Sunday, October 17, 2021

Scandal in the Papal chapel

Giovanni Antonio Merlo, a 16th century papal singer, left behind one of the very earliest of diaries. Though largely full of financial details, it also covers some historical events and a few insights into choir politics. One entry, for example, from 450 years ago, details the internal squabbling over the recruitment of a new singer, and how the pope himself (Pius v, pictured) became involved. Other entries record some (amusing) remedies for common health complaints.

There is very little biographical information about Merlo available online (not even a Wikipedia entry), and what is known comes from his diary - a paper manuscript of thirty-six folios bound in parchment - housed in the Vatican archives. He joined the papal chapel in September 1551 after having served in the Cappella Giulia, and remained until his death on 28 December 1588. At various times he seems to have been in the employ of Cardinal Sermoneta (in 1559) and Cardinal Farnese (in 1569), and in later life (1575-1580) receiving a pension from the pope.

Merlo’s manuscripts were the subject of a paper read by Richard Sherr before the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society in Boston 1977. The following year, the paper was published in Current Musicology (issue 25) - available online here. It has since been reproduced in other publications, most recently Sherr’s own Music and Musicians in Renaissance Rome and Other Courts (Routledge, 2019), which can be previewed at Googlebooks.

According to Sherr, the manuscript contains notes and jottings made between 1559 and 1588, in approximately chronological order. Included are drafts of correspondence and memoranda, lists of assets and debits, and mention of historical events (there is even a fragment of music), all combining to give an idea of the daily concerns of a typical papal singer in the second half of the 16th century. 

The majority of entries in the diary concerns Merlo’s finances. As a member of the papal chapel, he received a monthly salary, gratuities by celebrants of masses and by newly created cardinals, as well as special payments made in the period between the death of one pope and the election of his successor. Apart from the financial records, important feast days are mentioned (the celebrant, the number of singers attending, and the tip given each singer). Historical events are occasionally recorded - such as this one: ‘On 6 March 1561, Cardinal Caraffa was strangled in the Castello, and his brother the Duke had his head cut off along with the Count di Alife his brother-in-law and Don Leonardo de Chardini. Requiescant in pace.’

Merlo also describes, from his own experience, an ‘event of much importance’ involving Pope Pius V, as follows.

‘In 1571 in the time of Msgr. Sacrista and our maestro di cappella named Giuseppe, there occurred an event of much importance, which was this. It being the occasion for us to receive singers into our chapel, our maestro proposed three, one called M. Ippolito, another M. Tomasso, and the third M. Francesco. We voted, and the first had twelve votes, the second seven, and the third nine, and there were eighteen of us voting, so that none of them had the number of votes required by our statutes, and they were all rejected. But nonetheless, the said maestro with the help of our protector Cardinal Morone [obtained] by telling him certain things against us, managed to get them admitted even though it was against our statutes, and one Saturday morning gave them the cotta all without our consent. We immediately sent a memorandum to His Holiness telling him what had happened and that he had been deceived, and that we, having sworn fealty to him were only doing our duty in letting him know, although His Holiness was the master and could do anything he wished. And also we went to Msgr. Carniglia as superintendant of the papal household and asked him if he would please have a word with His Holiness, and the said Msgr. talked about it to the pope who, hearing that they (the singers) had not been admitted according to the correct manner, ordered that they be sent on their way. And the three singers served with cotta for a whole month including a papal Mass, and at the beginning of the next month they were fired all three by the said maestro, something which had not occurred in many years. I say this honestly so that you who will come after us will maintain our constitution and do as we did for the good of those who will come later, as our predecessors have done for us. Furthermore, after fifteen days, we reconsidered the contralto of the three named M. Ippolito because Msgr. the maestro di cappella said that this Ippolito had complained to His Holiness saying that he had had two-thirds of the vote, and since only one [more vote] was needed, asking that His Holiness have the goodness to admit him into the chapel, even more so because one of our singers named Don Paulo Biancho was sick and therefore could not attend on the day of the voting, but was there when the said singers were auditioned and, having heard him and being satisfied, gave him his vote in writing. And this was given to the maestro so it appeared that he should be admitted because of this, although there was much debate concerning this vote sent in writing; whether it was valid or not. But the thing was not decided for lack of precedent and rested impending in the time of Pius V, 1571, the month of February.’

The diary ends with a number of miscellaneous notes, Sherr says: a homily to patience, information concerning indulgences, fragments of poetry, and some home remedies, two of which he quotes ‘for the benefit of those who may find themselves stranded and afflicted in Italy some day.’

‘Prescription for constipation. Take six ounces of fine steel which is not rusty and heat it (red hot] and then plunge it in water. And then polish it finely and soak it in strong white vinegar and remove the foam that appears. And continue to change the vinegar four times a day for three days in a row. Then let [the steel] dry on a clean and dry wooden cutting block, and then put it in a flask of mature, very clear white wine, and leave it for the space of three days. And then begin to take six ounces of that wine in the morning when the sun rises and take five ounces in the evening three hours before dinner, and get used to doing this in the morning and the evening continuing to take the said amount of wine and replacing in the morning and evening the amount taken until you judge that there is enough left in the flask to last until the end of a month.’

‘For the liver. Take three gold ducats [weighing] three cogni and take a white clay saucer with running water [in it], and make the sign of the Cross over the water. Turn to the East and take one of the ducats and touch your body or clothes and say, “Bile return to the cow and gold return to water, bile return to the ox and water return to gold.” And each time throw the ducat in the water, and do this nine times. And this should be done on Thursdays and on Sundays before the sun rises and before it sets.’

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