The Medieval Review 10.02.01

McGee, Timothy J. The Ceremonial Musicians of Late Medieval Florence. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009. Pp. 352. $39.95 ISBN 978-0-253-35304-7. .

Reviewed by:

Giovanni Zanovello
Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music
giovzano@indiana.edu

Timothy McGee's Ceremonial Musicians of Late Medieval Florence is a welcome and original addition to the rich bibliography about music in Medieval and Early-Modern Florence. As the author acknowledges in the preface (xi, xv-xvi), the topic of instrumental and ceremonial musicians working for the Signoria (and later for the Duchy) has been extensively discussed since Giuseppe Zippel's pioneering study of 1892. The reasons for this book are many. It provides specialists with a considerably easier access to a fairly large body of material and constitutes a new, valuable resource for interdisciplinary scholars like art and cultural historians, who would probably have encountered serious difficulties unearthing the musicological literature. But more importantly, it presents a complicated and often speculative subject matter according to a clear plan, thus often reaching clearer or even completely new conclusions.

The reader should be warned that the title is an unhappy compromise between the need for brevity and the objective difficulty to pin down a time period that does not precisely match any historiographical category. If the first chapters--which focus on the 13th and 14th century--fall comfortably within the label, describing 15th- and 16th- century Florence as "late Medieval" appears highly problematic, whatever value one attributes to this periodization. To be fair the problem is mostly limited to the title, since the author presents the 14th-century change in ceremonial tradition as responding to a need for a new, humanistic kind of public decorum and as a clear and conscious break with the past, very possibly part of the same movement that sanctioned the birth of the Renaissance (128). The happiest solution would have perhaps been just to indicate the chronological limits of the study (1282-1532), which at least McGee clearly states at the beginning of the Preface.

The book's first chapter--"Ceremonial Florence"--offers a rich and evocative description of the many occasions for ceremonial celebrations in Medieval and Renaissance Florence. The list includes a wide series of events, from the horse race, vigil procession, and allegoric carts that crossed the city during the feast of its patron Saint John to the Carnival season, from jousts to dancing competitions, from spring-time celebrations to special political events like visits of foreign ambassadors or rulers. In this chapter McGee does not strive for a particular interpretive or critical stand- -he essentially compiles a list of public events based on primary and secondary literature. Through a direct narrative style and extended citations of original documents, however, he achieves the goal of plunging the reader in the midst of the noise, sounds, colors, and frantic activity that characterized festive days in the Tuscan capital. This is the best possible beginning for this kind of study, because it highlights the centrality of these groups of musicians by presenting them against the background of a city and a time in which great participation to public rituals helped define citizenship and collective identity.

In chapters two and three McGee discusses 13th- and 14th-century civic musicians. The chapters cover two main topics. The first are the ensembles called Trombadori, originally composed of several trumpeters, a player of cymbals, and a cennamellario, or shawn player, and Bannitori, or city criers. As McGee observes, the creation of such a ceremonial group in the late 13-century is hardly exceptional. "What we are dealing with is a long-standing tradition that would seem to be pan-European in its basic concept, with local variations according to particular geographical areas" (44). He also underlines the continuity of wind instruments and their association with aristocratic prestige and military operations from the Ancient world through the Middle Ages. I found very interesting the part devoted to the political context of the Trombadori, which reconstructs the progressive emancipation of Florence from the imperial control and its new, consequent requirements of civic prestige. The rest of the chapter offers a detailed reconstruction of the instruments these groups used, and of the evolution of the groups during the 14th century. The second main topic is the Civic Herald, an office completely ignored by musicologists. McGee competently clarifies the Herald's connection to the political world, but also his peculiar identity as a master of ceremonies, narrator, and practitioner of the Italian tradition of Cantare all'improvviso, enthusiastically described in many sources originating from Humanistic environments.

The most significant turning point in the book is the description of the late 14th-century process of revision in the Ceremonial tradition, linked to economical and political crisis and meant to realign different components of the city's cultural and ceremonial world: "Whereas the intellectual and literary part of the city had embraced the advancing humanist movement, the artistic and musical world held on to older images, and the official, ceremonial aspects of the government had been slow to react to the changes adopted elsewhere. [...] At some point it was decided that what was needed was not more extension or enlargement of the traditional medieval models, but a complete revision, aligning the civic rituals of the Florentine society with changes that had taken place in other areas" (128). Among the novelties, a new dignity was accorded to the herald, now the Knight of the Curia (Miles curialis), the creation of new instrumental ensembles, notably the pifferi and the trombetti, whose goal was "to change dramatically the status of the chief executives, setting them apart from the rest of the commune by having them represented ceremonially in public by their own musical groups" (132), and the new splendor added by these groups during official meals at the Mensa of the Signoria. McGee also explores the influences behind this change, possibly from the northern Court of Burgundy--at the time the most important point of reference for the aristocratic imagination--or from the papal court.

Chapter 5 deals with one of the central issues in Florentine cultural history, the role of the Medici banking family. Although the Medici did not have until 1514 any legal status to rule Florence, since the early 15th century they managed to dictate political reforms and influence the administration at various levels through a very skilled propaganda operation and an incredibly powerful and efficient network of clients and collaborators. The Florentine bankers' had a keen understanding of the rules of political legitimation and propaganda, and were inevitably interested in the ceremonial. The chapter rightly begins with a good account of the complex and murky relationship between the Medici and the public life of the city. The relationship with the musicians is twofold: one of "political" patronage for individuals petitioning for positions at the Signoria, the other private, of public and private entertainments and the civic groups that provided them. Particularly interesting is the part on the 16th century, when the Medici, thanks to the newly-acquired Roman protection linked to the election of Lorenzo's son Giovanni as pope Leo X, became legally dukes of the city and had therefore full control over all of the ceremonial aspects.

The book closes with an attempt at reconstructing of the lives of ceremonial musicians and the repertories (now largely lost) that they performed in Florence. Much attention is paid to the social status of these highly specialized public servants, to their living conditions and training. The last section is devoted to the repertories, through a patient and very valuable work of comparison of documents and musical collections from various places of Italy and Europe. The book is generally well produced. The main limits I found were the endnotes, which in some cases made it less convenient to compare original texts and translations. A good selection of pictures in black and white offers a precious visual documentation, though some of them are hardly readable because of the strong reduction in size (see for example Figure 3, 4a, and 4b).

This book is an important tool for many scholars and music lovers. Musicologists will acquire an informative and stimulating tool, musicians interested in early music will find a wealth of information and a very healthy corrective to many generalizations found in textbooks. Political, social, and art historians will be grateful to McGee for adding "a 'sound-track' to two and a half centuries of daily life in Florence" (xv).