article 33: Music in Messisbugo

In 1549, a year after his retirement, Christoforo di Messisbugo published his Banchetti, Compositioni di Vivande, et Apparrechio Generale, a book of recipes prefaced by a record of lavish banquets he had prepared for guests of the Este court at and around Ferrara, and by a detailed list of all the personnel and every other thing normally required for their execution.

The reigns of Dukes Alfonso I and Ercole II and their respective brothers, Cardinals Ippolito I and Ippolito II, marked the rise and summit of the little duchy’s brief period of artistic eminence, and Messisburgo (a corruption of a transalpine surname – Merseburg? Middelburg?) was their highly valued steward, chef, and master of ceremonies. He was a far more prominent personage than the series of great composers who graced Ferrara with their presence and works. Charles V appreciated him as well; the emperor made the cook a count palatine in 1533. Messisbugo should be a name dear to the heart of every gourmet for having given the world the earliest recorded description of the preparation and preservation of Beluga caviar. In those happier days the biggest sturgeon (Huso huso) was still swimming in the River Po.

I came across Banchetti, much to my surprise, as the first item in the New Grove bibliography for Alfonso dalla Viola, the Ferrarese maestro di cappella who figures at the end of article 19 on this site. A copy at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek is available online. The recently-departed (2018) American scholar James Haar, who wrote the New Grove article, calls the book “celebrated” in one of the essays included in his anthology, “The Science and Art of Renaissance Music,” but it seems not to have attracted much attention in the music world. Aside from scattered references, an online search only produced a discussion by Howard Mayer Brown, “A Cook’s Tour of Ferrara in 1529,” tucked away in Rivista Italiana di Musicologia, Vol. 10 (1975), pp. 216-241 (now available on JSTOR), and included in a collection of articles by various writers, “Renaissance Music” (Kenneth Kreitner ed., London 2011). Brown’s oddly limited title (Messisburgo’s banquets extend from 1524 to 1548) belies his comprehensiveness. (His quotes differ slightly from mine, since his source was a modern edition (Venice, 1960) which must have been based on one of the later editions of Banchetti; these continued into the 17th century.)

The second section of Banchetti, Conviti Diversi, describes all aspects of a number of the feasts organized by Messisbugo. The mouth-watering, if dauntingly long, menus need not detain us here, but the brief notes on the Tafelmusik and music for dancing beg to be transcribed. They mostly concern groups of singers and consorts, both alta and bassa. Alfonso (spelled Alphonso by the author, as is the duke’s name) dalla Viola appears twice as composer of vocal music. I will confine myself here to the references to keyboard instruments. I have not changed any of Messisbugo’s quirky orthography.

There is no foliation until page 3 of this section of the book. On f. 1 we find:

“Laquale Vivanda posta in Tavola, cominciarono medesimamente i Musici eccellenti con somma meraviglia d’ognuno a sonare insieme questi stromenti, cioe Un’Arpa, uno Flauto, & un Cavacembalo, e sonarono etiamdio infino a tanto che fu portata la quarta Vivanda...”

This seems a very strange combination of instruments to be playing insieme for such a long time, and if the account is accurate, one can only speculate on what music they might have performed. The term cavacembalo for “harpsichord” is rare; it is found (in the plural) in Antengnati’s tuning instructions (1608) and in a letter by Monteverdi (1638), but those two references are all that an online search showed.


“Lequale cose mentre si mangiarono, fece una Musica M. Alphonso dalla Viuola, nella quale erano sei Voci, sei Viuole una Lirra, un Lauuto, una Cittara, uno Trombone, uno Flauto grosso, uno Flauto mezano, uno Flauto alla Alemana, una Sordina, e Due stromenti da penna, un grande, & un picciolo, laqual Musica fu tanto bene concertata, che adognuno pareva essere da quiut alle soperne parti passato.”

Since Messisbugo uses the term stromenti da penna only this once instead of cavacembalo, it might be thought that two virginals were employed here, one of them an ottavino. The final clause is standard high praise for the period, similar to the assertion that a performance “would have resurrected the dead.”


“E A questa prima vivanda si fece una Musica di .M. Alphonso dalla viuola nellaquale canto Madona Dalida da quattro altri voci accompagnata, M. Alphonso Santo, con cinque compagni, & li erano cinque Viuole da arco, Uno Cavacembalo da due Registri, un Lauto, & uno Flauto grosso, & un mezano.”

The two registers of the cavacembalo were probably an 8’ and a 4’. Madonna Dalida Puti had been the mistress of Cardinal Ippolito I, who was Adrian Willaert’s first Italian patron. He died – of overeating, according to H.M. Brown – in 1520.


“E A questa vivanda si fece un’altra Musica pure di M. alphonso della Viuola nellaquale erano cinque cantori di sua Eccellentissima Signoria, cinque Viuole de Arco, con uno Rubecchino, una Viuola chiamata la Orchessa per contrabasso, una Dolzaina per contrabasso secondo una storta sonata da M. Giovambattista leone, senza bussola. Due Flauti mezani, uno Organo a piu registri, & uno Cornetto sordo, poi venne la Quinta vivanda, tale.”

...and there follow the details of this course, which consisted of ten different dishes. A rubecchino – a small rebec (Mesisbugo’s word is derived from its alternate name, rubebe) – would have already had (intentionally?) archaic overtones. New Grove says the dolzaina is “a mysterious instrument documented from the 14th century to the 17th; it was most probably a straight-capped shawm with a soft tone.” Brown thinks that una storta is a separately-listed instrument, a crumhorn – but that would normally be uno storto. I would suggest that storta describes the curve on a bass dolzaina, and the remark about its being senza bussola – uncapped – indicates that the instrument usually was capped. This reading is supported by Messisbugo’s admittedly shaky syntax.

One can only wonder why the bass viol was called “The Ogress;” possibly a reference to a frightful carving on the pegbox?

June 22, 2021

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