The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

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David Norton
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The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by David Norton » Tue Mar 07, 2017 2:55 am

2017 marks the half-millennium anniversary for the famous book of lute music by Vicenzo Capirola, of Brescia. This book is as renowned for its many full-color illustrations (done by Capirola's pupil, Vitale) as it is for the music itself. I had the very good fortune to examine the actual manuscript in May 1999. Here is a narrative of that event, which I just re-discovered in an unused folder of my hard drive. Bear in mind that the security processes have probably been greatly increased in the ensuing 18 years.


On Saturday, May 15, 1999, I had the chance to visit the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Newberry is not a library in the "public lending library" sense, it is more like a museum of old books. Among its treasures is the Capirola Lute Book.

This particular book is a manuscript of 43 pieces in various styles by an early 16th century Italian lutenist named Vicenzo Capirola. Capirola lived from 1474 to about 1548, a pretty good span of years in those days. He came from a well-to-do and fairly large Brescian family. Nothing is known of his musical education, but based on his output it was obviously quite thorough. There's speculation that in 1515 he was the lutenist at Henry VIII's court in England: English records talk of a "phenomenal Brescian lutenist", and there is a piece from the time called "The Duke of Somerset's Dump," which is virtually identical to one of the Padoanae in the Capirola book. Is this a valid speculation? Who knows! In any event, by 1517 he was back in Venice, and had returned to Brescia by 1548, which is the last official record of his life. Not much information, but actually his life is better documented than that of most of the other early Italian lute players.

What makes this book particularly special is the amazing illustrations along the outer and lower margins. The book was put together in around 1517 in Venice by a fellow named "Vitale", who apparently was Capirola's pupil. Vitale prefaces his book with these words:

"Considering that several divine works have been lost by the ignorance of their owners, and desiring that this almost divine book written by me will be preserved forever, I, Vitale, have adorned it with such noble paintings, that if it should be owned by somebody with no knowledge in the musical field, he would keep this book for the beauty of the pictures. Surely, the things written in this book have as much harmony as the art of music may express. This will be very clear to those who diligently read through it. It is most important to preserve this for the future...."

Well, he certainly seems to have succeeded in his goal: the book has survived some 482 years, and still counting! (500 years, now!!)

Back to the story of my trip to the Newberry Library:

I had to go to Chicago to attend a two-day Employment Law seminar on a Thursday and Friday. I intentionally left myself enough time on Saturday before returning to Utah to go to the Newberry. I called on Tuesday and confirmed that the Capirola book was indeed there. The lady who answered said that it was, and that I simply needed to go to the 3rd floor for "Special Collections" at 9AM on Saturday.

Nine AM on gray and misty Saturday, I was there. A few bureaucratic steps and hurdles first: you have to obtain a Readers Card to get in, which was offered free-of-charge. Then you have to take off any overcoats, etc (where you could smuggle things out) and place them in a locker. First stop after all this (which was more annoying than delaying) was the Third Floor.

A terribly bored early twenty-something fellow was sitting at the desk. I started to say what I was looking for, and that I'd been told it was in Special Collections. Before I could finish, he handed me a little yellow card and said "fill-this-out-in-pencil-and-return-it-to-the-next-desk-thank-you". Consummate pencil pusher. So I filled out the little card, took it to the next desk. A somewhat livelier human was there. He looked at it, and directed me to the index card catalog files to look up the call number. It was rather amusing to actually go to an index card file in the Computer Age, I hadn't used a file like that in 10 years or more. But on reflection there are many older professor-types doing research there, who may not be computer-literate. And it somehow seems right to have the old filing system for a museum of books.

Call number found, I took my little yellow card back to librarian #2. I was assigned a seat by the window and was told "we'll be out with it in a bit". While I was waiting, I looked around the study room. Old oaken furniture, wall tapestries, everything very scholarly and somber. Nothing looked newer than 1970 at best. There were other people around, with piles of notebooks and memo pads. I began to berate myself for not bringing at least a memo pad, then I recalled that what I wanted was to eyeball the original: I couldn't make notes of that, and there were numerous signs around forbidding photography of any parts of the collection.

