Monday, December 28, 2015

Reading the Blank Pages

by Evan MacCarthy

This past June, at the Vatican Library, while examining three fifteenth-century manuscripts containing copies of a musical treatise by the composer and music theorist Ugolino of Orvieto (ca. 1390-1452), I discovered an erased name on an otherwise blank page.[1] Just as I was about to return one of the tomes to the Vatican Library’s custodians, my eyes caught what at first appeared to be a mere smudge, then, after much squinting and tracing, a barely visible letter or two, but after several attempts to reconstruct these letters it remained complete nonsense. Only after plucking up the courage to request from the librarians the ultraviolet light apparatus, did I learn that it was indeed text, in fact the name of another music theorist from the early fifteenth century, appearing upside down: "prosdocimo de bel domando padoano."

This erased name is found in a manuscript copy of Ugolino’s Declaratio that has long fascinated me, and not only because it is a gloriously illuminated manuscript: Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ms Rossiano 455 (I-Rvat Ross. 455). It is a nearly complete copy of the treatise that was bound and illuminated before October 1453 in Ferrara, and has absolutely no surviving ascription to Ugolino in it. The erasure appears on the back (i.e., verso) of a blank flyleaf that opens the volume, preceding the stunning frontispiece illuminated by the Ferrarese artist Giorgio d'Alemagna.[2]

Image 1: Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ms Rossiano 455, fol. 1r; B/W facs. reproduction in Hans Tietze, Die illuminierten Handschriften der Rossiana in Wien-Lainz (Leipzig, 1911), 127-130, plate V. Color facs. reproduction in Toniolo, La miniatura a Ferrara, 141-145. The erased ascription is now facing this frontispiece.

Image 2: Illumination by the artist Giorgio d’Alemagna 
in the Missal of Borso d’Este, Ferrara, 1457; 
http://www.wga.hu/art/g/giorgio/missal.jpg

Now, who is this Ugolino? After growing up in Forlì, Italy, he sang polyphonic music in the chapel of Pope Gregory XII during the Schism, he attended the important ecumenical council in Constance, he sang in Florence while the construction of Brunelleschi’s cupola for the Duomo was just getting underway, and he later held ecclesiastical positions at the Cathedrals of Forlì and Ferrara.  All the while, he composed music, of which sadly only three songs survive in legible form today. When it came to the study of music, Ugolino advocated for a middle ground, somewhere between matters of musical practice and more abstract questions about the nature of music and sound that had been debated since antiquity. Believing that the approaches of both musical thinking and musical practice go hand-in-hand, Ugolino argued that “those who desire to be trained a little in the background to such practice require a measure of speculation.”[3]

Ugolino’s treatise on music, Declaratio musicae disciplinae (ca. 1430), is remarkable as an exhaustive treatment of all musical knowledge (scientia) in one systematic and encyclopedic text in Latin. Covering topics that include singing, instrumental performance, composing melodies and rhythms, the sense of hearing, the harmony of the spheres, mathematical ratios of intervals, and more, the treatise was well-known for its balanced handling of speculative and practical matters, as well as its integration of ancient and more recent musical writings. A contemporary scholar even praised Ugolino’s treatise for its ability to “eclipse the labors of all who have written before him.”[4] This landmark tome circulated for decades in handwritten copies among leading music theorists, including John Hothby (ca. 1430-1487), Franchino Gaffurio (1451-1522), and Bartolomé Ramos de Pareja (ca. 1440-after 1491), some of whom quoted passages in later debates concerning musical notation, counterpoint, and tuning systems.

Image 3: Gaffurio’s ownership mark in his copy of Ugolino’s Declaratio in London, British Library, Additional MS 33519, f. 110v

In a recent article,[5] I drew attention to this lasting readership of Ugolino’s Declaratio, and to the occasional confusion that the treatise was instead authored by the theorist, mathematician, and physician Prosdocimo de’ Beldemandi (d. 1428), the very theorist whose erased name I discovered in the Vatican Library’s Rossi 455 manuscript this past summer. Based at nearby Padua, Prosdocimo authored several treatises on music, astronomy, and mathematics. Like Ugolino, he completed a commentary on the late medieval Libellus cantus mensurabilis as well as a treatise about how to divide the monochord.[6]

Examples of this confusion over attributing the Declaratio include the early sixteenth-century music theorist Giovanni del Lago (ca. 1490 - 1544), who quoted from the Declaratio frequently in his letters to fellow theorist Giovanni Spataro and others, although he believed the passages to come from treatises by Prosdocimo. Using textual evidence, Bonnie Blackburn, Edward Lowinsky, and Clement Miller have claimed that Del Lago was most likely copying passages of the Declaratio from the Rossi 455 manuscript, while penning his letters.[7]

In light of Giovanni del Lago’s early sixteenth-century confusion that Prosdocimo wrote the Declaratio, what is exciting to me is the possibility that at one point this illuminated copy of the Declaratio might have been ascribed to Prosdocimo. With none of the surviving sources of the treatise up to now offering such an ascription to Prosdocimo, or even hinting at one (nor to anyone else besides Ugolino), this erasure is an intriguing lead. While the several topics of musical theory that were treated with great detail by both Prosdocimo and Ugolino make such a muddling of authorship understandable, I remain acutely curious to better know the intellectual relationship of the two theorists. Together with the proposal by Blackburn et al. that I-Rvat Ross. 455 was Del Lago’s source of Ugolino’s theoretical writings, this small discovery contained on a blank page may now assure us that what might have appeared to be a foolish error or slapdash guesswork by an early reader of Ugolino’s treatise like Del Lago was in fact an act of seemingly accurate citation.


Evan A. MacCarthy is Assistant Professor of Music History at West Virginia University. He is presently preparing a new critical edition and first-ever translation of Ugolino’s Declaratio Musicae Disciplinae for Brepols Press. He is also completing a monograph on the study of music by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century. His essays have recently appeared in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music (Cambridge and New York, 2015), Qui musicam in se habet: Studies in Honor of Alejandro Planchart (Münster, 2015), Renaissance Then and Now (Pisa, 2014), Beyond 50 Years of Ars Nova Studies at Certaldo, 1959-2009 (Lucca, 2014), the Journal of the Alamire Foundation (2013), and elsewhere.



[1] Thanks to generous support in the form of a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council and a West Virginia University Faculty Senate Grant for Research and Scholarship.
[2] The erasure can be read on the verso of the flyleaf, which is ruled but otherwise blank, below the very last ruled line, near the bottom of the page, and upside down. The arrangement of this folio’s ruling also appears to be flipped, when compared with the ruling on every other folio in the manuscript, suggesting to me that this folio was removed, then rebound upside down and backwards, perhaps to hide the erasure of the incorrect ascription. The folio is not numbered among the other fascicles of the MS, but the quality of the parchment and the ruling indicate that it must be an original folio to the volume. One possibility is that it might have been some kind of "top sheet" and the name was erased and inserted at the time of binding as a flyleaf to protect the illuminated first folio. While art historians have identified this manuscript’s illuminators (Giorgio d’Alemagna and Guglielmo Giraldi), I have elsewhere argued for more specific dates of illumination and binding (October 1453, in Ferrara), using archival payment records from the Este court in Ferrara (which are now in the Archivio di Stato in Modena), and that one of its two scribes is the same scribe as that of the important mid-fifteenth-century polyphonic songbook, Porto, Biblioteca Múnicipal Publica, Ms. 714 (P-Pm 714), as well as two other theoretical manuscripts. On the identification of the illuminators, see Giordana Mariani Canova, Guglielmo Giraldi: miniature estense (Modena, 1995), 51-56; Federica Toniolo, La miniatura a Ferrara: dal tempo di Cosmè Tura all’eredità di Ercole de’ Roberti (Modena, 1998), 141-145; Cesarino Ruini, “Produzione e commitenza dei trattati di teoria musicale nell’Italia del Quattrocento,” in Quellen und Studien zur Musiktheorie der Mittelalters III, ed. M. Bernhard (Munich, 2001), 341-357, at 350-2; Camilla Cavicchi, “Strumenti musicali a Ferrara nel Rinascimento. Prassi, collezionismo, sperimentazione,” (Tesi di laurea, Alma Mater Studiorum-Università di Bologna, 2001), 68-73. On my proposed new dating, see Evan A. MacCarthy, “Music and Learning in Early Renaissance Ferrara, c. 1430-1470,” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2010), 98-126; MacCarthy, “The Sources and Early Readers of Ugolino of Orvieto’s Declaratio Musice Discipline,” in Beyond 50 Years of Ars Nova Studies at Certaldo, 1959-2009 (L’Ars Nova Italiana del Trecento, vol. VIII), ed. Marco Gozzi, Agostino Ziino, and Francesco Zimei (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2014), 401-425, at 419-422.
[3] Ugolino, Declaratio musicae disciplinae, ed. Albert Seay (Rome: American Institute of Musicology, 1959-62), 2: 60-61.
[4] Biondo Flavio, Italia Illustrata, IV.34.
[5] MacCarthy, “The Sources and Early Readers,” 410-411.
[6] For a recent appraisal of Prosdocimo’s theoretical writings, see the introduction to Jan Herlinger’s edition of Plana musica and Musica speculativa (Urbana, 2008).
[7] Bonnie J. Blackburn, Edward E. Lowinsky, and Clement A. Miller, eds., A Correspondence of Renaissance Musicians (Oxford, 1991), 152-5.

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