Architecture and Singing in seventeenth century in Rome

Everything begins on June 15, 2015, on the occasion of the first modern public performance of the Missa ‘In angustia pestilentiæ’ for 16 voices and organ by Orazio Benevoli, for the cultural event ‘Baroque in Rome. Wonder of the Arts’ promoted by the Fondazione Roma[1].

I undertook the adventure of entering the world of Roman polychorality, still unknown to me at the time, if not for personal study during the course of organ composition.

I knew the sumptuous Venetian praxis of the Gabrieli, but very little of the Roman one of Benevoli. The commission for the concert, realized during the Festival of Renaissance and Baroque music La Cantoria Campitelli, led me to deepen my knowledge of the period of the Roman plague of 1656 and discover the coincidence with the arrival in Rome, a year earlier, of the Queen of Christina of Sweden.

The polycoral composition had already been transcribed in ancient notation by the great Laurence Feininger[2], giving me the opportunity to view the music more easily and to try with Paola Ronchetti to refine the work of musicological research and transcription in the shortest possible time.

From the very first pages of the Mass I could visually perceive the severe counterpoint of the 16th century and the innovative 17th century ternary rhythm, with elements of French-style counterpoint, as in the movement of the solo parts for soprano and alto by Christe.

Benevoli has the ability to create with his music mastodontic and solemn effects to fit into the greatness of the spaces of the Vatican basilica, for which the performance of the composition was intended. Orazio Benevoli was one of the most important composers of the Roman Baroque. Born in Rome in 1605, he joined the pueri cantores of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where he remained until 1623. The following year he became chapel master at Santa Maria in Trastevere and later at Santo Spirito in Saxia and San Luigi dei Francesi. In 1644 he went to Vienna in the service of Archduke Leopold William of Habsburg. Returning to Rome, after having been chapel master in Santa Maria Maggiore, on November 7, 1646 he became director of the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican, a position he held for more than twenty-five years, until his death on June 17, 1672. He was buried in Santo Spirito in Saxia with a solemn mass, attended by all the musicians of the chapel. He was also a member of the Congregation of Santa Cecilia, the most important Roman music academy founded in 1585 by Pope Sixtus V under the name of Compagnia dei Musici di Roma, of which he was first guardian in the teachers’ section in 1654, 1665 and 1667. Orazio Benevoli was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, in particular by musicians: just think of some chronicles of the period in which he was master of the Cappella Giulia. In the Diary of the Vatican Basilica from 1660 to 1669, on June 29, 1663, Giuseppe Balduini reports for example:

The second Vespero was sung […] by three Choirs, which the excellent Orazio Benevoli Maestro di Cappella made everyone marvel at with his works, to which one could deservedly give the title of non plus ultra[3].

Francesco Quadrani from Orvieto wrote in his Giornale Vaticano on November 18, 1671:

Mr. Oratio Benevoli di Cappella made sing a Mass of Superb Music composed again by him, that to hear it the first virtuosos of this profession who are in Rome concurred there, from which it was understood with great applause.

During the preparation for the concert of the performance of the Mass ‘In angustia pestilentiæ’, scheduled by the choir of the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, after the accommodation of the singers in the choirs (in the right balcony the first choir and to follow the other choirs in the center and left balcony, with the central choir where the monumental organ is located), the first problematic technical-executive thought was the distance between the voices and the tactus given by the conductor. The difficulty was solved with the system of ‘Count the bars’ as if you read from the books part.  In fact, in the seventeenth century it was the rule that singers read from books and every single voice had only its melodic line in front of it. Today the habit of reading in the score has prevailed, a performance with the parts separated is practically impossible if not for the voice alone, in fact the eye and the incorrect habit of modern singers requires everyone to have the complete score, although for this kind of music is a source of distraction, according to my experience.

I have been able to personally experience the performance practice from the chancels in various Roman chancels: as a cantor at the Pontifical Sistine Music Chapel, and previously as a cantor at the Liberian Music Chapel. Also as a cantor in other churches in Rome, in musical chapels or groups formed for the most varied occasions within celebrations in the extraordinary ancient Tridentine rite, until the present liturgy according to the missal of Paul VI. At each visit to the various churches and chancels of Rome, I found the history of the passage of illustrious musicians and singers marked with small graffiti nominals placed on the wooden balustrades of jealousies, in the organ boxes or on the walls next to the wooden choir.

