article 92: IN VITO VERITAS

My habitually negligent behavior at instrument collections was recently exposed at the Instrumentenmuseum in Berlin. I’ve visited the place often, but never paid sufficient attention to the information provided for an instrument purportedly by the famous Vito Trasuntino, Venice 1560. It sits rather forlornly on a table with no outer case or stand.

Reading the label lying next to it brought a shock: an Italian researcher named Maurizio Tarrini had determined that the instrument was mentioned in an inventory of the Este court of Ferrara, drawn up during the reign of Duke Alfonso II (1559-97). That magical little city on the Po plain was one of the centers of the musical world for 150 years, until it reverted to the Papal State in 1598 for lack of an Este heir. I began speculating about the great keyboardists who must have played this harpsichord: Ercole Pasquini, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and his young student Girolamo Frescobaldi in the first place, and farther back, Jacques Brunel and Giaches de Wert. The famous extended visit by Gesualdo and his musical entourage began in 1594. I looked up Cipriano da Rore, and found that he had served the Estes only until 1559, so he dropped out of my daydream.

Tarrini’s article is available at as number 34775865. Its subject is the musical meetings (tornate) organized in Genova in 1875 and 1876 by Pier Costantino Remondini (1829-93), a lawyer and pioneer of Italian musicology. The latter session is relevant to the 1560 Trasuntino; publications and letters regarding it are where the instrument first reappears in the modern historical record. We read that it was then in possession of Federico Mylius (1826-97), a wealthy entrepreneur of German extraction, that it originated from the Este court of Modena, and that it was tutto ornato a oro e colori. It was playable at the time, since it was used in a performance at the meeting. At that point the date on the nameboard MDL was “very clear”, but the X was “barely legible”.

Tarrini makes no mention in this article of a Ferrarese inventory. An inventory of the Este keyboards was published for the first time in a booklet by Luigi Francesco Valdrighi (Musurigiana, Modena 1879), kindly located for me by John Koster. Valdrighi’s main intention was defense of a previous publication regarding an instrument called pian e forte (!), which was probably a harpsichord or claviorganum with a swell mechanism or some device for quick changes of registration.

The inventory notes, besides a number of claviorgana, 22 harpsichords and spinette. In the first position are two harpsichords by “Vito di Trasuntino di Venetia, di Teatro, buonissimo”.* But it is dated from Ferrara on December 31, 1598, and is addressed to Alfonso’s successor as head of the family, his cousin Cesare – in Modena. The family had been forced by the Pope and other powers, under the terms of the original grant in fief of Ferrara, to withdraw to its original seat in Modena after Alfonso II died without male issue. (Claudio Merulo participated in the 1598 celebrations of the new papal regime; see Article 19.) Strictly speaking, the Berlin label is in error, since 1598 falls outside the reign of the late Alfonso II, but perhaps it can be construed as meaning “instruments accumulated during” that reign.

Three harpsichords are noted as “da Ferrara”. Does this mean they were still there, or that they were the only ones originally used there? In the latter case, the Trasuntinos would have had their home in Modena. That wouldn’t necessarily have precluded the previously-mentioned masters from having ever used them...but I suspect the move to Modena simply hadn’t been quite completed by year’s end.**

The 1560 Trasuntino has been much altered and “restored”. Most notably, the original disposition of 8´+ 4´ was changed to 8´+ 8´, but its identification with the instrument that turned up in Genova in 1876 seems secure enough. However, there is some doubt as to whether it was actually built by Vito Trasuntino. Denzil Wraight, the foremost expert on Italian harpsichords, notes in his 1997 thesis (Part II, p. 299) that “Two original stop knobs on the cheek have been blocked up and were probably covered then by the decorative paintwork, for which reason the painting and the inscription cannot be original. The inscription might repeat an original one in ink on the nameboard under the paint. None of the mouldings nor the cheek outlines match any other Trasuntino instruments with sufficient accuracy that one can speak of confirming the attribution implied by the nameboard.”

The instrument was auctioned off, along with other art objects, in 1879 to an unknown buyer at the Villa Mylius in Carignano. It seems likely that at least some of the alterations mentioned by Dr. Wraight occurred preparatory to the sale, if not earlier. Prior to the 1876 gathering, a new lid had been prepared, with a painting inside and decoration on top to match the sides. The “X” on the nameboard, on the other hand, was made legible at some point after 1876. I can offer no opinion on when, or how much of the rest of the paintwork was applied or retouched, except to say that to my amateur eye, the design looks early-ish 17th-century – which doesn’t mean it might not be a clever 19th-century fake.*** In a newspaper article, Remondini says that the sides of the instrument “dopo tanti anni sembran fatti da ieri” ("after so many years look like they were done yesterday"). He may not have been far off with that assessment.

May 19, 2023

* The classification “da Teatro” is somewhat obscure. Other harpsichords are classed “da Teatro, et Accademia”, “da Teatro, et Oratorio”, “per Camera et Accademia”, and “da Camera”. It might be an estimate by the inventoryist Hippolito Cricca of their potential usefulness in various locations based on size and volume of sound, or more likely a record of where they were used in the past. In a previous letter of June 27 Cricca complains bitterly of the state of the instruments, “not yet moved from Ferrara”, which had been carried from place to place on carts instead of by hand by servants of the Pope. 12 pipes are missing from the best organ. They were all to have been kept the instrument room in the Palazzo dei Diamanti in preparation for the move to Modena, but the new duke had told Cricca to lend the key to the Pope’s man to allow them to be used at regime change, with the resulting damages to instruments “worth millions in gold” – sic Cricca.

** If the 1560 Trasuntino was always in Modena, it would been out of the 16th-century musical spotlight. The earliest-born known composer of keyboard ricercars, Jacobo (or Giacomo) Fogliano da Modena, whose memorial plaque can still be seen in the cathedral where he served for most of his long life, is already described when he was still a teenager in 1483 as a master of the harpsichord; but he died in 1548. After the Estes re-established themselves there, the scene was greatly enlivened, and Trasuntino’s instrument will have been known to Michelangelo Rossi, Orazio Vecchi, Sigismondo d’India, Marco Uccellini and many others, before it came into the hands of Sig. Mylius.

***John Koster, as always a font of wise counsel and recondite information, sent me a passage from a 1976 Galpin Society Journal article. The late L. F. Tagliavini found a letter written ca. 1630 by Padre della Tavola, maestro di capella of the great church of the Santo in Padova, wherein he states that he possesses a fine harpsichord built by Vito Trasuntino in 1570, “già con la ottavina” (formerly with a 4´, now ? with two 8´registers) and “alla quarta bassa” (with the keyboard ? shifted down a fourth – both standard changes at the time). Prof. Koster also noted that most 2x8´ Italians have no provision for changing registration other than reaching under the jackrail. Hence, the moment of alteration might be when the instrument was painted.

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