Florentius de Faxolis: Book on Music.
Edited and translated by Bonnie J. Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens.
The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 43.
Harvard University Press, 2010.
xxiv + 340 pp.
This book contains a treatise on music written in the late 15th century
for cardinal Ascanio Sforza (brother of the better-known Ludovico, duke of Milan).
Apparently, it was until now preserved only in one manuscript
(a very fancy one, judging by the plate showing two richly illuminated
pages, included in this book before p. iii — which,
incidentally, is the first time we got a colored plate in the ITRL series),
and has now been printed for the first time.
Reading this book was an odd experience for me. I know more or less
nothing at all about music, and it would normally never even occur
to me to pick up a book like this one; I only read it due to my
self-imposed programme of reading all the books from the I Tatti Renaissance Library. I don't remember when
was the last time that I felt so completely out of my depth while
reading a book; perhaps never. I often write in my blog posts
that I'm clearly not part of the intended target audience for this
or that book that I'd read, but rarely is this true to such an extent
as this time.
From the perspective of someone like me, Florentius's treatise
may be divided roughly into three parts (which don't correspond exactly
to the formal division of the treatise into three books).
First there are a couple of introductory
chapters about the value and importance of music, as well as about its
origins. A lot of this stuff consists of citations from various
earlier authors, both ancient and medieval.
In fact that practice continues
throughout the book — either Florentius thought the book would appear
more scholarly and authoritative that way, or he was a bit unsure about his
own mastery of the subject and so thought it would be better to focus on
providing a digest of what earlier authors had written on it.
Anyway, this early part of the book at least had the good feature
of being readable and understandable even by someone like me.
Of course, the theories he cites about the origins of music etc.
are the typical nonsensical just-so mythological stories that ancients
used to cite about origins of things (this reminds me a little of Polydore Vergil's
On Discovery; see my old post about it from a few years ago).
In a way it was interesting to see what these early authors thought about
music and its origins, but at the same time I don't think that having read this
has made me understand music any better. There are lots of effusive, airy
assertions in praise of music, without any explanations or justifications;
rather, the authors cited seem to regard these things as self-evident.
Ancient authors apparently claimed that “an aulete, skillfully brought in and
in good measure, cures adders' bites [. . .] very many human diseases
were treated by playing auloi” (1.1.17; Florentius cites
who cites Theophrastus and Democritus).
Florentius also cites an interesting tale from Macrobius on
how Pythagoras discovered the principles of harmony by listening to
sounds made by blacksmiths' hammers of various weights; see 1.1.37–42 (p. 33).
I often had the impression that music(ology) is only a small step
away from mysticism, and Florentius and his sources often cross it :)
He cites Isidore of Seville in 1.1.9: “Without music no discipline can be complete,
for nothing is without it. For the very universe itself is said to have been
put together with a kind of musical harmony, and the sky itself ot rotate
to the sound of harmony.” In 1.3, he divides music into three parts:
vocal, instrumental, and music of the universe; on the latter, he cites Boethius: it “is above
all to be sought in those things that are observed in the sky itself, or
in the assemblage of the elements, or in the variation of the seasons.” (1.3.4)
Down the rabbit hole of etymology!
There's another dubious quotation, this time from one William
Brito: music is “so called from moys, which is ‘water,’ because
of old it was first discovered by Pythagoras in hydrauli, that is, water organs,
and in blacksmiths' hammers. Alternatively, it is derived from moys because
it deals with sounds and the proportions of sounds, and without the benefit of moisture
there is no pleasure in singing or sounds.” (1.2.5)
This etymology seems to have
been popular in the middle ages; some googling finds another mention of it attributed
to one Remigius
(Johannes Ciconia, “ ‘Nova Musica’ and ‘De Proportionibus’ ”,
ed. by Oliver B. Ellsworth, U. of Nebraska Press, 1993, p. 63).
A note on the same page says that the derivation “is from the ancient
Egyptian mw, which means ‘water.’ In hieroglyphics, this is a single,
biliteral sign, represented by three wavy lines that are themselves a pictograph of water”.
I guess that explains why I had no luck trying to find moys in the
Greek dictionaries on the Perseus project.
Anyway, I don't doubt that, like so many ancient and medieval etymologies, this one
is also pure crackpottery. As far as I can tell after some googling, ‘music’
is derived from the Muses, which don't seem to have much to do with water.
(Nor does moys seem to have anything with the English word moist;
according to dictionary.com, the latter
is from Latin mucidus, meaning moldy or musty.)
After the introductory part of the book, Florentius plunges into
musical theory proper, and from that moment onwards I understood pretty much
nothing. He writes a lot about harmonies, consonances, notes, counterpoints and other
technical terms from musicology, and even though he tries to provide definitions
of many such terms when he first uses them, the definitions themselves use other
terms which I also didn't understand — and this is not surprising, for
all these things refer to concepts that I know pretty much nothing
So I can't really say anything sensible about this part of the book.
