Classical 91.5

Singing to Power

Jan 31, 2018

Ginevra de' Benci
Credit Leonardo da Vinci

“Don’t be born a woman if you want to have your own way.”  - Nannina de’ Medici

For some 15th century wealthy women, performing was a political duty.

In early January of 1460, Pope Pius II and a party of travelers wended through Tuscany on dusty roads to Florence.  It was cold, and things had not gone well for them.  They journeyed from the Council of Mantua, where the pope had lobbied hard for support in a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks.  Were the pope and his ministers weary from months of negotiations?  Discouraged by critics?  Did the pope sense that his call for a new crusade would ultimately fall flat?  Whatever his mindset, the Florentines graciously offered him and his entourage a place of rest on his way back to Rome.

Florence, Italy in wintertime
Credit REDA &CO srl / Alamy Stock Photo

The morning after his arrival, he was warmly welcomed by Bianca de’ Medici and nine other Florentine ladies, all richly dressed and ready to entertain.  In letters to the Marchesa Barbara of Brandenburg, the Apostolic Protonotary Teadoro da Montefeltro described the women as “lovely as angels in paradise.”

Portrait of a young lady of fashion,c.1460
Credit Paolo Uccello

Bianca played the organ “very well with fine phrases and proportions and impressive rhythm,” by that account.  After this visit, another member of the papal party, Monsignor the Vice-Chancellor, Rodrigo Borgia, asked to be entertained as well.  Borgia was in his late twenties at the time.  (In the years to come, he would go on to become one of the most notorious popes in history, Pope Alexander VI, infamous for his greed and love of women. His immorality would fuel the Protestant Reformation.)  Bianca de’ Medici, her eleven-year old sister Nannina, and other women obliged him by singing several chansons and dancing.  At the conclusion of this private performance, an unknown lady sang Gilles Binchois’ rondeau “Mon cuer chante.”  Its contours, sweetness, and message of hope provided a fitting end for this private audience, and its timing at the end of the performance shows a musically sensitive mind at work.

Binchois (right), with composer Guillaume Dufay
Credit 'Le Champion des Dames' by Martin le Franc (1410-61) 1440 (vellum)

It’s no big surprise that such a song would live in the music library of an elite family of wealthy bankers such as the Medici in Quattrocento Italy.  By 1460, Binchois’ radiant chansons had spread far and wide, even though he himself spent most of his life in or near the Court of Burgundy.  Bianca's father, Piero de’ Medici, owned a copy of what’s now called the Florence Song Manuscript. It was copied in Florence on parchment in the mid-1440s and served as a key resource for songs by Binchois and others. Of the nineteen songs it contained, more than half are rondeaux by Binchois.  It's likely that Bianca used this manuscript (or one like it) to memorize the songs she sang and played.

Credit Brenda Tremblay

Details of Binchois’ early life from about 1400 onward are shrouded in mist; he may have been a soldier, he lived in Paris, and he served as an organist before taking clerical orders and a position in the court of the powerful Philip the Good.  Howard M. Brown writes that his sacred music sounds like it’s by a man working under deadline.   But, he adds, Binchois’ secular output is a treasure trove.  Maybe his geographically narrow existence infused his music with a kind of irresistible humility.

His song “Mon cuer chante” is based on text by Charles d’Orleans, one of the most respected poets of his time. It’s one of forty-seven rondeaux and fifty-five chansons attributed to the Burgundian composer.  His elegant masterpieces touched hearts across Western Europe.  Binchois was nearing the end of his life when, more than five hundred miles away, Bianca de’ Medici, her sisters and friends offered his music in a private concert for papal dignitaries.

Detail of the fresco "Journey of the Magi," sometimes thought to show Bianca between her sisters Maria and Nannina
Credit Benozzo Gozzoli

The Florentine ladies dazzled the papal visitors. They were probably wearing fashionable high-waisted dresses of elaborately embroidered fabric and tight-fitting sleeves.  Bianca’s blonde hair may have been partially covered by a veil or a cap twisted into a turban. She was, after all, a sophisticated married woman of fourteen!  She brought a small, portable chamber organ that, according to Montefeltro, King Alfonso of Naples had given to court musician Antonio Squarcialupi.

For Florentine women of their class, singing and dancing were not merely fun pastimes; these activities, when made public, elevated civic pride and bolstered trade.  Elaborate dresses flaunted a robust silk market. Lively dancing proved citizens were in good health. Musical ability attested to enough wealth to support the arts, finance lessons, and purchase instruments.

But scholar Judith Bryce takes it a step further.  She argues that regular exhibitions of female beauty and accomplishments assured visitors and dignitaries that, after the ravages of the Black Death, Florentine women were quite fertile.  Bryce also states that women were used by men for hegemonic purposes in Quattrocento Italy.   

In early 1460, Bianca de’ Medici’s family must have been aware of Borgia’s reputation as a womanizer, but potential commercial benefits apparently outweighed the risks of exposing their women to a licentious visitor.  How the girls felt about the situation was not recorded.  Many years later, in a missive dated July 12, 1479, Bianca’s sister Nannina wrote a letter to their mother that hints at frustration: “Don’t be born a woman if you want to have your own way,” she wrote.  Did she feel trapped?  Put on display? 

After Bianca sang and performed several chansons for Monsignor the Vice-Chancellor, the ladies “went into the hall and danced until about 7:30,” and when this dancing ended, they ate and continued a private concert for their papal visitor.  At the end, an unknown girl sang “Mon cuer chante.”  After their private concert, the girls touched the visitor’s hand, thanked him, left, and according to Montefeltro, “the festa seems to have revived Monsignore, who was truly tired from his trip.”

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo de Borja
Credit Cristofano dell'Altissimo

The decision to end the entertainment of Rodrigo Borgia with the Binchois chanson “Mon cuer chante,” I would argue, demonstrates a high level of emotional intelligence.  The secular song speaks of hope, renewal, joy, and faith in “bonne nouvelle” or “good news.”  On one level, the chanson echoes a superficial kind of courtly love based on beauty alone. On a deeper level, the words express optimism, confidence, and patience, qualities useful to any diplomat: 

En esperant que bien briefment/Auray quelque bonne nouvelle/Mon cuer chante joyeusement/Quant il luy souvient de la belle.

(Translated,  “In hoping soon /I will have some good news, my heart sings joyfully / when it recalls the beautiful one.”)

To a world-weary papal dignitary resting after months spent in a political hornet’s nest, it must have seemed like a message from heaven.

Watch a live performance of the chanson “Mon cuer chante.” 

Note: This blog was written as a paper for a course in Renaissance Music History (MHS 422  Music in the Renaissance, Eastman School of Music) in September 2014.