The Haut and Bas of it: Two Renaissance Virtuosi in Ferrara

 Tinney S. Heath.  That’s her name.  Remember it. 

I first encountered her when she got in touch because she liked my books. 

Which obviously made not just my day but my week.  But then…then I discovered she had a skill…a talent which was so amazingly wonderful, indeed so–to use John Donne’s word–sesquisuperlative, that I had to beg her to write a blog about it–any aspect of it, I didn’t care. 

Because you see, she is one of those truly splendid individuals who performs Renaissance music on original instruments.

Yes, this is up there with ‘Bennetts has died and gone to heaven…’ 

She’s also written a rather interesting work of historical fiction sent in the time of Dante’s Italy.  More on that later.  But now, please tuck yourselves in with a nice tub of Ben and Jerry’s to read about, to learn about the best of Italian Renaissance music and through her knowledge and her love of her subject, to see, to be in the room even, with Renaissance Ferrara’s finest…

So here she is, Tinney S.  Heath.

“Corrado de Alamagna.  He was a piffaro so skilled that his name was known throughout fifteenth-century Italy;  a shawm player who became the best-paid musician in the court of the Este family; a musician whom other Renaissance princes tried unsuccessfully to lure away from Ferrara to enter service in their cities. 

“For forty years Corrado was the unquestioned star of Ferrara’s haut, or loud, ensemble, which was described by contemporary chronicler Ugo Caleffini in 1476 as “the best in Italy.” 

“Pietrobono del Chitarino.  He was a lute player celebrated by poets and humanist writers but also by music theorists; a sublimely gifted improviser; a musician in the bas (soft) tradition whose talents were  coveted in other Italian courts, even if only on a loan basis; a man commemorated with a portrait medallion and raised to the ranks of the nobility for his skills. 

“Of him, the poet Antonio Cornazzano wrote “Whoever wishes to pass from one world to another, should hear Pietrobono’s playing.”

“First, a couple of definitions.  Piffaro (or piffero) refers to a shawm, or to a shawm player.  The shawm is a very loud double-reed woodwind instrument played in Europe from the 13th through the 17th century.  Ancestor to the oboe, descendant of the even more raucous instrument brought home by crusaders, it was typically played outdoors or in large halls, usually in the company of bagpipes (in the middle ages) or brass instruments (in the Renaissance).  It gained in refinement through those centuries, but did not lose its sheer power.

“And Pietrobono is “del Chitarino,” which suggests that he should be playing a guitar-like instrument, but all indications are that his principal instrument was the lute, and those who wrote about him playing a chitarino or a cithera were just being poetic.

“The parallels in the careers of these two undisputed musical geniuses are striking. 

“Both men entered the service of the Este court as young men, during the last months of the reign of Niccolò III d’Este.  They came into their own in the reign of Leonello which began late in 1441.  And both served throughout Leonello’s nine-year reign, throughout the 21-year reign of his brother and successor Borso, and well into the 34-year reign of Borso’s successor Ercole I, who ruled from 1471 to 1505 – Corrado on the payroll for ten years into Ercole’s reign, Pietrobono for 26 years.

“Both of them were well paid.  And both were valued by the Este rulers as the status symbols they certainly were, as well as for the undeniable pleasure their music provided their employers. 

“Both taught promising students, sent to them from Mantua and other cities. 

“Both had managerial responsibilities in their respective musical spheres, Corrado for his haut ensemble and Pietrobono for his tenorista, the player who provided the slow-moving melody line (probably on a bowed string instrument) for the lute virtuoso to improvise around. 

“Both received valuable gifts from their appreciative employers – a house (or use of a house) for Corrado, additional sources of income for Pietrobono in the form of revenues from a local import tax, grain and clothing and generous monetary gifts to both. 

“Both were sent on expeditions to faraway lands to recruit other musicians, or to perform other tasks for their Este employers.

“Both of them were capable of playing complex polyphonic compositions.  And both of them were gifted improvisers of polyphonic music, Corrado (and his ensemble) extemporizing dance music according to the rules of discant, and Pietrobono creating lute pyrotechnics around the steady basis provided by his patient – and not very well paid – tenorista.