I'm sure it is interesting to people with the right sort of background
knowledge, who might use it to learn about the state of musical theory
in Florentius's time. As for me, it would be better if I had picked up
a book of the ‘music for dummies’ type, if one exists — although
there's a good chance that I'd turn out to be too big a dummy to understand even that.
From 1.4.15: “The species of voices, on Isidore's showing, are these: sweet,
perspicuous, subtle, fat, hard, rough, blind, curly, and perfect.” :S
Florentius proceeds to quote Isidore's definitions of all eight, which
unsurprisingly didn't really clear anything up for me
(“Sweet voices are slender, dense, clear, and high-pitched” etc.).
I had heard of the solmization syllables
before, which are basically one-syllable names for different notes (do-re-mi and so on),
and was interested to see what appears to be an earlier form of this system here
in Florentius's book. He uses ut instead of do (1.5.10), and
often uses curious combinations of three or more syllables and even an extra letter
at the start (e.g. we find “Csolfaut, Dlasolre, Elami” in 1.6.1).
I wasn't able to understand what he means by that,
but found it fairly fascinating anyway.
Occasionally, there are examples of short passages of musical notation,
and I was interested to see how the Latin text on the left-hand pages shows
the notation of Florentius's day, while the translation on the right-hand pages
also ‘translates’ the music into modern-day notation. The two
seem to be fairly closely related, but nevertheless different. For example,
the bodies of Florentius's notes are little rectangles and parallelograms rather than
little ellipses like the modern-day ones.
It seems that musical notation could be srs bsns:
“Some persons, too, have perverted the notes in their own way,
which ligatures we not only reprehend but utterly reprove and cast out” (3.8.5).
You can practically see him reaching for the thesaurus in an outburst
of righteous rage :)
Florentius goes on to show an example of these abominations, and you won't be surprised
to hear that to my uneducated eye they look hardly any different from all the other
notes in his book :))
Classification of proportions
The last few chapters of the treatise (3.15–20) became a little bit more intelligible to me again,
because they wander into mathematics more than musical theory, and I know at least
a little about mathematics. Florentius says that he is discussing proportions,
and although this was presumably relevant to his discussion of music (though I couldn't
quite see how), what he's really doing here from a mathematical point of view
is classifying fractions according to a very peculiar and impressively abstruse system.
(At the end of the book, there are some bits of musical notation that are
apparently intended to illustrate various kinds of fractions, though I don't pretend
that I understood how exactly they do so; pp. 227–35.)
I imagine that this classification of fractions probably must have been largely
a long-established system rather than Florentius's inovation. In fact I wouldn't be
surprised if this sort of things went back all the way to ancient Greek mathematics.
I remember reading years ago in Thomas Heath's
History of Greek Mathematics various similarly pointless efforts to
categorize integers, where they came up with groups such as
and their various generalizations (figured
numbers, polygonal numbers).
So I'm not surprised that fractions inspired similar and even more complicated
efforts. Just like in the case of integers, I didn't quite see the point of
such classifications; they introduce a lot of new terminology and definitions
but don't really lead us to understand the numbers any better. They strike me
as the sort of thing that people would do if they are more interested in mysticism
and numerology than in mathematics. I guess it's natural enough that such ideas
emerged when mathematics was in an early stage of development, but I for my part
consider myself lucky to live in an age when we can say more interesting things about
numbers than to pointlessly categorize them like this.
Introducing new definitions
and terminology is all well and good, but it's only valuable if some of the things
you have thus defined have interesting new properties, if you can prove some theorems
about them, etc. For example, the concept of prime numbers is valuable because
so many interesting properties and theorems involving them have been found; but
not many such findings exist about e.g. triangular numbers. Florentius's
classification of fractions strikes me as similarly unproductive.
Florentius's description of the classification of proportions (i.e. fractions)
is at times very confusing, but as far as I understood it, he divides them
into five genera, each of which is then divided further into species (one for each
value of a in the formulas below), and each species consists of infinitely
many proportions (which you can get by multiplying the numerator and the denominator
by any constant positive integer, thus e.g. you have a species that consists of
3 : 2, 6 : 4, 9 : 6, etc.). Thus the proportions
that constitute a species are really all equal to each other in a mathematical sense,
but he seems to think it's important to list them separately.
- (1) multiples: a : 1;
- (2) superparticular: (a + 1) : a;
- (3) superpartient: this is further subdivided into three modes:
- (3.1) super(b)partient: (a + b) : a, where
2 ≤ b < a and b does not divide a;
- (3.2) superpartiens (b)as: this seems to be intended to mean
(a + a/b) : a, where b does divide a,
although Florentius's explanation is completely confusing (see the editors' commentary,
- (3.3) super(b − 1)partiens (b)as:
(a + (b − 1)/b · a) : a.
- (4) multiple superparticular: (c · a + 1) : a for c ≥ 2;
- (5) multiple superpartient: (c · a + b) : a for c ≥ 2 and
b that does not divide a.
