article 66: Pordenonian Perplexity

Here is a lovely Dutch verb: grasduinen. It comes from the word for a grassy hill where cattle can graze to their fill in peace. It means “to browse at one’s leisure”, in hopes of coming across something of interest. 

Followers of this site will have noted my interest in paintings on musical topics. Another came up recently while I was aan het grasduinen. It’s by Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, who was known after his birthplace in Friuli as Il Pordenone. The title, “Portrait of a Musician”, seems straightforward enough; it might be one of the multitude of great composers flourishing around Venice when the painter was active. When I found the painting I set about looking for resemblances to known composer portraits, but then I looked more carefully at the music the subject is holding. I can make head nor tail of it, and if the sitter was indeed a musician, he must have been upset when he saw the nonsense in his book. And the book itself is of an odd format for a work in mensural notation.

If the fresco shown here below the painting in question (St. Roch in the cathedral of Pordenone) is indeed (as is thought) a self-portrait, then I think the “musician” must be one too, taken at an earlier age. In both, Pordenone, if that’s who it is, looks deeply dissatisfied with life – not to say ready to boil over with aggression. He often got into trouble, went armed to his jobs, and felt himself excluded from the most prominent circles of Venetian painting (see Article 64). If this was true, it must have been not due to the quality of his work, but to his his personality, which by all accounts tended to sardonic irritability. He was, in fact, a major rival of Titian, who was suspected of having poisoned him when he died in Ferrara in 1539. His most important commissions in the Doge’s palace in Venice were sadly destroyed in the fires of the 1570’s, so a complete assessment of his work is no longer possible.

I was not able to decipher the music, but the text yielded a few words (loqueris / tradat nos) which revealed it to be a passage from Jeremiah 43, verses 2 and 3, in the Vulgate of St. Jerome. In their entirety these read as follows in the Authorised (“King James”) Version:

“Then spake Azariah the son of Hoshaiah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the proud men, saying unto Jeremiah, Thou speakest falsely: Jehovah our God hath not sent thee to say, Ye shall not go into Egypt to sojourn there; but Baruch the son of Neriah setteth thee on against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may put us to death, and carry us away captive to Babylon.”

It would be difficult to find a text more suited to a man suffering from a persecution complex. I haven’t found any compositions or plainsong using it, but I confess that a more thorough search might turn something up. It would certainly be a depressing challenge for a musical rhetorician. One could imagine Schütz making a concerto of it in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, but that’s as far as my fantasy goes. It serves its purpose very well indeed in the best portrait this tortured mind produced.

September 3, 2022

- back -