Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.
The letter from the Tuscan ambassador in Madrid in 1627 describes the activities in the court of Madrid and particularly the production of the play La Selva Sin Amor. The correspondence is between Averardo de’ Medici and Andrea Cioli. It details the reasons why the play was being held, as well as the evolution of its performance. Concurrently, it discusses how much King Philip enjoys the play and the possible future of its creator, Cosimo Lotti, as he hopes to gain favour at the Spanish court. While describing the performance of the play the letter also reveals key insights into the court culture of the period, how court members could influence the king and it also shows that a European court was not always reserved for important political matters but could be an arena for levity. Crucially it affords one a glimpse into the personal activities of the king. Especially with the descriptions of Lotti’s work, the letter shows how the arts could be used to gain important positions at court and that the staging of a play could be significantly linked to the policies, politics and decisions of the monarch.
The play described in the letter, La Selva Sin Amor, by Cosimo Lotti and Lope de Vega was one of the premier Spanish plays of the Early Modern period. Taking place during the ‘Golden-Age’ of Spanish theatre, which included greats like Tirso de Molina and Calderon de la Barca. The play consists of less than a quarter of the average comedia and tells the story of, ‘Cupid’s challenge of transforming shepherds and shepherdesses dedicated to the worship of the cold-hearted Daphne into loyal followers of Venus and Cupid (Amor)’. The play was originally meant to take place in April 1627 at the Caso de Campo in Madrid for the Infanta Maria, the future Queen of Hungary, but instead was staged the following October. It was done in an effort to cheer up Queen Isabel, who had been left devastated following the death of two daughters that same year. The play, though more accurately it could be described as one of the very first operas was written in Italian recitative style and is one of the few texts by Lope that uses predominantly Italian metres. This represented the first time an opera had been performed in Spain and it was hoped that this style would usher in an age of opera at the Spanish court. However, this was not the case. From the opera’s inception at the Alcazar in Madrid in 1627, no records of any operas in Spain between then and 1660 exist.
Despite this, the letter claims that the play has become revered in Spain as this more Florentine style performance was rarely seen in the country. As well as this, Lotti’s staging was highly praised. Arts were clearly very important to Philip IV, as the letter describes how ‘every evening His Majesty and the Infantes his brothers spend an hour playing a concerto on the viol in the company of the Maestro de Capella’. Spanish court enjoyed many plays throughout the reign of Philip IV, though these plays have been largely denounced by critics. Figures like Calderon as Cascardi claim that they lack any substance or intellectual meaning and have served only to flatter and deceive a failing and ‘decadent monarchy’. On the contrary, many critics in recent times have been much fairer on the plays enjoyed by Philip, such as Margaret Greer who asserts that the plays were in fact very important, possessing a deep and meaningful message. Greer goes on to claim that while these plays did celebrate the monarch, they also criticised policies that they felt were unjust.
The reason that this production by Lotti was performed in Spain was done so at the behest of Lotti himself and not King Philip, which may have played a role in the decision to not stage further operas. Averardo de’ Medici, the writer of the letter was made ambassador to Madrid as a favour by Philip IV, as Spain had a great deal of interest in Northern Italy, particularly with the upcoming war of the Mantuan succession in 1628. By the 1620s, the once prominent Medici family had largely fallen from grace. The letter’s recipient Andrea Cioli was the secretary to the Grand Duke Ferdinand II, himself also a Medici. It is interesting that the letter only discusses how the play will help Lotti and not the other members involved in the production. The two figures associated with the letter clearly had a vested interest in the outcome for Lotti, as Lotti had previously been under the salary of the Grand Duke Ferdinand and Averardo had close ties to the Florentine ambassadors who accompanied Lotti to advocate for the play at Madrid court. One of the play's composers Bernardo Monanni was also secretary to the Tuscan ambassador, so the play was a clear attempt to gain political favour.
The letter is made even more important given that so little of Lotti’s other works survive, with only drawings from his successor Baccio del Bianco affording us an insight into Spanish court at the time. The letter mentions how much the activities of the arts in court meant to King Philip, as he ‘for his personal entertainment, sings and plays music’. Averardo says that if Lotti continued to perform well, he hopes that Lotti would be rewarded very handsomely by the crown. Arts and music clearly meant a great deal to Philip, due to his willingness to spend a great amount to secure Lotti’s service with an annual salary of five hundred ducats. Philip IV wished to follow his forebears like his great-grandfather Charles V, who tried to embody the ideal ‘Renaissance Man’, who was just as adept with a pen as with a sword and understood the value of the arts at court.
