17th Century images and notes


The Origins of Opera

The two systems pictured below represent the Earth-centric world view of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance on the left, which gave way to the more modern sun-centric view on the right.
Oddly enough, the diagram on the left is later than that on the right. This is because Copernicus's ideas were treated as purely theoretical for some time: they explained the mathematics of astronomy better than the earth-centric Ptolemaic calculations. Gradually it gained ground, in spite of a last-ditch attempt by the Inquisition to suppress it at the trial of Galileo (note, however, that the Roman Catholic church was not in fact at one on this - at the same time, the Jesuits were establishing themselves as cutting-edge mathematicians and astronomers, and using the telescope for their own observations they very soon accepted the Copernican model as reality).
However, the old model was required for astrology which was still at the beginning of the century an essential part of medicine, as the planets influenced the humours that made up the physical body.

Beginning with the solid sphere of Earth - Terra - and continuing with the other three elements, the world of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is bounded by the sphere of the Moon. Beyond this sublunary world extend the planetary spheres, out to the sphere of the Fixed Stars. Beyond this are the spheres of Heaven, and encompassing all is the Mind of God. Each sphere has its guardian angel, and as each sphere moves it generates a musical note. Note this particular diagram also relates the Hebrew alphabet to the spheres - Robert Fludd was an Hermetic philosopher who used the Cabbala extensively.

In comparison, the diagram of Copernicus is not at all mystical, its calculations being based on observation.
Fludds Spheres
Diagram of the Spheres, by Robert Fludd (1617)
Diagram of the Spheres, by Nicolas Copernicus (1543)

The diagram below shows the relationship of the planets to the four elements of the sublunary world and to the four humours or bodily fluids; it also shows how the musical modes are related to the fundamental notes generated by the movement of the planetary spheres and what effects they might have. There were many variations of these ideas, but all agreed that the planets influenced the minds of men, and that music could enhance and control these influences. As medical studies based on observation and dissection advanced through the century, the link between the old model and medicine grew weaker, though you still find allusions to the humours in literature well into the 18th century.
Alchemical Symbol



(Yellow Bile)




(Black Bile)

contemplating beauty

In the sixteenth century, Florentine hermetic philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino studied these effects of music. Ficino himself wrote magical hymns to call down the angels of the spheres, the gods of the planets - a fascinating recording was made a few years ago experimenting with the reconstruction of Ficino's hymns ('Secrets of the Heavens' produced by Riverrun Records ).

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Orfeo Florence
Florence: design for Orpheus in Peri's 'Euridice'
this is a rather academic costume design: Orpheus wears a kind of smock to indicate that he is a shepherd, but on his head he wears a hat shaped like a lira da braccio (the lyre of Orpheus was always depicted as a bowed instrument in this period).

These ideas and experiments are part of what lies behind the rise of opera at the beginning of the 17th century. The humanist scholars of the Renaissance, in proclaiming the importance of Greek and Roman studies to the improvement of their own civilisation, took these in several directions: one was the rediscovery of Plato and also of the later Neoplatonists who forged links between ancient wisdom and Christianity. Much of this ancient wisdom was contained in texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (Ficino devoted many years to translating these texts). Other sources were the Orphic hymns (click here, they are discussed in the course of the article) which were practical applications of such knowledge. The Orpheus myth was a crucial one for the musical scholars of the Renaissance - because the music for the hymns no longer existed, it had to be reconstructed, in all its planet-conjuring, city-building, beast-charming, dead-awakening power. It is no mere chance that the earliest Florentine operas deal with the Orpheus story.

Others researched the practical forms of Greek and Roman music, both religious music and in the great stage works, and came to the conclusion that the words always generated the music - this had a great influence not only on the development of opera, but on vocal music generally, especially in Protestant circles in Germany, England and also France (see the works of Claude le Jeune, for example) as it confirmed the primary importance of the Word, and supported the arguments for the translation of the Bible and the liturgy into the vernacular. A notable experiment in the reconstruction of the ancient classical drama was conducted in Vicenza in the 1580's. A group of scholars, artists and musicians - the Accademia Olimpica - decided to build a theatre in the best Roman style, and to open it with a thoroughly authentic production of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex". (See separate page on the Teatro Olimpico)

Another important influence on the development of the Dramma per Musica was that of the court entertainment. Made to celebrate a wedding, a victory, a state visit, a birthday, or simply for May Day, these could be as modest as a chorus of nymphs singing a greeting under an arch of roses or as lavish as the spectacular production made for the 1589 wedding of Ferdinando de'Medici to his French cousin, Christine de Lorraine. This was an entertainment of six Intermedi called together La Pellegrina, and began with an evocation of the Harmony of the Spheres. Practically every Florentine musician you can think of was involved - Cavalieri was in charge of the incessantly bickering artists (including Caccini), and Peri appeared as Arione singing his own composition (see costume picture below). Although there was no coherent thread to the whole, the dramatic nature of the intermedi clearly gave an impetus to the development of musical drama.

