At the Court of Leonardo
Inserisci sottotitolo qui

On 11 October 1485 the notary Paolo Santonino, following the Patriarch of Aquileia on a visit to Styria, met Count Leonardo of Gorizia. Santonino traced with precision the figure of the Count and his court, making some peculiar models of life of the feudal nobility of the imperial lands, in short, the "life in the castle", particularly vivid. We are now in the fifteenth century, far from those "centuries of iron" that saw life retreat into the fortifications to escape the aggression of the Hungarians or Saracens, but the castle remains the symbol of lordly power and the main instrument of defence of its territorial interests. Inside the castle life takes place according to a precise liturgy: from military campaigns to hunting, music and dancing, to the visit of illustrious guests, time is regulated according to the canons of demonstration and administration of power: in the castle, we are far from that time of the merchant that characterizes the life of the cities of Central and Northern Italy. Santonino meets the Count in Dolsach, during the confirmation given by the Prelate of Aquileia in the church of S. Elena:

Among them there was also the gentleman of Gorizia with the Countess and her men: there must have been about forty of them, and they rode until about three in the afternoon (...). He wore a short black robe and carried two swords, one short and one a little longer; on his head he had a silk hat that covered him according to the ancient costume, with a crown recently picked by a willow green. The countess then wore a dark silk robe, adorned with many pearls and precious stones, and the horse that wore it had a golden gualdrappa (...). And there were in the retinue of that prince of the knights aurati (...). Before them there were four trumpeters who played the trumpets loudly. The Count and the Lady stood among the knights; they were followed by the maidens and married women; at the back and the sides there were armigers, and so at the top of the procession.

It is the description of an official visit, where the show of power is required. But the Count does not spare performances even at less official times:

He came to us after lunch, without us waiting for him, the illustrious Lord of Gorizia, more cheerful than before, who took us by the hand, first our prelate then me, greeting us with courtesy and sweetness (...). Then, having eaten some fish and had a drink, for the third time he shook hands with the prelate and Santonino, and from the upper part of the castle he went down into the courtyard. Here he brought a horse of the greatest, and alone, without any instrument and without even touching the stirrups, he found himself in archons: a certainly wonderful feat, and that you would think impossible or completely incredible, especially by a man certainly not tall and old enough (they say that the prince is now close to fifty). He left with cries of greetings together with his group, a dozen people, some of whom were carrying falcons, some of whom were very ferocious astors. The gentleman wore a short, black tunic, with a short inscription in his tongue engraved in silver and gold letters. He also wore a dark woollen cap, with the Kranz (a jewel or rather a crown of pine twigs or rather a weave of twigs) on top of it, on which were applied numerous golden gills that flew as if they were flies when he moved his head and often moved. On the lord's forehead also came down from the cap a ruby, large and of great value, mounted in gold and carved in the shape of a lamb (...). He also had a horn hanging on his shoulder.

A wealth of vestments, falcons and astors, displays of dexterity in a natural choreography of power. And also the castle becomes a locus amoenus where the defence structure is also equipped with places that recall the wonderful:

The castle is surrounded by a not too wide wall: but it has a moat and the antemural, and was built in a mound very well equipped for the needs of those who live there since all supplies can be brought without too much effort. However, it is subject to a larger mountain, from which the mound itself is overwhelmed. The castle has thick and very high walls, and war machines can hardly break them. It is arranged very well inside and there are many beautiful rooms in it, both high and low, suitable for summer and winter so that you can admire the ingenuity of the noble knight also in this as in many other things, which seems to have surpassed the skill of the most renowned architects. There is a fountain of running water in the castle, which falls into a wooden cistern further down: where you can see many fish, even rare ones, moving and playing according to their costume. The lord of the castle accumulated many warlike devices there to defend himself against enemy assaults and drive them back when necessary. He also placed a sundial there so that he could determine with greater accuracy and ease the right moment to order and execute what is necessary. Under the castle, there are farms full of various fruit trees, and beautiful lawns surrounding a splendid cistern full of excellent fish; here a wooden hut has been built where sometimes, they say, the valiant knight shelters himself from the summer heat. He made it with his own hands and at his own expense, for his pleasure and that of his friends.

It looks like a castle of Frederick II and is instead a castle in the mountains of Styria, with a sundial to know the right time to do what is necessary (with a clear reference to election astrology, wonderful science and basically warrior), pomarii and fisherman. There is also the fountain (with its many symbolic values) that brings water into a cistern full of rare fish and that sends us back with our minds to the fishpond of the young girls who fall in love with King Charles in the sixth novella of the tenth day of the Decameron:

The young girls, who came forward honestly and shamefully, revered the king; and afterwards, they went away, so that they entered the nursery, the one that the frying pan had, put it down, and the other things that followed, and took the stick that the other one was carrying, and put it in the nursery, the water of which they put down to their bellies (...). The maidens, seeing the fish cooked and having caught a lot of fish, having all the white clothing and thinly attached to their flesh, almost none of the delicate body concealing them, went out of the nursery; and each of the things they had brought, having taken back, before the king shamefully passing by, they returned home.


