Francesco Tatti da Sansovino (1521-86), humanist, writer and publisher, was the son of Jacopo Sansovino, the most prominent Venetian architect and sculptor of the mid-16th century. Francesco wrote a book in praise of the Serenissima – Venetia, città nobilissima, et singolare, Descritta in XIIII libri (1581) – which, besides listing its beauties, recounted events both recent and remote in the city’s history. It contains a mention of one of the oldest and most fascinating keyboard instruments to have come down to us, the 1494 organo di carta of Lorenzo da Pavia. Its two registers of pipes (6’ and 3’) are made of layers of thick paper glued together and rolled into tubes. Lorenzo, an all-round gentleman craftsman and the period's most famous builder of exquisite small keyboards for the aristocracy, is best known for his extensive correspondence with Isabella d’Este. He built a spinetta and a clavichord for her, and advised the brilliant marchesa of Mantua on the decoration of her intarsia studiolo.

The only known survival of Lorenzo’s handiwork is the organo di carta, which was acquired by the city of Venice in 1874 from Zenone Zen, a descendant of the ancient noble Venentian family which had owned it for centuries. The Zen, according to Sansovino, had acquired it from the most artistically-minded of all the kings of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (who was married to a daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples when he died in 1490), and it was subsequently specified by testament that the instrument should never leave the family.

But this is not the theme of today’s small contribution. Francesco’s book was edited in 1663 by Giustiniano Martinioni, who brought the descriptions and history up to date. A considerable section is devoted to the celebrations held in Venice to mark the Peace of Vervins of 1598. The treaty ended the Wars of Religion in France, not to mention the ambitions of Philip II of Spain to cleanse Europe of heresy. The old bigot died within months of his humiliation at the hands of Henry IV; his interventions had led directly to the assassinations of the Duke of Guise and Henry III, and their spirit would live on to kill Henry IV himself.

Despite the defeat of the Catholic League, relief at the signing of the peace was great among the Venetians, since trade was all that ever really mattered to them. (Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, has Anthony Blanche say to Charles Ryder, “Well, my dear, of course you know Venice is the one town in Italy where no one has ever gone to church.”) The Doge ordered the six Scuole grandi to organize processions through the streets. Priests led the way with banners and relics; men of the confraternities followed, carrying heavy floats bearing tableaux vivants and Latin mottoes.

In seventh place came a delegation from the Brotherhood of the Rosary, based in the huge Dominican basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paulo, which the Venetians contract so delightfully to Zanipolo. One of their floats, Martinioni tells us, bore three musicians: “...tre giovani, chi sonavano uno con spinetta, l’altro con viola da gamba, e l’ultimo con violino i quali facevano una musica eccelentissima in modo di ringratiare Dio per questa Santissima Pace.”

I was nonplussed by this notice of an open-air, mobile spinetta... but anyone who has heard the pungent sound of a Venetian instrument of the type can well imagine its tones echoing from the walls of the calli and the waters of the rii. But what was the boy at the spinetta playing? This is a question that always arises in contexts where a member of the harpsichord family plays together with other instruments, especially when the rest of the ensemble is too small to cover all the parts of a polyphonic composition, as is the case here; if the group were larger, the keyboard could be thought to play an intabulation of all the parts in a supporting role – a practice which is well-documented. But what, when there are only two melody instruments?

1598 is at the dawn of the basso continuo period (see Article 25 on this site). The earliest printed sonata for violin, violone and continuo, published by the Milanese G. P. Cima in his Concerti ecclesiastici of 1610, was just around the corner. Its bass solo part is practically identical with the continuo line.

Who knows who these giovani were, and what they were up to? The violinist might have been the pioneer of the genre, G. B. Fontana, about whom nothing is known except that which is found in the preface to his posthumous sonatas (1641). He died in the terrible plague outbreak of 1630 (which resulted in Longhena’s votary church of the Salute) and left his manuscripts to the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which used to exist on the little island of that name south of the Giudecca.

The 1641 preface informs us that the bequest was made because Fontana remembered having had “il principio della sua meritata fortuna” there. It further says that the composer hoped his legacy would be printed, in order to bring it to the notice of musicians “con avvantaggio loro”, and in order to “eternarlo così nel mondo come eternamente goder à nel Cielo”. The last of these pious hopes is an interesting parallel to Martinioni’s remark about the boys on the float in 1598.

In any case, I know of no earlier reference to what looks very much like a sonata for solo instrument with continuo.

July 24, 2021

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