The seventeenth-century Roman chancels are generally small in the basilicas or churches built in the second half of the century; with the exception of some that are a bit larger most of the chancels accommodate a maximum of four, six or eight singers per chancel, so the presence of singers was very limited, they were small organic but with strong and full voices, generous with harmonics.

In the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, there are four large chancels, designed to perhaps listen to mass or to sing. Only in the chancel on the left, located above the Altieri Chapel, also known as the Chapel of St. Joseph, the most precious of marble and history, in jealousy there are friezes representing musical instruments.

In the Diaries of Campitelli’s house there is an invitation to the Roman people to go and participate in the liturgy sung once a month on the occasion of the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament with the baroque machine and music performed from the balcony as well as a print of the time preserved in the OMD[4] archive.

With reference to the practice of musical reading, we recall the magnificent text by Giovanni Andrea Angelini Bontempi on how to instruct young singers and how singers were so professional in musical chapels that they did not have to rehearse beforehand and read admirably at first sight[5].

I myself have a memory of some singers accustomed to reading at first sight, about twenty years ago I met a jubilant Sistine singer, with a really splendid voice even in late age. The stories of these figures of the past enclose the experience lived in the Roman chantories: I barely remember in Rome Otello Felici, Ezio Musumeci, as a Sistine dean a few years ago and a child singer in the school of San Salvatore in Lauro at the time of Lorenzo Perosi under the guidance of fratel Pacifico dei Fratelli of the Christian schools. The last discipline refers to the personalities of the past with regard to the serious commitment that the little singers must have had when using the dreaded Melo-Plasta, a blackboard with a pentagram, the key of C or G, divided into three bars: in the first bar a flat ¯ was marked, in the second bar a bequadro Î and in the third bar a sharp ˜.The master places a black ball with a rod that raises and lowers on the pentagram according to the height of the sound he wants to hear from the pupil, forcing him to follow the intervals of various species, first very close and then increasingly farther and farther away; the teacher continually diverges the staff to train the pupil’s mind and speed in the execution of the far intervals. This instrument for the young singer was defined as torture, but a good teacher used all the techniques transmitted and acquired by the teachers in the schools of singing and counterpoint (in mind) in the schools of great Roman composers and chapel masters who came before him, including Orazio Benevoli. From the Treatise by Giovanni Andrea Angelini Bontempi, a cross-section of the cantor’s education is reported:[6]

The [singing] Schools of Rome oblige the Disciples to spend an hour every day in singing difficult and evil things, for the acquisition of the experience; another one, for the exercise of the Trill; another one in the one of ‘Passages’; another in the studies of the Letters; & another in the teachings & exercises of Singing, and under the hearing of the Master, and in front of a Mirror, to get used to a not far away inconsequential motion, neither of life, nor of face, nor of eyelashes, nor of mouth. And all these were the jobs of the morning. After half an hour, one takes a half hour in the teaching of Theoretical interests: another half hour in the Contrapunto above the Canto fermo; an hour in receiving and putting into practice the documents of the Contrapunto above the Folder; another hour in the studies of the Letters; & the rest of the day in practicing the sound of the Harpsichord; in the composition of some Psalm, or Motet, or Song, or other type of Song, according to one’s genius. And these were the ordinary exercises of that day when I and the Disciples did not leave the House. The Exercise outside the house, was to go often to sing and hear the answer from an Eco outside the Porta Angelica, towards Monte Mario, to make himself the judge of his own accents, to sing almost all the music that is performed in the Churches of Rome, and to observe the manners of singing of many distinguished singers who flourished in the pontificate of Urbano Ottavo; to practice on them, and to give the reasons to the Master, when you return to a house: who will then imprint himself in the mind of the Disciples, he will find on them the necessary speeches, and give the necessary warnings. These were the exercises, this, [sic] the school that we above harmonic music [e.g. art music] had in Rome from Virgilio Mazzocchi, distinguished professor, and Maestro di Cappella di S. Pietro in the Vatican; since new enlightenment to this Scientia; […].

