Marchetto Cara – Cortigiano di Isabella d’Este

“Nor does our friend Marchetto Cara move us less by his singing, but with a gentler harmony; because he softens and penetrates our souls by placid means, full of plaintive sweetness, greatly stirring them to sweet emotion.” (Né men commove nel suo cantar il nostro Marchetto Cara, ma con più molle armonia; ché per una via placida e piena di flebile dolcezza intenerisce e penetra l’anime, imprimendo in esse soavemente una dilettevole passione). [Castiglione – Book I, section 37]


The Book of the Courtier was written over the course of nearly twenty years, from roughly 1508 through 1528. Through a series of dialogues, both real and imagined, with some of the leading figures of the day, Castiglione is able to set forth a model for the courtier, both male and female. In the discussions of ideal courtly life, Castiglione places a premium on music, song, and dance. In his mind, the highest form of musical activity for the courtier was to sing a solo, while accompanying him- self with a string instrument, preferably the lira da braccio. While in Mantua, Castliglione had heard Isabella d’Este’s court composer, Marchetto Cara, and he makes note of Cara’s distinctive style of singing. Castiglione also critiqued Antonio Collebaudi (called Bidon) when he heard him perform at Mantua in 1511. On Cara’s contemporary Bartolomeo Trombocino, however, Castiglione is silent. The encyclopedia Brittanica states that “The most important composers of frottola were Bartolomeo Tromboncino (d. c. 1535) and Marchetto Cara (d. c. 1530).”



That single sentence of Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, published in Venice in 1559 and reissued several times during the sixteenth century in Italy and abroad, has probably assured Marchetto Cara perpetual fame. In other sources Cara was again cited as one of the greatest composers of his era. In Mount Parnassos by Philippo Oriolo of Bassano, a poem written between 1519 and 1522, Cara is mentioned for the beauty of his song; his name appears alongside the greatest composers of song, such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Michele Pesenti, Filippo de Lurano, and Francesco D’Ana.  As Cosimo Bartoli in Ragionamenti arcademici (Francesco de Franceschi, Venezia 1567) puts it, Cara was the only Italian in an array comprising the most famous composers of his time: “Né crediate che io non sappia che dopo Iosquino ci sono molti valenti huomini in questo esercitio, come fu Giovan Monton, Brumel, Isac, Andreas de Silva, Giovanni Agricola, Marchetto da Mantova, et molti altri, che seguendo dietro alle pedate di Iosquino, hanno insegnato al mondo come si ha a comporre di musica” (Nor think that I do not know that after Iosquino there are many talented huomini in this Esercitio, as was Giovan Monton, Brumel, Isac, Andreas de Silva, John Agricola, Marchetto from Mantua, et many others, following behind the treads of Iosquino, have taught the world how you have to compose music.)

Marchetto Cara was the central figure in the musical life of the Gonzaga court in Mantua that, during the life of Francesco II and Isabella d’Este, was one of the most artistically important cities throughout Italy. Popular in much of the peninsula, Cara emerged as the greatest composer of the period from 1480 to 1530, a crucial period in the history of music of the Italian Renaissance.

Called by various names; Marco, Marchettus, Marcus, de Cara, da Mantova, and Carra, he lived and worked in Mantua for almost thirty years. For example, Cara was listed as “Messer Marchetto Mantuan”, a singer accompanied on the lute by Pietro Aaron in the tract titled Lucidario in Musica (Scotto, Venice 1545).

Cara was born in Verona, or in the Verona area, around 1470 and died in Mantua in 1525. On arrival in the city, probably in 1494, he found a particularly favorable musical situation. Isabella d’Este, daughter of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, had married Francis II Marquis of Mantuain 1490. Isabella had a great passion for music, which stemmed partly from the fact of having been a student of Johannes Martini, partly from having lived in a city, Ferrara, where music was cultivated in the highest degree. So it was thanks to her, but partly also to the inclination for music of his own wife, the court chapel was enlarged in the early years of his stay in Mantua, coming to gather some of the best singers and instrumentalists Italy North, mainly coming from their ducal chapel of Ferrara. The latter was in turn one of the most prestigious in Italy, having had in the past among its ranks the likes of the aforementioned composers Johannes Martini, Josquin Desprez, Jacob Obrecht and Antoine Brumel. In 1510, because of expenses incurred in the war against Pope Julius II, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, he was forced to lay off members of the musical chapel. It was then that almost all, except Brumel, choirmaster, they moved to Mantua employed by Francesco and Isabella. E ‘precisely in those years that attest to the position of Marchetto Dear whom the court Kapellmeister. A position, economically, respectable, at least judging by the salaries and other benefits received dear, so much so that its annual revenue added up to about 150 ducats, more than Isaac, as Kapellmeister in Ferrara in 1502 earned only 100 ducats.

