Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy

Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy

by Andrew Dell'Antonio

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Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy by Andrew Dell'Antonio

The early seventeenth century, when the first operas were written and technical advances with far-reaching consequences—such as tonal music—began to develop, is also notable for another shift: the displacement of aristocratic music-makers by a new professional class of performers. In this book, Andrew Dell’Antonio looks at a related phenomenon: the rise of a cultivated audience whose skill involved listening rather than playing or singing. Drawing from contemporaneous discourses and other commentaries on music, the visual arts, and Church doctrine, Dell’Antonio links the new ideas about cultivated listening with other intellectual trends of the period: humanistic learning, contemplative listening (or watching) as an active spiritual practice, and musical mysticism as an ideal promoted by the Church as part of the Catholic Reformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520950108
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/21/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 235
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Andrew Dell’Antonio is Professor in the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division at the University of Texas at Austin, Butler School of Music. He is a former Mellon Fellow at the Harvard-Villa I Tatti Center for Italian Renaissance Studies and the editor of Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (UC Press).

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Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy

By Andrew Dell'Antonio


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95010-8


Rapt Attention

I turn to you, most blessed winged spirit, as you prepare to restore and comfort the languid and lovesick Francis with your song; ah, hold back the accenti, no longer play that harmonious instrument, which in being too lively brings him death and in lifting him too high oppresses him. Have mercy by stopping the course of so much mercy. If one more note comes out, it will relieve him of all life breath. If you wound that thin string one more time, you will cut the string of his life; nor can you handle that sweet bow again, for he will remain slain by its arrows. Thus Francis states when the music ends: the sensation of one more sound would render him senseless. —Lelio Guidiccioni, Discorso sopra la musica

Since song and sound come from an intimate thought of the mind, and from the impetus of fantasy, and from an affettuoso delight of the heart, and striking with the air the already broken, distempered listener's spirit, the connection between soul and body, easily it can move the fantasy, delight the heart, penetrate to the deepest parts of the mind; and having penetrated, it works its effects, according to the disposition, and complexion of those who savor and delight in musical harmony. —Lodovico Casali, Generale invito alle grandezze, e maraviglie della musica

The goal of expressing or evoking affetto—a term loosely but imprecisely translatable as "affect" that suggests the ineffable nature of human emotional/spiritual response—was introduced by advocates of early modern Catholic reform to justify the increasing focus on the recipient of a spiritual message rather than its creator. In this chapter, I will briefly discuss connections between the various uses of the concept of affetto in post-Tridentine discourse on preaching, the visual arts, and musical practice, particularly in the evocation and contemplation of mystical delight and transcendent union with the divine. I will then focus on musical manifestations associated with the presentation of the Eucharist, the moment in the Mass considered most crucial to early modern Reformed Catholic spirituality, drawing a connection from eucharistic devotional practice to a specific image of mystical transport through instrumental music: the iconography of the ecstasy of Saint Francis, who is often depicted in early modern Italy as responding to the sound of a violin-playing angel. The implications of this musical iconography will lead us through an examination of the role played by Jesuit ideas and institutions in reinforcing particular models of mystical contemplation and to some initial observations about spiritually informed listening and its role in the construction of ideal elite listening practices in early seventeenth-century Italy.

Some version of the claim that the goal of music is to "move the affetto of the spirit" (muovere l'affetto dell'animo) was invoked by many early modern composers of vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular music alike: for example, Adriano Banchieri suggests that modern composers "must work to imitate with harmony the affetti of the discourse/ rhetoric/speech [gli affetti dell'oratione], so that the song may delight not only its composer but likewise the singers and the listeners." The term was frequently used as a descriptive indication in the introductions to musical scores as well as within the scores themselves. Performers were encouraged to sing, or were described as singing, "with the greatest possible affetto"; and instances of the term affetto to denote passages of instrumental works are as widespread as they are idiosyncratic. Given the variety and potentially contradictory nature of these usages, perhaps rather than attempting to determine a contemporary consensus on the precise meaning of the term it might be more useful to observe that claiming the existence of affetto in one's musical practice seems to have been an overriding concern in early seventeenth-century discourse on music.

This is understandable, for the term affetto permeated the discourse of post-Tridentine Catholic reform as an element of neo-Ciceronian theories of rhetoric and oratory. A straightforward instance is provided by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti's 1582 commentary on visual images, in which the cleric (an active participant in the Council of Trent and strong proponent of Tridentine reform) affirms that the artist must create a work apt "to give delight, to teach, and to move the affetto of the beholder" (a dare diletto, ad insegnare e movere l'affetto di chi la guarderà), echoing the tripartite purpose of rhetoric (docere, delectare, movere) as defined by Cicero and claimed for Christian oratory by Augustine. Paleotti does not, however, place sole onus on the creator of the work for the effectiveness of its meaning. In the passage immediately preceding his statement about the artist's rhetorical task, he asserts that "the goal [to persuade] is not within the power of the creator; his role [ufficio] is the endeavor and the use of means proportionate to that goal.... Thus concerning the painter, just as is appropriate for the writer, it can be said that his role is to shape the painting in such a way that it be suited to engender/give birth to [partorire] the goal that is expected from sacred images" (1961, 214–15). Thus the recipient and creator had equal responsibility in the proper cultivation of affetti.