An interesting picture of the situation in Rome made in 1694 by Giovanni Paolo Colonna from Bologna reveals that thirteen out of twenty-five chapels considered in the document were formed by only four or five singers[7]. It can be assumed that a permanent chapel in 17th century Rome rehearsed and ‘studied’ musical programs for liturgical use under the direction of their master, according to the requirements of the necessary liturgy. This was not the case of large festivals, during which polycoral music was performed, although most of the extra singers were usually employed in a few days before the event[8]. As Jean Lionnet[9] wrote, the Pointers’ Books of the Papal Chapel confirm that singers who participated in musical productions outside the chapel were exempt from attendance no more than two days before the appointment. In the case of a rare performance of eight choirs in S. Maria Maggiore in 1667, we know that the chapter of the basilica officially decided for festive music on July 3; the performance took place on July 10. In this rather long period of preparation, however, the teacher had to organize ninety singers and instrumentalists. The Sistine singers also participated in solemn liturgies inside the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. In the Diary of Francesco Leonardi[10] is contained the following note[11]:

MARTIVS Miseratione Divina Episcopus Albanen. H.R.E. Cardinalis Ginettus,

  1. D. N. Papæ Vicarius Generalis, Romanæque Curiæ, eiusque districuts

Iudex ordinarius Etc.

The Holiness of N.S.Papa ALESSANDRO VII.

He grants Plenary Indulgence and remission of sins to all the faithful Christians of the One and the other sex, who are truly repentant, confessed, and communiqués will intervene at the Solemn Procession, which will take place next Sunday of the Fifteenth Three of March at hour 20. With the intervention of His Holiness, the Chapters of the Basilicas, Collegiates, and Secular Clergy, and Regular from the Church of St. John of God. Maria d’Araceli to that of S. Maria in Portico, that is to say, they will visit on that day the said Churches, & there they will thank His Divine Majesty of Health already perfectly granted to the City of Rome, and the whole Ecclesiastical State, praying according to the holy mind of His Beatitude. In Rome there 28. February 1658.

M.A. Episc. Hierapolitanus Vicesg. […]

IN ROME, In the Press Office of the Rev. Camera Apostolica. 1658.

Here is how Francesco Leonardi reports the event[12]:

March 1658. Of express order of His Holiness of N. S. it was commanded to all the Canons of the Patriarchal, Collegiate, Secular Curates, et Regular, friars, et others of the Roman Clergy used to come to the Procession of S. Mark, that next Sunday 3 of March, must be found to hours 20 with the usual music, in the church of S. Maria di Araceli in order to intervene to the solemn procession, that will be made with the intervention of S. S.tà from the d.ta church to that of S. Mark. ta Maria in Portico, and send the procession of the sopranos of Ciaschd.o Cap[itu]li, and the Regulars of Ciaschd.a Religion will intone the hinno Te Deum Laudamus in front of the high altar of Araceli continuing the song with due pause for the road to signify them in voice until d. he Church of S.ta Maria in Portico, in which they will enter for the p.a Porticella and made the genuflection to the main Altar they will go out immediately without stopping from the other porticella, […] in Rome li 28 Febraro 1658. 


The Pope was accompanied by the Sistine singers who enriched the liturgical function with song.

[…] all entering sang the Te Deum, the Pope arrived with the Cardinals and genuflected them here and there the Pope stopped at the bottom of the Church on a carpet and a pillow then blessed the incense and took the asperse, asperse if and all of the Church and it was incensed by Cardinal Francesco and in blessing the incense Cardinal Francesco Vice King […] held the thurible, and Cardinal Colonna p. . o de preti la nave, then went to his genuflexero ahead the Imagine, and the musicians standing on one side of the Presbytery to cornu epistle began the Te Deum and this finished said the Prayer and then imposed with his hands the Imagine and then the musicians said the Antifona Sub tuum presidium […][13].


Work began immediately to build the new temple to be dedicated to Santa Maria in Portico, the project was entrusted to the architect Carlo Rainaldi, who was also a musician.

As Arnaldo Morelli writes at the end of his essay on Carlo Rainaldi, musician and gentleman[14].

‘Rainaldi’s musical practice was not confined to a private amateur sphere, but represented an ‘ornament’, one of the ‘virtues’ that allowed him to rise from the condition of a simple professional to that of a gentleman of the court, ‘loved and held in great esteem by princes’’.