below: The Harmony of the Spheres, the first intermedio of La Pellegrina


The relationships between music, mathematics, alchemy and physics continued to fascinate throughout the 17th century. In the course of time, however, magical extraterrestrial theories disappeared to be replaced by the idea that everything (except possibly the mind of God) was not only eventually knowable through scientific investigation, but also capable of being written down. This is the era when it began to be possible for everyone to have a go at anything, the era of the teach-yourself book, the comprehensive guides to everything which flowered in the great dictionaries of the 18th century.

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Places: theatres, chambers and churches
Performing styles varied subtly according to the place of performance: Pier Francesco Tosi identifies three main areas:
By the Ancients aforementioned, Airs were sung in three different Manners; for the Theatre, the stile was lively and various;
for the Chamber, delicate and finish'd; and for the Church, moving and grave.

He was writing in 1723 about the previous generation, and his book Observations on the Florid Song was translated into English in 1745 and German in the 1770's, so is relevant to a vast period.
Stages and theatres developed very fast through the first half of the 17th century. Court theatres were often temporary (though they could be enormous - a Roman theatre erected by the Barberini for an entertainment for Queen Christina of Sweden (see below) contained about 3000 people). They were generally built within existing halls and allowed for movement between stage and audience - a masque would include court dancers as well as the professionals, and the whole action would invade the audience space; or a state occasion would require the actors to address the guests directly.

Right: an entertainment in Florence in 1616, showing the dancers bursting out into the auditorium. The general audience (if it got a seat at all) would have been crammed onto large steps in the style of the classical auditorium - seats would be reserved for the most important people. Left: the auditorium of the Gonzaga court theatre at Sabbioneta, near Mantua.
How did the stages work?
Left: from Richard Leacroft's invaluable book The Development of the English Playhouse . This shows the kinds of scene changes possible in the early 17th century. Flats were built at right angles to support each other and give a three-dimensional effect - this was excellent for city scenes, but not so convincing when a curtain painted with trees was draped over it. They were also awkward to change, and even though variations like the three-sided periaktoi were tried, it was not until Torelli invented the sliding flat system (seen on the right) in the 1640's that baroque theatrical spectacle really took off. This system was so efficient that it remained standard in many theatres until the late 19th century. A fully working system was preserved at Drottningholm in Sweden and can still be seen today. The change of scene takes about 10 seconds, and, since there is no front curtain, everything can be seen happening.
This had enormous implications for dramaturgy - you see the difference very clearly if you compare Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, written for the court of Mantua, with his L'Incoronazione di Poppea or Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, both written for the new commercial theatres in Venice which boasted the new scene system. The action of L'Orfeo stays in one setting for long sequences, whereas Poppea and Ulisse change much more frequently. It is interesting to speculate on how the scene changes were arranged - an intimate scene would have been played before a curtain or shutter that then opened out into a seascape or palace with space for machines or dancers.

A German stage of 1655 showing very clearly the wings, borders, a curtain at the back showing a prospect, and some of the lighting.

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People: clothes and costume

Clothes at Court and for everyday

Costumes at Court
Louis XIV as Apollo
Jacopo Peri as Arione in the fifth Intermedio of La Pellegrina, 1589
Inigo Jones' design for The Masque of Blacknesse, 1605
Louis XIV as Apollo, 1650's
ballet de cour
a prince in a masque, 1620
Rome: The Masque of Amazons, 1656
Ballet de cour, 1660
Court entertainments were tools of politics as well as mere amusements. In 1653 Louis XIV danced as the Sun King in the Ballet royal de la nuit, and so established not only the definitive icon but also the practice of his autocracy. The entertainments produced by the Barberini family to greet the ex-Queen of Sweden, Christina, to Rome in 1656, included not only the Amazon ballet of warrior maidens pictured above but also a new opera written especially for the occasion - the latter a very sophisticated illustration of the problems of an intelligent and passionate woman. Throughout the small princely states of Italy and the Empire it became de rigueur to have a court theatre of one's own.

The scale of these entertainments varied enormously from court to court, and it is worth remembering that although the courts of James VI and I and of Charles I in London spent a great deal of money and effort on spectacular masques, the subsequent reign of Cromwell and the Puritan Commonwealth put an emphatic stop to such things. When Charles II finally returned in 1660 the court had no money for spectacle on a continental scale - there were small shows at court (Dido and Aeneas may have started as such a show) but otherwise the King and his family went to the public commercial theatre like everyone else.

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