article 14:   "The Concert" by Titian: a Portrait of Dionisio Memo?

During a brief breakout from Covid-19-plagued Germany in September 2020 my wife and I were in Florence. One morning we found ourselves almost alone in the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany which holds such a distinguished place in the history of early opera. Among a number of other museums, it houses the Galleria Palatina, that part of the family collection which was acquired later than the works which fill the Uffizi. It includes some of the most famous portraits by Raphael and Titian, and among the latter we were struck by one which should have been familiar, but wasn’t. It is known as “The Concert” or “The Interrupted Concert”, and was formerly ascribed to Titian’s teacher Giorgione. It is now dated to the early part of Titian’s long career, when he was still somewhat under Giorgione’s influence.

The work shows a handsome young man in black robes seated at what looks like an ottavino spinet. He is looking over his left shoulder at a white-clad Dominican monk who holds a bass viol in one hand while resting the other on the performer’s shoulder, requesting his attention. A third figure in the background, opulently dressed in russet velvet and wearing a feathered cap, looks out at the viewer with a mysterious smirk.

This painting has puzzled all its serious students, and it puzzled the amateur in me. I bought a postcard and put it on my desk after returning home. After contemplating it for a few days I think it is a portrait of the famous organist of San Marco, later the great favorite of Henry VIII: Dionisio Mem(m)o (ca. 1485 - after 1539).

As I have written elsewhere,* Memo was an extremely important link between his eminent Austrian teacher, the Emperor Maximilian’s organist Paul Hofhaimer, and the North Italian school. He was the first historically important organist of San Marco from 1507, but unfortunately not a note of his music has come down to us —unless, as I believe, some of the error-ridden lute tablatures of Petrucci are arrangements of his ricercars. In 1516 Memo was recruited by an agent of Henry VIII and undertook the voyage to London, carrying with him “a most excellent instrument”, about which one longs in vain to know more, but which I suspect was a claviorganum. He also carried along a dangerous assignment from the Venetian state, his former employer, to spy on the English court. The discovery of his reports by the English necessitated Memo’s abrupt flight at the end of 1525 to Portugal, “in fear of his life” as a contemporary diary reports. Thus ended a remarkable period of royal favor as head of King Henry’s instrumental music (and close companion at Windsor during the plague). Memo is last noted in 1539 as organist of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Titian’s later friendships with musicians are well-known, especially with the circle around Marco Antonio Cavazzoni. I think a portrait in Chicago, now obviously wrongly attributed to Palma Giovane and tucked away in the depot, is Titian’s rendering of Adrian Willaert — but more on that another time. The painter would undoubtedly have known Memo, whose departure from Venice by permission of the Doge to service with the English king must have caused a sensation just when Titian was beginning his masterpiece, the “Assumption of the Virgin Mary” in the church of the Frari.

I believe “The Concert” should be re-titled “Portrait of Dionisio Memo at the Moment he is Informed That He is Wanted in London”, or words to that effect. Its present title is in any case obviously inadequate. Barring the miraculous emergence of new documents, this interpretation can never be proven. As a friend once wrote me, “How lovely it would be if we could prove the unprovable.” But the strangeness of the scene fits the historical circumstance extraordinarily well. First there is the enraptured performer on a small harpsichord, whose exceptional good looks would have been appreciated everywhere he went, whether Innsbruck, Vienna, Venice, London, Lisbon or Santiago de Compostela — and I suspect especially so at a court like that of Henry VIII. Then there is the portentous face of the gambist; the news he is imparting to his young friend is clearly of the utmost importance. The third figure, a representative of the secular world (the Uffizi website’s brief discussion of the painting says the white plume on the fellow’s cap represents boldness and masculinity) and possibly Henry’s agent, gazes out at us in a way which promises no good. Perhaps Titian had a foreboding of his friend’s fate?

Memo (if it really is he) is wearing the sober black robe with modest white linen which we find in all extant portraits of members of the cappella of San Marco, notably that of Monteverdi in Innsbruck. I have been fascinated by his story since I first heard of it. I feel the first track on my Cavazzoni disc — my own re-arrangement for keyboard of an anonymous ricercar arranged for lute in the first Petrucci print of 1507 — is by Memo. And now I am convinced I have seen his face. I hope I have convinced the reader as well.

Memo’s voyage to London had another sad postscript. Zuan da Leze (a.k.a. Giovanni da Legge), said by the diarist Sanuto to be “maxime da clavicembano”, was impressed by Memo’s success, had a “perfetissimo” harpsichord built, traveled with it overland to London at great expense, and performed for the king. His Majesty was not amused, gave Zuan a mere 20 ducats for his trouble, and sent him away. That same evening Zuan, “da disperato”, hanged himself on his belt.

(*See article 7 on this website.)

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