Speaking of the third genus, for some reason he doesn't generalize
mode (3.3) to allow an arbitrary c/b instead of
(b − 1)/b, although his
naming convention could easily support that. In fact this generalization would
also cover mode (3.2) if you allow c = 1. (Speaking of the naming conventions,
the translators at this point give up trying to translate Florentius's abstruse
naming of fractions into English and just leave them in the original Latin,
with an note: “These terms have been left in Latin for want of
English equivalents”; p. 295, n. 86. Earlier they say
of the terminology of mode (3.1): “These are scarcely English words, but no
equivalents exist”; p. 295, n. 82.)
Besides, I don't quite see the point of dividing genus (3) into the three modes,
since modes (3.2) and (3.3) are really just alternative ways to reach some (but not all)
fractions from mode (3.1).
The requirement that b must not divide a in (3.1) and (5) makes sense;
in fact you could go a step further and require that a and b
must be coprime. This is because if they shared a common divisor,
e.g. d, so that b = B · d and
a = A · d (where A and B are now coprime),
a fraction from the (3.1) mode becomes
(a + b) / a = (A d + B d) / (A d)
= (A + B) / A (with A and B coprime),
so you don't miss any fractions by limiting yourself to the case
where a and b are coprime. The same argument applies to
fractions of the genus (5).
In fact, if b was a divisor of a, so that e.g. a = A · b,
a fraction of the (3.1) mode would actually fall into the genus (2):
(a + b) / a = (A b + b) / (A b)
= (A + 1) / A. Similarly, a fraction from genus (5) would
actually end up in genus (4).
I also couldn't help feeling that some of the divisions between the genera
are unnecessary complications. If you allow b = 1 in the definition of (3.1),
it will thereby also absorb genus (2); similarly, if you allow c = 1 in the
definition of genera (4) and (5), they will absorb the genera (2) and (3), respectively.
But then, all these unifications would be just a long-winded way of saying that
if you have a fraction n / a where the numerator n is greater than
the denominator a, you can of course express the numerator as n = c · a + b
for some quotient c and remainder b (such that 0 ≤ b < a).
The distinctions between genera (2), (3), (4) and (5) are obtained simply
by distinguishing between c = 1 and c > 1, and
between b = 1 and b > 1. And by allowing a = 1, you
also cover genus (1), i.e. the fractions which are really integers.
Anyway, whatever we think of its perhaps unnecessary complications,
Florentius's scheme does neatly cover all the fractions greater than 1. He doesn't
specifically discuss fractions between 0 and 1 (though he mentions them briefly in 1.15, p. 195),
but obviously they could be classified in an analogous manner, just by reversing the roles of the
numerator and denominator. Florentius cites Boethius's terminology for the five genera of
the fractions between 0 and 1: submultiple, subsuperpatricular, subsuperpartient, multiple
subsuperparticular, multiple subsuperpartient (3.15.11).
I wonder if the cardinal got his money's worth. Apparently, Florentius's text
is often a bit unclear, confused, or just plain wrong, and the editors point out such many places in the notes at the end
of the book. I was often delighted and amused by these notes, as they led me
to feel that perhaps my inability to understand this or that passage was not 100%
my fault, just 99% or so :)
“We have tried to make Florentius's thought as clear as possible (sometimes
it is not possible)” (p. 243).
“The intended sense appears to be as given, but the original syntax is beyond repair.”
(P. 274, n. 177.)
“Florentius appears to have developed a sudden and inappropriate
scruple against predicating a singular complement of a plural subject.” (P. 296, n. 95.)
The editors conclude their discussion of Florentius's confused treatment of proportions:
“as in musical matters Florentius is an amateur attempting to punch above his weight” (p. 318).
“Florentius's Latin is a strange brew of classical and unclassical, elegant and
incoherent” (p. 321); “at times Florentius's Latin is incoherent to
the point of incomprehensibility” (p. 324).
After so many mentions of Florentius's mistakes, I couldn't help thinking that, if I had been in Florentius's place,
I'd prefer to see my book languish in manuscript than to have it published by
such editors :)) Even the scribe is not safe from their eagle eyes and sharp tongues:
“so far was Verrazzano from understanding the text that he often began a new paragraph in mid-sentence”
The editors' introduction mentions that Florentius's “vernacular name, not attested,
will have been Fiorenzo Fasoli” (p. viii); they add in an interesting note:
“Fasoli, stressed on the second syllable (Fasòli), is a dialect form of
fagioli, ‘beans’” (note 7, p. xx).
I guess that this Italian word must also be the source of our fižol.
The editors' notes occasionally mention interesting points of difference
between Latin and English style. Thus, when Florentius ends the dedication of
his book to the cardinal with the words “fare well and love me” (p. 5),
they add in a note: “We assure the recipient of our love (in the broadest sense);
Latin letter-writers more honestly ask to be loved.” (P. 257, n. 5.)
What to say at the end? I can't say that I understood anything much of this book,
but in the end I had more fun reading it than I had expected to. In this no small thanks goes
to the editors for their interesting notes and their witty comments on the many missteps
and blunders of poor Florentius. Nevertheless I hope that highly technical books
such as this one will not show up often in the ITRL series.
Labels: books, I Tatti Renaissance Library, nonficon