Opera’s alma mater

Article by Robert Thicknesse

Thousands of places have invented a fashion or created a style – but how many have founded an entire era or changed the world as fundamentally as Florence? Rinuccio’s paean to the glories of his native town in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi celebrates the dawn of the Renaissance in a way that certainly wouldn’t have occurred to anyone in 1299, the year in which the opera is set. For one thing, the Medici family he mentions doesn’t feature in Florentine history until at least a hundred years later.

But Rinuccio is right – and his glorious song (set to the rhythm of a traditional Tuscan stornello, it has been unjustly overshadowed by Lauretta’s showstopper ‘O mio babbino caro’) also makes the point that this explosion of culture and sensibility was not simply a Florentine invention but one the whole of Tuscany takes credit for: as the Arno draws its waters from many tributaries, so the Renaissance was fed by the talents of Florence’s hinterland, a blossoming tree whose trunk grew in Piazza Santa Croce but whose roots drew life from every corner of the smiling Tuscan country – a far più ricca e splendida Firenze! And this despite the fact that Florence was at war with its neighbours Pisa, Sienna and Arezzo for much of the time.

Like so much else of our artistic universe, opera too was born in Tuscany, the last child of that Renaissance; and three of this year’s Holland Park productions pay tribute to the birthplace. Gianni Schicchi is set in 1299, on the very cusp of this immense change from Mediæval to Early Modern. Pietro Mascagni’s Zanetto harks back to the same time, set in a dreamlike Florentine countryside in the 14th century. The other – perhaps surprisingly for English audiences – is Falstaff: we may think Sir John is very much ours, but the stories in the opera (and its source play The Merry Wives of Windsor) in fact derive from those of the Florentine writer Ser Giovanni, a follower of Boccaccio.

Opera, of course, didn’t exist in the 14th century: a by-blow of the Renaissance, it had to wait until the very end of the 16th century to be born. These 300 years, from 1300 to 1600, are a period as astonishing as the age we now live in, when centuries of technological development take place in fortnights. The story of the rebirth of classical European culture is a vast one, and the reasons Florence was its centre are many: the city’s trading nature, a position easily accessible from the ports of Pisa, Genoa and Venice and lying near the great pilgrimage route to Rome, the influx of Greek scholars fleeing Ottoman expansion, the development of banking (and the cunning Biblical exegesis that curtailed the Jewish monopoly on it by changing the definition of ‘usury’), the centrifugal political nature of the Holy Roman Empire with its independent city-states….

This shy flowering came to an abrupt halt in the 14th century. The weather turned miserable: a “Little Ice Age” began abruptly, winters were brutal, and for three years from 1315 it rained constantly, ruining crops and causing a seven-year famine throughout Europe. In 1348 the Black Death erupted – entering northern Italy through the Tuscan port of Pisa – wiping out up to half the population. The two greatest Florentine banks collapsed, partly because the English king defaulted on his debts… plus ça change….

And yet this was also the time of Dante and Petrarch, of Boccaccio, of Giotto, and of the painters of the Siennese school – Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers, Bartolo di Fredi. At the end of the century, the Medici bank was founded and by 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici was in charge of the Florentine government, establishing an extraordinary hegemony that lasted until the 18th century and ramified across Europe, providing Popes and Queen Regents of France. A manic patron of the arts, Cosimo commissioned the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello. Brunelleschi’s dome on Arnolfo’s Gothic cathedral and his other buildings neatly encapsulate the abrupt transition to classical forms, and the beginning of what we think of as the true Renaissance. The recovery from the disastrous 14th century is a story that restores your faith in mankind and the propulsive, purposive nature of history. Florence was now a magnet drawing and nurturing an explosion of literary, artistic, philosophical and scientific talent unseen anywhere else in world history: Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo…

The Medici family even (inevitably) assisted at the birth of opera, which made its blushing appearance occurred at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici to King Henri IV of France at the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1600. The composer Jacopo Peri, in his work Euridice, brought to life the theories of a group of Florentine scholars whose aim was to revive the ancient Greek drama. The new stile recitativo invented by Peri was a reaction against the two current trends in Italian music, polyphonic music (a more or less decorated, multi-part idiom, usually written for a church choir, and supposed by these Florentine scholars to be unable to adequately convey the meaning of words) and the madrigal, which had developed a highly expressive musical language for that very end but which they considered too ornate for drama. Peri and his collaborators, who included Galileo’s father, believed that Greek drama had been chanted to a simple instrumental accompaniment. (This is now thought to be mistaken; only the choruses were sung.)

The result was predictably austere, and not a success: Emilio de’ Cavalieri, the Medici’s master of ceremonies and producer of Euridice, wrote that the music was “tedious… like the chanting of a Passion”, and reported “boredom and irritation” among the visiting Roman clergy. Much more popular was the elaborate, old-fashioned musical spectacle that played to nearly 4,000 guests a couple of days later in the Uffizi, Caccini’s Rapimento di Cefalo. But the new music would triumph in the hands of Claudio Monteverdi, a surpassing genius who would elaborate Peri’s theories in his L’Orfeo of 1607, and along with Francesco Cavalli would turn opera into a crowd-pleasing spectacle by incorporating the best of existing musical entertainments alongside the story-telling form of what we call recitative. But none of this took place in Florence: Monteverdi worked in Mantua, Cavalli in Venice, and henceforth Tuscany would hardly feature in the history of opera for nearly 300 years except as a picturesque mise-en-scène.