After only about five or six minutes, the librarian came back to the room, and started toward me. From across the room I could already see there was something wrong: the book in his hand was far too large. He handed it to me and walked off. The spine said "Capirola Lute Book" alright, but it was obviously a fairly recent edition. Open to the frontispiece: "The Capirola Lute Book, edited and annotated by Otto Gombosi. Copyright 1954." Definitely not the right item. Close, but not quite what I wanted.

I went back over to the librarian. After some discussion, he said in essence "this is what we have." I turned to Gombosi's comments where it said that the original was in the possession of the Newberry Library of Chicago. "This IS the Newberry, correct? " I enquired. He answered "Yes, but this is what we have on the shelf under this call number." He then went off to find the senior librarian. In the meantime I went back to my seat with the 1954 Gombosi and read through the introductory materials. Nothing startlingly new there. Clearly Gombosi had done considerable work in researching Vicenzo Capirola's life and family biographies, but the dry fact that his sister's name had appeared on some obscure ducal tax record in 1503 or something of this nature was not of any real importance to me. On the plus side, I had heard Gombosi's name many times but to the best of my knowledge this was my first reading of one of his articles. Certainly very thorough! And I have to admit I have a definite admiration for the lute musicology pioneers of the 1940s and 1950s, men like Gombosi, or Thurston Dart, or Reginald Smith-Brindle, or Tom Goff. They were the ground breakers, everyone afterward has seemed to me to be filling in the gaps.

The librarian returned. I was actually starting to rather like this fellow, he was trying his best to be helpful. He also certainly had never heard of Capirola or the lute book. But he told me that the original was on the fourth floor, in the Special Collections. Bored librarian #1 was in earshot of this. I thanked the second fellow, gave the first one a nasty look, and toddled upstairs.


Fourth Floor. The sign on the door says "Special Collections". At the desk is a mid-twenties brunette, well-dressed in a gray suit. I think her nametag says Maria (1). I think. In any case, I approach her, and make my request. Maria's voice instantly clicks in my memory as being the same lady I had spoken with on Tuesday. Once again, the ritual of filling out a little card, plus further identification is needed. It makes sense: this is the crème de la crème up here, and the Newberry Board must make sure that there is some traceability of just who is pawing through their priceless collections. She directs me into a glassed-in room with many desks, and asks me to wait while someone else brings in the Capirola manuscript. I am assigned to table #3. Each desk has an acrylic book rest with a felt cloth, no doubt to protect the collection. I am impressed in general.

Maria's assistant comes back in, empty handed, and speaks to her. They huddle for a moment, and then Maria starts walking over. Uh-oh, I think to myself......

She begins: "Sir, I am terribly sorry, but we are not permitted to bring this item out. There is a note on it saying that it is too fragile, and I didn't realize this. But there is a modern edition downstairs you can examine." She means the Gombosi.

"Well, that's okay. I had actually somewhat expected something like this. After all, the Capirola book is nearly 500 years old and it is the only copy in the solar system. I can understand this." I'm not particularly happy, but I am pragmatic about such things.

"As I said, we have another edition you can see."

I smiled at her. "I have already seen that one. I pretty much know what the original looks like; in fact, I own a facsimile copy of it (2). But only the music comes through. I wanted to see the pictures in it, which are not legible on the facsimile." Maria looks at me with a questioning look. I gave her a 45 second explanation of Capirola and Vitale.

"I can understand now why the modern edition won't work for you. Again, I am really sorry." She seems sincere.

"Not a problem."

So back down the stairs, back to the locker to retrieve my jacket. I figure to myself, "What the heck, I am here so I may as well wander around." They have a couple of rooms of books on display, old medieval prayer books and hymnals. A copy of John Playford's "English Dancing Master" is also on exhibit, which the caption card says is one of only 2 copies in the USA. I wonder where the other one is: the Huntington Library in Pasadena seems likely. The Playford book is very small, maybe 3 inches by 6 inches, with tiny black notes. It's a marvel to me that anyone ever bothered to try to decipher it, the print is so tiny. But it is an important source of English Country dance music, and many modern editions of it exist. I putter around for 10 or 15 minutes.

