Being far too busy with trading pursuits to devote resources to a continuing rivalry with Milan, the Venetian Republic instead put some of its wealth to use in hiring members of the Gonzaga family of Mantua as condottiere. The word Duchy of Mantua
Duchy of Mantua
(Derivative) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
originally signified a ‘contractor,’ and later came to mean a military leader, but in this context is perhaps best rendered as ‘mercernary.’ A considerable amount of the Gonzagas’ reward took the form of small Lombard towns that were too small for Venice to take any interest in.

The city of Mantua is surrounded on three sides by artificial lakes fed by the river Mincio; they were created in the twelfth century in defense of the city. A fourteenth century revolt brought the Gonzaga family to power, following which they built additional fortifications around the city. And while the city prospered in the cloth trade, wool and silks, particularly under Lodovico (1414 – 1478), the Gonzagas were not so naïve as to fall dependent on Venice. They occasionally ‘contracted’ for Milan as well, thus acting as both physical and political buffer between the two.

Like most other courts during the Renaissance, the Gonzaga of Mantua were notable patrons of the arts. Painters Ludovico II Gonzaga (1474)
Ludovico II Gonzaga (1474)
(Wikimedia Commons)
like Mantegna and Rubens, and poets like Tasso and Guarini were associated with the Mantuan court. Guglielmo Gonzaga, who became duke in 1550, was especially fond of music, and employed Giaches de Wert as his maestro di capella. Guglielmo had extensive correspondence with Palestrina in Rome, and was himself something of a gentleman–composer.

Guglielmo was succeeded as duke by his son Vincenzo I in 1587, who proved himself an extraordinarily average ruler. Vincenzo I Gonzaga
Vincenzo I Gonzaga
(Wikimedia Commons)
While both a serious and generous patron of the arts and a devout Catholic who devoted vast sums to churches and monasteries and planned holy pilgrimages, he was also a busy womanizer. He divorced his first wife Margherita Farnese in 1587 and married Eleonara de’ Medici, yet in 1591 planned the production of and began rehearsals for Guarini’s Il pastor fido (“The Faithful Shepherd”), complete with musical intermedii, in honour of his mistress Agnese Argotta, the Marchess of Grana.

The remarkable adventure of Claudio Monteverdi began, naturally enough, in his birthplace of Cremona, one of the cities of northern Italy famous for its violin makers, like the Guarneri and Stradiveri. Monteverdi’s Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1597
Claudio Monteverdi, ca. 1597
exact date of birth is unknown, but he was baptized 15 May 1567. Little of his earliest life is known for certain, but he appears to have received his musical education in the service of the church, perhaps at Cremona Cathedral. At the age of fifteen, he published through Venice’s Gardano publishing house a book of motets, wherein he names himself a pupil of Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, maestro di capella at the cathedral. Within four years, he had further published a book of four–part madrigali spirituali (“spiritual madrigals”), a set of three–voice canzonette (“little songs”) and his Primo libro de madrigali a 5 voce (“First book of madrigals for five voices”). Clearly he had outgrown Cremona.

Yet it is not known for sure exactly when Monteverdi left his home town: he did make an unsuccessful attempt to gain a post in Milan, and his first book of madrigals bore a dedication to a Veronese Count. Back in Cremona, he prepared to publish his Secondo libro di madrigali (“Second book of madrigals”) dedicated to Giacomo Ricardi through whom he had sought employment in Milan. By 1592, he was listed as suonatore di vivuola (violinist) to Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua, and was about to publish his Terzo libro di madrigali (“Third book of madrigals”).

Accounts of the prodigious early lives of individuals like Monteverdi are often met with a modicum of incredulity. He was obviously a truly remarkable individual, and the story of the development of the early Baroque movement in music in many ways parallels the spectacular achievements Monteverdi still had ahead of him.

Monteverdi, Son questi i crespi crini?

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