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Lucretia Borgia: Between history, myth and legend
Capella de Ministrers/Carles Magraner
Texts and translations included.
rec. 2018, Salón Alfonso el Magnánimo del Centro Cultural La Beneficiencia, Valencia LICANUSCDM1946 [66:39]
There is no serious reason to doubt the essential truth of accounts of the callously immoral and self-serving behaviour of Lucretia’s father Rodrigo (who became Pope Alexander VI) and, even more dreadful, that of her brother Cesare. Contemporary opponents of the Borgias also smeared Lucretia Borgia (1480-1519), though most modern scholarship now recognizes that much of what was said about her was unjustified. As the late John Julius Norwich puts it in his magisterial volume on The Popes (2012, p. 263), “she seems to have been very largely the hapless instrument of her father’s and brother’s political ambitions”. As such, she was ‘traded’ in three arranged marriages made for political reasons. She seems not to have been a model of fidelity to her husbands – but the same could be said of a great many wives at the courts of Renaissance Italy. One representative modern reference book (The Renaissance: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Ilan Rachum, 1979) closes its biography of her thus: “[Lucretia’s] reputation as the beautiful incestuous daughter, who actively cooperated in the cruel machinations of her father and brother, proves the persistence of popular slander.”
The arts, in the broadest sense, have contributed to Lucretia’s bad reputation through sensational popular novels and films, and even video games (in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010) she is presented in an incestuous relationship with her brother Cesare). Victor Hugo’s play Lucrezia Borgia (premiered in 1833) also treats Lucretia as a kind of femme fatale and evil genius. This play provided the basis for the libretto which Felice Romani prepared (somewhat rapidly) for Donizetti’s opera of the same title, first performed at La Scala the very same year. Donizetti’s powerful Lucrezia Borgia has played a significant role in spreading a salacious image of Lucretia; it seems wholly fitting, then, that Carles Magraner, with the singers and instrumentalists of the Capella de Ministrers, should now have put together and recorded a programme which pays tribute to her different side.
We know something about Lucretia with a degree of certainty: she was beautiful, and she loved music and dance. The significance of the sections into which this programme is divided will, I hope, become clear from a brief summary of Lucretia’s marital history. In 1493 her father married the 13-year-old to Giovanni Sforza. When he felt that other alliances would better further his ambitions, he had the marriage annulled in 1497, and gave her in marriage to Alfonso of Aragon. For reasons we need not consider here, Alfonso was murdered in 1500 on the orders of Cesare Borgia, and a third marriage was arranged. Lucretia married her last husband, Alfonso d’Este, in September 1501. (Those interested should seek out a library or second-hand copy of Simon Harcourt-Smith’s engaging book, The Marriage at Ferrara, published in 1952; Abebooks lists a number of cheap copies.)
During the years of the third marriage, Lucretia, now Duchess of Ferrara, had a long relationship with the major poet Pietro Bembo. One important modern biographer of Lucretia, Maria Bellonci (Italian original, Lucrezia Borgia, 1939; abridged English translation by Bernard and Barbara Wall, 1953), seems to believe that this relationship was as much platonic and intellectual as sexual (if not even more platonic). Whether that judgment is right or not, that Lucretia was able to sustain a relationship – much of it by letters – with the formidably learned Bembo says much for her intelligence. Her Christian faith seems also to have been genuine, and important, to her. During her youth in Rome she was very attached to the Dominican convent of San Sisto, and may have been educated there. Bellonci attributes to that association “the unquestioning sincerity of her religion and her love of prayer, incense and sacred music”. Towards the end of her life, in 1509, she founded the Convent of San Bernardino in Ferrara, and regularly made spiritual retreats there. The first daughter of Lucretia and Alfonso d’Este, Eleonora d’Este (1515-1575) became a nun in Ferrara and may have been the otherwise anonymous composer of a set of 43 religious motets, Musica quinque vocum motette materna lingua vocata, published in Venice in 1543. Certainly her mother, very fond of music and dance since her youth, played after her arrival in Ferrara an increasingly significant role in the burgeoning cultural life at the court there.
The programme performed by the Capella de Ministrers presents music which we can assume Lucretia heard – and in some cases probably danced to! – and music which, towards the end of her life, was composed by musicians working at her court, such as the singer and lutenist Bartolomeo Tromboncino (?1470-?1535). Bellonci writes that in those years “there were excellent concerts every day and Lucrezia’s taste for fine voices and schools of dancing never declined. As well as Tromboncino and Niccolò of Padua, there were Dalida de Putti and the musical lady Graziosa Pio […] the principal dancers were the Valencian girl Caterina, the Sienese Nicola, and a Slavic or possibly Russian dancer called Dimitria”.
The Borgias were always proud of their Spanish origins. (Their ostentatious pride was one reason why they were never much liked in Rome.) The family was oroginally based in Aragon, but they later settled in the area of Valencia; that is also where the Capella de Ministrers is based. Many of the family were born in Gandia, some 40 miles south of Valencia. Fine buildings associated with the Borgias can be seen there, as well as in places such as Xativa and the city of Valencia itself.
