LEONARDO DA VINCI , musician, theatrical designer, creator of masques and elaborate festivities.

Most of the information comes directly from Charles Nicholl,’ Leonardo Da Vinci- The Flights of the Mind’. I will be paraphrasing his excellent work and will give page numbers. I have searched to add visual material to give reality to the descriptions.

[pages 155-159]  From an early age, Leonardo loved riddles and jokes. He was friendly during his early period in Florence with rimesters like Cammelli and Bellincioni and could be the soul of an impromptu party. His early biographers agree that he was a brilliant musician and particularly gifted at the ‘lyre’. An Anonymous (Anonimo) early biographer and Vasari both tell us that when he left Florence for the Court of Milan, probably in 1482- he was born in 1453- he presented himself not as an artist from the bottega (workshop)  of Verrocchio or as a technologist, but rather as a musician.

The ‘lira’ which Leonardo played was not the ancient classical harp but a more recently evolved instrument called the ‘lira da Braccio’ It was essentially a variation on the ‘viola da braccio’, a forerunner of the violin. I found an example of the ‘lira da braccio’ being played:

The ‘Spero’ is a dance exercise written down by Gulielmo Ebreo da Pesaro in 1460. This man was one of three leading Dancing Masters in Florence, who wrote books on the subject (‘Trattato del Art’ Ballero’) and composed music to accompany classes:

[It is interesting to note that Ebreo means Hebrew or Jew. The Jews were seriously involved in artistic circles in Italy. Many Jews who came to Italy had fled from the Spanish inquisition. When Henry VIII of England came to choose Court Musicians, he did not want Catholic musicians because of the English Reformation, so he chose Jewish musicians. Thus, the Jews were definitely back in England by Tudor times.

Two portraits by Nicholas Hilliard – Shakespeare and his mistress?
There is evidence that this is a miniature of Emilia Bassano recently identified, partially by use of a coat of arms. The other miniature may be Shakespeare.

Compare with this Shakespeare:

The Cobbe portrait is an early Jacobean panel painting of a gentleman which has been argued to be a life portrait of William Shakespeare.

Emilia Bassano, according to some scholars Shakespeare’s  ‘Dark Lady’, was a musician herself and the daughter of a mixed marriage between an Italian Jewish musician and an English wife.  In 1995 David Lasocki and Roger Prior published a very interesting book on the subject: The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665. 

A ‘lira da braccio’is being played by the Angel in the panel by Ambrogio de Predis in the National Gallery.

This painting by one of Leonardo’s colleagues in Milan was a side panel for the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.

It is known that Verrochio (with whom Leonardo first studied) had a lute among his possessions. Music was evidently played in the’ bottega’ and perhaps taught there.

A proficiency in music went with the study of art and architecture, and there was a strong tradition of music making among Florentine guilds.

‘What kind of music did Leonardo play?’ asks Nicholls. ‘No compositions by him survive, and the soundtrack of Quattrocento Florence is loud and various- the fifes and drums of ‘pifferi’, the sing-song catches of carnival, the instrumental preludes and intrludes that accompanied ‘sacre rappresentazioni’, the fashionable dance tunes of Guglielmo Ebreo, the virtuoso organ music of Francesco Squarcialupi.’ Vasari says of Leonardo, that he was the most skilled improviser in verse of his time.Perhpas, Leonardo accopanied himself on the Lira while singing or reciting poems: Here is a little peasant sing-a-long for you from the period:

If Leonardo were a typical ‘lira da braccio’ player in Florence c. 1480 ‘he would probably be playing the kind of light, amorous, chordal music typified by the Medici carnival song and the Mantuan ‘frotella’ [trifles], . He would be singing or reciting the love-poems of Petrarch and Poliziano and Lorenzo de’ Medici, or ideed the more abrasive ditties of Cammelli and Bellincioni […]’. His association with Cammelli evokes evenings of rough-and ready entertainment.

Marsilio Ficino , the Florentine philosopher, composed ‘Orphic hymns’ and played them on the ‘lira’. As part of the Ficino circle, it is probable that Leonardo was introduced to more musical sophistication. Leonardo later called music  a ‘representation of invisible things’, a phrase with a Platonist ring.

According to Vasari , Leonardo constructed a special ‘lira da braccio’ to impress his Milanese hosts: ‘He took with him a lira he had made himself, mostly in silver, in the shape of a horse’s skull, a very strange and novel design which made the sound full and more resonant.’

No musical composition of Leonardo remains except his musical riddles. Here is one:

‘amo [drawing of a fish hook]; re sol la mi fa re mi [musical notes]; rare [written]; la sol mi fa sol [musical notes]; lecita [written].

This produces the following romantic ditty: Amore sola fa remirare, la sol mi fa sollecita- Only love makes me remember, it alone fires me up’- and the musical notation can be picked out on a keyboard-DGAEFDE AGEFG- so now you have a Leonardo melody you can pick out on a piano.

I would like to present some early Renaissance Dances with which Leonardo might have been familiar:

As the arts and sciences flourished in the European Renaissance, dance quickly rose to preeminence.  Dance increased in sophistication and social importance through the 14th century, but unfortunately no choreographic descriptions survive from this century.  It is from preserved music tabulatures and literature, such as Boccaccio’s Decameron, that we know the names of these lost dances, which include the balli, carola (carole), stampita (estampe, istampita, stantipes), salterello, rotta, trotto and farandole.  Only treatises from later centuries give us any hint as to what these 14th century dances might have looked like.

