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Sunday, 19 August 2018

Salomone Rossi - violinist and composer

Leading Jewish musician of the late Renaissance 


Salomone Rossi's talent with the violin earned him work for the Mantuan court
Salomone Rossi's talent with the violin
earned him work for the Mantuan court
The composer and violinist Salomone Rossi, who became a renowned performer at the court of the Gonzagas in Mantua in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and is regarded as the leading Jewish musician of the late Renaissance, is thought to have been born on this day in 1570.

Jews had periodically been the subject of persecution in the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years. At around the time of Rossi’s birth, Pope Pius V expelled all Jews from all but two areas of the papal states and Florence established a ghetto, in which all Jews within the city and the wide Grand Duchy of Tuscany were required to live.

The Mantua of Rossi’s day was much more enlightened than many Italian cities, however. Jews were not only tolerated but they were often allowed to mix freely with non-Jews. The liberal atmosphere allowed Jewish writers, musicians and artists to have an important influence on the culture of the day.

The court of Mantua was not only renowned for its royal luxury but as a centre of artistic excellence. At the end of the 15th century the duchess Isabella d’Este Gonzaga actively sought out the finest musicians in Italy, bringing them to Mantua to compose new music and perform it for the entertainment of the royal family.

Vincenzo I was the first duke of Mantua to employ Salomone Rossi
Vincenzo I was the first duke of
Mantua to employ Salomone Rossi
The duke Gugliemo Gonzaga, in the second half of the 16th century, established a resident musical ensemble within the castle walls and his successor, Vincenzo I Gonzaga, at the turn of the 17th century, had on his payroll composers of the quality and standing of Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gastoldi and Lodovico Vladana, to provide music for banquets, wedding feasts, musical-theatre productions and chapel services.

Rossi had come to the court’s attention as a talented violinist and he entered the service of duke Vincenzo I in 1587 as a singer and viola player.

Soon he was given the title of concertmaster as the leader of the duke’s instrumental ensemble, tasked with entertaining the ducal family and their esteemed guests. He was so well thought of that he was excused from wearing the yellow badge that was still required of Jews in Mantua, despite the enlightened atmosphere that prevailed. The privilege was renewed in 1612 by the new duke, Francesco IV.

Nonetheless, it is not thought that he could have enjoyed a permanent salaried position at the court, a privilege almost exclusively reserved for Christian musicians.  He would have been paid by the court on an individual basis for his performances at court events and for his vocal and instrumental compositions.

There is evidence that he also played for Paolo Adreasi, the Count of Rhodes, Fredrico Rossi, the Count of San Secundo, and Alessandro Pico, Prince of Mirandola. He also had support and protection from two prominent Jewish figures in Mantua: Moses Sullam, who provided him with financial support, and Rabbi Leone da Modena, who offered guidance and protection. Rossi was also heavily involved in Mantuan theatrical life.

The opening pages to a Rossi score for a madrigal  played in Venice in 1628
The opening pages to a Rossi score for a madrigal
played in Venice in 1628
As a composer, Rossi applied his creative talents to a new fashion in music known as monadic song, with one leading solo voice supported by a fundamental bass. He is considered the pioneer of these new Baroque forms which include the trio sonata and suite.

His first published work in 1589 was a collection of 19 canzonettes - short, dance-like compositions for a trio of voices with lighthearted, amorous lyrics.

Rossi also composed more serious madrigals, combining the poetry of the greatest poets of the day with his melodies. In 1600, in the first two of his five madrigal books, Rossi published the earliest continuo madrigals, an innovation which marked the beginning of the Baroque era in music.

As a Jewish musician, his lasting contribution is his Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, 33 settings for three to eight voices of Hebrew texts, edited by Rabbi Leone.

Rossi's name as a violist appears on the ducal payrolls in Mantua until 1622.

The death of the last Gonzaga duke and the sack of Mantua by the Austrian army (1628-30) ended the golden age of Mantuan court music. Many of Mantua’s Jews fled to the ghetto in Venice, where they joined the Jewish musical Accademia degli Impediti. 

It is not known whether Rossi himself was still alive and active in the Accademia. Some historians believe he died during the invasion of Austrian troops, who destroyed the Jewish ghetto in Mantua, or in a subsequent plague which ravaged the area.

Rossi's sister, Madama Europa, who was an opera singer at the court in Mantua and possibly the first Jewish woman to be professionally engaged in that field, also disappeared after the end of the Gonzaga court and subsequent sack of the ghetto.

The facade of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, which was the palace of the Gonzagas between 1328 and 1707
The facade of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, which was
the palace of the Gonzagas between 1328 and 1707
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the south east of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. The Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, depicting the life of Ludovico Gonzaga and his family. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

The ampoules that allegedly contain drops of the blood of Christ, mixed with soil
The ampoules that allegedly contain drops
of the blood of Christ, mixed with soil
Travel tip:

In the Renaissance heart of Mantua is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, two ampoules containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.

More reading:

The Gonzaga duke who spent his childhood as a political hostage

Andrea Mantegna - master of perspective

The genius of Claudio Monteverdi

Also on this day:

1580: The death of Antonio Palladio, the world's favourite architect

1957: The birth of former azzurri football coach Cesare Prandelli


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