“Yet today we cannot point to one single written note of music that we know with certainty either one of them played.

“There is a manuscript, Rome Casanatense 2856, called the Ferrarese wind band manuscript, which contains polyphonic music Corrado and his group probably did perform, though their performances would have abounded in ornaments and improvisations that are lost to us – were lost in fact the moment the notes faded away. 

“But much of the music the haut ensemble performed would never have been written down.  It existed at all only as a function of memory, a thorough knowledge of applied musical theory, and improvisational skill and imagination.  These musicians – both Corrado and Pietrobono – were quite literally making it up as they went along. 

“How is it that two such geniuses, almost exact contemporaries, came together in the Ferrarese court in a single year?

“One might assume that Ferrara was some sort of musical hotbed, some artistic center that drew such talent to itself, but it was not so. 

“Under Niccolò (and before him), Ferrara was actually something of a musical backwater, though this was to change dramatically, first under N’s illegitimate son Leonello and later under his next illegitimate son, Leonello’s brother Borso. 

“(Ercole was actually legitimate, though he had to wait his turn, and even then was challenged by a son of Leonello’s.  Perhaps Niccolò was sensitive to the plight of Ercole’s older half-brothers, having been legitimated himself.)

“It all started with Leonello though, a lover of music who played both organ and lute. 

“His investment in Ferrara’s cultural life was not limited to music.  He founded Ferrara’s university, gradually adding eminent scholars to its faculty.  He employed copyists to produce manuscripts, classical texts but also works in Italian and in French.  He launched Ferrara’s tradition of miniature painting and patronized studio painters such as Pisanello, who was regularly employed at court from about the same time Corrado and Pietrobono were.  

“By the end of Leonello’s reign, Ferrara boasted a roster of 14 instrumentalists:  five trombetti (these were the trumpeters who played fanfares and served a function more heraldic than musical), Agostino the trombone player, piffari Corrado di Alemagna and Zoanne de Alemagna, harpist Paolo Grillo, lutenist Pietrobono del Chitarino and his tenorista Malacise, keyboard player Leonello Fiescho, and a singer named Niccolò Tedesco, listed among the instrumentalists because he accompanied his own singing on a plucked string instrument (lute or cittern).

“Borso, in his turn, was responsible for two of the treasures of the Italian Renaissance:  the delightful frescoes by a number of different artists in the Palazzo Schifanoia (which means “banish boredom,” and well it might); and the magnificent “Borso Bible,” which contains over a thousand miniatures in dazzling colors and exquisite detail.  He also continued supporting the Ferrara court’s instrumental ensembles, including making every effort to keep Corrado and Pietrobono from seeking greener pastures elsewhere. 

“Pietrobono may have outlived his preeminence in the court of Ercole, who put a lot of emphasis on hiring excellent singers for his chapel, adding organists, and, later in his reign, building up an ensemble of viols.  As the aging lutenist approached the end of his life (he died at 80), younger lutenists came to prominence.

“The two virtuosos, despite all similarities, had very different backgrounds. 

“As his name suggests, Corrado de Alamagna was from Germany, or at least from a German-speaking country (Italians of the 15th century could be a bit casual about their national labels).  He was working in the court of Monferrato when he was recruited for service in Ferrara, serving the marquis Giovanni Giacomo Paleologo. 

“Monferrato existed in the shadow of Saxony, so it’s possible that Corrado’s first employment in Italy was not very far from his home.  At this time it was believed that the best haut musicians came from Germany, so Italian courts and cities did their utmost to attract German players. 

“Florence, for example, had a law on the books at about mid-century stipulating that all shawm players in the employ of the city had to be foreigners.  Shortly after taking employment in Ferrara, Corrado sent for his wife, who joined him there.  After only a few years he was granted Ferrarese citizenship, in recognition of his widely-admired skill. 

“Pietrobono is on record as serving as Leonello’s barber (a sort of personal medic as well as a hair-snipper) when he first appeared on the Ferrarese payroll, but he almost certainly was hired for his musicianship and was first and foremost a performer, even at the outset.  He was probably more of a valet than an actual barber. 

“He became a very wealthy man thanks to the many gifts and favors he received from his Este employers throughout the decades he served.  Yet he was still a servant.  For proof, see a letter from Ercole to his wife Eleanora, concerning a pending journey to Hungary:  “As for Pietrobono, who says that he can’t go, see that he prepares himself to go, and be sure that he goes in any case…”  Pietrobono was 69 years old at the time.

“Looking at just one sample list of monthly salaries (1456, a few years into Borso’s reign), we see a striking gap between the compensation of the two, with Corrado earning 30 lire marchesane and Pietrobono only 8. 

“It would be unwise to read too much into this disparity, though.  Pietrobono’s salary may have been more on the order of a retainer, and certainly it was augmented by lavish gifts and recompense on many occasions.  (Twenty years later the gap had narrowed, but was still there.) 

“The list shows that all trumpet players earned 10, as did the trombone player; the second shawm player earned 8, the organist 12, the harpist 4, and poor Malacise the tenorista earned only 2. 

“In comparison, the head cook earned 6, dancing master Domenico da Piacenza (famous in his own right) earned 20, and the court’s bird-handlers earned variously from 4 to 13. 

“Leading the pack was the well-known Renaissance physician Michele de la Savonarola, grandfather to the reforming Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola whose bonfires of the vanities and other attempts to render Florentine society more godly were to cause him to lock horns with the Borgia pope and meet his end by being burned at the stake in 1498.

“Were Corrado and Pietrobono friends?  They served the Este court together for forty years. 

“Were they rivals? 

“Were there ever occasions when they performed together?

“Could they have performed together? 

“Naturally, the Este-of-the-moment would have been eager to show off both of his musical treasures on special occasions, or when important visitors arrived. 

“But if you have a shawm and a lute playing at the same time, what you’re going to hear is a shawm solo.  The lute would merely look pretty. 

“Corrado was likely capable of playing other wind instruments, some, like the recorder, quiet enough to play with a  lute – but then it wouldn’t be Corrado on shawm, which would pretty much defeat the purpose.

“But I think it may have gone something like this:

“Let’s assume that Duke Ricco il Magnifico is paying a visit.  A politically and socially important, we-have-to-impress-this-guy kind of a visit.

“First, the trombetti add their fanfares to the party of dignitaries that welcomes Duke Ricco at the city’s gate.  It’s certainly possible that Corrado and his ensemble are with them, either on horseback or marching in procession.  If they are, they will be adding their power and volume to what the trumpeters are doing, or, possibly, playing in alternation with them.

“Or, they may be stationed somewhere prominent – probably on a raised platform — en route, ready to perform polyphonic music for the visitor, almost certainly from memory and enhanced by (carefully planned and rehearsed) improvisation.

“Either way, once Duke Ricco reaches the palace, he’ll be ushered inside, welcomed into the inner sanctum, and probably entertained by Pietrobono and his underpaid tenorista sidekick, playing something wonderful and showy for him.

“Perhaps then they’ll repair to the hall for a feast.  That, at least, will give us a chance to have the two superstars in the same room at the same time.  Corrado and his associates can take their places in the musicians’ gallery and play during parts of the feast, and the trombetti can blow their fanfares to announce the food as it is brought in.

“Then Pietrobono and his tenorista can settle themselves down near the head table and play for the distinguished guest and his host (never mind if no one else in the hall can hear them).  And while they’re playing, Corrado can either rest his embouchure, or, if Duke Ricco brought his own musicians with him, maybe Corrado and the Duke’s piffari can trade a little repertoire and swap ideas.  It’s a good opportunity for them, and they will want to take advantage of it.

“When the tables are put away and it’s time for dancing, the shawm band once again comes into its own. 

“But Pietrobono can’t pack up his lute and go home just yet; it’s very likely that the Duke will be treated to a little intimate late-night concert before he retires.

