Department of Art History

Music, Art and Objects in the Italian Renaissance Home

Music, Art and Objects in the Italian Renaissance Home - Dr Flora Dennis

This research has been funded by fellowships from Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies; the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Columbia University

This project explores the dramatic changes in the social and cultural meanings of music in Italy from c.1450 to 1620. It aims to increase our understanding of domestic musical practice and its social connotations, but also investigates how shifts in music’s cultural meaning are reflected in the visual and material character of domestic interiors in non-courtly, urban centres in central and northern Italy.

Study of this subject has been marred by the lack of traditional types of evidence used by musicologists. The extensive records that have been employed to detail activity in churches or courts – surviving volumes of musical repertories attached to an institution, letters documenting appointments and commissions, payrolls listing employees (often well-known composers) and their salaries – do not exist for the domestic sphere. Even in contexts where we know music was regularly performed, it is impossible to say precisely which pieces were played by exactly which forces. The few surviving descriptions of domestic music-making that we have (often in letters) usually employ the vaguest terms – often declaring it as ‘very beautiful’ – rarely specifying what was played, on which instruments, or by whom. This fundamental lack of basic information about composers, performers, patrons, repertories and musical style has meant that the topic has been all but ignored by musicologists. However, it is clear that the period represents a moment of dramatic change in amateur music-making in the home, as new technologies and imported skills meant that musical instruments were produced in Italy in large numbers for the first time, and music printing made both sacred and secular repertories available to a wide constituency. Concentrating on these changes and the forces behind them, my book’s intellectual framework shifts away from issues of authorship, patronage and style, to consider for the first time music’s meanings as a social practice taking place within the physical space of the home.

To do this, the project mobilizes a broad range of visual, material, literary, archival and – where possible – musical sources. I am drawing on unpublished archival documents (domestic inventories, domestic account books, letters, diaries, commercial agreements, shop census records, mostly from Bologna, Florence and Venice) and primary printed texts (conduct literature, music books, books of music theory and other didactic publications, dialogues on music, poetry, fictional prose, printed letters, architectural treatises). My visual sources include paintings, frescoes, prints and drawings, and material objects (surviving musical instruments, ceramic tableware, cutlery and furniture).


‘Music’ in Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (eds.), At Home in Renaissance Italy (London, V&A Publications, 2006), pp. 228-43

‘When is a room a music room? Sounds, spaces and objects in non-courtly Italian interiors’, in Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti, eds, Sound, Space and Object: The Aural, the Visual and the Tactile in Early Modern French and Italian Music Rooms’ (London, 2012), pp.37-49

‘Scattered Knives and Dismembered Song: Cutlery, Music and the Rituals of Dining’, Renaissance Studies (republished in book form in 2011 as Re-thinking Renaissance Objects: Design, Function and Meaning, edited by Peta Motture and Michelle O'Malley), XXIV (January, 2010), pp.156-84

‘Unlocking the Gates of Chastity: Music and the Erotic in the Domestic Sphere in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Italy’, in The Erotic Cultures of Early Modern Italy, edited by Sara Matthews-Grieco (Ashgate, 2010), pp.227-45