La Biblioteca Vaticana – Musical Manuscripts

An engraving from 1578 by Etienne Duperac of the Sistine Chapel shows the full pomp of a papal religious ceremony with the singers in their “cantoria” (lower right) gathered around a lectern. The bottom of the hand coloured engraving has been cut off but other copies show that every important participant is identified by a number corresponding to a legend at the bottom of the page. (From the V&A website)

There was a time when the finest composers and musicians were attached to the Papacy. Music at both Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel were of a quality equal to any in the world. Many great composers are recorded to have been associated with the music making in the Papal chapels and court: Dufay, Ninot le Petit, Festa, Josquin, Palestrina, de Morales,  Landi – a roll call of the major talents of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  The development of Western music can be traced through the records of the Vatican Library.

The earliest complete extant constitution (1545) of the Papal Choir outlines the duties, privileges, and code of behavior for members. It offers detailed rules for their daily personal and professional life and the fines levied for lateness and absence . The beautiful illuminated full-page opening miniature portrays Pope Paul III presenting the constitution to the master of the papal chapel, with the singers of the chapel kneeling behind him.

This collection of hymns and Magnificats by Costanzo Festa (ca. 1480-1545), an Italian who served as a singer in the papal choir from 1517 until his death in 1545, is prominently displayed among the illuminated manuscripts in the Library exhibition. A holding from the Sistine Chapel it is the earliest folio by a single composer in the collection.  Festa was born in Piedmonte and prior to joining the Sistine Chapel choir had studied and worked in France and in Firenze. He was strongly influenced by his travels and he brought that influence with him into music of the time.

The opening of the polyphonic Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night) by Festa. The exact date of composition of this piece to the 7th century text is unknown but the compiled manuscript dates from 1538-1539

Giovanni Parvo, a scribe at the Papal Choir College began work on the manuscript in November of 1538 and he completed the copying by October of the following year. His colleague Appollonio de’Bonfratelli was charged with the illuminations and decorations before it was presented to Pope Paul III. The two men were to work together on many of the choir books used in the Papal Chapel.

The parts are set out with the Cantus firmus – a pre-existing melody, Gregorian chant (as in the case of Festa’s hymn) or a secular piece – that is the basis of the hymn.  The Tenor, Aultus and Bassus lines would then elaborate and expand on the cantus and by the time of Festa often take over the main melody.

As shown in the engraving at the top of the page the singers (lower right in the engraving in a box like enclosure) would gather around a lectern on which rested a common choir book.

De’Bonfratelli decorated the pages with a red ribbon marginalia adorned with celtic knots worked in gold leaf.  The part indications are fancifully set out as enamel plaques attached to the page by trompe d’oiel  ribbons.




The Initials (Q the first letter of the second strophe: Qui condolens interitu) are composed of identical garlands enclosing the various coats of arms of and a dedication to Paul III.  The dedication shows that the manuscript was produced in the 5th year of his papacy.



It is believed that the coat of arms at the bottom of the right hand page may well be the personal arms of Costanzo Festa himself.

11 febbraio – San Benedetto di Aniano

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

2 thoughts on “La Biblioteca Vaticana – Musical Manuscripts”

  1. Reblogged this on Willy Or Won't He and commented:

    A week or two ago I recalled a visit to the Exhibition celebrating the reopening of the Vatican Library back in 2011. One of the many beautiful illuminated manuscripts that caught my eye was a choir book from the 16th century – the earliest compilation by one composer in their vast collection. I thought I’d revisit it today.

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