The courts of the Early Modern period were becoming more lavish than ever before and the political court was a mecca for many of the great minds of the time. Trade and communication networks were increasing, as previously isolated courts were now being influenced by the spread of humanism and other movements from Italy across Europe. These movements in Naples and Sicily influenced court life in Castile for example, where the court was decorated with Italian paintings. The European court also acted as a middle-ground that connected the ruler to the aristocracy, as the ruler was often present at court and would receive counsel from court members. The court culture that had developed in the Renaissance would
persist for centuries afterwards, cementing itself throughout Europe during the Early Modern period. Court members would use the court the get privileges from the king and curry favour with other prominent figures of government. The court of Philip IV itself became like a theatre, as plays and music became a staple of court life, with Philip introducing many court changes, which were heavily influenced by Italian style.
The Italian influences are seen by staging plays like La Selva Sin Amor and by hiring figures like Cosimo Lotti. The play also showcased the wealth of the court and enticed visitors to come to Madrid to see it. Philip IV invested greatly in his court, particularly in his residence of the Buen Retiro, which was the brainchild of Count-Duke Olivares. Located on the other side of Madrid, this palace was unique in that it was kept fully furnished at all times, unlike other residences that were just given the essentials before a royal visit. The Buen Retiro acted as a symbol of royal taste and its love of the arts, while also fulfilling the practical purpose of allowing a second residence ready-made for the king. The Buen Retiro was clearly a special place for Philip IV, as he specifically built a large garden there to escape the pressures of court. Jose Pellicer, poet and publicist of Olivares wrote of the Buen Retiro, ‘To reign well, it is perhaps a good thing to temper the severity of the palace with the peacefulness of the park’.
Both the letter and the play itself show how court members and artists could be very important and influential at court. The letter describes how Lotti was dearly loved by the King and Count-Duke Olivares because of how much they enjoyed his plays. Averardo also refers to how the various court members could either help or hinder Lotti in negotiating his pay. This shows how competitive the European court was during the period and how influential court members could be in the mind of the king. Philip was clearly willing to put a lot of effort and money behind the production. He employed the poet Lope de Vega who wrote the libretto, Lotti who created the staging, as well as the composers Piccinini and Bernardo Monanni, whose transformation of Lope’s words caused the poet to ‘[go] into raptures’. Although operas were not performed afterwards, the production of the play still afforded Lotti the position of theatre organiser at the Buen Retiro and Lotti was given a royal pension until his death in 1643.
Ultimately, the letter is a key piece of seventeenth-century correspondence, that highlights the changes that were occurring in the European court and how influential the arts and customs of Italy were throughout Europe. Spanish court, like many others in Europe, was a very colourful vibrant space. Activities such as Lotti’s play allowed Philip IV the chance to distance himself from the pressures of the political world, while still showing favour to his Italian guests as a way of maintaining his interests in northern Italy. The court of the Early Modern period permitted the King to express his taste in music, art and performance and made it possible for the great artists of the time to gain a strong personal connection to the monarch that would serve them for the rest of their lives. The court of the Spanish King Philip IV was a sanctuary for the intellectual and artistic elite of Europe and allowed Spain to maintain solid relations with its neighbours. Cosimo Lotti was assured a sacred place at the heart of the Spanish court and his performance certainly gave, ‘Lotti…a good basis on which to negotiate terms’, one of which would be ensuring his Florentine compatriot Baccio del Bianco would be his successor at the Buen Retiro.
‘Letter from the Tuscan ambassador in Madrid, Averardo di Raffaello de’ Medici di Castillina to Andrea di Giovanni Battista Cioli’, Madrid, 1 July 1627. http://documents.medici.org/document_search_results.cfm, 7 March 2009.
Elliott, J. H. and Brown, Johnathan, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (New Haven and London, 1980 and 2003).
Greer, Margaret Rich, The Play of Power: Mythological Court Dramas of Calderón de la Barca (Princeton, 1991).