The Canti Carnascialeschi

The Florentines celebrated not only the pre-Lenten revelry, but also the Calendimaggio, which began on May 1 and ended with the Feast of St. John on June 24. An essential part of the festivities was the singing and dancing of the canzona a ballo in the streets by masked merrymakers. ( Canzona a ballo denotes in its widest sense any secular song that is danced as well as sung.)

Under Lorenzo de' Medici, whose rule began in 1469, the carnivals had become infused with a more intense life. He strongly encouraged the celebrations, and, following his lead, the court took a much greater part in them than previously. Lorenzo has been accused of acting as he did in order to induce the people to forget their lack of political liberty. It is more likely, however, that he was simply indulging his love of display and magnificence and delighting both the populace and himself by the grandeur of his contribution to the festivities.

Torchlight processions with decorated cars of masqueraders were the main feature of the carnivals. Some of the carri represented the city's trade and craft guilds, others depicted legendary scenes or the triumph of classical conquerors. Lorenzo increased the number of these chariots and the lavishness of their decoration. The triumphs emphasized the power and glory of the Medici, while the mythical representations-in contrast to the more popular displays arranged by the guilds and crafts-gave scope for Lorenzo's court of nobles, poets, and artists to exercise their talents.

Lorenzo himself wrote poems to be sung not only by his courtier-actors, but also by the guilds. His Trionfo d'Arianna e Bacco and his Canto di uomini che vendevano bericuocoli e conjortini (Song of the Sweetmeat Sellers) are among the most famous of the canti carnascialeschi and epitomize the two main types--the mythical; the local and topical--into which they mostly fall.

The second type, of course, had the more popular appeal, consisting as it did of songs describing the various guilds or depicting daily life. Double meanings, involving an obscene twist, were common. The names of some of the songs are almost enough, by themselves, to evoke the vigorous, turbulent life of 15th-century Florence. In the Canti de' sartori, de' profumieri, de' facitori d'olio, de' molinari, dei poveri che accattano per carità, the elegant tailors and perfumers of Florence, the oil-makers, millers, and beggars who filled the crowded streets, live and ply their trades again. The Canto d'uomini che vanno col viso volto di dietro (Song of the men with their faces turned backward) embodied some political gibe, while the Canti della malmaritata, delle donne giovani e di mariti vecchi, delle vedove, dei giudei battezzati (Songs of the unhappy wife, of the young wives with old husbands, of the widows, of the baptized Jews) were intended to be comic.

Textually, the canti carnascialeschi descend from the old cacce, which also were topical, descriptive, and full of double meanings. Musically, however they are chordal and strophic like the Mantuan frottole. The canti carnascialeschi, however, or, as they are sometimes called, the Florentine frottole --including, as they did, chariot songs, serenades, processionals, etc.--were all sung in the open, as were, on occasion, the laude and the frottole. Open-air performance may well have determined the chordal character of this popolaresca lirica. The public nature of the performance, the necessity for rising above the clamor of the crowd, and the acoustics of the piazze, all encouraged the use of resounding chords rather than polyphony.

One of the earliest and most famous collections of canti carnascialeschi (and, until the discovery of a munuscipt in Florence in the 19th century, almost the only known source) is that made in 1559 by Anton Francesco Grazzini, known as Il Lasca. It is entitled Tutti i Trionfi, Carri, Mascherate e Cant' Carnascialeschi. The term mascherata obviously comes from the custom of singing pieces so named during carnival masquerading.

During its golden period under Lorenzo de' Medici, the canto carnascialesco on the one hand was the property of the whole community, many of the c anti being anonymous, and on the other hand was enriched not only by the poems of Lorenzo himself and of his herald Battista dell'Ottonaio, but by the compositions of his musicians Alexander Coppinus and the Netherlanders, Heinrich Isaac and Alexander Agricola .

Of these, Isaac is the most interesting, partly by reason of his privileged position at Lorenzo's court. He arrived in Florence c. 1484, having possibly been called there for the specific purpose of assuming Squarcialupi's old post as organist of the Cappella di San Giovanni (the Baptistery). Later, he became organist at the churches of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Annunziata. As music teacher to Lorenzo's sons, he had among his pupils the future Pope Leo X.

IIIG: The Frottolists and their contemporaries  |  IIIB: From Oswald von Wolkenstein to the Locheimer Liederbuch