Twenty-first-century, urban Ferrara isn't a particularly attractive city. Situated about 35 miles north of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna, it's a typical medium-sized community in the valley of the massive, life-giving Po river in Northern Italy. The concentration, though, of churches and palazzi dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has earned it status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ferrara also has six miles of fortified walls surrounding its historic center. For music-lovers, it was the presence and patronage of the Este family, which had settled in Ferrara in the thirteenth century, that distinguished Ferrara and made it such an important location during the Renaissance. Ferrara attracted composers from many parts of Europe – in particular from France and Flanders.
Josquin Des Prez worked for Duke Ercole for a time; indeed he wrote the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariæ for him. Jacob Obrecht came to Ferrara twice; he actually died as a result of an outbreak of plague there in 1505. Antoine Brumel served as principal musician from 1505 onwards. Duke Alfonso I, son of Ercole, was partly responsible for Ferrara's becoming an important center of compositions for the lute. These are just the most prominent examples. In the world of Renaissance literature, for example, Ferrara was home to Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso. And of course painters and sculptors abounded.
Lewis Lockwood is the Fanny Peabody Research Profession (Emeritus) at Harvard. His Music in Renaissance Ferrara was originally published in 1985. It began as an attempt to situate the work of Josquin. But the brief expanded; Lockwood ended up looking at the wider issues surrounding the ways in which how a court (and city) such as the Este (and their Ferrara) influenced, interacted with and were in turn changed by the rich musical life around them. Now the book has been reissued by Oxford University Press with some updates.
The author also made revisions following the book's translation into Italian of 1987. The bibliography (which extends to 20 pages) was updated and some additions and amendments made reflecting changes in scholarship… a sounder understanding of Josquin's early life, is one example; a better context and handling of the mass of primary source materials now available electronically is another.
Lockwood is very fond of Ferrara, quick to defend the city as more than a place to stop for lunch on your way to Florence or Venice, or even Bologna or Modena. The latter, incidentally, is an essential place to see when studying Ferrara since much of the Ferrara's movable artifacts were moved there with the Este court when it lost power to the papacy in 1598. This affection for the city (and its region) helps to make the book a persuasive and positive read.
Music in Renaissance Ferrara is condensed without being dense. Its 325 pages (with five appendices and an excellent index, which actually does not cover those) are divided into three main parts. These deal with the early fifteenth century (a little more than 40% of the book's substance); the period under Ercole d'Este from 1471-1505 (just over 30%); and eight chapters on the repertoire and musical styles in the late fifteenth century (about 25%). There are a dozen or so illustrations, slightly more tables and almost a dozen and a half musical manuscripts. The book is amply footnoted and superbly supported by multiple (types of) references. The 27 chapters are thus mostly short and range in scope from broad, though relevant, historical background, to the particularities of manuscript production, for example. All serve to produce a comprehensive, lively and engaging picture of the rôle which Ferrara played in the lives and artistic careers of the many musicians who made the city their home, visited or were otherwise involved with its court(s), public and private buildings, churches, cathedrals and even homes.
This is not a book for the casual reader interested only fleetingly in either choral polyphony or the general development of Renaissance music. Its concerns are specific and focused. At the same time, it is a book which deals in these areas exceptionally well. It provides useful and sound illuminating background and explanation of the way such a city furthered their development. It does more than imply that Ferrara was a typical model for such patronage. It weaves together all the strands of the multifaceted symbioses between ruler, patrician and bourgeois on the one hand; and composer, performer and distributor (Ferrara had become an established center for manuscript production and development by the period examined here) on the other.
Nevertheless, you wouldn't have to be a specialist in the field to get a great deal from the book by the time you'd finished it. Or dipped in – it's structured so that that will work too. It's well written – with non-specialists in mind too: possibly new concepts (such as contemporary poetics) are clearly explained. The various aspects of the picture (political force-lines or pertinent geographical facts) are clearly set out with inter-related entities described. As a result you quickly get a feel for the relationships between Ferrara and its musicians.
Lastly, the question that Music in Renaissance Ferrara asks in its title is amply answered. By carefully setting out and documenting just what it was as Ferrara grew in influence and power that made it such an attractive musical center, we learn why it worked so significantly. This is all to the good: the prestige of Florence and Venice, not to mention Rome or even Cremona or Naples is well known. To have the same story told for a city that's hardly been so carefully exposed (yet has a comparable amount of achievements, proportionally, to recommend it) is useful and necessary. Given the price and accessibility of the material covered on top of the superb scholarship this is a book that makes a unique and valuable contribution to the work on the period; and as such can be fully recommended.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey