Gabrieli’s naughty bits

Additional notes by Melanie L Marshall

The sexual and scatalogical content of the two giustiniane on the CD Andrea Gabrieli – The Madrigal in Venice may come as a surprise to some listeners. However, these pieces were by no means unusual in their content and similar songs were enjoyed throughout sixteenth-century Italy. Overt and covert sexual representations in art, literature and song were available to a range of people in many social environments, including the court, the academy, and the marketplace.

In 1587 Sir Stephen Powle wrote to his friend John Chamberlaine “I think [Venice] be the Paradise of all pleasures yt may be possibly divised or imagined: the patterne of all well governed commonwealths for pollicy: and for territory and iurisdiction ye greatest state in all Italy.”(1) Among Venice’s attractions, Sir Stephen mentions “our comediantis” who, “many yeares since banished Venice, be renewed at Muran: wheare I wish you to heare madonna Francischina, Horatio, and old Pantalone with his Zane.”(2) Doge Andrea Gritti had indeed banished certain types of comedy from Venice in 1530 due to their licentious nature.

Gabrieli’s ‘Anchor che col partire’ and ‘Chi nde darà la bose al sofizar’ may be indicative of the songs performed in such comic theatre. Their author, Antonio Molino (c1495-1571, also known as Burchiella, and Manoli Blessi), is generally considered to be one of the key figures in the early development of the commedia dell’arte, along with Angelo Beolco (c1496-1542, known as Ruzante) and Andrea Calmo (c1509-1571). All were singers, and Molino also played the viol. Nino Pirrotta has suggested that the parodic ‘Anchor che col partire’ may have been typical of the comic songs performed by Andrea Calmo in his guise as a proto-Pantalone – a greedy, stubborn and grumpy old man who spoke in Venetian dialect.(3)

Comic theatre was only one of Venice’s attractions. Venice was also famous for her courtesans, and indeed Sir Stephen gave over a larger portion of his letter to courtesans than to comedy:

Yf to be well neighboured be no smalle parte of happines I may repute my self highly fortunate: for I am lodged amongest a great nomber of Signoraes. Isabella Bellocchia in the next howse on my right hand: And Virgina Padoana, that honoreth all our nation for my Lord of Oxford’s sake, is my neighbour on the lefte side: Over my head hath Lodovica Gonzaga the Frenche kinges mistris hir howse: you thinck it peradventure preposterous in Architecture to have hir lye over me. I am sorry for it, but I can not remedye it nowe. Persarrina with hir sweet entertainment & brave discoorse is not 2 Canalls of. Ancilla (Mr. Hattons handmayde) is in the next Campo: Paulina Gonzaga is not farre of. Prudeniza Romana with hir courtly trayne of frenche gentlemen every nighte goeth a spasso by my Pergalo. As for Imperia Romana hir date is out which flourished in your tyme. I must of force be well hallowed amongest so many Saints. But in troath I am a frayde they doe condemme me of heresye, for settinge up so fewe tapers on theyr high Altars.(4)

Honest courtesans (who held a higher social status than other sex workers) cultivated the arts of music and lively conversation to amuse their guests and it is highly likely that saucy dialect songs formed part of the courtesan’s repertoire. However, such song was not the sole preserve of courtesans. The esteemed Duchess of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, a “paragon of Renaissance purity,” is known to have sung the lewd song ‘Tol in man’ (Take it in your hand). (5)

Venice’s publishing industry also contributed to the image of the city as a sensual playground, a “paradise of all pleasures.” The infamous author Pietro Aretino published his licentious works from Venice after settling there in 1527. Respected Venetian patricians also dabbled in erotic prose. Domenico Venier, known to music historians for his influential literary circle and his links to Adrian Willaert, wrote an explicit story focusing on a Venetian courtesan. It is no surprise that this remained in manuscript, for its publication would have compromised Venier’s social status. In sum, sexual representations appeared in many guises and in many social contexts in Venice and throughout the rest of Italy. Innuendo-laden songs entertained people in academies, in courts, in brothels and during comic theatre. Far from being an unusually explicit offering from a respectable Venetian merchant and the highly thought of organist of San Marco, Gabrieli’s giustiniane are part of a long tradition of sexually humorous dialect songs that extends back to the previous century.


[1] Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 309 (register of letters), f. 54v; full letter ff. 53v-56r. I am grateful to Leofranc Holford-Strevens for providing me with a copy of this letter.

[2] Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 309 (register of letters), f. 54v

[3] Nino Pirrotta and Elena Povoledo, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi, translated by Karen Eales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.103.

[4] Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 309 (register of letters), ff. 54v-55r. An annotated version of this extract is available here. In the seventeenth century Thomas Coryat claimed Venice had twenty thousand courtesans. There are extracts from Coryat’s Crudities hastily gobbled up in five months travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, & some parts of high Germany, and the Netherlands; newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, & now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdom (1611) here.

[5] See pages 36-37 of William F. Prizer’s article “Games of Venus: Secular Vocal Music in the Late Quattrocento and Early Cinquecento,” Journal of the American Musicological Society IX/1 (Winter 1991), pp.3-56.

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