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The Accademia degli Incogniti

Their shared approach to libretto-writing, in particular their attitude toward authority as a source of justifying precedent, can be traced to a common background. Almost without exception, the librettists of the 1640s traveled in the same intellectual and social circles. They were Venetian aristocrats, and they belonged to the Accademia degli Incogniti, the successor, in a sense, to the large number of Venetian academies that had sponsored theatrical entertainments since the middle of the sixteenth century.[6] Founded in 1630 by the patrician Giovanni Francesco Loredano, the Accademia degli Incogniti included among its members nearly every Venetian intellectual of any importance, many of them future senators or councilors, and also a number of prominent non-Venetians.[7] Indeed, for several decades the academy functioned as an unofficial seat of political power in Venice. Aside from personal contacts, the group wielded its influence through the publications of its members, most of them prodigious writers—of novels, moral essays, and religious tracts, as well as opera librettos. In fact, as we shall see in the next chapters, the Incogniti were much involved in the whole phenomenon of opera in Venice, not only as authors but as founders and managers of the most successful opera theater of the 1640s, the Novissimo, which flourished from 1641 to 1645. The commanding role of these literary patricians guaranteed the close connection between politics and early opera in Venice, a connection fundamental to the establishment and success of the genre on the lagoon.

The basic philosophy of the academy derived from the teachings of the Peripatetic Cesare Cremonini, professor of philosophy at the University of Padua, with whom many of the members had studied. Cremonini was notorious for his strict interpretations of Aristotle and his heterodox religious views—he was brought before the Inquisition several times. He inculcated in his students the necessity of questioning accepted dogma, and he forcefully promoted Aristotelian arguments against belief in God as creator and provider. Skeptical of the immortality of the soul, he preached the importance of the here


and now, and the value of physical pleasure above Christian morality. Such teaching set the intellectual and moral tone for our librettists, who had the opportunity of discussing the implications of their studies with Cremonini as well as many other matters at the meetings of their academy.[8]

Those meetings were usually organized as debates. The topics ranged from philosophical exchanges on such profound issues as the relationship (or not) between body and soul to the (perhaps) somewhat less serious question of the relative power of tears and song in promoting love.[9] Regardless of the significance of the question, all these debates required the same forensic skills, the ability to argue either side of a question with equal conviction. The Incogniti defended, on principle, the validity of multiple points of view, multiple interpretations. Equivocation and ambivalence were fundamental to their stand on all matters; they were taught to question every proposition, to see the other side of every issue.

The motto of the academy symbolized these aims: Ignoto Deo .[10] The political influence of the Incogniti, in keeping with their name, was usually covert and indirect, operating behind the scenes; and they often wrote in a secret, but obviously highly allusive, language. Their operatic involvements were not always overt either. While some of them affixed their own names to their librettos, others hid behind academic aliases or anonymity. Giacomo Badoaro, for example, left unsigned the letter to Monteverdi that prefaces Il ritorno d'Ulisse , and his authorship of the libretto itself is only revealed four years later in the preface to another libretto, Ulisse errante —or half revealed by his academic title "Assicurato Academico Incognito." In another case, the actual author of the libretto Amore innamorato (1642), which is signed by Giovanni Battista Fusconi, seems to have been intentionally obscured.[11]

These attitudes—the heavy emphasis on Aristotle, the training in debate, and the appreciation of equivocation promoted by the academy—strongly conditioned the impact of the Incogniti writers on the development of opera. The


very ambiguity of sung drama appealed to them. It gave them the opportunity to exercise their forensic skills, as illustrated by the variety of defenses and definitions they erected: classical precedent, the inconsistencies inherent in the ancient rules, their limited applicability to the present—all of these were marshaled in defense of their efforts. They wrote librettos that claimed to be tragedies in order to flaunt both their classical education, their knowledge of "the rules," and their iconoclastic tendencies, their commitment to the moment, their respect for modern taste.

The issue most crucial to them, to which they directed most of their defensive energies, involved the propriety of sung drama. This, of course, had been central to the Florentine theorists of opera half a century earlier, who had sought to defuse it in two somewhat contradictory ways: by the adoption of a musical style that was uninflected enough to pass for speech and by a choice of plots in which musical speech was appropriate. This double strategy is clearly articulated by the anonymous author of a Florentine treatise on opera from about 1630, Il corago :

To begin with characters or interlocutors that musical setting seems to suit best, for secular plots the ancient deities such as Apollo, Thetis, Neptune and other respected gods seem very appropriate, as do demigods and ancient heroes, among whom one might especially list rivers and lakes, and especially those most famous among the Muses, such as Peneus, the Tiber, and the Trasimenus, and above all those personages whom we consider to have been perfect musicians, such as Orpheus, Amphion, and the like. The reason for all this is that since each listener knows all too well that at least in the more familiar parts of the earth ordinary men do not speak in music, but plainly, speaking in music is more consonant with one's conception of superhuman characters than with the notion and experience one has of ordinary men; because, given that musical discourse is more elevated, more authoritative, sweeter, and more noble than ordinary speech, one attributes it to characters who, through a certain innate feeling, have more of a sublime or divine quality. (Appendix II. 1b)

The Florentine solutions, however, did not satisfy the requirements of Venetian librettists. They evidently did not regard the Florentine operas—assuming they even knew them—as sufficiently authoritative to justify their own activities. In any case, it was the Venetians' need to establish a pedigree for sung drama that provoked their interest in ancient theatrical practices. It was an interest that was to be shared by most subsequent theoreticians or critics of opera, including Metastasio.

Their ad hoc investigative procedure involved several steps: first, to establish that music had functioned in various ways in classical drama; then, to demonstrate the relationship of their works to classical drama, by pointing out either similarities or differences. Similarities naturally justified themselves, but differences required further differentiation of the source material. They could


be explained as deriving from inconsistencies or ambiguities in the classical authors themselves or else as reflecting the librettist's desire—condoned by those very same ancient authors—to satisfy modern taste, even if that meant going against tradition.[12]

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