Sounding Marvels: Musical Instruments between Reality and Imagination in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Italy

Lead Research Organisation: Royal College of Music
Department Name: Research


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been defined as the 'age of marvellous' for the extraordinary interest in the aesthetic of wonder, which emerged in literature, figurative arts, artefacts, and music (Kenseth, 1991). The humanistic revival of the ancient Greek and Roman mythology, miracles in religious beliefs, cabinets of curiosities, and surprising reports from travels towards unknown lands are just examples of how the aesthetic of marvel was embedded in the cultural context. The marvellous was considered a category of knowledge and, in René Descartes's words, 'the first of all the passions'.
Within this cultural environment, musical instruments found their place among marvellous objects and were considered not only tools to produce sounds, but also objects of wonder and visual fulfilment. 'Sounding marvels' include physical extraordinary objects desired by collectors and played by musicians, as well as imaginary inventions designed by an artist's pencil or crated by a performer's imagination. This dissertation looks at different kinds of marvellous musical instruments: first of all, those beautifully decorated instruments, sometimes made of unusual and/or precious materials; secondly, theatrical musical instruments that were played at court performances, including disguised ones during musical intermedi and fantastical ones played by comedians; finally, imaginary sounding objects depicted in the hands of mythological and divine creatures, or musicians coming from foreign lands. All these musical instruments needed to find a balance between the aesthetic taste of the time and their acoustic and practical functions, which might result completely or partially impaired in favour of their surprising components.
This research identifies the phenomenon of marvellous musical instruments as complex sounding and symbolic objects between reality and imagination, and aims to interpret and critically assess their cultural and aesthetic impact within the broader context of the age of marvel and marvellous objects. This study explores the creative process and circulation of such instruments - both physical objects and their representations - and speculate on their functionality and symbolism. Through their evaluation within the cultural context of the time and the comparison with other historical objects of marvel, it will be possible to revaluate this kind of musical instruments or their depictions in museum collections.
The complexity of sounding marvels as a cultural phenomenon in late Renaissance Italy requires a multidisciplinary approach to the research. Musical instruments share their materials, technologies and ornaments with other kind of objects. To understand the cultural and aesthetical impact of marvellous musical instruments in late Renaissance, they are positioned inside the production and circulation of other artefacts and objects of marvel. This approach reflects the innovative and emerging perspective of musical instrument studies, thanks to the development of the field of material culture. This multidisciplinary approach demands a variety of type of primary sources: literary documents, iconographies and physical objects are analysed, categorised and compared.
The vast corpus of literature about the concept of marvel during the Renaissance proves the relevance of marvellous objects within that society. However, no research has yet addressed the role and significance that musical instruments played in this context. This study is the first one of its kind that critically considers the phenomenon of marvellous musical instruments and will enrich and expand the notion of wondrous objects within the late Renaissance Italian culture of marvel.


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