Music at the Gonzaga Court of Isabella d’Este


Isabella d’Este became Marchioness of Mantua when she married Francesco Gonzaga. In her position as Marchioness, she frequently represented Mantua politically and diplomatically when her husband was off fighting wars or having affairs, so she was more than just a pretty face. She read Latin and Greek and collected an extensive library of writings from ancient Rome and Greece. She was a supporter and enthusiast of contemporary poets, visual artists, and musicians and made Mantua a center of culture through her patronage and purchases of art. Isabella was an accomplished musician, and played the lute to accompany her fine singing voice.

“If you had once heard her sing to the lute you would, like the Sirens, forget home and country to follow its enchanted melody.”

Attributed to Pietro Bembo (1470-1547)


Isabella created a haven for art and performance in her home. She had her own librarian and archivist and used several agents to commission poetry, music, paintings, and sculpture. She had cabinetmakers create a room for displaying her art collection, the studiolo, and had a special ceiling created for the room where music was performed, the grotta. You can take a musical tour of these quarters by watching an informative film directed by Dr. Anne MacNeil of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For their concert of Music at the Court of Isabella d’Este, Piffaro joined forces with the Newberry Consort, an ensemble devoted to exploring the musical treasures of Chicago’s Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies. Piffaro and the Newberry Consort together have been keeping a high standard of historical research for their performances of Renaissance music, giving their audiences a glimpse into the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Newberry Consort adds a string section to the curious wind instruments of Piffaro (the sackbut, the krummhorn, dulcian, shawm, straight trumpet, and recorder).

The Newberry Consort, headed by soprano Ellen Hargis and tenor violinist David Douglass, brought what Bob Wiemkin described as a violin band, using two soprano violins, two tenor violins, and a bass violin.

Note below the tenor violin with its thick strings on the left and the carving on the fingerboard of the bass violin on the right.

Tenor violin (left) and bass violin above. (Photos by Margaret Darby)




Having the two early music groups play together was a contrast in style. Piffaro members Joan Kimball and Priscilla Herreid were readying their bagpipes while Bob Wiemken held a hand drum ready to march down the aisle to being the concert as latecomers strode in and gave them hugs and greetings. At ease with an informal concert environment, they finally picked up their instruments and started their introit. The Newberry Consort players had a more formal demeanor, clutching their instruments protectively before the concert began. As they began playing, they soon warmed up to the audience. The singing by Ellen Hargis was beautiful, especially in the song which Isabella d’Este herself sang, “Cantai mentre nel cor lieto fioria”, but her strong soprano seemed a better fit for a big room rather than the smaller salons of a Mantuan ducal palace, especially when paired with the delicate lute playing by the Newberry Consort’s Brandon Acker.

Newberry Consort member Jeremy David Ward had no qualms and no formality as he played the bass violin and sang the bawdy and suggestive baker’s song, “Pan de miglio”, offering some very yeasty bread, guaranteed hot stuff to make all lovers young and beautiful.

It was a delight to see and hear the extraordinary straight trumpets – very long and thin wind instruments used for heralding and fanfare which were brilliantly played by Piffaro’s Greg Ingles and Erik Schmalz. They sounded so beautiful. One cringes to think how treacherous a valveless trumpet can be in performance. Fortunately, for this concert, they sounded like angels proclaiming good news.

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