In the generations following Paleotti's treatise, affetti became understood as "gestures and expressions that communicate the soulful feeling of the senses," and for the commentators of the Catholic Reformation affetti were closely linked with "the depiction of themes of moral significance that elevate the soul" (Spear 1982, 1:29, 36). An early seventeenth-century definition of the term, from the Florentine Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, specifically highlights the spiritual nature of affetto: "a passion of the soul, born of the desire for good, and the hatred of evil."

Creating works that would excite the recipient's affetto was the artist's task—but not only, indeed not primarily, the artist's. Preaching, also a crucial aspect of the Catholic program of reform, was perhaps the most explicitly theorized of the vehicles by which spiritual affetto could be evoked. As a consequence, the ability to deploy eloquence and rhetoric in the service of the divine was considered essential to the task of moving the emotions to rectitude. Franciscans embraced the role of "professional" preachers in the post-Tridentine reform, and by the 1570s Rome was described as "a city flooded with preaching," in which clergy "mounted the many stages there to practice and perfect their art." Many preachers were highly sought after (both in and beyond Rome), and contemporaneous commentaries speak to their effectiveness and popularity. Scholars have identified particular preaching schools associated with different orders or individual preachers and their followers. Indeed, the professionalization of the preacher proceeds in an interestingly parallel way to that of the visual artist and musical performer in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italy.

The preacher was increasingly characterized as a mediator between divine grace and human understanding, and that mediation was in keeping with one of the crucial principles of Catholic faith reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in opposition to the central-European Christian reformers, the concept of justification, or the process of acquisition of divine grace through righteous living. As McGinness (1995, 32) observes, "Like justification, preaching assumed that the grace to reform one's life is offered to every individual (indeed, the preacher is mediator of this grace), but there was the delicate matter of human co-operation with divine grace. The role of the preacher, then, was to move listeners, to persuade them, to cooperate with that grace." Thus the preacher was charged, not with forcing the faithful to worship, but with "persuad[ing] them to cooperate with [divine] grace," to choose freely the path to salvation, since this was an essential aspect of Catholic theology. The need for active cooperation on the part of the listener implied a need for oratory to serve not just as a tool for providing information but also as a resource for learning to listen, to assist the listener-recipient in becoming properly disposed toward God's message of grace.

A widely circulated "guide to delivering a sermon" by one of the most renowned and highly esteemed Franciscan preachers of the day (Girolamo Mautini da Narni, to whom we will return in chapter 4) specifies that"[the preacher's] oratory is not meant to astonish but to predispose the listeners to the word of God, to meditation on the truths suggested by sacred scripture." Unlike Reformed-Evangelical or Calvinist preachers, Catholic preachers did not have as a goal of their practice their listeners' direct acquisition of the scriptural Word. Rather, they were charged with interpretation of scriptural text, and the ultimate goal was for the listener to perceive a glimpse of the transcendent Truth that words could only imperfectly adumbrate. Thus the preacher's message had to be not only doctrinally accurate and verbally persuasive but also "listener-friendly" beyond verbal content, containing within its structure and flow the incentives and instructions for the fruitful acquisition of the transcendent grace that surpassed the specific content of the preacher's earthly speech. Accounts of successful preachers (and many were popular and highly sought-after, especially recruited for events such as the Quarantore, on which more below) dwell at least as much on the sonic expressive power of the preacher's voice—and its effect on the listeners—as they do on the specific content of the sermon. One example of such an account will suffice here:

The sonorousness of his voice has never been heard in others, it is not fully bronze nor fully silver, it shatters the air from afar and disperses opposing opinion, but in such a way that it soothes with thunder and sweetens with lightning.... He speaks with pauses as much as with words. Every one of his motions and his glances works effectively.... In excited actions he is fearsome, graceful in calm and composed ones.... A turn of his eye, a lift of his hood, his gathering or extending his body, with all of which (gravely) he accompanies the affetti of his discourse, configure others' spirits as he wishes. If he becomes heated in admonishing, out of the small pulpit comes a tempest as from a military machine. If he sweetens and comforts, there is no song more dear to the ears than his speech. All in all, in his presence, words, and actions, he is venerable, sublime, and penetrating, and altogether sweet, graceful, and lovely.

