Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Carnival Triumph of Death

William F. Prizer's article "Reading Carnival: The Creation Of A Florentine Carnival Song", appears in Early Music History (2004, v.23, pages 185-252). It is an excellent Tarot reference in a number of ways. Here is the article abstract:

One of the most famous—and unusual—carnival songs from Renaissance Florence is ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’, variously entitled Carro della morte, Trionfo della morte, Canzona de' morti, or Canzone a ballo della morte. Unlike the majority of Florentine canti carnascialeschi, it is a spiritual text, so resembling a lauda spirituale that the Dominican Serafino Razzi and others could include it virtually unchanged in collections of laude. [All omit the final stanza.] Shortly after its performance, its text was published in Florence, probably towards the end of the first decade of the Cinquecento, in the chapbook titled La canzona de' morti. This small pamphlet also included a woodcut depiction of the carro and four other texts, all equally penitential: Castellano Castellani's Lauda della morte, ‘Cuor maligno e pien di fraude’, modelled on the Dies irae; a Sonetto di messer Castellano, ‘Voi che guardate a questi morti intorno’; a Canzona del carro del travaglio, ‘Perché el tempo dà e toglie’; and a lauda, ‘O mondana sapienza’, which closely imitates ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’, including even the word ‘penitenza’ at the end of each stanza.

The song makes direct references to earlier works of the macabre genre, including the Three Living and Three Dead, images of the Reaper and Triumph of Death images, and Petrarch's Triumph of Time. Of course, the call to love others as yourself, and the insistent call to penance, are commonplace virtues. The most striking aspect of this Carnival song is the denigration of Carnival in the second and seventh verses.

Anguish, tears and penance
Torment us constantly;
This our company of dead
Processes, crying "penance!"

We were once as you are now,
You will be as we;
We are dead as you can see,
Thus dead will we see you,
And, once dead, it will do no good
To do penance for your sins.

We too during carnival
Roamed the streets singing of our loves;
And so from sin to sin
We became worse and worse;
Now we wander the world crying
"Penance, penance!"

Blind, stupid, foolish people,
Everything does time destroy;
Splendor and glory, honours and states
Pass away and nothing remains,
And in the end the grave
Makes us all do penance.

Horrible torment, horrible pain
Await the unrepentant,
But those with pious hearts
Are much honoured among us dead.
Love others as you love yourself
To avoid doing penance in the hereafter.

This scythe that we are carrying
Finally makes everyone contrite;
We all pass from this life to the next.
But life, be it virtuous or sinful,
Obtains every blessing from heaven
If you do penance on earth.

If we live, then we must die,
And in dying each soul finds life,
The Lord of Lords
Has laid down this law:
Everyone must depart this life:
Penance, penance.

So many hunts, festivals, or songs,
All will one day bring you torments;
Only abstinence, suffering and tears
Will make you content:
All of you should repent your sins
And turn to penance.

Among other virtues, Prizer's article uses what is known about this particular, exceptionally well-documented song/trionfo to illustrate the general process of creating such an event.

The song clearly began with the original concept. The brigata (company of friends)—or its leader—who wanted to sponsor a song at carnival tried to create an original and clever metaphor for the sexual act and its objects; this would form the basis for all that followed. Next, the brigata as patron would commission someone to write the text of the song. This person actually provided, with the poem, a detailed outline of the project's visual appearance: what objects would be present and the general nature of the costumes. This accomplished, the patrons could go to the artist or artisan who would make and decorate the appropriate masks, costumes, and objects to hold and to gesture with during the song. If the members of the brigata were to be mounted, then the horses would have to be given apposite blankets and trappings as well. At some point, the patrons would also commission a composer to write appropriate music for the text. Depending upon the lavishness of the presentation and the brigata's musical abilities, it might have been necessary to hire a separate group of performers to sing. Finally, the group needed a plan for processing through the streets of Florence and at least a rudimentary choreography that would allow them to move and gesture together as they sang. If the work was to be performed at night, then liveried torch bearers would be necessary, so that the populace could see the costumes and implements. Any carro production involved a further step: it required an artist who would execute the wagon, following the concept. It is rare that we can name more than one or two of the collaborators in the production of a mascherata or carro, perhaps the poet and the composer, for example. If Lorenzo de' Medici were the poet of a given song, then he may have been the patron as well, and thus have furnished the general concept and the specific details entirely by himself. In most instances, however, all the parties remain anonymous, and we are aware only that the process must have involved these diverse elements. ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’ forms an exception to this pattern. We can assign names for three of the entities necessary: patrons, poet, and artist.

