Italian Songs from the time of Christopher Columbus

Since the mid-18th  century, scholars have been accustomed to thinking of musical works of art as embodied in their notation. The restrictions of print culture on the publication of critical editions has perpetuated and entrenched this line of thinking. But with the vastly increased resources afforded by digital humanities, Italian songs from the time of Christopher Columbus aims to create a critical edition of the late-15th- and early-16th-century repertory of Italian and Latin songs known as frottole that displaces this notion and relocates the object of study in music as a sounding work of art. While members of the research team for this project are rigorously evaluating, analyzing, and critiquing the materials and resources in this new edition, thereby providing users with expert editorial perspective, our goal is not to establish a single authoritative version of a given sounding text, nor to render texts in modern notation, but  rather to provide users with experiences and tools to make sense of the music, poetry, and sources for themselves. Our unique perspective provides scholarly information to a wide audience of users who may or may not be able to read music notation.


Significant new ways of presenting curated material in this edition include written analyses and transcriptions that are synchronized with audio recordings of the music; audio critiques to accompany video screen captures of visual sources; documentary film; analyses of musicians’ and poets’ compositional habits through data mining of the entire repertory of ca. 2,000 songs; and visual deconstruction of historical sources to show patterns of work not possible to study even with an original source in hand.

Although the composition and performance of frottole occupied a crucial time in Italy’s history, they are little studied and rarely performed. This is in part because they present serious analytical challenges. Yet thousands of frottole found their way into manuscripts and prints in the late 15th  and early 16th  centuries, demonstrating a flourishing of artful human expression in an era of intense cultural change – a time of war in Italy, involving the great superpowers of western Europe (the Italian Wars, 1494-1559), but also a time of scientific discovery and the exploration of the New World. Contemporaries of the composers and poets of frottole include Christopher Columbus, Nicholaus Copernicus, Aldus Manutius, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Many frottole speak to wartime concerns – such as keeping silent in the face of an unknown enemy or heralding advancing troups – and the repertory as a whole represents a rejection of French domination over the Italian peninsula in favor of the Italian language, its ancient poetic forms, and traditional practices of singing and reciting to the lyre. Frottole offer a glimpse into Italy’s ancestry and deep connections to the Kingdom of Aragon, and they give expression to Italian humanism. Moreover, frottole came into being at a time when conceptions of music were changing radically. A revolution in the way music was composed and in music aesthetics – innovations analogous to the discovery of perspective in art – were enunciated for the first time by Ugolino of Orvieto around 1430, who combined the previously separate perspectives of music as a speculative study (musica speculativa) and music as a practical study (musica practica) as essential elements of a comprehensive understanding of music.

This project is currently in progress. Watch the events calendar at IDEA Home for its launch!