We know from contemporary accounts that Lucretia was particularly fond of Moorish Spanish dances. Capella de Ministrers have recognized that enduring affinity in their programme, in which they illustrate what Mariacarmen Gómez Muntané’s booklet notes call ‘Lucrezia Borgia’s musical milieu’; that is evidenced, for example, by tracks 1, 3, 5-7, 11, 17 and 20. Dalza’s Pavan alla ferrarese pays tribute to Lucretia’s place in the cultural life of Ferrara, as do, of course, the pieces by Tromboncino and Niccolò di Padua. So, too, in another way, do Festa’s Ingiustissimo Amor and Tromboncino’s Queste non son piu lachryme: both set poems by Ludovico Ariosto, along with Torquato Tasso one of the great poets attached to the court of Ferrara. Arcadelt’s Quando’io penso al martire sets a poem by Lucretia’s great friend Bembo – it might have indeed been written with their relationship in mind.
As seems usually to be the case in the themed programmes which Capella de Ministrers and Carles Magraner produce, the approach is scholarly and concerned with specifics. Not for them the vague ‘Music in the age of Lucretia Borgia’ approach; rather, they want to put together a collection of music with which Lucretia had a real connection, as a listener or dancer, as a patron, or as part of her Spanish inheritance. Although it is not their declared purpose (save in the promotional video for the album, which can be found on You Tube), in the process they make a good case for thinking of Lucretia as a cultured woman of taste, not as the licentious poisoner of slanderous myth. In particular, she seems to have had a decent command of Latin and at least some Greek.
None of this would matter, I suppose, if the resulting CD did not make good listening. The more recordings by the Capella de Ministrers and Carles Magraner I hear, however, the more I suspect that these artists would struggle to be dull even if they tried. For some time I have loved the voice of soprano Elia Casanova, vivacious and agile, but also emotionally expressive and equipped with a good range of attractive colours. She is heard to particularly good effect in, for example, van Ghiseghem’s De tous bien playne and Agricola’s Amor che sospirar mi fa, where she is joined by the countertenor Hugo Bolivar, the tenor Jorge Morata and the baritone Pablo Acosta. The instrumental ensemble we hear accompanying the vocalists and playing such pieces as the two versions of La Spagna (tracks 1 and 4) and the musically related Alla Spagnola by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (track 17) is a delight in itself, beautifully blended and balanced in sound, and unexaggeratedly vivid. It is, when heard entire, made up of Magraner playing a bowed vihuela, the various flutes of David Antich, the harp of Sara Águeda and the vihuela and renaissance guitar of Robert Cases, all inventively supported and stimulated by the work of percussionist Pau Ballester. There is no dull track among the 21 that make up the album. This Valencian ensemble has paid an eloquent tribute to a much abused and maligned woman who never forgot her Valencian heritage, musical and otherwise.
The Birth of the Myth in Rome (1480) Constanzo FESTA (c.1490-1545]
1. Basse Danse La Spagna [3:56] Hayne van GHISEGHEM (c.1445-c.1483)
2. De tous bien playne [2:19] Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450-1517)
3. La Spagna [1:26] Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (c.1470-c.1535)
4. Cantava per sforga [2:27] The Valencian Nobility (1492) Anonymous
5. Dindirindin [4:00] Traditional
6. La Dama d’Aragò [5:51] Anonymous
7. Folie de les Caterines [6:21] The Sforza and Milan (1492) Alexander AGRICOLA (c.1446-1506)
8. Amor che sospirar mi fa [3:12] Luis MILÁN (c.1500-c.1561)
9. Pavane and galliard [2:45] Giovanni da Pesaro and Alfonso of Aragon (1498) Costanzo FESTA
10. Ingiustissimo Amor [2:33] Magistro ROFINO (b.c.1400)
11. Un Cavalier di Spagna [2:54] Josquin DESPREZ (c.1440-1521]
12. Scharamella va a la guerra [3:07] Duchess of Ferrara and Alfonso d’Este (1502) Giorgio LUPPATO (fl.c.1500-1525)
13. O triumphale diamante [4:17] Joan Ambrosio DALZA (fl.1508)
14. Pavane alla ferrarese [2:31] Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (c.1470-c.1535)
15. Queste non son piu lachryme [1:38] Anonymous
16. Signora, un che v’adora [1:19] Joan Ambrosio DALZA (fl.1508)
17. Alla Spagnola [3:08] Pietro Bembo Jacques ARCADELT (c.1505-1568)
18. Quando’io penso al martire [2:58] Anonymous
19. Muchos van d’amor heridos [2:14] Joan Ambrosio DALZA (fl.1508)
20. Saltarello and Piva [3:46] The Death of Ercole and spiritual retreats (1505-1519) Niccolò di PADUA ( ? )
21. Senza te alta regina [3:45]
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