Next I head into the gift shop. Nothing exciting there, a typical museum gift shop. I look to see if there is perhaps anything about the Capirola book on sale, to at least take back a souvenir. No such luck. But my luck is about to change.


I am heading toward the exit, there's still time to do some shopping on Michigan Avenue before heading to the airport. Someone comes up behind me.
"Excuse me, sir, are you the gentleman who wanted to see the manuscript?" I turn around, and see an unfamiliar face. I must have looked quite puzzled. He went on: "The old music manuscript I mean." I said that I was, and he asked me to return to the fourth floor with him. So back up, via an elevator this time, back to Maria's desk.

"Oh, good, I am glad you hadn't left yet. I talked to the curator, he said we can bring it out for just a few minutes, but that exposure to the air is bad for it. Please come with me."

So back into the glass room, back to the same table #3. After just a few minutes, Maria returns with a nondescript chocolate brown box, about the size of a child's shoe box, hinged on one side. It is made out of heavy cardboard, I think. The outside is unimportant. Maria tells me it can only be out for 15 minutes, and returns to her desk.

Opening the box, my first reaction is one of surprise. There is not a "book" inside as we think of the term, but rather a stack of small envelopes. Apparently over the centuries, the binding has come undone. This of course assumes that the manuscript was even bound in the first place: I don't know that much about early 16th century bookmaking practices. The first envelope is actually a large piece of paper folded over several times, encasing what must have been the front cover. This is heavy black leather, with a gold leaf design on it. Much of the leaf is worn away, but a lot of it is still there. I don't dwell on this, time is my foe here and the clock is ticking away.

The next envelope is the Table of Contents page. It is approximately 8 inches long and 5 to 6 inches high (I didn't have a ruler with me, and exact dimensions are not important anyway). It is torn on the upper left corner, and some of the text is missing. The title of one of the works, Tientalora, is scratched out for some reason; this isn't especially clear on the facsimile but on the original the stain of the text is very clear despite the erasure. In the music section, the same piece is called "Balleto dare ballare" (A Dance for Dancing). I don't know that anyone has figured out the reason.

Envelope #3, and all the subsequent ones (except the last which holds the back leather cover, basically identical to the front one), contain the mother lode: the actual five century old Capirola manuscript. Each of these has one bound folio, of four or five long pieces of paper tied together in the middle to form a mini booklet. (This is clumsy to describe: but think of something like a multi-page printed recital program stapled together in the middle in the usual fashion. Replace the staples with thread, and there you have it.) The thread appears to be modern, as it is a rather bright white against the yellowed paper.

This is a good place to speak of the physical properties of the paper. It is certainly not "paper" as we think of it today, in the later 20th century. It is very thick, almost like a card stock. There is no doubt a formal name for such material, which book specialists will know right away. In coloration it is a light peach or flesh tone; this may be due at least in part from its great age. The outer edges are darker, and slightly discolored. Hardly a surprise. One can ponder what the history of this book has been. It was first mentioned in the early 1800s, and then around 1883. It was obtained by the Newberry in 1904. But what of the time from its completion around 1520 until then? We can presume it was in Vitale's possession through his life. He obviously cared a great deal for his maestro, and would hardly be likely to part with such a work. So let's say that he kept it until his death. No idea when that would have been, as there is no indication of Vitale's age given anywhere. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, say he was very creative at a young age and completed the book in 1520 at the youthful age of 25. It is safe to say he was dead by 1575 (80 years), and certainly by 1595 (a century). The book was recognized by the family as "Grandpappa Vitale's treasure book", so for a few years it would have been an heirloom. Let's give it another half-century, to 1650 perhaps. But we still have 150 to 200 years to account for! Well, an intriguing but probably ultimately futile exercise....
Rather than going into a page-by-page analysis of each drawing (recall that I hadn't brought a notebook, and also that I didn't have much time at all for in depth study), here are some overall impressions of Vitale's handiwork:

First of all, I was amazed how brilliant the colors were. Not only of the paintings (more in a moment) but each rhythm sign is in it's own color code: red, violet, azure, saffron, black, each dependent upon on the duration of the note. The ending bars of many of the pieces are highly stylized and colored: each little box created by the intersection of the vertical bar line and the horizontal tablature line is decorated. And the paintings are likewise very bright. There are a limited number of colors used, primarily greens and browns, but more than ample use of the same colors used for the rhythms.

The next detail is, the striking amount of detail shown on each single drawing. There are extremely fine lines, less than a hair's-breadth it seems.
Third, there is a huge variety of animals represented. There are the normal domestics, like cats and dogs and hunting hounds. Then the barnyard creatures, like sheep and goats, donkeys and cows. A wide representation of wild beasts, such as boars, foxes, wolves, rabbits, deer and elk. Bears also, not something normally associated with Italy but doubtless common enough in its time. Vitale also must have known of Africa, for there are giraffes, leopards, and lions. Lastly are the mythical creatures, the unicorns and dragons and griffins and centaurs. Nearly all the beasts shown seem very authentic (even the mythics!), and as I said there is immense detail. One of the hounds even has its eyes in two different colors, a brown and a blue.

The animals are intermixed on the pages, so that on one page a donkey, a lion, and a unicorn all peaceably occupy the same pastureland. All the animals are set in grasslands or in trees. Spaces between the animals are filled with various flower or shrubs or grasses. An occasional reptile is also represented.

There are many birds as well, peacocks and sparrows and robins. Chickens and roosters, and numerous birds of prey also. The only criticism I would have of Vitale's skill was that his drawings of birds in flight are unrealistic: the bird's legs are extended as they would be in walking, not tucked underneath the body as birds truly do in flight. So one is left with the impression of a bird "walking on the air" instead of flying. Yes, I know: picky, picky, picky!

There are just a few human or humanoid figures painted in the book. Several shepherds, a sprinkling of cherubs, and one memorable scene of a full-figured nude lady being serenaded by a satyr. There is no indication if any of these figures may be a portrait either of Capirola or Vitale.
Fourth observation: Many of these animals are in rather bloody fights. The small trails of blood are invisible on the facsimile, but the bright red certainly stands out on the original! Lions happily chew the heads off of deer, and eagles rip apart hares. Ricercare IV offers a doe having its throat torn asunder by a hound, as a jaguar tears at its haunches. All in all, certainly not a book for the squeamish!

Fifth, in addition to his talent with depicting living plants and animals, Vitale had a fanciful free-form talent. There are numerous filigrees and fleur-de-lis and artistic doodles all about, often used to separate two selections on the same page.


So in very short order, my allotted 15 minutes was up. It was probably closer to 18; Maria, to her credit, did not stand over me with a stop-watch. But I also knew that 20 would be pushing it! I placed the manuscript back into its cardboard box, and dutifully returned it. The box was quickly taken away, back no doubt to its sealed container deep in the Newberry archives, there to await... what?

Conclusion I
As I write this two weeks later, I am trying hard to come up with a suitable concluding paragraph. Did seeing the Capirola Lute Book change my life? Well, not hardly! Was it a memorable experience? Certainly, in the same way that a fine meal might be. A temporary pleasure, an indulgence of the ocular senses. I did gain an appreciation of Italian Renaissance miniature painting and book construction.

Conclusion II
It's late December, and it's now been 7 months since my trip to Chicago, and I STILL can't come up with a proper ending to the story. But I think it's a worthwhile tale anyway, so here it is. Make of it, dear reader, as you will.

End Notes:

(1) Her name may well have been Susan, or Betty, or Jane, but for purposes of this narrative "Maria" will suffice. I do think that "Maria" is what her nametag said, but was it really her tag, or was she borrowing someone else's?

