masses, 1597. Reprint edition. 1598

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Manuscript of Polyphonic Music

This important manuscript containing polyphonic psalm, hymn, and motet settings is believed to have been owned by Palestrina. The excerpt shown here is called a "falsobordone," or chordal harmonization of a psalm tone, which is said to have been added in Palestrina's own hand.

Manuscript of Polyphonic Music. Late sixteenth century

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Keyboard Music Manuscript

This important manuscript of keyboard music is thought to be in the hand of the great keyboard composer, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who served as organist in Saint Peter's from 1608 until his death. On display is the opening from his Fourth Toccata. A toccata is an improvisatory solo work characterized by rhapsodic sections and rambling scale passages alternating with imitative or fugal sections.

Keyboard Music Manuscript. Seventeenth century

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Antoine Busnois, Missa O Crux Lignum

The opening of the kyrie of the mass by the Burgundian court composer Antoine Busnois is shown here. Like Capella Sistina 14 (not included in exhibition), this manuscript is one of the oldest polyphonic mass sources in the Sistina collection and dates from the late fifteenth century.

Antoine Busnois, Missa O Crux Lignum. Late fifteenth century

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Josquin des Prez, Missa de Beata Virgine

Recognized as the greatest and most versatile composer of the High Renaissance, Josquin des Prez (ca. 1445-1521) was a singer in the papal chapel intermittently from about 1486 to 1494, serving two popes, Innocent VIII and Alexander VI. This is the opening of one of Josquin's masterpieces, the Missa de Beata Virgine, from a manuscript collection of masses dating from the papacy of Pope Leo X (1513-21).

Josquin des Prez, Missa de Beata Virgine. Early sixteenth century

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Book of Motets

This fifteenth-century manuscript of sacred polyphony from the choir of Saint Peter's contains the motet "Omnium bonorum plena" (Full of all good things) by the French composer Loyset Compère (ca. 1450-1518). The piece is based on the famous chanson De tous biens playne. The composer prays to the Virgin for salvation for the most famous singers of his day, including Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnois, Josquin, Tinctoris, and Caron.

Book of Motets. Fifteenth century

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Chant manuscript

This fifteenth-century manuscript of Gregorian chant, copied for the chapel of Cardinal Pietro Barbo of Venice, was given to the Sistine Chapel choir after he became Pope Paul II in 1464. The lovely illumination of the letter C in the setting of the psalm "Cantate Domino" (Sing unto the Lord a new song) depicts a choir of singers standing in front of a lectern. The musical notes on the manuscript in the miniature are legible.

Chant manuscript. Parchment. ca. 1464

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Roll listing singers and their benefices

Counting down from the top of the manuscript, the sixth entry describes a benefice awarded to Guillaume Dufay, the great Franco-Flemish composer who sang in the papal chapel in the 1430s. The highly prized benefices were lifelong supplements to singers' incomes and did not necessarily require continued residence in the papal chapel.

Roll listing singers and their benefices. Signed by Pope Eugene IV. 24 April 1431

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Cappella Giulia Chansonnier

The only major source of Renaissance secular music in the papal collections, this compilation of Franco-Flemish chansons was apparently copied in Florence in the late fifteenth century for a member of the Medici family. The opening work is the textless composition Palle, Palle by the Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450-1517), who in 1484 served at the court of Lorenzo de' Medici. The "palle" of the title refers to the six balls or pills in the Medici coat of arms, which is represented in the illuminated P in the cantus part (upper left-hand corner of fol. 7 verso).

Cappella Giulia Chansonnier. Florence. Fifteenth century

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Chant manuscript

This manuscript is one of the most beautiful and elaborately illuminated chant manuscripts of the Capella Sistina collection. It was written for the great patron of the arts, Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) (1513-21). The opening displayed here is sumptuously decorated in gold, indigo, ruby, and other vibrant colors, with the initial O encircling Christ and his apostles. The lower border shows the Medici coat of arms (six balls in a three-two-one configuration) with the lion heads symbolically representing the pope, Leo X.

Chant manuscript. Parchment. ca. 1520(?)

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Alternate Exhibit Objects

Jacques Barbireau, Missa Virgo parens Christi

This manuscript is one of three in the Sistina collection copied probably in Brussels or Mechlin (Malines) at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and sent to Rome as a gift for Pope Leo X (1513-21). The pope's coat of arms is prominently displayed in the lower portion of the right hand initials. The volume contains Masses and Mass movements. The opening work is anonymous in the manuscript, but can be shown to have been written by Jacques Barbireau (ca.1420-1491), a composer who worked mostly in Antwerp.

Jacques Barbireau, Missa Virgo parens Christi. Early sixteenth century

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Letter from Giovanni Spataro to Giovanni di Lago

This is an excerpt from a letter from the Bolognese theorist Giovanni Spataro to his friend Giovanni di Lago in Rome. It includes a musical example to illustrate the point that Spataro is making.

Letter from Giovanni Spataro to Giovanni di Lago. 20 June 1520

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One of a series of sumptuous chant manuscripts produced during the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49), this volume preserves music to be sung during ceremonies that took place on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The manuscript is richly ornamented and a few folios are spectacularly decorated, such as the one shown here containing the opening chant of the liturgy of Good Friday, the antiphon "Astiterunt regem terrae." The miniature, by the papal miniaturist Vincenzo Raymondo, depicts Christ carrying the cross, while the coat of arms of Pope Paul III is at the bottom of the folio.

Antiphoner. Parchment. 1535

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Nicola Vicetino, L'Antica Musica ridotto a la moderna prattica

Vicetino (1511-1576) was a composer and theorist who believed that he had discovered a way to apply the ancient Greek "genera"- -types of scales--to the music of his day. These ideas are set forth in a treatise which claims to "reduce ancient music to modern practice." To test his theories Vicetino actually constructed an instrument called the arcicembalo (shown in the foldout illustration), a harpsichord with two keyboards capable of dividing the octave into 31 parts, thereby providing all the pitches needed to reproduce the ancient tone system.

Nicola Vicetino, L'Antica Musica ridotto a la moderna prattica. Rome: Antonio Barre, 1555

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Manuscript of Hymns, Magnificats, and Motets

This manuscript was copied towards the end of the fifteenth century and preserves a collection of polyphonic music to be sung during the office of vespers (hymns and Magnificats), as well as pieces performed during Mass (motets). The opening folio shows the Gregorian chant of the first verse of the hymn "Conditor alme siderum."

Manuscript of Hymns, Magnificats, and Motets. Late fifteenth century

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Alessandro Melani, L'Empio Punito

This opera by Alessandro Melani (1639-1703) received its first performance in Rome on 17 February 1669. It is the first opera to be based on the story of Don Juan, initiating a series of operatic treatments that were to culminate in Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787). This is a contemporary copy of the score with the music accompanying one of the elaborate scenic effects of the opera--a shipwreck.

Alessandro Melani, L'Empio Punito. Libretto by Rospigliosi. 1669

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