Performing Vice and Virtue

Last week was a lot of fun, and I have to thank Melinda LaTour for it. Ms LaTour organised a panel on Performing Vice and Virtue in Late Renaissance Europe at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual meeting in Berlin. She gave a paper on ‘Repetitions of Virtue: Music Pedagogy and Ethical Capacity in the Quatrains de Pibrac en musique’ in which she argued, among other things, that the musical repetition in strophic settings might have the function of facilitating the repeated performance of virtue. Dr Catherine Deutsch’s discussion of Annibale Guasco’s Ragionamento … a D. Lavinia sua figliuola della maniera del governarsi ella in corte focussed on hitherto overlooked passages and chapters, and argued that “repetition of proper acts” (such as performing music) became embodied as habits and virtue.

It was down to me to provide the vice, in ‘Vice and the Villotta in the Sixteenth Century’. My main example was the Primo libro de villotte del fiore (1557) by Filippo Azzaiolo, dedicated to Abbot Pandolfo Rucellai. Rucellai was a bit of a scallywag, it seems. In the early 1540s, his maternal uncle, the humanist Giovanni della Casa, himself no stranger to vices, chastised Pandolfo for gambling so excessively that he threatened his brother’s portion of the family estate. He claims that Pandolfo has stopped practicing the virtues of youth, like music, in favour of gambling and womanising. The villotta book dedicated to Pandolfo in 1557 might suggest that he was back on track to virtue. The content of the book—songs with thinly veiled sexual metaphors, and even insults to living persons—means that is not entirely clear. On the one hand, moralists condemn the villotta for its sexual content, and on the other, we know that ‘lowbrow’ genres (low stylistic register for ‘low’ content) were enjoyed by a wide audience—including humanist academicians. It might seem at odds with what a modern reader would expect of an abbot, but it seems to have been entirely in keeping with the musical habits of a young nobleman in the church. It was one way to continue to perform aristocratic masculinity.

Thanks again to Melinda LaTour for organising the session, and to Prof. Jeanice Brooks for chairing.