The emergence at the end of the sixteenth century of new ways of thinking about and making music—whether or not self-consciously styled seconda pratica or stile moderno—has generated a long and distinguished historiography that focuses largely on the debate between Giovanni Maria Artusi and Claudio Monteverdi over counterpoint. The focus was then, as it is now, on vocal music, its emphasis on text-setting reflecting the humanistic bias of those late sixteenth-century writers who, following classical precedents, regarded instrumental music as mere entertainment. As a result, early modern instrumental music was not the subject of much discussion, and has remained largely secondary even in modern scholarship. The appearance of the ensemble sonata, with its close ties to developing idiomatic instrumental technique, and the increasing importance of solo repertories for lute, harpsichord, and organ have been studied as virtuosic genres whose growing aesthetic ambitions could be measured by their borrowings from the more expressive vocal genres, such as cantatas, operas, and madrigals. Part of the problem, clearly articulated by such writers as Vincenzo Galilei, was class: vocal music was composed by trained contrapuntists, real “composers,” whereas instrumental music resulted from the improvisations of practicing virtuosos, technically gifted but lacking foundational training. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to look more deeply at the connections between instrumental music and the culture that produced it, revealing the ways in which untexted music carved out an independent aesthetic identity, related to but independent from that of its more respectable texted counterpart.1 

Starting out precisely from instrumental music's apparent Achilles heel, its artisanal origins, Rebecca Cypess's Curious and Modern Inventions takes readers on a wide-ranging journey through early seventeenth-century culture, musical and otherwise. This is a highly rewarding adventure: along the way, works by Biagio Marini, Carlo Farina, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Dario Castello are repositioned as manifestations of important contemporary developments in painting, science, collectorship, and philosophy. In this account, sonatas, toccatas, and canzonas had no reason to envy their texted relatives and could sit as equals in the academies and studioli of polymaths and connoisseurs.

Cypess takes as her point of departure, and the title for her book, Biagio Marini's characterization of his Sonate (1626) as containing “curiose et moderne inventioni,” a self-conscious reference to the variety of genres and techniques enumerated in his detailed title.2 Such a description invites scrutiny—not only of the intended meaning of Marini's terms “moderne” and “inventioni,” but also of the historical impulses behind the proliferation of instrumental music in the first decades of the seventeenth century. For Cypess, the reference to “inventioni” points toward the climate of discovery that emerged around the turn of the century, and particularly to the use of instruments as tools for understanding the world and for generating “inventioni” in the larger sense of Francis Bacon's Novum organum, a new approach to science conceived as an intellectual “instrument” through which to explore the world. Mechanical instruments, such as telescopes, clocks, barometers, and—as Cypess argues—musical instruments, were the means for accessing new forms of knowledge, which resulted from observation, measurement, and the invention, construction, and manipulation of tools: the experimental scientist relied on artisanal skills to activate his intellectual instruments. For music, this means rescuing practice—the manual skills of the virtuoso—from the low rank to which Vincenzo Galilei had relegated it. In Galilei's view, the results of performance-based written composition were awkward and disappointingly inadequate for representing both the skill of its creators (to which he refers as “dispositione di mano”) and the astonishment (the aesthetic category of meraviglia) they elicited in their audiences. For Cypess, the process of understanding the rapid emergence of instrumental music takes into account both the performer's ability to generate new “inventioni” and the listener's capacity to turn new sounds into new knowledge. Modernity, Marini's other crucial term, resides in music's ability to open new ways of knowing and to coordinate with other contemporary cultural experiences—visual, intellectual, affective, and social—through which audiences form their understanding of reality. These connections are treated individually in the six chapters of Cypess's book.

Chapter 1, “The Paradox of Instrumentality,” makes a strong start: “In an age of ‘curious and modern inventions’ … instrumental music assumed its place alongside other arts and sciences as a means for discovery” (p. 15). Cypess focuses on Galileo Galilei's treatment of the paragone between painting and sculpture, in which he argues that painting is superior to sculpture because it convincingly reproduces three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. He then compares it to music as an art that, again, is nothing like what it represents, but that, as a result of the difference, is even more effective than the thing itself. In this regard, instrumental music is more powerful than vocal music, because, lacking the human voice and a text, it represents affetti in a medium that is further removed ontologically from the thing it imitates. And it is the player's interaction with the instrument, his technical control over it, and the possibilities that he finds in its materiality—both limiting and enabling registral shifts, arpeggiation, and other devices—that open new sonic possibilities through variation and ornamentation. This emphasis on difference, on the translation of objects or ideas from their native medium to one that is alien to them and thus revealing of their hidden significance, was made possible by the shift away from the Neoplatonic framework based on sympathetic relationships, and it provides the structural foundation for Cypess's argument as it develops throughout the book. As an indicator of just how far the imagination can travel once freed from the restrictions of resemblance, she closes the chapter with the painter Giovanni Battista Braccelli's arresting images of imaginary human bodies made up of tools and other objects, including musical instruments—mechanical humans, cyborgs from the early modern imagination, curiose invenzioni that force the viewer's imagination to see the body in fresh new ways. With its breadth and clear argumentation, this opening chapter establishes a solid groundwork for those that follow.

