British Library Treasures in full: Renaissance festival books
Main   The basics   Background   The texts   | Expert views   References   Links
Festival and the Renaissance and Early Modern court  1  2  3  4  5  6

1. Festivals in Italy

J.R. Mulryne

Italy, today a political entity, was in the Early Modern period a territory of politically and culturally diverse city states. For the purposes of civic and court pageantry, this diverse picture was further complicated by the military and political presence in the peninsula of foreign powers, including Spain, France and the Empire, and the related pageantry they generated. This introduction focuses on a small part only of the festival culture of what was undoubtedly the period’s richest concentration of pageantry.

Bonner Mitchell has summarised the origins of Italian pageantry as drawing on local traditions - including the San Giovanni processions in Florence, carnival parades in Rome, ceremonies associated from early times with the installation of the Pope, and the frequent processions to and through St Mark’s Square in Venice. He draws attention also to the influence of the re-discovered classical Roman triumph and of the medieval royal entry, particularly in France, carried into Italy by visiting or invading monarchs.

Doge of Venice, 1521
Beginning of the Promissio of Doge Grimani, setting forth the laws and customs of which he promised observance on his election as Doge of Venice, 21 July 1521.
BL Add. MS 18000, f.6v. Larger image

This pre-existing festival culture was enabled to develop into the potent and widely-distributed celebratory culture of the Early Modern period as a result of the efflorescence of literary, visual, musical, performative and mechanical-scientific achievement of the Renaissance. Visual art, notably Andrea Mantegna’s 15th-century Triumphs of Caesar, together with the engravings deriving from his huge canvases (now at Hampton Court near London), and such treatises as Sebastiano Serlio’s Tutte l’opere d’architettura (written in the early 16th century), served to spread the image of the buildings and arches of Rome across Europe, and thus profoundly influenced the design of festival architecture. Petrarch’s Trionfi, known in illustrated manuscript and in print from the early 16th century, virtually defined the form of the triumphal car.

The ceremonial life of Early Modern Rome centred on the Papacy. The election of the Pope and the ‘taking possession’ of his authority incorporated spectacular processions by way of the Via Papalis, the bestowing of a tiara, the public presentation of the new Pope on the steps of St Peter’s, and his designation as ‘the father of princes and kings, the master of the world’. Chariots representing mythological, historical (including ancient Roman) and allegorical subjects first appeared, according to Mitchell, in processions ordered by the city authorities during the papacy of Paul II in the 1460s, and thereafter became a common feature of festival display in Rome and beyond.

The city provided a high-profile location in which to honour allies and men of influence, as in the case in 1513 of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici, brother and nephew of Leo X, the Emperor Charles V in 1536 [0105], or when Marc’ Antonio Colonna, a victorious general at Lepanto, was awarded in 1571 a triumphal entry to the city in conscious emulation of ancient Roman practice [0178]. The architecture of ancient Rome, and especially the triumphal arches, most evidently that of Constantine, became the model for festival architecture across the continent.

Ferrara, in Bonner Mitchell’s words, ‘played a cultural role in Renaissance Italy quite out of proportion to its size and economic importance’. Under the Este marquesses and dukes, and especially Borso d’Este (1413-1471), Ercole I (1471-1505) and Alfonso II (1559-1597), the city produced a remarkable literary, dramatic and musical culture - one aspect of which was a thriving ceremonial life, including triumphal entries graced, from the latter half of the 15th century, by temporary arches, lavish costumes, house façades hung with tapestries, triumphal wagons and ‘machines’ of some mechanical complexity [0162, 0163].

Ferrara also stimulated the ceremonial life of other cities, as when Borso was invested with the title of Duke of Modena and Reggio by the Emperor Frederick III in 1452, and in the following year entered Modena and then Reggio in two magnificent classicising trionfi. Vigorous theatrical innovation, especially in the pastoral genre, including, notably, Tasso’s Aminta (1573) and Guarini’s Il pastor fido (1598), nourished the production not only of conventional plays but also tournaments (tornei) with allegorical themes and music dramas to rival those of Florence. The pageantry-laden climax of these developments coincided in 1598 with the political demise of the state, as Pope Clement VIII asserted his control over Ferrara, a move confirmed and celebrated by 11 months of festival.

Events included the abdication of Cesare d’Este and a triumphal entry for the Pope’s legate, Cardinal Aldobrandini, an extraordinary progress and entry by the Pope himself accompanied by a Host consecrated in St Peter’s, the reception of Venetian envoys and of Dukes Vincenzo of Mantua and Ranuccio of Parma and Piacenza, of the Spanish governor of Milan and, in the course of a splendid progress across Northern Italy, of the future Queen Margaret of Spain and her cousin the archduke Albert, each wedded by the Pope to royal partners, represented by proxies, the future Philip III of Spain and Isabel, daughter of Philip II.