“I don’t know about you, but I like to think the two men were friends. 

“I believe they were each professional enough to appreciate the other’s skill, and they were not directly in competition.  Maybe their wives got along well, and their children played together.  Certainly the two of them grew old together, as they watched other musicians come and go.

“We’ll never know.  But maybe, once Duke Ricco and his Este host finally called it a night, the two musicians would kick back and relax, share some wine, and crack jokes at the expense of their august employers.

“At least, that’s what every musician I know would have done.”

For further information and fascinating insights, please visit Tinney’s website and blog:


A Matter of Reputation…

Time has a funny habit of softening the memory of things.  Of dulling the edges of pain, blurring the focus, and letting the unspeakable fall away, unmentioned and unlamented, to be replaced by a kinder, gentler, more palatable version of events and people past.

Unless, of course, those events are constantly kept alive, in their full horror, and mankind is kept from relegating them to a place behind the forgetful cushion of time.  Like with the Holocaust or the Killing Fields of Rwanda or Cambodia…

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon led his country and all of Europe to the verge of utter ruin and desolation. 

People–looking through the tinted lenses of his propaganda-enhanced reputation–tell me I exaggerate, that I’m unkind for so saying, or that I look only at one side (my side) of the story. 

But you see, that’s exactly what I don’t do. 

One of the great achievements for an historian and author is to learn not to think for oneself, but rather to learn what they who lived through the events–both grand and catastrophic–thought, what they felt about the events which had overtaken them, what they perceived as viable solutions to their crises great and small…

By the time French troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they had a reputation for savagery, for pillage, rape, and theft on an industrial scale.  Those countries which Napoleon had previously annexed and/or invaded–Italy, much of modern-day Germany, the Netherlands, Austria–had endured such fates which leave us struggling for air. 

The billeting of some half-a-million French troops on the local populations across Europe left nothing but ruination:  A householder’s wife and daughter(s) would invariably have been used and discarded or kidnapped; he might be evicted into the street; everything to eat would be taken as well as all available drink; all livestock that wasn’t slaughtered for the feeding of the troops would be taken when or if the army moved on. 

All of one’s drawers, cellars and cupboards would be ransacked.  Whatever they could carry away with them, they took.  What they could not carry with them, they wrecked and destroyed–burning whole libraries of books, using furniture and bedding and musical instruments as well as all doors, shutters, gates and fences, to feed their fires. 

Nor were the rich or formerly powerful exempt from the destruction of the minutiae of their lives. 

When on campaign, Napoleon would take over the grandest house or castle wherever he was.  Before he moved in, his household staff would throw all of the building’s furnishings and fitments out the windows until there was nothing left but bare rooms.  Once this was done, they’d install the Emperor’s own bed and chairs and desk. 

Those rooms he personally didn’t occupy would also be stripped and his staff’s beds and accoutrements would be set up there–until they all departed for the next unfortunate’s households, taking their possessions with them.  (Plus whatever they fancied of the former owner’s property.) 

Oh and the furniture they’d thrown out the windows?  The chairs and dining tables and linen cupboards and desks?  Well, those would have been chopped up and used for firewood for the troops’ camp-fires.

This then was the modus operandi for Napoleon and his troops from 1798-1815.  It didn’t just happen once.  It happened thousands and thousands of times, in countless locations across the entire map of the Continent.  If one survived the occupation, there was nothing left of one’s home to return to and the fields and roads wide and far had all been used as open latrines–by hundreds of thousands of men–poisoning the water sources, leading to wide-spread dysentery.

And nowhere was there any redress.  Not for anyone–rich or poor.  Not for German merchants or Italian nobility or Polish peasants.  Napoleon may have promised liberty, fraternity, justice and equality–but that only applied to him and his men. 

Once they had invaded Spain, however, in 1808, the destruction took a turn for the worse (I know it doesn’t seem possible) and torture became a way of life for many of the French troops stationed there.  The resistance to even the most minor of refusals to provide fodder for the French horses, wine or livestock for the troops, was met with the most savage of reprisals. 