The Italian courts also danced the Bassadanza (as they spelled it), although it was lighter in spirit and somewhat more intricate than the Burgundian Bassedanse.  But the epitome of Italian court dance was the Ballo.  The 15th century Balli were beautifully designed choreographies for a set number of dancers that featured a wide variety of steps, figures and rhythms.  Unlike the Bassadanza, the music and dance phrases of the Balli were inseparable.

Both Bassadanzi and Balli were composed by highly respected dance masters, following specific guidelines of scientific and artistic movement.  The first and most important dance master of the Renaissance was Domenico da Piacenza (ca. 1395 – ca. 1465).  Two of his students represented the next generation of dance masters:  Guglielmo Ebreo (also known as Giovanni Ambrosio) and Antonio Cornazano.  Fortunately all three left detailed manuscripts describing dance theory, deportment, specific choreographies and corresponding music.

While these surviving 15th century instruction books described the dances from the highest courts, the dances of the artisans, burghers, lower classes and peasants remained unrecorded until the end of the 16th century.

— Richard Powers

The dances in these manuals are extremely varied in nature. They range from slow, stately dances (bassadance, pavane, almain) to fast, lively dances (galliard, coranto, canario). The former, in which the dancers’ feet did not leave the ground were styled the dance basse while energetic dances with leaps and lifts were called the haute dance.[1] Some were choreographed, others were improvised on the spot.

French painting of the volta, from Penhurst Place, Kent, often wrongly assumed to be of Elizabeth I.

One dance for couples, a form of the galliard called la volta, involved a rather intimate hold between the man and woman, with the woman being lifted into the air while the couple made a 3/4 turn. Other dances, such as branles or bransles, were danced by many people in a circle or line.

Medieval dance:

Italian Renaissance Song:

Il Saltarello a peasant dance:

Volta Elizabeth I



Minuet and Jig:


Leonardo was fascinated by theatrical events. 1500 dawned auspiciously with an entertainment to celebrate the wedding of Duke Gian Galeozzo to Isabella of Aragon.It was a masque or operetta entitled ‘Il Paradiso’ with words by Bernardo Bellincioni, set and costumes by Leonardo da Vinci. In the first edition of Bellicioni’s poems, published postumously in Milan in 1493, the text of ‘Il Paradiso’ is introduced:

[The production was made 13 January 1490  at the request]…’ of Lord Ludovico in praise of the Duchesse of Milan, and it was called Paradiso because there was made for it ,with the great genius and skill of Maestro Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine, a Paradise with all the seven planets orbiting round.The planets were represented by men having the appearance and costume described by poets,and the planets all speak in praise of the said duchess Isabella, as you will see when you read it.’

On the evening of the performance, it was nearing midnight when the rappresentazioni began. The lights went down, the silk curtain was drawn back and there was Paradiso:

‘Il Paradiso was made in the shape of a half egg, which on the inner part was all covered in gold, with a very great number of lights [candles], as many as stars and with certain niches, where stood all the seven planets according to their degree, high and low. Around the top edge of this hemisphere were the twelve signs [of the Zodiac], with certain lights behind glass, which made a gallant and beautiful spectacle. In this Paradiso were heard many songs and many sweet and graceful sounds.’

There is a collective gasp at the shimmering apparition, then a boy dressed as an angel in the Florentine ‘sacre rappresentazioni’  steps forward to begin.Much stage machinery, such as pulleys existed, and reflecting mirrors could be used behind candles.

Almost a year later Leonardo was involved again in the joint nuptual celebrations of Ludovico [Sforza’s] wedding with Beatrice d’Este and that of his neice, Anna Sforza with Beatrice’s brother, Alfonso d’Este. As part of the festivities, a joust was organised by Galeazzo Sanseverino, the dashing young captain and now Ludovico Sforza’s  son-in-law. He had married Ludovico’s illegitimate daughter, Bianca in 1490.

Leonardo notes, ‘I was at the house of Messer Galeazzo da San Severino to organise the pageant for his joust.’ Leonardo mentions footmen putting on their costumes as ‘salvatichi’ or wild men. The ‘uomo (man) selvatico’ was a popular folk figure similar to the Green Man of Medieval England, an image of the power of Nature and of man in a state of primitive innocence. The footmen were to wear animal skins, or leaf or bark. San Severino called himself ‘the son of the King of the Indians’. In 1491 this would refer to India not to the New World, as it wasn’t until 1492 that Columbus set out . But it was prescient. In his theatrical productions, Leonardo could explore the fantastical, the exotic and the grotesque.

When the French later captured Milan from the Sforza, they were keen to exploit the talents of Leonardo in their ‘fetes’. In the Arundel Codex are rapid sketches of a stage set featuring a range of rugged, Leonardesque mountains, which opens to reveal a large hemispherical cavern. Leonardo’s notes explain the theatrical effect,

‘a mountain which opens … and Pluto is discovered in his residence’.These are surely designs  for a performance of Agnolo Poliziano’s operetta, ‘Orfeo’. Leonardo had probably been involved in an earlier production in Mantua in 1490, starring his protege, Atalante Migliorotti, and now recreates it for the court of Charles d’Amboise  [I believe Migliorotti’s  portrait is in the current Leonardo exhibition in London entitled, The Musician’. He  evidentally had a beautiful voice and wrote music, as well.]

In order to end on a high, in a French film on the life Jean-Baptist Lully and his relationship to Louis XIV, ‘The Sun King’, there is a bit of a masque shown. Although the period is later, not much had changed in the world of masques; they were as elaborate as ever.

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