Medici House Band
The Beast has an ongoing series we haven't done for awhile called The Complete & Utter History of Music on YouTube, which was meant to educate ourselves as well as entertain y'all. We just returned from a Spring hiatus to Italy and would like to add on a post on the places we visited that fit into the overall narrative. Especially since we found ourselves in two cities known for their museums tracing the origins of our modern instruments: Bologna, called Italy's "city of Music" and Florence, where the piano was invented. Score!
Bologna is dominated by the local university and like Austin, TX or Chapel Hill, NC (or even Xalapa, Mexico) still has a vibrant music scene. Only Bologna's music scene goes back about, oh, a couple thousand years. Always a bit of an artsy, proudly Leftie city -- we arrived in the midst of the annual May Day Festival in the main Piazza Magiorre, where a band was rolling through an Italian version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" before an enormous banner proclaiming Lavoro, Sviluppo, Legalità ("Work, Development, Legality") and a lot of young white hipsters bearing wraparound Italian sciarpas and t-shirts proclaiming "Basta!" ("Enough!" -- some sort of local anarchist cry). They were the inheritors of a city who had seen many great musicians -- Ottorino Resppighi, Gioacchino Rossini (who debuted at age 13 in 1805 at the city's Teatro del Cortso), Gaetano Donizetti, Padre Giovanni Battista Martini and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- who have either lived, studied or performed in Bologna. The Academica Filarmonica, founded in 1666, included Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Liszt and Brahms as members.
"...alla ricerca del fantasma di Tom Joad"
We caught a snootful of Northern Italian Hip-Hop at Arteria, a small club right by the University with a dizzyingly quick lineup of bands like BoomBap Haze, Ribbores, E-Green and Brain. (Note: Italian hip-hoppers don't say "yo-yo-yo" but "ya-ya-ya" and it's not at all annoying; they also give shout outs to their own band names at least every other line, almost double that of American rappers). We stood sipping on a Bierra Moretti and watched this cavalcade from a giant cloud of marijuana smoke in the basement of some ancient crumbling dance club. Just two blocks away on Strada Maggiore was the International Music Museum and Library, where the Beast and Mrs. Beast had paid a visit to just a few hours before. The place contains about six centuries of well-preserved musical history in the stunningly restored 18th-century Palazzo Sanguinetti; the entrance is through a grand-domed staircase where hundreds of tiny stars hang from thin wires and give the impression they are floating in midair:
Of course, this was only prelude to the goodies inside. There;s the Harmonice musices odhecaton A, the first musical instruction book printed with movable type by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1501, an anthology of French-Italian chansons that made printed music available to the masses, where previously it had been the province of vanity luxury items of the very rich. (Essentially, the Rosetta stone to all those Mel Bay books we grew up with.) There's Rossini's autographed original score to Il Barbierie di Siviglia. There's the entrance examination from to the Accademia Filarmonica by a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that he, under the aegis of his mentor Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, submitted on October 9, 1770; apparently, the young prodigy failed to understand musical counterpoint and Martini, who just happened to be one of counterpoints pioneering theorists, had to pencil-whip it into shape to his student could pass. (A few months later, the 14-year-old Mozart, who had already dropped out of the Accademica, debuted his opera Mitridate in Milan.)
But the best part was its collection of musical instruments, including an amazing pair of chromatic double-harps [pictured above] -- one carved in maple; the other sculpted from pine into the figure of a female -- that were the antecedent to the piano. There was a diverse assortment of five-piped flutes (Armonia di flauti), the sordellina, which is a set of bellows with numerous boxwood pipes that resemble lobster claws, and stringed instruments like the Archlute, a pineapple-shaped soundbox with an impossibly long neck and a wonderfully complex interweb of single and double strings. There were such truly rare and esoteric inclusions as the Heckelphone (sort of a giant oboe), an omnitonum (monochord) harpsichord created in 1606 by Vita Trasuntino, a series of pochettes (small violins used by dancers), and of course, that Sting/Arcade Fire-revived/Donovan name-checked hipster instrument the coppia di ghironde ("hurdy-gurdy"), popular with court dancers and street beggars alike in the 16th and 17th centuries that looks like a large pepper grinder and makes music much the same way, by rotating a rosined wheel inside a hollow wooden box.
We continued our musical-instrument tourism in Florence at the Galleria dell'Accademia, which holds a mouth-watering array of swag from the powerful Medici and Lorraine clans. Much of the collection comes from Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici (1663-1713), who was more of a music and arts lover than his politically charged family. Among the treasures was the salterio, a sort of flat box engineered from different types of marble that contains twenty strings to be plucked or strummed (the antecedent to the hammer dulcimer and the autoharp); a spinette ovale, built in 1690 by master Florencian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732) out of rosewood and cypress, a rectangular case with Gothic-arch sides containing symmetrical strings with a small ivory keyboard (the antecedent, we surmise, to the Casio portable keyboard); a pianoforte vertical [pictured above] that was basically a grand piano with the entire case folded straight up in the air in a spectacular "giraffe" shape; a serpentone, which is a bass horn constructed out of leather and chestnut wood in the form of a long snake; a corno di bassetto that looked like a clarinet with hinges; the tromba marina, which is sort of like a piece of clock-shaped furniture with a single bass string (shades of the diddley-bow) that when plucked or bowed apparently sounds like a trumpet (??); a splendid pair of hurdy-gurdies carved out of mahogany and overlaid with mother-of-pearl; and our personal favorite, a strange little character called the chitarra a pianoforte [pictured below] which is like a teardrop-shaped lute with a tiny little five-key chromatic keyboard mounted right above the bridge; apparently, this was constructed by a London guitar maker who was asked to create an instrument "suitable of girls of good families" that would safeguard their soft fingertips.
Oh, and there were also a bunch of churches, museums and ancient ruins and stuff.