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Musica Prisca Caput: Ancient Greek Music Theory, Vitruvius, and Enharmonicism in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Daniel Walden

In a letter to a colleague in 1638, the painter Domenichino recounted that he had begun experimenting with the construction of lutes and harpsichords capable of performing music in the “lost” ancient Greek enharmonic genus.  He revealed that his source of inspiration for these musical activities was the Roman treatise De Architectura by Vitruvius, rather than any of the well-respected and widely-read theoretical treatises by Boethius, Zarlino, Gaffurius, and the like.  Scholars had often dismissed Vitruvius’s musical fragments as derivative, incomplete, or incorrect, but Domenichino clearly thought otherwise, believing that Vitruvius held the keys to the secrets of ancient Greek music.  As I will show, he was not alone in this regard.

            In this paper, I will demonstrate how Vitruvius’ writings on Aristoxenus and other Greek music theorists in De Architectura profoundly influenced early modern understanding of ancient music theory, and that a systematic study of Italian sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentaries on De Architectura can help us retrace this legacy.  Walden 2014 [forthcoming] discusses how Vitruvius reinterpreted Aristoxenus and Pythagoras in applying musical theory to architectural and mechanical designs; in this presentation, I will build off of this study to show how Vitruvius’ transmission of these earlier theories served as a key source for Renaissance Italian humanists interested in reviving ancient musical practices.  In particular, enharmonic music was the subject of intense intellectual and artistic interest and debate, inspiring a rich culture of collaboration that integrated musical theory and performance practice topics with those important to architectural and artistic discourses. 

I will begin by offering a close reading of the musical writings by the Venetian humanist and architectural theorist Daniele Barbaro, whose translation and commentaries on De Architectura (Venice 1556/1567) served as the standard text for the next several hundred years.  Barbaro also authored the unpublished treatise Della Musica, which has been generally overlooked in current Renaissance scholarship, that presented a vision of ancient Greek music theory shaped by Vitruvian schematics and logic, and advocated experimentation his contemporaries in enharmonic composition and performance based on those models.  Turning from theory to practice, I will then show how two such enharmonic composer-theorists, Nicola Vicentino and Fabio Colonna, introduced Vitruvian music theory into their performance practice. Vicentino’s treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla prattica moderna and Colonna’s La sambuca lincea both include detailed discussions of Vitruvian theory, as well as descriptions of original designs for keyboards with thirty-one divisions of the octave that were capable of performing the microtonal intervals of the enharmonic genus and sample enharmonic compositions for those keyboards.  Although these treatises have received considerable attention since Theodor Kroyer’s Die Anfänge der Chromatik im italienischen Madrigal des XVI. Jahrhunderts (eg. Barbieri 2008, Kaufmann 1963, Kaufmann 1966, Martin 1984, and Rasch 2002), recent scholarship has not addressed the considerable influence that Vitruvian discourse had in shaping these Renaissance texts.  I will analyze a sample composition from each treatise – Musica Prisca Caput by Vicentino and Esempio della circulatione by Colonna – to show how the composition itself, and the performer’s gestures at the enharmonic keyboard were devised to call attention to central principles of Vitruvian architectural and musical theory as illuminated by Barbaro.  I will also show how Colonna’s writings and compositions take an even more explicitly Vitruvian stance, suggesting that a concept of a “Vitruvian music theory” had begun to crystallize by the beginning of the seventeenth century.  Through my discussion, and these analyses, I hope to accomplish three aims: first, to demonstrate how Renaissance understanding of ancient Greek musical theory and practice was mediated by Vitruvian architectrual discourse; second, to articulate the key characteristics of “Vitruvian music theory” and how they may have shaped early modern compositional practices; and finally, to show how enharmonicism was not simply a radical compositional trend, but a key part of a larger humanistic discourse focused on the study and re-creation of the mystical effects of ancient Greek music. 

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Ancient Greek and Roman Music: Current Approaches and New Perspectives

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