I wanted to bring my contribution as a practical musician. I am convinced that the music of the seventeenth century should be performed by the cantorie, in the light of my experience.

In conclusion, I believe that the world of early music is mature enough to finally be able to offer 17th century music in the architectural places for which it was created.

This model of execution will succeed in reviving the listener the same acoustic effect that it should have had in its time.

[1] The event was organized by the Fondazione Roma-Arte-Musei for the enhancement of the historical, artistic and architectural baroque heritage of the city and the territory.

[2] Orazio Benevoli, Missa pro gratiarum actione “in angustia pestilentiæ” 16 vocum / Orazio Benevoli; prefatio Lorenzo Feininger, Mirabili arte composita primum in lucem edita secundum codicum fidem, [Score], Romae: Societas Universalis Sanctae Ceciliae, 1963, Monumenta liturgiae polychoralis Sanctae Ecclesiae Romanae, ordinarium Missae cum quatuor choris: Serie 1/A; Orazio Benevoli, 3/1. Missa “in distustia pestilentiæ” 16 XVI vocum / Horatii Benevoli, [Score], Collection: Monumenta liturgiae polychoralis Sanctae Ecclesiae Romanae. Horatii Benevoli Opera Omnia, tomus III N.1, Tridenti, Societas universalis Sanctae Ceciliae, 1973.

[3] The parts of the Diaries are taken from the publication edited by Paola Ronchetti: Orazio Benevoli Maestro di Cappella della Basilica di San Pietro (1605-1672), Missa in Angustia Pestilentiae a 16 voci (1656), critical edition edited by P. Ronchetti, Rome, IBIMUS, 2017, pp. XII-XIII. See also: Paola Ronchetti, “Vespers betrayed, murdered” I maestri della Cappella Giulia, Orazio Benevoli and Antonio Masini, in the 17th century manuscript sources, in Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, Number 3 July / September 2012, pp. 339-348.

[4] Paola Ronchetti, Polyphonic singing and solo motet in Rome, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, Polyphonies and musical chapels in the Age of Alessandro Scarlatti, Proceedings of the International Conference of Studies, in memory of Roberto Pagano (Reggio Calabria, 2-3 oobre 2015), edited by Gaetano Pitarresi, Reggio Calabria, Edizioni del Conservatorio di musica “F. Cilea”, 2019.

[5] Giovanni Andrea Angelini Bontempi, Historia Musica, Perugia, Pe’ l Costantini, 1695.

[6] G. A. Angelini Bontempi, Historia Musica, Op. cit., pag. 170

[7] See:  Oscar Mischiati, Una statistica della musica a Roma nel 1694, in “Note d’archivio Nuova serie”, I ,1983, pp. 209-227.

[8] The same situation is very widespread unfortunately even today, in fact, extraordinary singers are summoned only close to the sung liturgy.

[9] JEAN LIONNET, Les «Diari Sistini», sources importantes pour l’historie de la Chapelle Pontificale, in «Parve che Sirio…rimembrasse una florida primavera». Scritti sulla musica a Roma nel Seicento con un inedito, a cura di Galliano Ciliberti, Bari, Florestano Editori, 2018, pp. 35-56.

[10] Archivio OMD, LEONARDI P. FRANCESCO, 1609‑1661, Diario della Nostra Congregazione.

[11] The notice, kept at the WCO Archives, has already been published in: Paola Ronchetti, Canto polifonico e motetto soloistico a Roma, tra Seicento e Settecento, nella chiesa di Santa Maria in Campitelli, Op. cit., pag. 33

[12] Archivio OMD, LEONARDI P. FRANCESCO, 1609‑1661, Diario della Nostra Congregazione, Op. cit.

[13] See: Paola Ronchetti, Polyphonic singing and solo motet in Rome, between the 17th and 18th centuries, in the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, Op. cit.

[14] ARNALDO MORELLI, Carlo Rainaldi musicista gentiluomo: una riconsiderazione e qualche novità, in La Festa delle Arti. Scritti in onore di Marcello Fagiolo per cinquant’anni di studi, a cura di Vincenzo Cazzato, Sebastiano Roberto, Mario Bevilacqua, Roma, Gangemi Editore, 2014, I, pp. 454‑457.

Traduzione di Annamaria Fonti

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