By the time this article appears in print, we will be in the throes of Christmas celebrations, despite the fact that the actual holiday will have about 3 weeks to go. For more than a month, we are inundated with music, merchandise sales, tacky decorations, and all of the trappings that accompany our commercialized and materialistic celebration. Each year, I am reminded first-hand of the enormous amount of work that goes into making music for the season. One thing led to another within my thought process as an artist, and I began to think about the making of music in times past and how the churches were designed to accommodate the musicians. Singers, and later on organs, were relegated to the cantoria.
The cantoria was literally a “singing gallery”, a box that was positioned on a wall overhanging the church nave. Many churches had cantorie as early as the 13th century. Singing from a cantoria, above the worshipers, improved the acoustical impact and provided a sort of celestial effect. The framework provided a perfect place for artistic decoration. The bas-relief is frequently featured on the “box” of the cantoria. The Duomo (cathedral) of Florence once housed two of the most famous cantorie ever constructed. Today they can be seen in the Cantoria Room of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The earliest Florentine cantoria was the result of a commission issued to Luca della Robbia in 1431. It was the first documented commission for Luca who had only recently been accepted into the Florentine Sculptors’ Guild, and without doubt, his most important work. Constructed over the northern sacristy door, Luca’s cantoria consisted of ten bas-reliefs, two horizontal rows of four panels with one on each end. The frontal figures are young children, singing, dancing, and playing instruments in a visual image of Psalm 150. These figures are placed in high relief with intricate but entirely natural details of their little bodies. There is clear muscle definition and they are proportionately aligned to Renaissance ideals of the human figure. The figures on the two ends (known as the “alleluia” panels) are older boys, also singing. It is believed that Luca used members of an adolescent confraternity as models. There were two such confraternities in Florence at this time. The Compagnia della Natività was founded in 1410 and the Vangelista in 1427. Both were open to boys between the ages of 13 and 24 and provided outward participation in socio-religious events as well as humanistic educational training. Luca’s cantoria was completed in 1438.
Donatello as well was issued a commission for a cantoria to be placed above the door of the opposite sacristy in the Duomo. His commission resulted in a “singing gallery” of approximately the same size as Luca’s, but the two are entirely different in concept. Donatello carved a continuous frieze of winged putti who sing and dance along the front of the “box”. Their movement is not limited by the sturdy mosaic-encrusted columns in front of them. Rather they move behind the columns in multi-direction. While Luca’s singers are everyday Florentine children, Donatello’s represent antique and medieval motifs. The figures are left unfinished with no polish and little attention to detail. Some have surmised that since the cantorie were placed so high on the wall, Donatello figured no one could see the figures anyway. Hardly likely! I rather suspect that the condition requiring Donatello’s work not to exceed Luca’s in fee resulted in its unfinished state!
In 1688, the great patron of music, Ferdinando de Medici married Violente Beatrice of Bavaria. Ferdinando required an excessively large choir, rendering the two cantorie useless. They were removed from the walls and placed in the Duomo Museum.
Even St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel had cantorie. A large cantoria, supported by six columns was constructed in St. Peter’s for the Holy Year 1500. It did not survive the reconstruction of the new basilica later in the century. The Sistine Chapel has an 8’ x 12’ cantoria carved into the Chapel wall during the 1470’s. Only singers of the Papal Choir were allowed to enter it. In 1997, during the Vatican restoration project, the cantoria was cleaned. Hundreds of signatures, snippets of music, messages, and other “graffiti” were found on the inner walls and even on the stairwell. It reads like a Who’s Who of the Papal Choir.
One thing is certain. Most of the Renaissance churches utilized the cantoria as a choir loft. As musical styles changed to include organ and other instruments with the singers, the cantorie were enlarged to accommodate more space. Many organs are placed in highly decorated cantorie that show off the lavish pipe and casework. But the dancing children and the putti were gone, replaced by the “king” of instruments. However, they live on in reproductions. There is even a copy of Luca’s singing boys hanging on the wall of a local funeral home! Go figure!