Russia in 1812?  Well, that was to prove the most dehumanising experience yet.  But few troops survived.

The campaign of 1813? 

By the Battle of Leipzig itself, the 16-19 October, many soldiers related that they’d had no food for three or even five days, except what they could forage of cabbage stalks from the fields or windfall apples.

The accounts after the battle recount how the French wounded were kept outside the city–there was not an inch of space within–and there was nothing to feed them.  And when I say nothing, I mean, nothing

Because you see, French destructiveness had taken a darker (stupider) turn since 1812.  In addition to burning all the furniture and books of those in whose houses and farms they were billeted, they’d also taken to using all the grain–the wheat, the hay, the barley–to feed their fires.  They apparently thought this was a great joke.  (They’d done it across Silesia and Poland too…)

If there were fruit trees or orchards, these too they’d chopped down–not necessarily to feed their fires, but just because they could.  And this too was considered a great jest.

The Prussian troops, the overworked surgeons of Leipzig, the generals all observed the slow starvation of these thousands of wounded men, their pain, but could do nothing for them.  And they observed how they took to cutting up the corpses of the horses who had died in battle and eating the meat raw–because they nothing with which to feed a cooking fire.  When that supply ran out–many resorted to cannibalism. 

In writing of these events, those who witnessed them always speak of the French troops with pity, with great sympathy and sadness, but curiously, they always concluded that the French were getting what they deserved, that they had brought these heinous calamities upon themselves by destroying everything they touched and through their despicable treatment of the locals.  And because of this, no one would lift a hand to save them from their agonising ruin and terrible lingering deaths. 

Now, if all this sounds like the work of an army gone stark raving lunatic, I think that’s probably right. 

For as I’ve studied the period in ever greater depth, I’ve concluded that like the Nazi state, the Napoleonic phenomenon was not just the result of one man who was a raving megalomaniac–it was a whole country gone mad–mad with power, with greed, with egotism, with death and destruction, with sadistic pleasure even, and all humanity lost. 

Given all this, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that when the Prussian troops invaded France in early 1814, it was payback time.  

Only, as it turned out, it wasn’t. 

Because the Prussians and Russians and Austrians–none of whom had cause to love the French–found a country so impoverished as to be destitute.  A land of starving peasant women pulling the ploughs in barren fields, because Napoleon had requisitions all the farm horses, all the oxen…(and had lost them all).

It wasn’t that the Allied forces didn’t want to pillage–they did!  They were looking forward to it with great glee.  It’s that there was just nothing to take.  Not anything.  Had it not been for the rather fine Russian supply lines stretching all the way back into Poland, the Allied troops would have starved.

So, there you have it.  What was Napoleon’s reputation at the time?  What did those who lived through it think of Napoleon and the French soldiers? 

 The Devil Incarnate and the Anti-Christ is pretty much how they phrased it.  With a selection of expletive modifiers thrown in for good measure.  And I think you’ll agree, with good cause. 

But that being the case, how did Napoleon’s reputation get so burnished over time, you ask?  So full of prestige and polish and sexy uniforms?

That’s an interesting question. 

One–his propaganda machine was second to none.  And whilst all this stuff was happening, the official version of events as published in the state-controlled media and in his Bulletins was invariably upbeat, perky, and mendacious.  He was always presented as suffering through everything alongside his troops, of being a soldier’s soldier.  The accounts which shew his indifference to troops’ suffering, of walking past his dying men without so much as a glance, his coldness, his contempt for others’ losses–these were all suppressed in France. 

And then, something even more curious happened. 

During the summer and autumn of 1814–after he’d abdicated and was busy making life on Elba unbearable–the vast army of old soldiers, who now were out of work and out of money, began to congregate and talk about the good old days.  How wonderful it had been on campaign–about the camaraderie, the women, the heroism of battle, the greatness of General Napoleon. 