Marchetto Cara was a songwriter and as a singer accompanied by the lute, often played by his wife Giovanna Moreschi. Gusnasco Lorenzo da Pavia, builder of instruments (including the viola da gamba) and “artists agent” of Marchesa Isabella describes their performance: “Marchetto and Giovanna … sing purely and perfectly, so that you feel them : no one from Venice could have a greater effect”.

woman with lute

As a composer, he was one of the most prolific authors of frottole, having made up to 125, second only to Bartolomeo Tromboncino, who had written it over 190. Much of his work was printed in the eleven books of Ottaviano Petrucci, published in Venice between 1504 and 1514. His preferred subject is lighthearted love, but there are also a character compositions, containing citazione populare (popular quotes). In this regard, Amerò, non amerò (De la da po, de za da po, citazione popolare), Per fugir d’amor le ponte (O tiente alora , cit. pop.), Poich’io vedo (Tuolo in man , cit. pop.). Not to mention Chi la castra la porcella, a kind of carnival song full of puns and allusions not too veiled.

From the musical point of view, many of Cara fibs are linked in structure: a song accompanied by lute or a song accompanied by lute and other instruments. Almost all the works of Cara appear in each source in a form in four parts, where the dell’Altus part was probably added last. The part of the Cantus tends to be relatively simple and follows the text in a manner substantially syllabic, interrupted by an occasional melisma. Only in strambotti does the first voice takes on a decidedly more melismatic character. The Cantus has also an area of just an octave higher, and usually employs simple rhythmic formulas. The other items instead contrast sharply with the Cantus, especially for their typically instrumental character and for more complex rhythm. The Alto and Tenor employ more complex rhythmic formulas than the Cantus and have a much larger part. Finally the Bass has the task of the harmonic support: written mostly in long notes, with frequent leaps of fourths and fifths. All these elements seem to confirm the instrumental nature of the parts of Alto, Tenor and Bass. It also evidenced by the lack of text under their melodic lines. This particular structure is nearly constant in all the work of Cara, at least until 1520, when the first examples appear in which the parts are occasionally reduced to two or three items.

The rhythmic structure of the frottole of Marchetto is also fairly stable, being almost always in tempus imperfectum. Characteristic is also a moderate use of syncopation, a process which on the contrary was widely used by the contemporary composers of the Franco-Flemish school.

Finally, there is a production period of Cara that could be called “late”, evidenced by the conspicuous presence of his works in the most important collections in manuscripts ranging from 1520 to 1531, where he is one of the first composers of northern Italy to set to music the poetic form of the madrigal. In face Doglia che non aguagvi and Fiamma amorous are two compositions written in the purest style of the classic madrigal of the sixteenth century. Years earlier, in 1510, Cesare Gonzaga wrote to Isabella d’Este: “… the favor that I wish to request from your worthy Excellency is that you command that Marchetto compose an aria for this madrigaletto, which I send included here. “




Sheer, Richard. Papal Music and Musicians in Late Medieval and Renaissance Rome.

Pirrotta, Nino and Elena Povoledo. Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi.

Tuffano, Giovani. 2003/Marchetto Cara.doc 


Music You Might Enjoy:

A Treasury of Early Music, vol. 2

Il Canto alla Corte di Isabella D’Este 1474-1539

Io non compro più speranza on YouTube

“Non e tempo d´aspetare” by Marchetto Cara

Free Scores by Marchetto Cara on ChoralWiki

Free scores by Marchetto Cara at the International Music Score Library Project

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