Perhaps because of the physical isolation of Venice, surrounded by water, the concentration of the city’s pageantry on its own civic life, and on St Mark’s Square as location, was intense [0226]. Described by Edward Muir as ‘a peculiar hybrid of liturgical and ceremonial elements’, Venetian pageants and rituals honoured Church feasts, especially those of Holy Week and Easter, with black garments and a coffin containing the consecrated Host on Good Friday and brilliant costumes and a Quem Quaeritis trope on Easter Sunday. On Corpus Christi in 1506 the procession took more than five hours to pass; in 1606 it was used to defy the interdict of Pope Paul V against the city.

Non-liturgical occasions were equally prominent, to celebrate such events as the anniversaries of military triumphs (Doge Enrico Dandolo’s 1204 conquest of Constantinople, for example, or the victory in 1571 over the Turks at Lepanto), the reception of foreign ambassadors and princes (very notably, the visit of Henri III in 1574) [0033, 0034, 0035], momentous civic happenings such as the city’s release from plague, celebrated annually from 1577 by a communal procession, and, most important to civic government, the coronation and public display of the Doge (and on two occasions in the 16th century, the Dogaressa [0227]). Darker events, such as the punishment and mutilation or execution of criminals were also given ceremonial treatment.

All the civic shows, sumptuously costumed and symbol-laden, were meticulously structured and choreographed by a group of ceremonial specialists, with the gradations of social rank and authority emphatically marked, and the whole display calculated to underwrite, against much practical evidence to the contrary, the Europe-wide myth of Venice as an icon of liberty and republican good government.

Despite its troubled political history, Florence, rivalling and emulating Venice in equal measure, developed in the 16th century a brilliant and characteristic festival culture to complement and extend the usual ceremonial life of a Renaissance city. This distinctive Florentine culture culminated in the baroque period with such costly and sumptuous events as the wedding festivities for Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora of Toledo in 1539 [0188 and 0189], and the even more lavish ceremonies for his son the Grand Duke Ferdinando’s wedding with Christine of Lorraine, granddaughter of Henri II of France, in 1589 [0203, 0204, 0205].

The latter occasion entailed not only the expected entry procession for Christine, but was in James Saslow’s words ‘one of the outstanding late Renaissance landmarks of artistic creativity, encompassing art and architecture, theatre, music, and political-religious ceremonial’. In addition to such notable events as the naumachia or naval battle in the flooded courtyard of the Pitti Palace, the celebrations included the superb intermedi inserted between the acts of Girolamo Bargagli’s comedy La pellegrina, with their opportunities for music, dance and scenic display, including elaborate scenography and stage effects by Bernardo Buontalenti, music and stage direction by Emilio de’ Cavalieri and mythographical conception by Giovanni de’ Bardi, all serving to bolster Medici power and underline the new regime’s commitment to alliance with France. Hundreds of stage performers, musicians, dancers, singers, scene designers, actors, months of rehearsal, gorgeous costumes, costly jewellery and brilliant lighting effects combined to make the event not only a dazzling spectacle but also one that provided a considerable if short-lived boost to the Florentine economy. The event was noticed and copied across Europe.

Genoa, with a lower profile in modern historiography than Rome, Venice or Florence, and less noticed than Ferrara in the history of culture, nevertheless hosted in the 16th and 17th centuries a vigorous festival life that both supported its civic institutions and strengthened its foreign policy. The city’s republican constitution invited the creation of an elaborate ceremonial every two years for the installation of the Doge, with processions, cathedral worship and a public oration, subsequently published.

Foreign princes passed with some frequency through the city, situated as it was on an important trade and transport route. Charles V did so five times between 1529 and 1543, to be greeted with elaborate ceremonial and afforded the opportunity to consult princes, ambassadors and papal legates. The visit in 1548 of Don Felipe, the future Philip II, permitted the reaffirming of the city’s vital links with Spain. Rich through trade and the manufacture of silk and velvet goods, and forming a natural amphitheatre for festival display on land and sea, Genoa extended its frequent public rituals into brilliantly-costumed processions set within both temporary and, through the work of frescoists and the designers of façades, permanent festival architecture.

Tell me more:

Acknowledgements and further reading

This essay is principally indebted to the following studies:

Bonner Mitchell, The Majesty of the State: Triumphal Progresses of Foreign Sovereigns in Renaissance Italy (1494-1600) , (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1986)

Margaret M. McGowan, The Vision of Rome in Late Renaissance France (New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 2000)

Edward Muir, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981)

Bonner Mitchell (ed.) 1598: A Year of Pageantry in Late Renaissance Ferrara (Binghamton NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, SUNY, 1990)

James M. Saslow, Florentine Festival as 'Theatrum Mundi': The Medici Wedding of 1589 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996)

'Festivals in Genoa in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries', Chief Editor Maria Ines Aliverti, in J.R. Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and Margaret Shewring (eds.), 'Europa Triumphans': Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004), vol. I, pp. 219-358

L. Lockwood, Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400-1505 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)

Jean Jacquot, Les Fêtes de la Renaissance (Paris: CNRS, 3 vols, 1956, 1960 and 1975)

1. Festivals in Italy
2. Festivals in the Holy Roman Empire
3. Habsburg festivals
4. Festivals in Valois France
5. Festivals in Spain
6. Court and civic festivals in Tudor and early Stuart England