Their stories fell on the eager ears of a new generation of young men who knew nothing of war–mostly young lawyers as it happens, and administrators, etc–who, like the veterans were now unemployed–and not very employable anyway, in the new reactionary France under the weak auspices of Louis XVIII. 

Times were hard, the country was drowning in debt, its infrastructure in ruins–the Prussians, Russians and British were occupying their country and they hated them with a passion–wasn’t it grand under Napoleon?  Remember?  Remember how wonderful it was?  How fine we looked?  How great out power and our victories?  We were free men!  We were the greatest Empire on earth!  We ruled Europe!

Unsurprisingly, it was these men who formed the core of the new army that Napoleon raised when he escaped from Elba, returning to rule France for once again for 100 days–that army with which he fought the Allies under the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in June 1815. 

After the carnage of Waterloo–which so many people felt was an unnecessary war provoked by an outlaw state [France]–Napoleon’s international reputation tanked even further. 

But time, the exigencies of long occupation–which the French detested–and the enthusiastic efforts of his nephew, Louis-Napoleon (aka Napoleon III), to lift the Napoleonic reputation out of the mire, worked their soporific spell, so that eventually France began to look back upon that era of the First Empire as one of grandest achievement and golden glory, leaving the terror and the truth to be buried and forgot alongside all those six million souls that Napoleon’s wars consumed.

Still, today, today I reckon we’d have him up before the International Tribunal at the Hague, for genocide and crimes against humanity…do not you?

Napoleonland? You’re having a laff…

No, I’m not.  It is not a joke.  And no, I am not making it up. 

I don’t have to.  A former French minister, one Yves Jego, beat me to it. 

(Yes, I am already laughing…)

According to a recent Telegraph article, Monsieur Jego has drawn up plans for an amusement park to rival Disneyland (in whose mind?) to be located at the site of the French Emperor’s (mushroom Corsican upstart) final win against the Austrians in 1814, at Montereau just south of Paris. 

I’ll wager the Austrians can’t wait to visit! 

The article, by , reported that “the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, in which the Duke of Wellington ended Napoleon’s rule in France, could be recreated on a daily basis with visitors perhaps even able be able to take part in the reenactments.”

You mean I could watch Napoleon sitting painfully (he had piles) upon his poor horse as his army got the stuffings kicked out of them?  Where do I sign up?

“They will also be able to take in a water show recreating the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, in which Lord Nelson scored a decisive victory over a French and Spanish coalition aboard HMS Victory but died in the process.  [An interesting choice, given that Napoleon reported Trafalgar as a French victory.]

“But the park will also give pride of place to Napoleon’s greatest victories, in particular the Battle of Austerlitz in which the Russo-Austrian army was decisively defeated.

“Other curious potential attractions include a ski run through a battlefield ‘surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses’ and a recreation of Louis XVI being guillotined during the revolution…

“‘It’s going to be fun for the family,’ Mr Jégo told the Times.”

I can hardly wait. 

Think of the possibilities. 

They could have the Russian Invasion ride–always a favourite–where you could gasp with delight as Moscow goes up in flames, watch as 73,000 men die in one day, and you’d get a special lessons in looting and pillage and firebombing wooden cities like Smolensk.  

Imagine too the fun of watching 500,000 French soldiers and re-enactors freezing to death while their trousers fall down because the tin buttons on their trousers have turned to powder.  Think too of the laughs as all about you blokes fell to the ground with dysentery and their horses drowned in the mire of the Polish sandy roads.  And of course, there’d be an extra-special Russian peasant village sideshow where deserters get tortured.  Uncooked horse-burgers will be on offer for those who are feeling peckish.  And sno-cones, of course.

And speaking of torture, who wants to join me for the Peninsular War ride?  Now that’s going to be a spiffing example of history merging with fun, fun, fun, don’t you reckon?  

There could be living tableaux of Goya’s etchings of the Disasters of War as well as his famous Third of May, all presided over by King Joseph–Napoleon’s elder brother, known by the Spanish as Pepe Botella (Joe the Fat)…And for that realistic touch, there could be a recreation of the French cavalry charge through the streets of Madrid, slicing the Madrilenos until the streets were knee-high in blood and bones…I bet that would get the Spanish visitors queueing up! 

The Italian occupation village will offer special lessons in looting great works of art, including how to remove frescos from walls, how to melt down chalices and altarpieces, and how to remove oil paintings from their frames, roll them up and stick them in your rucksack…

And if you’re staging Austerlitz where the Austrians and Russians were massacred, (and I know those Russian tourists will want to linger there…) why not go all out and have Ulm, Jena and Wagram too?

And Leipzig!  Don’t neglect that–the Battle of the Nations it’s also called, M. Jego.  In case you didn’t know.  That’s where Austria, Prussia and Russia whipped your scrawny French, er, seating apparatus… 

There could be special kiosks where you can go to contract typhus–that ought to be a giggle a minute! 

But wait, this is fun for the whole family, isn’t that right?  So there needs to be something for the big boys too, doesn’t there?  So how about a Paulina Bonaparte ride–no minimum height requirement, just age of consent. 

Obviously, the cafes will want to reflect Napoleonic cuisine…so, because of the Continental Blockade he instituted I think it’s only fair if the Park serve no coffee, no tea and offer neither sugar nor chocolate in any form. 

And I’m thinking for tickets–you could have the Battle of the Nile ticket–which is just for the evening, until the whole thing is blown sky-high; the Trafalgar ticket–the daylong French disaster; or the Waterloo ticket–three days of unalloyed amusement, and visitors can start picking over the corpses on the third evening…

I mean, M. Jego is right, isn’t he?  Over six million people died in the Napoleonic wars, just 200 years ago.  And that’s something France, and Europe too, ought to be celebrating! 


One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is that there are no barriers.  No ‘this belongs to another faculty, like the Music faculty’ moments in the work. 

(Though I dare say this may hold true for biographers as well.) 

Because all these disciplines–music, art, literature, philosophy–are invaluable for understanding those who people the past, and their perceptions of their world.  And none, I think, is more effective for this than music.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, with music we get the rare chance to hear what they heard, and perhaps in that instant to understand something of the world in which they lived.  We experience with them what made them laugh, what made them weep.

Which brings me to the utterly delicious and delightful composer of early 19th century opera, Gioachino Rossini.  (I went to hear his Il barbiere di Siviglia just last month…and it was heaven!) Continue reading

The sound of 1813…

Among the more difficult yet more necessary phases of research for a historical novel is the act of subtraction.  Imagining what life would be like without ______________.

I’m all right subtracting the sounds of modernity–the cars, the aeroplanes, the trains, the spin cycle of the washing machine, radio, telly and computer games–and replacing them with the noise of the country–horses, carriages, cows, sheep…and birds–lots more birds than we know today. 

And a city would have had its share of tradesmen shouting, and knife grinders who set up shop outside one’s house…

But what about music?  In this case…well…the works of certain composers.

Because, you see, I love opera.  Am a complete and utter fool for it. 

The works of Puccini?  I love them.  All of them! 

Which brings me to the crunch. 

Because here I am, working through the sounds of 1813 as I construct the atmosphere and plotlines of the next novel–and I’ve just been forced to ask myself the question:  What would life be like without Puccini?  What would life be like without the aria, Nessun Dorma? Continue reading

The underside of empire…

Among the books I took with me on holiday recently was a study of various aspects of the Napoleonic Empire in Italy–mostly administrative, as it happens.  Not, you might think, a very enlivening read for those hours on the beach.

Well, yes.

And no.

Perhaps, under other circumstances, I might have chosen something a little more frivolous or even more sanguinary than, er, a study of how the Code Napoleon was applied in Italy for less than a decade at the beginning of the 19th century.

But then, I am an historian.  And as the famous saying goes, “‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”


So there I was, Continue reading





That, for those of you who are interested, is the sound of self  bashing head against desk.


And why, you ask politely (or cautiously, if you’ve met me before), is Bennetts thumping that brainful head on the desk?

Because.  Continue reading