New Perspectives on Urban Entertainment in the Middle Ages

29th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: Saturday, April 4, 2009

Blake Wilson, Orpheus in Florence: Public Singing and the Art of the "Improvvisatori"

When Antonio di Guido died on July 10, 1486, the great Florentine improvisatory singer was honored with a Latin epithet from the pen of Angelo Poliziano: he likened Antonio the Tuscan to Orpheus the Thracian, but with the difference that while Orpheus drew only animals to him, Antonio drew people. Those people were the large numbers of the Florentine public.

In 1432, another famous improvisatory singer, Niccolò Cieco d’Arezzo, settled in Florence after an itinerant career that embraced service to two popes in Rome, and stints in the service of the governments of Siena and Perugia. Within five years of Niccolo’s arrival, a young Antonio di Guido ascended the benches at San Martino (the primary forum for Florentine public performance), and began his long career as the leading Florentine improvvisatore. For the remainder of the century this ancient civic practice flourished with unprecedented vigor in Florence.

This paper will examine the enduring civic and republican context of this phenomenon, and, by way of example, will suggest some of the ways historians might shed light on this elusive yet pervasive practice. Particular attention will be given to the role of Niccolò in galvanizing the public performing tradition at Piazza San Martino, and in establishing a pedagogical tradition most evident in the extant vernacular memory treatises traceable to Niccolò’s influence. New biographical information on Antonio di Guido also prompts a reexamination of his professional life. What we now know from tax records, correspondence, diary entries, and his extant poetry, can be viewed in light of recent research on Florentine popular literary culture and public performance contexts to form a more nuanced understanding of a great vernacular improvisatory singer, and the tradition he represented.

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