Celestial harmonies: musical instruments in Venetian paintings currently on display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice
The importance of music in the history of all civilizations and in European history from ancient Greece onwards can never be stressed enough.
Plato’s concept of music connected to the organization of the universe was newly appreciated by medieval Christianity and adapted to the celestial spheres – music therefore mediated the passage from humanity to the divine thanks to angelic presences holding musical instruments, which were initially accepted on an iconographic level in the Late Middle Ages.
In conditions of a particular economic and political development such as the case of Venice, the production of musical instruments and their figurative and pictorial representation reached its apex in the 14th century, when the Church allowed the depiction in sculptures and paintings of “angel-musicians” in Heaven.
This presence is not only a transition to the divine, but has also to do with its beauty, and was later widespread in print and amplified thanks to the extraordinary concentration of printing houses in Venice, far more numerous than in other European centres.
Icons and paintings favoured topics such as the Crowning of the Virgin or the Madonna and Child, sometimes including commissioners and worshippers, with angels initially depicted in the top celestial section.
Rare exceptions previously allowed were angels with trumpets which were possible thanks to the description of the Last Judgement provided by John in the Apocalypse.
In the Gallerie dell’Accademia, where Venetian paintings represent the backbone of the collection, we find countless examples of angel musicians – first only in Heaven and then also… on Earth.
Angel musicians in the 14th and 15th century
On entering the first room of the Museum, we can admire the Crowning of the Virgin by PAOLO VENEZIANO (photo 1). The painting still shows Byzantine influences although some initial perspective is visible especially in the “new” stories of Francis and Clare, recent saints. Their lives, depicted in the top part of the polyptych, are represented more freely by the painter as he was not tied to previous iconographic traditions.
But for the central part of the polyptych, the Crowning itself, Paolo had to follow the traditional style and iconography: we therefore find decorativism and a golden background, although with an unusual presence of innovative angel musicians, two even holding tambourines (photo 2).
As we proceed through the room, we come across two paintings by CATARINO – the Crowning of the Virgin with Angels (photo 3) and the Triptych with another Crowning of the Virgin at the centre (photo 4) – NICOLÒ DI PIETRO with his Madonna and Child, Angel Musicians and Commissioner (photo 5), LORENZO VENEZIANO with the Wedding of St. Catherine painted in 1358 (photo 6) and STEFANO PLEBANUS DI SANT’AGNESE with a further Crowning of the Virgin (photo7).
In the Crowning found in Catarino’s Triptych, we clearly see the angel at the top of the central panel pressing the keys of a portative organ with his right hand while the side angels play their instruments, which are easily identifiable despite being depicted in a more rough and ready manner. In Nicolò di Pietro’s work, we can admire the rectangular psaltery plucked with two hands by the first of the three angel musicians on the left while the central one plays the portative organ.
The symmetry of the instruments is rather interesting in Lorenzo Veneziano: there are two trumpets at the top of the polyptych and two psalteries lower down at the sides of the almond shape, while the organ is found in the foreground at the base, just like the two organs emphasized at the base of Paolo Veneziano’s Crowning. Stefano Plebanus almost provides an overview of keyboard, wind, plucked and bowed string instruments, as if none could be left out from the highest heavens.
Further on in the same room, MAESTRO DI CENEDA, with another Crowning of the Virgin and Commissioner, provides an unlikely yet amusing combination of angels with no instruments all over the painting, but those holding instruments are only found at the bottom, closer to Earth. Moreover we can see that string instruments are preferred in Heaven, in addition to the organ, although there is also a tambourine highlighted in red (photo 8).
In other rooms, more 15th-century authors opt for the now common accompaniment of angel musicians, such as for example FRANCESCO DA TOLMEZZO from Friuli 1460-65 (photo 9), ANTONIO ROSSO from Cadore (photo 10) and BENAGLIO from Treviso (photo 11).
By the end of the 1400s there were not just angels but also people playing instruments or simply depicted with musical instruments, such as for example in Donation of the Relic of the Holy Cross to Scuola Grande (Confraternity) di San Giovanni Evangelista by LAZZARO BASTIANI dated 1494 (photo 12) or in the work of GENTILE BELLINI. Both painters are on display in the Cycle of the Cross room.
In the 1496 Procession in St. Mark’s Square, Gentile Bellini paints three brothers with harp, rebec and lute (photo 13) on the bottom left and the Doge’s musicians with pipes on the right (photo 14). In the Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo of 1500, the artist painted two brothers holding two string instruments, the largest of which is a lute (photo 15).
These examples clearly prove how music accompanied processions and important religious events of the time and not just banquets, feasts and festival events.
In the 1500s, thanks to a more detailed and precise manner of representing reality, musical instruments were depicted with abundant detail so much so that researchers even manage to identify the notes played.
Angels and musical instruments around the 16th century
Moving on to room 2 of the Gallerie we can see how – although angel musicians are still present – instruments are no longer depicted at the top of paintings corresponding to the celestial spheres but also on the bottom and the angels are often sitting on a step of Mary’s throne.
Now in the foreground, instruments refer to the function music has of bringing us nearer to Beauty and Absolute Wisdom, usually evoked by the beauty of the context. Music is indeed one of the seven Liberal Arts and, more precisely, of the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy).
In room 2, we find the Sacred Conversation of 1487 by GIOVANNI BELLINI (photos 16 and 17) and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple of 1510 by VITTORE CARPACCIO (photo 18). In both paintings, we can observe what has just been mentioned, i.e. that the angels are sitting on the throne steps but that their feet are on the ground, on the same level as the saints’ feet.
By this time, Giovanni had become a Renaissance painter: this is visible not only through his use of perspective and how he overcomes the divisions of polyptychs, but also for the way he depicts musical instruments such as the rebec (sometimes rebecha) played by the lovely blue angel and the lute played by the other two.
There are fewer instruments compared to what his predecessors were used to: it is no longer angelic choirs in the celestial spheres who do the playing, but personified angels even if with wings. Their instruments correspond exactly to those in use at the time.
In his Presentation, Carpaccio arranged the angels in a similar manner on the lower part of the painting and their instruments are of great interest, especially the crumhorn (a woodwind instrument with a conical end) followed by the lute and the lira da braccio on the right. The latter is truly striking with a heart-shaped pegbox and pegs used to tighten the strings for tuning.
In room 2 we also find CIMA DA CONEGLIANO with his Madonna on the Throne and Child. In the foreground, two angels are playing a lira da braccio on the left-hand side and a lute on the right (photo 19).
Bellini is also on display in another room with The Prudence, an allegory that predates the Sacred Conversation of San Giobbe and where two putti are depicted with a trumpet and one with a sort of tambourine.
As a good narrator, Carpaccio does not avoid showing us the musical instruments of the time, yet they are off-centred in the Saint Ursula Cycle: we have, for example, the rebec in the Return of the Ambassadors to the English Court (photo 20), the trumpets and drums on the left in the Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and Departure (foto 21) and the entire group of trumpet players on the right (photo 22).
On display at the Accademia, we also have 16th -century works that are of interest such as, for example, Dives and Lazarus by BONIFACIO DE’ PITATI, where the banquet is entertained by a trio featuring a lute player, a viola da gamba player and a partially-visible flute player (photo 23). Bonifacio never missed the opportunity of including a few instruments in his paintings, as can be seen in Christ and Saints of 1530 (photo 24) and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (photo 25).
In 1575, PAOLO VERONESE went back to the topic of the Wedding of St. Catherine and formed a magnificent sequence of angels and instruments with the diagonal on the left starting with the viola da gamba on the floor, rising through two cantors and ending with the two lute players (photo 26).
But some of his other works also represent angel musicians such as e.g. The Battle of Lepanto or the Assumption of the Virgin (photo 27), now on display in the room dedicated to him as part of the new lay-out inaugurated in August 2019.
Waiting for the 17th-century paintings
The opening of the 17th-century room displaying most of the period’s works has been long awaited. The funds have finally been partially allocated, so we are hopeful it will be set up soon.
As a symbol of the intensity with which the 17th century experienced and represented music, we can admire the lovely painting by MATTIA PRETI, where a blind Homer is completely enthralled by the notes he is playing (photo 28).
Angel musicians in the 18th century
Angel musicians were depicted in an entirely different manner by 18th-century painters such as MATTIA BORTOLONI (photo 29), JACOPO GUARANA or GIAMBATTISTA TIEPOLO (as can be seen in the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà and elsewhere around the city). As for Tiepolo, the Accademia displays The Glory of St. Dominic of 1723 (photo 30) as well as one of his oil sketches for the ceiling of the Church of the Scalzi (Discalced Carmelites), the Transportation of the Holy House to Loreto of ca. 1743 (photo 31).
It can be said that, in addition to their merry message, the long-necked lutes, theorbos and double basses or the long trumpets replace or increase the traditional function of martyrdom palm leaves or of halberds, longswords or tridents – all of which are slender choreographic compositional elements.
Precious musical instruments currently in Venice
In Venice, we can also see some of the musical instruments manufactured locally or of other origins from the beginning of the 17th century in museums such as Querini Stampalia, the Museum of Instruments at Conservatorio B. Marcello, the Vivaldi-Venezia (ViVe) Museum at the Pietà etc. as well as in other non-Venetian collections in the city such as Artemio Versari’s Museum of Music, in the church of San Maurizio and that of San Giacometto.
In some cases, collections are scholastic such as at the Pietà, where the girls would learn how to play the instruments. Others collections were donations such as those of Museo Correr and the Conservatory and others were family collections put together over the centuries like the Querini collection.
However, it seems that Museo Correr is the only one that still has – albeit in poor shape – a Medieval portative organ with paper pipes in dire need of restoration as it is truly unique. No other Venetian instruments dating back to the Middle Ages have been found so far.
Musical instruments on paintings shown in Venice and elsewhere
Paintings featuring instruments are scattered in Churches all over Venice and its islands (e.g. Gesuiti, Frari, San Zaccaria, San Pietro Martire in Murano etc.), in Confraternities (e.g. San Giorgio degli Schiavoni and San Marco) and in Oratories (e.g. Crociferi).
As a further demonstration of the universality of music also on a geographical level, painted instruments are found all over the Veneto (Vicenza, Treviso, Conegliano, etc.) and the world. In Europe, for instance, we find them in Milan (at the Museum of Musical Instruments in the Sforza Castle), in London (at the Victoria and Albert Museum), in Brussels (at the Museum of Musical Instruments – Conservatoire Royal de Musique) and in Paris (at the Louvre and the Museum of Musical Instruments) etc.
In Venice, despite the many losses, thefts occurred in the name of ‘spoils of war’, transfers, sales, fires and much more endured over the centuries, painted musical instruments are a testimony of the importance attributed to music by painters and their commissioners. The Gallerie dell’Accademia provide a unique and exemplary collection of paintings featuring instruments from various eras and social levels, which is accessible to all those wishing to enjoy its extraordinary beauty.