Marini's Affetti musicali (1617) provides the impetus in Chapter 2 for an in-depth discussion of music as a conversational art able to represent for its audience the “secret affetti of our soul,” just as in personal interactions interlocutors reveal “‘the inward affetti’ of their hearts” (p. 59). Musicians and their audiences engaged in a form of civil discourse, an activity described and idealized as therapeutic in Stefano Guazzo's La civil conversazione (1574), which Cypess takes as her starting point. In the Affetti musicali, individual compositions are associated with personal names—“La Giustiniana,” “La Foscarina,” and so on. Their significance is unclear and little in the music suggests that they are actual portraits of specific persons; nor is any clear sense of organization discernible from their ordering within the collection.3 Nevertheless, the names seem to hint at Venetian patrons and musicians, possibly including such intellectual figures as the publishers Tommaso and Giovanni Maria Giunti or, in Venetian, Zonti (“Il Zontino”), dedicatees, either together or singly, of music prints spanning a period of nearly thirty years, from madrigals by Giovanni Croce (1592) to those of Martino Pesenti (1621). Another piece obviously refers to Claudio Monteverdi (“Il Monteverde”), under whom Marini served at San Marco, and yet another may be self-referential (“La Marina”). Specific identifications aside, the names evoke a sense of Venetianness, and Cypess likens the pieces to the evocation of distant friends through letter writing. As a parallel to Guazzo, she brings in the poet Angelo Grillo's published correspondence, which was interpreted by his editor, Pietro Petracci, as memorializing shared affection by removing it from the immediacy of physical presence and fixing it beyond temporal limitations.4 For Cypess, the works in Marini's collection represent “an ongoing engagement with musical memory by means of devices that project a sense of constancy or circularity … [defying] the temporal nature of both conversation and music” (p. 78).

Moving on from the concept of urbane conversation, Chapter 3 connects Marini's Affetti to the idea of portraiture, the creation of “gallerie di uomini illustri” (galleries of illustrious men) whose representation provides stimulus for contemplating their virtues.5 Here Cypess focuses on Marino's La galeria, which devotes ample space to such portraits, as “a template for understanding portraiture in media outside the visual arts” (p. 80). Returning to Galileo's formulation of ontological distance between the thing represented and the means of representation, she argues that the family names and character designations of Marini's pieces signal an effort to engage with a human subject—ut pictura musica. Thus “La Vendramina” might portray Francesco Vendramin, whose prominent art collection was described in a manuscript picture catalog in 1627 that contains images of individual paintings and the painters whose work is represented. Cypess does not claim that Vendramin is in fact the subject of the piece, but only that the music works in a way that is similar to the evocation of the likenesses of the painters, an associative process of shared musical experiences. In fact, Francesco was probably also a music patron or connoisseur, for when he was made ambassador to the Spanish court the composer Antonio Mogavero dedicated to him a celebratory volume of canzonette alla napolitana, suggesting a more than passing interest in music.6 

Chapter 4 returns to the theme of artisanal virtuosity, convincingly framing the variety of invention (“curiose et moderne inventioni”) found in Carlo Farina's Capriccio stravagante (1627) and Marini's Sonate within the aesthetic of the cabinet of curiosities. Cypess builds on Francis Bacon's observations in the Novum organum that “we should take note of unique instances of art, as well as unique phenomena of nature,” and that “among the contrivances and tools of man, we should not condemn [juggling] tricks and toys out of hand. Their applications are trivial and frivolous, but some of them may be useful for information” (quoted p. 117). For seventeenth-century intellectuals, almost any observable phenomenon may be a source of ideas and learning, regardless of its origins, and such instrumental illusions as birdsong imitations, double- and triple-stops, and echo effects ranked high as unique instances of art among the artisanal “contrivances of man.” Building on Horst Bredekamp's seminal study of mechanical illusions, this chapter turns on close readings of Marini's and Farina's works, as well as on an extensive discussion of The Allegory of Hearing from the series The Five Senses, created by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens (1617–18) for Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella Clara Eugenia, rulers of the Netherlands.7 