The descriptive imagery is analogous to that used to praise contemporary singers by such contemporary chroniclers as Pietro Della Valle and Vincenzo Giustiniani, whose writings on music and the arts will be explored in subsequent chapters. For example, Della Valle writes that Modern Roman singers display "the art of soft and loud, of increasing the voice bit by bit, of softening it with grazia, of expressing affetti, of following with good judgment the words and their meanings; making the voice happy or sad, pitiful or bold as needed" (1903, 162). And according to Giustiniani, the female singers of Mantua and Ferrara distinguished themselves by "diminishing or enlarging their voice, now loud, now soft, narrowing or widening it phrase by phrase, alternatively drawing it out and speeding it up.... [Roman/Florentine singers] sang bass and tenor with a very wide range, with exquisite ways and passaggi and with extraordinary affetto and a special talent in letting the words be heard clearly" (1628/1878, 17–19). Indeed, Giustiniani links the sonic expressiveness of sermonizing and singing very directly: "A close acquaintance of mine chose to frequent a confraternity, prioritizing it over many others that were perhaps better, because the leader and rector had a beautiful voice in making his sermons, and sang the litanies well, with grazia and a delightful sonorous voice" (27). The term grazia recurs in these and other contemporary authors' texts as a central tenet underpinning gusto, and its appearance in a sacred context underlines the continuity between taste for beauty and divine understanding.

A widely influential manual on preaching by one of the most esteemed practitioners of early modern Italy—Francesco Panigarola's On the Way to Compose a Sermon (Del modo di comporre una predica), first printed in Italian in 1581 and quickly translated into Latin and French—draws on a specifically musical image to describe the opening section of a sermon: he compares it to a performer's opening ricercata, from which "those who are present can immediately derive what they can hope from the [musical] performer's skill." To be sure, metaphors connecting verbal and rhetorical expression to music permeate the controversies over the "second practice" and "new style" in early modern Italy, but in this case the metaphor is reversed, and the rhetorical power is seen as sonic and as building on nonverbal immediacy rather than as dependent on text and critical reason.

If moving affetto was an essential goal of the preacher, Paleotti also specified a further purpose: as Anton Boschloo (1998, 47) frames it, "As far as affetto is concerned ... artworks must be created in order to achieve two objectives: 'move the senses' and 'excite the spirit to devotion.'" Indeed, for those who wished to build devotional rhetoric (preachers, visual artists, musicians), clarity of meaning was evidently less important than evocation and inspiration. "Preachers no longer look to impart a clear and distinct apprehension of doctrine (though in other circumstances this was important)," observes McGinness (1995, 106), "but instead to proclaim it, to draw out the affections, and address the heart." And it is to the importance of spiritual understanding based in the heart (which housed affetto—rather than the brain, home of intelletto) that we now turn. With the increasing concern for the recipient's predisposition and response to rhetorical stimuli, in the decades following the Council of Trent Catholic Church leaders began to make a distinction between different levels of affective response. In the process, they privileged specific models of response that became associated with the cultivated, upper-class individual. Perhaps as a reaction to the Evangelical Reformation's highlighting of textual study as a path to spiritual connection, we can see in late sixteenth-century Italy an encouragement to seek another path: in the words of one turn-of-the-century commentator, "the way of affetto and of love, which is found more through inspiration than through reflection." This path was recommended not only for illiterate individuals (who would naturally not have access to texts for reflection) but also, and perhaps more directly, to the increasingly literate upper classes, who might otherwise have been tempted by the Protestant championing of humanism and individual textual interpretation. The scholarly, text-based path to divine understanding was increasingly characterized as long, difficult, and even pedantic—qualities entirely opposed to the ideal of effortless grazia that the Italian ruling classes had been cultivating as a defining trait in the decades following Castiglione's Cortigiano and Dalla Casa's Galateo. Better to gain inspiration to transcendent understanding through images—again quoting Paleotti (1961, 228; I have retained the construction of the original, despite its awkwardness in English, to highlight the image of the devout viewer/listener's body being penetrated by the breath of the depiction), "If words that are heard or read have such power to move our senses, with much greater force will penetrate us those images, from which we can see the breath of piety, modesty, saintliness, and devotion." This is not a circumstance governed by rational response but certainly one that has the power to move the emotions—though the agency in this case is interestingly obscured, since the paintings do not, of course, "breathe." Implicit in Paleotti's description is the "active reception" of the spiritual message on the part of the viewer of the image: we will return below to the implications of this notion of "active receptivity."


Excerpted from Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy by Andrew Dell'Antonio. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Listening as Spiritual Practice
1. Rapt Attention
2. Aural Collecting
3. Proper Listening
4. Noble and Manly Understanding
Envoy: From Gusto to Goût

Appendix: Lelio Guidiccioni, "Della Musica": Transcription and Translation

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