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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Sleuthing the Muse: Essays in Honor of William F. Prizer


In Florence around 1475, the manner preferred by the city’s literati for performing Tuscan poetry would have been solo, improvisatory song. By 1525, the polyphonic madrigal had become the pre-eminent vehicle. This is a striking development since solo singing was a venerable Florentine practice intimately tied to its literary history, and this same literary history—particularly the late Quattrocento refinement of Tuscan vernacular poetry as cultivated by Angelo Poliziano and other poets in Lorenzo’s circles—was celebrated in the early Cinquecento academies that fostered the early madrigal. There is every indication that relations between poetry and music during the intervening half century were as dynamic, complex, and contested as one would expect. Poliziano himself bore witness to this condition in a letter written around 1490, probably from Rome. At a banquet in the Medici circles of the Orsini family, Poliziano recounts having heard the eleven-year-old Fabio Corsini perform first, “together with some experts, certain of those [polyphonic] songs which are put into writing with those little signs of music,” followed by a more flexibly-declaimed solo performance of “an heroic song which he [Fabio] had himself recently composed in praise of our own Piero de’ Medici.” Poliziano waxes rapturously about Fabio’s sweet voice and his monodic performance, but expresses indifference, at best, to the polyphonic singing of the “experts.” Pirrotta’s discussion of this passage is focused upon Poliziano’s contrasting attitudes, but of equal interest is the Janus-faced nature of the event, with its calculated juxtaposition of polyphonic and solo song; one might suppose that this elite audience was being invited to judge the relative merits of the two styles against the common backdrop of Fabio’s sweet voice, and at a historical moment when the scales were balanced between them. Poliziano was at the center of a later event involving a confrontation between these two styles, one that reveals how much the Florentine musical scene had changed by the 1520s.


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