From the world of musical illusions, Chapter 5 moves to that of clocks, timekeeping, and philosophical concepts of time in early modern culture. Cypess begins with an amusing letter in which Adriano Banchieri finds a diplomatic way of declining an offer to buy a table clock from a patron. Recounting the frustration and expense of trying to keep in working order a clock he once owned, he notes that despite his efforts he was always late for appointments, to his constant embarrassment. This reflection on private versus public time leads Cypess to a discussion of time perceptions and subjectivity, and consequently to the concept of tactus and the perception of time in music, specifically in Frescobaldi's toccatas, with their sudden shifts between measured and unmeasured (or freely measured) time. Cypess concludes that, like Banchieri's letter, the toccatas display divergent ways of experiencing time—the “coordinative, imitative sections … [highlight] the role of an external, objective pulse” (p. 175) by which different parts are governed in relation to one another, while the freer sections respond to an internal, highly personal conception of time. A wide-ranging discussion of Galileo, Augustine, and Bellarmino seeks to contextualize the listener's experience of music as a gateway to alternative conceptions of temporality.

Chapter 6, the concluding chapter, seeks to establish a broader contextualization for the stile moderno by considering it as participating in discussions of history that were gaining steam at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The humanists’ rigorous criticism of historical sources and the results of the age of exploration had a profound effect on the conception of history. The increasing awareness of previously unknown cultures with their own conceptions of time spurred the realization of the relativity, and even arbitrariness, of history as a construct; the problem of integrating new astronomical observations into calculating the liturgical calendar revealed epistemological differences between measurable phenomena and traditional knowledge; and historians’ increasing scrutiny of sources in light of empirical testing (using artisanally created instruments) and knowledge—as seen in Vincenzo Galilei's reproduction of ancient acoustical experiments as a way of assessing their validity, and in Bacon's “history mechanical”—further questioned the relationship between “ancient” and “modern” reality. Cypess views the opposition of old and new in music in light of the profound intellectual challenges that confronted practitioners in other fields as they sought to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. Whether or not they styled their works prima and seconda pratica, or stile antico and stile moderno, composers—and particularly instrumental composers—at the beginning of the seventeenth century added to the general discourse: “In applying his technical skill to a genre that brings together old and new musical styles, Castello threw both the old and new styles into relief, writing an artisanal contribution to the ars historica” (p. 222).

Writing almost fifty years ago, Carl Dahlhaus asserted that “the fundamental problem facing the music historiologist is the relation between art and history,” and he expanded upon this problem by asking whether music has “common roots with political events and philosophical ideas; or is music written simply because music has always been written and not, or only incidentally, because a composer is seeking to respond with music to the world he lives in?”8 Cypess offers her own affirmative answer:

“Curious inventions” in music can serve a purpose akin to curiosities and inventions in the proto-museums of the early modern nobility. Frescobaldi's toccatas function as horological instruments, and Castello's sonatas take on the tasks of a calendar. In forging these connections with other disciplines, I am intensely aware of the distance that I have traversed. Can such connections really be justified? I think they can. (p. 226)

Curious and Modern Inventions is an imaginative and well-researched book that goes a long way toward answering the main question it asks—what the concept of “modernity” might have encompassed, and what Marini might have meant when he said his music contained “inventions.” And although it is harder to pinpoint the reasons for the new emphasis on instrumental music during the first decades of the seventeenth century, the importance of artisanal skill as a source of knowledge evident in such writings as Bacon's Novum organum does indeed highlight the curiosity behind the rapid development of the practical, manual skills required by instrumental virtuosity. In the terms proposed by Hans Kellner, Cypess's effort to “defamiliarize” the instrumental music of the period, to “get the story crooked” in order to reveal a hitherto unrealized cultural function for this repertory, is in the main convincing.9 

As in any such endeavor, there are in Cypess's book the inevitable points for discussion and disagreement, though they do not detract from the book's overall efficacy. Her interpretation of Banchieri's letter, for example, seems not to square with its content: despite its humor, it does not seem to support the statement that “like [the letter], Frescobaldi's toccatas display divergent approaches to the experience of time” (p. 175). In fact, Banchieri's frustration with the clock appears to be that it puts him at variance with the public time that provides the conventional structure for his daily routine, public and private, and that in creating a separate, individual (wrong) time it is a source of embarrassment—it does not open a new, welcome, or deliberately chosen temporal space. Banchieri's clock is like a faulty internal metronome that prevents him from being coordinated with the rest of the social ensemble. If the letter preserves an object lesson, it is that punctuality, the obsession of the modern world, was in 1628 already a source of anxiety.