And when Florence and Tuscany did return to the operatic limelight, it was of course that same Renaissance, with all its vivid colour, life and romance, with lashings of violence and passion, that would be the focus; and though Sir John Falstaff might not immediately seem to be your typical Florentine knight, it was the ultimate Tuscan source of his story that so enthused Arrigo Boito (who had written Verdi librettos for the revised Simon Boccanegra and Otello, and whom Verdi trusted and liked more than any other of his collaborators) that he was able to prick the old man into life yet again, writing to a friend of his urge “to make that bronze colossus resound one more time”. Their Falstaff was first performed in 1893.

Ser Giovanni, called ‘Fiorentino’ since we do not know his real name, was a writer in the Boccaccio mode, whose collection of tales Il Pecorone (written around 1378 and preserved in manuscript until publication in 1558) was well known across Europe, and its English translation by William Painter in his Palace of Pleasure of 1566 provided the source for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1598) and featured too an incident involving a man’s unwitting complicity in his own cuckolding and a pile of damp laundry, the inspiration behind the first of Falstaff’s pratfalls in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597). “Shakespeare’s sparkling farce is led back by the miracle of sound to its clear Tuscan source,” enthused Boito; “come, dear friend, come and spend two hours in the gardens of the Decameron, and breathe flowers that are notes and breezes that are timbres…”

As with Boccaccio, whose Decameron – a hundred tales told by a group of young Florentines who have escaped to the hills to avoid the plague – was written 30 years earlier, Ser Giovanni’s stories glory in ribaldry and the mockery that Cupid makes of our vaunted dignity and grand plans. It was Boito himself who re-infused his libretto with the spirit and language of Boccaccio, using dozens of archaic Tuscan words to recreate the atmosphere of the past. The couplets that the lovers Fenton and Nannetta sing, too, come from the Decameron. “Bocca baciata non perde ventura – anzi rinnova come fa la luna” – “A mouth that is kissed will not lose its enchantment, for like the moon it makes itself ever new” – the arching, ardent, wistful tune punctuates the score, though the innocence of first love it represents is rather far from its original use. Boccaccio uses the phrase for a woman who “entered her husband’s bed as a virgin and convinced him she really was one” though she has actually been startlingly promiscuous, having slept with 80 lovers thousands of times.

As the 19th century ended, dramatic and operatic tastes veered away from the sunny uplands of Boccaccio and Falstaff towards the torrid, turbid depths that opera had always hankered for. As Holland Park audiences know very well, the Italian successors of Verdi became crazed with blood and tearing passion, and the Middle Ages and Renaissance were again sexy; alongside the contemporary ‘realism’ of Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Pagliacci (1892), the veristi and their successors turned increasingly to the past for their subjects. Think of the Venetian guignol of La Gioconda (1876), the mediæval mayhem of L’amore dei tre Re (1913), the perfumed antique claustrophobia of Francesca da Rimini (1914). It was only a question of time before Florence and Tuscany re-emerged on the operatic stage.

It is of course rather a landscape of the mind than any historical topography that motivates these works, and so it is with Mascagni’s Zanetto (1896), a tiny, touching anecdote of longing and renunciation set in the 14th century Florentine hinterland. Elsewhere, things tended to be more vivid. Ruggiero Leoncavallo, before he wrote Pagliacci, planned a Wagnerian trilogy based in Renaissance Florence called Crepusculum; the first opera, I Medici (1893), centres on a knives-out daylight massacre whose victim is Giuliano de’ Medici and whose illustrious survivor is the magnificent Lorenzo. When he failed to find a publisher he lost heart and the other parts of the trilogy, Gerolamo Savonarola (about the mad fundamentalist monk) and Cesare Borgia were sadly never completed. Rachmaninov’s unfinished Monna Vanna (1908) comes from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck about 15th century Pisa. The town is besieged by Florentine forces, whose commander offers a ceasefire if Vanna, the wife of the Pisan general, Guido Colonna, will come to his tent dressed only in a mantle; the drama lies in Colonna’s tortured imaginings of what is happening in the tent, and his subsequent fevered plans for revenge. Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy (1917), from a play by Oscar Wilde, is a drama of adultery in 16th century Florence, which ends with the husband strangling his wife’s lover and being ecstatically reunited with the errant spouse. La cena delle beffe (1924), by Umberto Giordano, is set in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici and wallows in the rivalry of two men for the same woman, ending in murder and madness.

But the most significant way that opera came home – for the very last flowering of Italian opera, in fact – was in giving birth to two sons, Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini, both eager in different ways to pay homage to their homeland. Mascagni’s tribute was Zanetto, and Puccini finally got round to it towards the end of his life when the young playwright Giovacchino Forzano, Florentine by birth, helped him out of a hole by writing the two final panels of Puccini’s Triptych when the composer had run out of ideas following the composition of Il Tabarro (1916). Suor Angelica is set in a 17th century Siennese nunnery; and finally, Gianni Schicchi (1918), Puccini’s tribute both to Florence and to Verdi’s Falstaff, goes back to the beginning of it all, the dawn of the Renaissance, when Dante, Giotto and Brunelleschi were alive and Petrarch not yet born, and the glory days were just beginning.