Hic est magister Franciscus cecus horganista de Florentia… By Mariella Martelli

Mariella Martelli – organist, harpsichordist, composer, graduate  in history and  conservation of the cultural heritage

…Francis of the Organs, who sees

with the mind more than with corporeal light…

 Jacopo da Montepulciano, La Fimerodia

Blind Francis, Franciscus, Francesco degli Organi, Franciscus de Florentia, “Hic est Magister Franciscus Cecus Horganista de florentia” – it was thus that Francesco Landini was remembered: one of the most important Italian musicians of the XIV century Ars Nova, born in Fiesole, near Florence, around 1335 and died in Florence on Sunday, 2  September, 1397.

Cristoforo Landini, the famous humanist and Francesco Landini’s great-nephew, claims that the family originated from Arezzo, though the name does not appear among the Landinian musical manuscripts.

Francesco Landini was the son of “Jacopo del Casentino, painter” (a “Giottesque” painter and member of the Corporation of Saint Luke, which represented painters and sculptors as well as other craftsmen). He was the brother of Matteo (like his father, a painter) and Nuccio, a musician, and his gifted associate.

According to the chronicler, Filippo Villani, he lost his sight after contracting smallpox at a very early age and from childhood began to sing, possibly with the pueri cantores, thanks to the tuition of the Benedictine nuns who conducted a thriving musical activity in the parish of Santa Felicità. At the time the Landini family dwelt in Vicolo del Pozzo Toscanelli in the nearby Santo Spirito district.

Landini was recognised as a highly distinguished singer, organist, organ builder, multi-instrumentalist, inventor of the Syrena Syrenarum (a particularly sweet-toned stringed instrument that accompanied the singing voice), as well as a composer of renown – to the point that in 1360 he was commissioned to write the madrigal “Una colomba candida e gentile” for the wedding of Isabella of Valois and Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

Among the primary sources testifying to such variegated activity are the “Ricordanze” (Chronicles) of the Monastero di Santa Trinità at Vallombrosa (Florence). On 26 May, 1361, the Benedictine monks made note of a payment for transporting an organ from the home of the twenty-six-year-old Landini to the monastery; payments continued until 1363 when Landini and his brother, Nuccio, were remunerated as organists (Nuccio was also mentioned as operating the organ bellows).

In 1365, Landini became chaplain of the chapter house of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Consecrated in 393 AD by Saint Ambrose, it was the first Florentine basilica to have a College of Canons, and later became the official church of the Medici family. There he worked with Lorenzo di Masino (distinguished composer who set to music texts by Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolò Soldanieri and Francesco Sacchetti), who introduced him to the leading Florentine versifiers of the day.

Lorenzo di Masino is believed to have died in 1372, and on 6 April 1373 the Chapter of San Lorenzo stipulated a notarial contract for Landini to succeed him: since Francesco was blind, the Chapter allocated 60 liras per annum to provide for his entire living expenses, describing him as “familiarem perpetuum”.

In 1368, at the age of just 33, Landini was proclaimed “Musicista coronatus”: according to Villani, he received a laurel crown from the king of Cyprus, Pietro Lusignano, during the king’s third visit to Venice under the dogeship of Andrea Contarini.

(1364, which has been suggested as a probable date for the ceremony in Venice, looks as if it can be ruled out because Petrarch was in the city at the time and makes no mention of a musical contest in his “Epistole”).

In 1374, at the Convent of the Santissima Annunziata (of the Servite Order) in Florence, Landini is mentioned in an expense report penned by the musician friar and composer, Andrea dei Servi, (also known as Brother Andrea di Giovanni [?-1415] or “Brother Andrew of the Organs”): the sums disbursed were for the building of an organ with pedal board, commissioned by the Father General, Brother Andrea da Faenza, at his own expense and built by Brother Domenico da Siena over a period of four and a half months.

Landini spent three days in the church supervising  the two tuning operations required in putting the finishing touches to the organ, and the work was completed in time for the All Saints’ Day celebrations that year..

A further “expense report” for 29 September 1379, drawn up by the same Brother Andea dei Servi, makes mention of a payment for five motets, commissioned from Landini. This information is important because research up to now has failed to unearth any sacred music by Landini.

In fact, we only have some examples of compositions by Landini which have been “stripped” of their secular texts and “reclothed”, as it were, with a liturgical text: “Questa fanciulla, Amor, fallami pia” is a ballad by Landini (for voice and various instruments) which must have enjoyed considerable success, so much so that it was provided with a sacred text (“Agnus Dei”), preserved in the books of choral music at the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Guardiagrele in the province of Chieti. Further examples are Landini’s “Kyrie” (in Munich) and the organ bicinium by “Anonymous” (in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

He was also the creator of a “cadenza”, of particular importance for the history of western polyphonic music: it consisted of a special melodic formula, placed in the middle  of the piece, and also at the end, used for the first time in his ballad “Non avrà mai pietà” and quickly taken up by composers throughout Europe.

The texts, which he wrote himself, frequently resort to senhal, a rhetorical device typical of medieval poetry, used to disguise the recipent of the verses (e.g. Lena which recalls Maddalena).

Landini made extensive use of rhetorical figures, rendered musically with some specific and highly effective devices, to achieve an expressive balance between the text and the music – a clear example, ante litteram, of the well-known “madrigalism” effects of the sixteenth century. These rhetorical figures include: Catabasis (a falling melody to symbolize the fall of tears in conjunction with the word “Piangete” (“weep”) – a much loved compositional topos and one used by great composers of a later date, such as  Mozart  in his famous motet “Ave Verum Corpus” at the word “perforatum”; Contrarium (the counter movement of vocal parts to symbolize opposite feelings); Parrhesia (on the word “petra” – “stone” – Landini makes use of a hard, dissonant cluster of two adjoining notes, performed by two distinct vocal registers, to depict the hardness of  heart of the loved one in refusing to return the poet’s affection); Suspiratio, rendered musically by means of Hoquetus (the several voices of the polyphonic composition alternately sound and rest, to produce an effect evocative of sighing and uncertainty), while repeated beats are used in association with the words “sì d’amor per-cosso” (“so beaten by love”).

Landini’s work as an organ builder continued with a number of high profile commissions: in 1387, he was called upon to help with the construction of a new organ for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

He died in 1397 at the age of 62 (leaving 300 florins for intercessory prayers) and Giovanni Mazzuoli succeeded him in his duties at the Chapter of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Landini’s remains now lie in the southern aisle of the Church of San Lorenzo. His tombstone depicts him without the laurel crown, unlike the precious miniature in the Squarcialupi Codex, in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, which shows him wearing his laurel crown and holding his inseparable “organetto”, known also as a “portative organ” (an aerophone instrument of small dimensions, capable of very expressive dynamic effects, which rests on the left leg, while the right hand plays the reduced keyboard and the left works the bellows sending air to the pipes).

The sumptuous Squarcialupi Codex was the property of “M° Antonio di Bartolomeo Schuarcialupi horganisto” of Santa Maria del Fiore, in the service of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and it has passed down to us, in addition to numerous compositions by Landini, this splendid portrait of the composer framed in the illuminated initial of his madrigal for three voices “Musica son che mi dolgo” (folio 246). Landini is depicted seated, with his left knee supporting the portative organ, painted in gold leaf, in the upper part of the page, and counterbalanced in the lower part of the manuscript by a female figure (perhaps representing Santa Cecilia, or an allegory of Music?) with her own organetto, also in gold leaf, in confirmation of the great honour conferred on Francesco Landini, the much revered, blind organist.