One of the most spectacular staged events of all time, certainly of the sixteenth century, took
place in 1589 in lavish celebration of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Princess Christina, daughter of Charles
III of Lorraine. Hoping to preserve and promote the prestige attached to his family name, Duke Ferdinando paid for the
La Pellegrina, Intermedio set design
Wikimedia Commons production of numerous festival books and other souvenirs of the event which, along with the written memoirs of invited guests, have survived.
Beginning in late fifteenth century Ferrara, intermedii (“intermissions”) consisting of
skits, songs or dances were performed between the acts of a play. They started out as relatively simple affairs using the same
scenery as was already onstage for the play, but as the productions became more elaborate, the intermedio
took on a life of its own, overshadowing the play it was originally meant to accompany. In 1539, Florence’s first
La Pellegrina, Intermedio set design
Wikimedia Commons intermedii were staged for the wedding celebrations of Cosimo I and Eleanora of Toledo, and they soon became a tradition on special occasions.
The music for almost all Florentine intermedii is lost, except for those of 1589, which came to be known as La Pellegrina (“The pilgrim woman”), named for the play by Girolamo Bargagli of Siena they were meant to embellish. The sheer scale of the production was staggering. It required the invention of sophisticated stage machinery, huge sets, dozens of costumes, and extraordinary choreography for scores of musicians, who performed both onstage and off. Among the famous musicians who contributed were Jacopo Peri, Cristofano Malvezzi, Giulio Caccini, and Luca Marenzio, along with Emilio de’ Cavalieri, who directed the affair; libretti were by Ottavio Rinuccini.
Earlier intermedii seldom had a unifying theme, but those for La Pellegrina commemorated Florence’s imagined Greek heritage, conceived by Giovanni de’ Bardi himself: the influence of music on humankind, in six separate intermedii:
- Primo: The Harmony of the Spheres, partly inspired by Plato’s Republic, celebrating the re–creation of ancient music, with the famous singer Vittoria Archilei (wife of lutenist and composer Antonio Archilei) in the role of Armonia (“Harmony”).
- Secondo: The mythological tale of the daughters of King Pierus who lose to the Muses in a singing contest, and so are turned into magpies.
- Terzo: Apollo slays the dragon at Delphi, complete with a staged battle between the protagonist and antagonist.
- Quarto: The defeat of all demons by the arrival of a golden age, featuring scenes of fire and brimstone.
- Quinto: Sailors proclaim their good fortune when Arion, apparent cause of their misfortune, is tossed overboard and swallowed by a dolphin. It featured the famous monody Dunque fra torbid’onde (“Thus in Murky Waters”) by Jacopo Peri, with its echo effects.
- Sesto: The gods rejoice in Jove’s gift of music to humankind, and the virtue of the happy couple.
Each intermedio was grander than the one before, building up to an all–cast song–and–dance marvel. The penultimate O fortunato giorno (“Oh Propitious Day”) was scored for thirty voices across seven choirs who volleyed back and forth in a manner easily outdoing the spectacle of San Marco:
The final O che nuovo miracolo (“Oh Such a New Miracle”) brings heaven to earth and praises the virtue of the couple in an extended performance of dance and song, the choir alternating with a soprano trio comprising Vittoria Archilei, and Lucia and Margarita Caccini, Giulio Caccini’s daughter and wife — clearly a nod to the guests from Ferrara.