(2) "Compositione di Messer Vincenzo Capirola". Published as Libro 39 by Archivum Musicum, Firenze, 1981. Introduction by Orlando Cristoforetti. I have used this facsimile as a reference point in describing many of little details; they are not readily apparent until one has seen the original, and then the dark copy serves as an adequate memory-jog.
David Norton
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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by gilles T » Tue Mar 07, 2017 11:10 am

Dear David Norton,

Thank you so much for this fascinating and lively account — you really have the skills of a novel writer !

The Capirola lute book is unquestionably one of the most beautiful — and strangest — human artifact in all history. It not only displays one of the most exquisite lute music ever but, as you point it so well, fantastic drawings. I see it as a kind of musical version of the famous and quite mysterious Voynitch Manuscript...

Growing in age, I tend to believe that such artifacts are true gifts made to us by men of the past, and we can only be grateful for such a generous heritage.

Thanks again for reminding us how lucky we are that such treasures have been cared and protected throughout the ages.

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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by Wesjr1 » Tue Mar 07, 2017 2:50 pm

Thanks for the post, Mr. Norton. The book is available online as a free pdf download at various sites (it's 151 pages long). It's also available as a physical copy (not free) from some online stores. Although it's in Public Domain, I'm not listing any direct links. Easy to find by doing a search for it.
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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by pogmoor » Tue Mar 07, 2017 3:49 pm

A fascinating account of your quest, David. As Wesjr1 says, the manuscript is now available online, in colour with all its illustrations, and it is a beautiful object. The tablature itself has been entered with great care and it is much more legible than many lute manuscripts. It's also easy to see that virtually all the pages are in a poor condition, so it's no wonder the library were so wary of letting it see the light. It's really great that so many manuscripts from the renaissance and baroque periods and becoming available on line.
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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by RobMacKillop » Tue Mar 07, 2017 4:16 pm

Good one, David. Fine music it contains. We have something similar surviving from Renaissance Scotland. Late medieval Scottish church music was very complex, both in rhythm and the number of singers. The big name of the time was Robert Carver, who wrote some astonishing music for two to ten voice parts. Then the Reformation exploded. The composers were told to write simple music, and leave out any "curiosity". It signalled the death of art music in Scotland. Enter the right man at the right time...

Thomas Woode (pronounced Wood) was told by the Court to commission new works reflecting the Reformation, and was given strict guidelines. He says the composers "were not happy". So, he started compiling the Woode Part Books, four- and five-part music by some of the leading composers of the day, and hid it from the authorities. To ensure it wasn't discovered and burned, he drew some pen and ink drawings in the margins, and many of them are of instruments played at the time: lutes, citterns, harps, portative organs, etc. Well, the part books did survive in different parts of the country, even in different countries, which, considering he only made one of each, is very lucky.

When I was a young lute player, I created a small ensemble called The Rowallan Consort, after one of the Scottish lute books: lute, harp and two singers, one male, one female. We recorded items from Thomas Woode's books, and very fine it was too. Other groups of singers have since taken to performing the music, what Woode called Musicke Fyne, and fine, indeed, it is.

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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by Luuttuaja » Tue Mar 07, 2017 10:42 pm

Thank you for this interesting narrative, David! The Capirola lute book is very beautiful indeed and contains great music.

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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by Jstanley01 » Wed Mar 08, 2017 1:01 pm

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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by Lovemyguitar » Wed Mar 08, 2017 3:43 pm

Wonderful account of your experience, David, thank you. It must have been magnificent to see the actual book -- there is something magical about old hand-written/illustrated books, a direct connection to a person from so long ago. (And to Rob, thanks, too, for that interesting info about Scottish music.)

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Re: The Capirola lute-book, 500 years old now (long!)

Post by Scott Phillips » Thu Mar 09, 2017 2:07 am

There is indeed something special about getting to examine a 500 year old book. I will have to see a PDF of it now that you've interested me. Great story.

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