Recent links of note:
“Dolphins of the Belfiore”
Alexander Lee, History Today
In the mid-fifteenth century, Belfiore Palace was the “jewel of Ferrara’s crown,” built by the ruling Este family to rival the residences of the Medicis. Leonello d’Este, the marquess of Ferrara, was deeply involved in the city’s humanist movements and commissioned a studiolo, a private study, to be decorated with paintings of nine Muses, on the recommendation of his tutor, Guarino da Verona. Angelo da Siena began the series with the Muses of history and tragedy, Clio and Melpomene, and it was finished by several others including the local painter Cosimo Tura. Leonello, who died in 1450, did not live to see his study completed, but contemporary accounts attest to its glory. In 1468, however, the palace was damaged in a war with Venice, and most scholars believe that the studiolo was destroyed. Alexander Lee in History Today explains why there is reason to think that a few of the paintings were spared and could be hiding in collections in Florence, Milan, Budapest, and London, and how painted dolphins might provide a vital clue in identifying one of them.
“Phantoms of the mind”
Angus Gowland, Literary Review
If you wish to cultivate an air of learned madness, at the risk of worrying your loved ones, try lugging around the 1,300-page Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. First published four hundred years ago in 1621, five years after the death of Shakespeare, this labyrinthine example of Jacobean prose is at times bewildering, ridiculous, profound, and playful. Framed as a medical treatise, the book is split into three enormous sections: “Causes of Melancholy,” “Cures of Melancholy,” and “Love-Melancholy and Religious Melancholy,” each illustrated with thousands of examples from classical literature as well as from more recent works, such as Thomas More’s Utopia. The breadth of Burton’s literary knowledge is mind-boggling—he appears to have absorbed the entire collection of Christ Church College, Oxford, of which he was the librarian. Many later writers, from Samuel Johnson to Laurence Sterne, counted the Anatomy among their favorites, while the Keats House museum displays the young poet’s annotated copy, flipped open to the love-melancholy section (lest we forget he was too poor and ill to marry his fiancée, Fanny Brawne). Angus Gowland, who has edited a new edition of the book for Penguin, discusses in Literary Review why we might be seeing a resurgence of interest in this puzzling, fabulous tome.
“A short history of millionaire composers”
Richard Bratby, The Spectator
A musician friend told me how he was once hired to play in an orchestra led and sponsored by a new conductor—new, as in, a beginner. Turns out, the sponsor was just an amateur, an old man who had retired from a successful tech career. Along the way the man had gotten it into his head that he was destined to become a conductor and that nothing (for instance, a lack of talent) was going to hold him back. No surprise, his conducting was poor and the orchestra members felt degraded, as if they were acting out a childish fantasy, even though the opportunity paid well. How lame, I remember thinking. Couldn’t the man just sign up for piano lessons and donate to his favorite ensemble instead? With this story in mind, I was somewhat ill-disposed towards Anthony Bolton, the former British fund manager who has written a new opera with an (admittedly intriguing) title, The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, which premiered this July at Grange Park Opera. The music critic Richard Bratby, writing in The Spectator, takes aim at my prejudice and argues that while the stereotype of a suffering, poverty-stricken composer is true of Beethoven and Schubert, it is far from the only model for musical success. Poulenc, for instance, benefited from his family’s pharmaceutical fortune and the modernist composer Charles Ives was also a “pioneer of modern life insurance.” In many cases, Bratby explains, “wealth liberated creativity” and when the curtain rises it’s only “for the ear—and the heart—to judge.”
“Music for a While #49: Sparks.” Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion’s music critic, talks music—but, more important, plays music.
“Storytime,” by Jay Nordlinger. Some tales about two composers and other musicians.