La Rappresentatione di Anima, e di Corpo

Emilio de’ Cavalieri, 1600

Neither Palestrina’s nor the Council of Trent’s campaigns for the supremacy of the word in music went unheeded. The Renaissance might be waning, but rhetoric and oration, impelled by the revival of classical literature and letters, grew more valuable as language, writing, preaching and translation became major tools for all sides of the Reformation problem.

The Oratorio associated with the Church of Saint Mary in Vallicella was one of the dozens of societies, confraternities and academies in Rome that had appeared in the sixteenth century to pursue various religious and academic interests. Its congregation comprised cardinals and nobles who, in addition to strong support for the Counter–Reformation, fostered an interest in the word, spoken and sung. The Oratorio sponsored the performance of religious dramas for a number of decades in the latter part of the sixteenth century before presenting, in 1600, Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di anima, e di corpo (“Representation of Soul and of Body” — ‘representation’ in the theatrical sense).

Cavalieri was born into a noble Roman family, with all the advantages implied: his father, Tomasso, was one of Michelangeo’s favoriti. Emilio seems to have received his education in Rome, and was engaged for a time as organist for the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso (“Oratory of the Most Holy Emilio de’ Cavalieri
Emilio de’ Cavalieri
(Wikimedia Commons)
Crucifix”) at Saint Mark’s. In 1587, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici assumed his brother’s office as Grand Duke of Tuscany, and the next year invited Cavalieri to Florence as his new artistic director, where one of his first duties would have been to undertake the production of La Pellegrina. In addition to all his other talents — he was variously politician, diplomat, art collector, organ builder — Cavalieri knew how to choreograph an extravaganza. He wrote the dazzling O che nuovo miracolo that closes Pellegrina.

In succeeeding years at Florence, Cavalieri authored and produced pastorals which, at least according to Caccini, included no recitative. Instead, they were similar to the rappresentatione sacra, or sacred theatrical productions — dialogue, acting, song, dance — that had been popular at Florence earlier in the century. By 1599 however, he had returned to his home town, a result it seems of nasty court intrigues instigated by, among others, Peri and Caccini.

On his return to Rome, Cavalieri found the city gearing up for the Holy Year 1600, declared by Pope Clement VIII. Carnival had been forbidden. Instead, the entire year was to be given over to more sober enterprises characteristic of Lent. So in keeping with the new order, and with the Santa Maria Oratory’s already well–established tradition, Cavalieri produced his Rappresentatione before an audience whose approbation was manifest in tears, laughter, and calls for encores of the entire work. At least part of this reaction was due to Cavalieri’s use of monody: it was his proof that the stylo nuovo could as easily be used in a religious setting as a secular one. (The parallel with latter–day charismatics and evangelicals, complete with guitars and blue jeans, is inescapable.) The church was thoroughly modern and still relevant.

Because its subject matter was religious, Anima e corpo is sometimes characterized as the first oratorio — a religious drama without costumes or acting. But not only did it include action, there were spoken dialogue, costumes and dancing. In that respect, it has perhaps more claim to be the ‘first published opera ever performed’ than either of Peri’s or Caccini’s oeuvres. Only vaguely dramatic in a modern sense, Anima e corpo’s libretto by Agostino Manni is plotless. Rather, it comprises a succession of vignettes among personified characters like Body, Soul, Intellect, and Counsel who confront such metaphysical realities as Pleasure and The World in their quest to determine the true nature and goal of human life.

In Act One, various aspects of human existence debate among themselves concerning their true nature and destiny, with commentary by a chorus which, unlike those in the operas by Peri and Caccini, participates not at all in the action, but more or less recaps and embellishes what has already been said, in traditional Greek fashion. In Act Two, Body and Soul are tempted by Pleasure and his companions, who parade before them not only pastoral delights such as colourful meadows, shaded woods, and cool streams, but festive banquets, tasty dishes, beautiful clothing and perfumes, and all manner of indulgence. Body immediately changes his mind, but Soul is not deceived; she knows that these are unreal and deceitful. As Pleasure departs, a Guardian Angel appears to guide Body and Soul on their quest. Next, The World and worldly society appear, to tempt with power and treasure, making even Soul wonder if she cannot serve both. The World and his friends are soon unmasked through Angelic power to reveal that they are, after all, merely dust and death disguised. In the final Act Three, Souls in heaven and hell are each asked three times what is their fate, and respond each in their respective turns with eternal bliss or unending torment.

Cavalieri provided alternate endings for the production in the published version, one an all–cast tutti (“all”), the other a ballo (“dance”). In each, the audience is exhorted to grasp the true meaning of human existence. The work was published before its performance in February, 1600.

Cavalieri’s instructions on performance were relatively explicit for the day, in keeping with his prescriptions for performing new music. Ornaments should be kept to a minimum or dispensed with altogether; where required by the composer, they had been explicitly written out. Instruments were not specified, but producers were again encouraged to vary instrumentation and continuo support to suit the context. The singing was to be expressive according to the desired effect and the words.

All of the expected techniques of monody are there: the opening monologue by Il Tempo (“Time”) includes false relations and the chiaroscuro contrast between major and minor. Cavalieri’s use of sequence and repetition show, perhaps, a less theoretical, more pragamatic approach to the drama.

Cavalieri, Rappresentatione, excerpt

Arise, ye souls, again take bodies,

Again come, speak truth if you think it better

to serve the vain world or the King of Heaven?


Il Piacere (“Pleasure”) and his companions are accompanied by their own frivolous, carefree, sometimes comic music, among high male voices.

Cavalieri, Rappresentatione, excerpt

Who wishes joy, enjoys amusements and pleasure

Whenever you feel the call, come, come to enjoy,

Throw your troubles aside, run to delight with us.


Il Mondo (“World”), on the other hand, is taken by a baritone voice, with a more pompous and self–important mood.

Cavalieri, Rappresentatione, excerpt

I am the World whose grandeur abounds,

my stupendous arm reaches all places.


Before the appearance of the Angelo Custode (“Guardian Angel”) there is a popular echo scene, in which Anima (“Soul”) hears responses from heaven to her questions about the nature of pleasure, whom she and Corpo (“Body”) have just encountered.

The final act comprises a catechistic comparison between Heaven and Hell. While Intelleto (“Intellect”) in ascending figures exhorts the pursuit of heaven, Consiglio (“Counsel”) in slightly lower register and with descending melodies warns against the unending torment of Hell. In answer to their questions, Heaven and Hell open so that Souls damned and glorified can attest to their fate.



Michaelangelo, ’Last Judgment‘
Michaelangelo, ’Last Judgment‘
(Wikimedia Commons)
Of all the images in the Sistine Chapel, the best known is perhaps the iconic Creation, in which God imparts the spark of life to His just–created Adam. At the far end of the chapel, however, and at the other end of time, is Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in which souls are resurrected and once more take on flesh to face their ultimate destination: Eternity. At the centre of the fresco is the magnificent and terrible Christ, represented by Michelangelo in the likeness of his favorito Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, nobleman architect. One can imagine his son Emilio’s thoughts going again and again to this image as he penned the work for which he is best remembered.

⇐ Caccini, Euridice

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