Cypess also occasionally includes material that does not seem to add to her specific argument, as in the sections “Galileo, Bellarmino, and the Uses of Augustine” and, to some extent, “The Religious Experience between Public Clockwork and Private Prayer” in Chapter 5. These take the reader in interesting but seemingly tangential directions, and might have been best explored in greater depth as individual chapters with a closer link to the music that is at the center of the book. Another place that gives me pause, though for different reasons, is the closing section of Chapter 6, “Revisiting the seconda prattica” (pp. 222–23). Here the juxtaposition of “modern” and “old” styles within individual compositions relies on a historical distinction that Cypess takes as an unchallenged premise but that she would have done well to try to critique before invoking it. Although it is true that Monteverdi and others referred to the concept of a prima pratica as a precedent to their own innovations, they seem to have conceived of the two as coexisting, so that their use of both within a single work does not necessarily rely on the distinction between a historically old style and a new one that has replaced it, as J. S. Bach would do in the eighteenth century.

Given the scope of the book, however, these are minor quibbles that do not detract from its very high quality of research and argumentation, nor from the important contribution it makes to the literature on the early Baroque. Curious and Modern Inventions will surely become standard reading for anyone interested in seventeenth-century instrumental music and the prodigiously fertile and turbulent intellectual and artistic climate in which it arose.



Major studies on the Italian sonata and its composers include Andrew Dell'Antonio, Syntax, Form and Genre in Sonatas and Canzonas, 1621–1635 (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 1997); Peter Allsop, The Italian “Trio” Sonata: From Its Origins until Corelli (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Cavalier Giovanni Battista Buonamente: Franciscan Violinist (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005); Gregory Barnett, Bolognese Instrumental Music, 1660–1710: Spiritual Comfort, Courtly Delight, and Commercial Triumph (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008); Don Harrán, Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Eleanor Selfridge-Field, Venetian Instrumental Music from Gabrieli to Vivaldi (New York: Dover, 1994).
In full it reads Sonate, symphonie, canzoni, pass'emezzi, baletti, corenti, gagliarde, et retornelli, a 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. & 6. voci, per ogni sorte di strumenti. Un capriccio per sonar due violini quatro parti. Un eco per tre violini & alcune sonate capriciose per sonar due e tre parti con il violino solo, con altre curiose & moderne inventioni (Venice: Gardano, 1626).
As has long been true of Vivaldi's concertos with titles, these named pieces appear to generate unease among scholars. As Cypess notes, the family associations have been variously dismissed as purely commercial add-ons or as dedications, although Franco Piperno has argued in favor of specific associations with patrons, seeking to identify the individuals involved, and has suggested that the volume's apparent disorganization is in fact a positive element, characteristic of the aesthetic aims of the stile moderno; see the introduction to Biagio Marini, Affetti musicali: Opera prima, ed. Franco Piperno, vol. 4 of Opere di antichi musicisti bresciani, Monumenti musicali italiani 15 (Milan: Suvini Zerboni, 1990). Cypess cites this source on pages 54–55 and 75–76.
Angelo Grillo (15571629), a Benedictine monk, was also well known as a poet and a precursor to Giambattista Marino in the writing of spiritual verse. Monteverdi set his moralizing “È questa vita un lampo” (Selva morale e spirituale, 1640). As “Livio Celiano,” Grillo produced a large body of lyric love poetry that was set by composers around the beginning of the seventeenth century. See Luigi Matt, “Grillo, Angelo,” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, accessed October 10, 2017,
Portraits could attest to very close friendships, as well: from the inventory of the possessions of the German merchant Carlo Helman, one of Giovanni Gabrieli's most important patrons, we learn that he kept in his chamber a portrait of the composer, alongside one of himself, some of family members, and others representing “diversi principi numero quarantasei” (various princes, forty-six in number). These last must have served precisely as reminders of their virtues and fame as “uomini illustri”; those of friends and family likely memorialized the particular affetti that characterized his relationships with them. See Rodolfo Baroncini, Giovanni Gabrieli (Palermo: L'Epos, 2012), 138. Helman was typical of his class in assembling collections of portraits, as discussed in Isabella Palumbo Fossati Casa, Intérieurs vénitiens à la Renaissance: Maisons, société et culture (Paris: Michel de Maule, 2012). And the volumes in which academies listed their members probably served a similar function, combining portraits with either poetic or prose descriptions of each member's talents and virtues. In Venice, the Accademia degli Incogniti produced such a volume: Gianfrancesco Loredano and Girolamo Brusoni's Le glorie de gli incogniti, o vero, Gli hvomini illvstri dell'accademia de’ signori incogniti di Venetia (Venice: Francesco Valvasense, 1647).
Canzonette alla napoletana di Antonio Mogavero da Francavilla del Capo d'Otranto. Libro primo a tre e quattro voci (Venice: G. Vincenti, 1591).
Horst Bredekamp, The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1995).
Carl Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, trans. J. B. Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 19.
Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 3–5.