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Journal Article

"Tastar de corde". Musical Improvisation and the Aesthetics of "sprezzatura" in Sixteenth-Century Venetian Painting

Joanna Kilian Michieletti
Artibus et Historiae
Vol. 34, No. 68, Papers dedicated to Peter Humfrey: part II (2013), pp. 219-235
Published by: IRSA s.c.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24595690
Page Count: 17
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Abstract

The paper proposes one more key to interpreting the Venetian Cinquecento paintings representing the music-making. These highly characteristic compositions of early sixteenth-century Serenissima, considered the embodiment of Venetian early Renaissance spirit, might be the testimony to musical improvisations, and these practices can be key to the interpretation of the canvases. Venice has been the musical capital of sixteenth century Europe and the Venetian musical paintings were based on authentic musical practice of the period. This musical practice was vast and music was one of the typical pastimes of educated classes of Serenissima. Western history of music has always concentrated on the most obvious representations of music, namely the score. However, there existed areas of music, not only ethnic or folk, but also classical music, which did not have written form. It was this kind of music that was strongly present in the culture of Northern Italian Renaissance, namely improvised music. Improvisational practice, seemingly totally free, was actually subordinated to fixed models: typical cadences, rhythmical and ornamental formulae, constituted strictly defined or even indispensible element of the prevailing style of the period. The visible attempt at producing the appearance of masterful spontaneity and capturing the moment is an essential component of early sixteenth-century Venetian concerts. The interest that Venetian painters took in the improvisational style of making music (often humorous and capricious) corresponds with the tradition of praising colour and an instinctive, spontaneous technique ascribed to Venetian painting. Venetian Concerts can be seen as a type of paragone, i.e. competition between painting and music for the lead in the art of improvisation. Attaining lightness, creating the impression of negligence and haste (prestezza), and at the same time concealing technical difficulties was considered an expression of mastery in Venice. This is how the sixteenth-century notion of sprezzatura referring to painting technique can be understood: a refined seeming negligence and nonchalance in executing a work of art. Art theorists and great glorifiers of Serenissima: Lodovico Dolce, Francesco Sansovino and Pietro Aretino in the sixteenth century, as well as Ridolfi and Boschini in their seventeenth-century works saw this improvisational technique as a distinctive feature and a signature of Venetian painters.

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