Musical histories before the twentieth century consistently described Orazio Vecchi's L'Amfiparnaso (published in 1597) as an early or nascent form of opera, despite the composer's explanation that the work is an aural spectacle, not a visual one. Later scholars have persisted in viewing L'Amfiparnaso as a fundamentally theatrical work (in a notional genre called madrigal comedy), designed for quasi-dramatic performance before a listening audience. A close reading of this historiography, along with a partial reconstruction of the membership and movements of the Gelosi and Uniti theater companies in the 1590s, disproves the widely held assumption that L'Amfiparnaso was composed and performed in 1594, and suggests that its characters' names refer to specific actors who performed with the Uniti in Bologna in 1595 and 1596. This new account of the book's origin opens it up to interpretation as a recreational collection of musical imitations of theatre, rather than as an incomplete “script” for a novel kind of dramatic performance.

Through its diverse musical styles and poetic registers (Vecchi penned both the poems and the music), as well as its unusual custom-made woodcut illustrations, L'Amfiparnaso presents scenes whose range defies cinquecento theatrical convention. Urban comic dialogues share the imagined stage with tragicomic monologues, idiosyncratic musical dialogues are found alongside serious madrigals, and the woodcuts depict both characteristic comic and pastoral stage settings. As a whole, then, L'Amfiparnaso represents—in Vecchi's words—“almost all the actions of the private man.” This emphasis on variety locates the book firmly within the poetic sphere of Vecchi's other large-scale collections, Selva di varia ricreatione (1590) and Convito musicale (1597), and adds special resonance to his claim that those seeking “a complete tale” in L'Amfiparnaso will find it only “in the mind.”

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