Ten pages of historical detail later, Prizer summarizes the creation of this Trionfo della Morte.

For carnival of 1507, Lorenzo Strozzi, with his brother Filippo, decided to present a carro to shock their fellow Florentines. They probably took the idea to Castellano Castellani, who furnished the detailed concept with the text of ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’. They then most likely approached Bartolomeo degli Organi to set the poem to music, and Piero di Cosimo and his bottega to construct the carro in the Sala de' Papi in S. Maria Novella and work out its decorations. On the evening of 17 February—martedi grasso—of this year, the Strozzi and their brigata, dressed as skeletons, left the church and presented the carro with its music, poetry, costumes and decorations.

Prizer then (19 pages into the article) begins to explore the breathtaking effect of the Trionfo della Morte in terms of verbal, visual, and musical parallels.

The carro impressed and frightened the Florentines in three separate though interlocking ways: textually, aurally, and visually. The words they heard, the sounds, and the sights all joined together to create an impression of shock and horror in the spectators....

... so the Carro della morte presents a mirror of Florentine popular religious beliefs. It also illuminates the essential links between carnival and Lent in its citizens' minds. Carnival existed only because of Lent: it was a period of carnal excesses in every sense of the word, atoned for during the following penitential period. The ribald texts of the carnival song were replaced by the spiritual ones of the lauda, but here again there was a link: lauda text were often sung to the very carnival-song settings to which they formed the devotional counterpart. At least part of the astonishment described by Zeffi and Vasari was caused not only by the subject matter of the text but also because the penitential subject matter intruded on the ritual of carnival.

At this point, let's recall some of what Vasari had said about this spectacle.

The trionfo, pulled by oxen, was a very large carro, black all over and painted with the bones of the dead and with white crosses. On top of the carro was a huge figure of Death with a scythe in its hand, and around the float were many covered tombs. In every place that the trionfo stopped [to allow its riders] to sing, the tombs opened and several figures emerged, dressed in black cloth, on which were painted the skeletons of the dead—arms, chests, flanks, and legs—in white over the black. Appearing as though from a distance were torches covered with masks shaped in front, behind, and even at the throat like the skulls of the dead, very realistic but a horrible and frightening sight. These figures of the dead, to the sound of certain muted trumpets, rose up half-way out of the tombs and, sitting on them, sang with a hoarse and dead tone and a music full of melancholy that most noble canzone still renowned today, ‘Dolor, pianto e penitenzia’. In front of and behind the carro were a great number of the dead mounted on horses chosen with diligence from the most gaunt and emaciated that could be found, with black trappings decorated with white crosses; and each rider had four footmen dressed as the dead with black torches and a great black banner with crosses and bones and skulls. Behind the trionfo were trailed ten black banners, and while they processed, the company sang together the Miserere, Psalm of David, with trembling voices. This dread spectacle, through its novelty and its horror, as I have said, terrified and shocked the whole city....

Novelty and horror. Talked about, emulated, written about decades later. Triumphs of Death had been widely known and well respected moral allegories for two centuries when Vasari wrote, and illustrated printed editions of Petrarch's Trionfi, including triumphal wagons very much like this one, had been popular for decades when this Trionfo della Morte was performed. No one, however, had brought such a spectacle to life with anything approaching the drama of the Strozzi brothers' 1507 Florentine production. It is also worth remembering that Florence was the center of interest in both trionfi conceit in general and Petrarch's Trionfi in particular.