The castle is, therefore, a world where time is different, where customs and traditions of other times are stratified and crystallized, where courtesy remains an incomprehensible principle sometimes for "modern" citizens, who look suspiciously or sometimes with amused curiosity at these nobles of the countryside who consider, rightly or wrongly, "different". An episode that occurred at Santonino can serve as an example of how the courtly habits of these noble "mountaineers" remain completely incomprehensible to the notary from the Marches transplanted to Udine. This is the use of the bathroom, a hygienic-therapeutic practice borrowed from Roman classicism and confirmed by medieval doctors as an indispensable moment for the balance of the body and its health. If the medieval public baths were often a mix washing machine, attracting the strals of the Church, for this reason, this promiscuity had been lost approaching the modern age. In the cities, of course, but not in the courtly codes of the castles: in the Manesse code of Heidelberg, at f. 46 v. a splendid miniature shows us Herr Jacob von Warte bathing, naked, in a tub cared for by three blonde maidens who naturally rub his body with flower petals or hand him a chalice to drink, while a young girl with a bellows revives the fire under the hot tub full of water. Nothing in the depiction refers to eros or something dishonest: on the contrary, the large leafy tree above the scene reinforces the naturalness of the event, reaffirming the use of the bath as a healthy practice to restore somehow the balance with Nature, as professed by the medicine of the time. The castle, therefore, maintains contact with Nature and its science: the sundial, the rare fish pond, the vegetable gardens, the bath. But Paolo Santonino, the notary from the Marches transplanted to Udine, the "modern" citizen, cannot understand all this and lives his bath in an unnatural and therefore embarrassing way. The furrow that divides town and castle has been traced for some time now and is becoming deeper and deeper.

On that day Santonino invited by the noble and magnificent lord Giorgio Vend lord of Briesinch Castle, a man surely among all those I have known the most courteous and of great nobility, entered with him towards evening into the bathroom to clean the body from the filth accumulated on it during the long journey. He entered the bathroom shortly afterwards, I believe on his command, the very noble Mrs Barbara Flaschberg, daughter of the gentleman of Flaschberg Castle of whom I have spoken extensively before, and wife of him, 20 years of age: rather beautiful and extremely affable and cheerful, though without breaking the rules of modesty and modesty. She, at her husband's command, placed her white and soft hands on Santonino's body, which from the beginning was shielded, then, since that was the order, she accepted and let herself go: and rubbed it with extreme lightness all over her body up to her belly. And then he washed his head, leaving it very clean. Finally, by repeatedly throwing water from his belly to his feet, he cleaned the limbs of Santonino from all filth. Then, having finished her work, she thanked him because he had patiently endured the task that had been assigned to her. Someone, unaware of the customs of the place, could attribute this behaviour to the vices of a very modest woman, and to the foolishness and lightness of her husband who would have made his wife come to the bathroom in the service of a foreigner, young and beautiful: but if he considered carefully the customs of the region will consider all this as a source of great praise for the virtue of both. They all say that this use towards foreigners (which takes into account the right social relationship between people) comes from ancient tradition so that the guest feels welcomed with greater honour and affection.

But let's get to the music, an art that in the Middle Ages is closer to the science of Nature than it has been in recent times or, less than today:

On 3 October (...) a lavish lunch was held in the same town of Kötschach; the Magnificent Mr Leonardo, prefect of the Serene Emperor in the Castle of Prutisperch in the Gail Valley, took part in it, a man of great modesty and extreme refinement. The lunch was full of farmed poultry, wild birds and quadrupeds, and among other things squirrels were served in a sauce. At the end of the lunch, the jester of the illustrious Mr Leonardo Count of Gorizia entered, who sang various things accompanying himself with the cetera (cythara) and playing the croissant (hircino cornu) and made jokes with gestures and words, entertaining with his joy all the guests, who laughed and had a good time.

It's Santonino again, and this time he's talking about music. We are at the end of a lavish banquet, absolutely secular despite the presence of the bishop, and the Count's homage is to send his jester (mimus) to entertain the noble guests. From Paolo Santonino's brief description, it is assumed that the mimus first sang songs, then proved his ability as an instrumentalist, then, having left the music, he started to perform "buffoons" for everyone's amusement.

In the travels of Santonino the music is described with care: it is specified, for example, that in the church of San Lorenzo in Tristach there was a choir of excellent singers, who accompanied the mass with figurative singing, to the great pleasure of those present, or that in the church of San Daniele di Valle Gail the sacred celebrations were attended not only by good singers but also by very good musicians who played two harps and a zither and so on. But this is sacred and "public" music: in the castle, where as we have seen habits tend to crystallize, polyphony and the "new" artistic tendencies of the city's cultural elite are little used. They prefer the song, the accompanied monody, often improvised on a stringed instrument. After all, most medieval music is monodic: polyphony, especially secular music, is somehow the exception, a sort of passing fashion, expensive and in some ways too complicated for "everyday" enjoyment. Because in the castle one makes music, sings and dances: it is an activity that is part of those sex res non naturales of which the lavacrum that embarrassed the Santonino or the banquet with its food well organized in their scan. Not for nothing the "singing vel balare" appears in the Tacuina Sanitatis, the apogee of the precepts of health for the use of the Lord. The music also serves to contain the "motions of the soul" (another unnatural res), as was known to all from the biblical story of David who calmed Saul to the sound of the harp. Not for nothing, in the monastery of Michelstetten, again in the Santoninian story, the bishop's companions sang accompanying themselves with the zither (again the "private" and therefore monodic music) to lift his spirits.

Unfortunately, if we got a lot of polyphony and "high" music, we have little or nothing of the castle's music. A few Trovadorico or Minnesänger songs, a few songs. Then nothing. The improvisation, on the other hand, disperses with the sound. That's its value, but alas for us curious people who would like to hear it resonate between the walls of what remains or we imagine it was the castle of the Counts of Gorizia, it's a real pity.


Fabio Cavalli

Medieval Music