Bologna 30.1 1566 - Bologna 1638
...The music for lute by my father, Alessandro Piccinini, whether for its merit or for its
good fortune, was met with favor in the world while he was alive....
With these words, Leonardo Maria Piccinini modestly justifies his decision in 1639 to publish
a posthumous collection of pieces for lute by his father. And yet only ten years previously,
Alessandro, while still living, was referred to as unequaled in the playing of the lute
by his countryman Adriano Banchieri.
The best known and most authoritative member of a Bolognese family which had produced
musicians for at least three generations, Alessandro was born on 30 January 1566, son of
Leonardo Maria, himself a lutenist, as was very probably his father before him.
most recent biographical dictionarys are incomplete and inexact with regard to the Piccinini
family, let us list the most significant facts in light of partially unpublished documents:
Leonardo Maria (I) had, in addition to Alessandro, numerous children among whom atleast two
others were also lute virtuosos: Girolamo, who was born in 1573 and died in Flanders in 1610
(and not in 1615 as was earlier believed) and Filippo (1575-1648).
Leonardo Maria I, after having declined the position offered to Alessandro at the Mantuan
court (since he would have been unable to train and instruct his sister and younger brothers
as he did for two or three hours a day), took the entire family with him to Ferrara where,
beginning in 1582, he and his three lutenist sons appear on the employment lists of the
munificent court of Alfonso II d´Este.
According to Newcomb, Leonardo died sometime before january 1597, a theory supported by the
fact that in that same year the first official receipts for Girolamo and Filippo are recorded.
The role of the Piccinini family at the Estense court seems to be more closely tied to the
duke´s private entertainments than to public festivities, aside from special duties regarding
experimentation in organology which will be discussed below.
Following the death of Alfonso
II and the passing of Ferrara to the papal states (1598), the Piccinini brothers were, together
with the famous Luzzaschi, the only musicians from the flourishing Estense chapel to be hired
by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII and the most important of
Ferrara´s new govenors.
The cardinal´s new arrangements in his Roman apartments provided the three lutenists with an
entry into a dynamic and open musical and cultural environment. Claudio Annibaldi has
carefully documented this period which marks the beginning of the brother´s separations: for
some years now they had together provided entertainment for the Roman evenings of two Ferrarese
destined to notoriety: Guido, the future cardinal, and the marquis Enzo, Ferrarese ambassador
to Rome from 1608 to 1611.
From the year 1608, Girolamo Piccinini had even become a sort of
administrator and tutor to the young Guido on his arrival in Rome, accompanying him on this
first important mission as nuncio in Flanders, while Alessandro had moved on officially to the
house of Bentivoglio, together with the celebrated Frescobaldi, following the arrival of the
marquis in Rome in 1608. In addition to numerous letters, the dedication to Cardinal Guido in
the volume edited by Alessandro´s son in 1639 testifies to the familarity of the three
musicians with the Bentivoglio family.
Filippo having departed, first for the court in Turin and then for Madrid (where he was
employed in the real capilla as the only lutenist from 1616 until atleast 1637), and
Girolamo having died while in the service of Cardinal Guido, Alessandro now chose not to follow
the marquis Enzo back to Ferrara in 1611, but rather to return to Bologna with his wife
Cornelia whom he had married in Rome.(In a letter of the same year he writes to Bentivoglio:
and if my wife had not still been somewhat ill, I would have come to Ferrara in place of my
After this time, the correspondence between Alessandro and the Bentivoglio family remains, for
at least a decade, quite intense but completely lacking in artistic references, demonstrating
instead a surprising interest on the part of the Bolognese musician in wine commerce or small
business affairs. His brother Paolo and his son Leonardo Maria II(who died in 1645) probably
maintained more direct artistic ties with Ferrara.
Alessandro´s death must have occurred before december 1638, as a letter by the Bolognese
painter Domenichino reveals.
The most important documentation regarding the compositions of Alessandro (with the exception
of a madrigal by Filippo, no other works by the brothers have survived) is to be find in
Intavolatura di liuto, et di chitarrone. Libro primo,published in Bologna by the heirs of
G.P Moscatelli in 1623. Other compositions by Alessandro appeared posthumously in the above-
mentioned 1639 collection edited by his son Leonardo Maria. (In this collection there is no
distinction made between the works by the father and those of the son also included in the
book, though atleast two sources in manuscript seem to present unpublished compositions by
Alessandro, indicated by the sign A.P).
Information regarding the origins of the 1623 collection was based until recently upon a letter
of that year by Alessandro himself in which he urged the cardinal d´Este of Modena to intervene
on behalf of this first book of intabulations, the publication of which had been interrupted by
the death of the printer. An unpublished letter from the previous year reveals a working
relationship between the same cardinal in the role of teacher, and a young unnamed lutenist.
And still earlier, in 1614, Alessandro confided to the marquis Bentivoglio his intention of
printing a book of music. I have begun an undertaking, namely, to have engraved a book ((of
music)) to be played on the lute which I already begun to write in Rome; it will be quite an
expense to print, but I have no doubt that I shall earn from it.
The 1623 collection,
as well as the other sources cited (aside from the manuscripts, which contain the dance
stereotypes most in vogue among amateurs), includes the forms of instrumental music most used
in the first decades of the seventeenth century by professional musicians: above all toccate,
correnti and gagliarde, forms thoroughly developed an enlivened by masters of the keyboard such
as Frescobaldi and the Neapolitans, by harpists, and by lutenists such as Kapsberger and Melii.
The style of Piccinini seems in comparison to be somewhat conservative, and one often has the
impression that many of the compositions date back perhaps to earlier decades, although
presented here in a revised version.
The composer´s expertise is re-vealed in pieces such a the chromatic toccatas, and in the
partite variate - an hommage to the Roman (and Neapolitan) styles most in vogue in those years.
Of great importance is also the introductory section whose 33 chapters constitute an authentic
tutor for playing the lute, including basic indications regarding performance practice (
Playing loud and soft, How to play arpeggios etc.) and organology. Moreover, until recently
Piccinini´s fame was due primarly to these latter indications, albeit resulting in serious
The role, played by Alessandro in the creation of the new long-bodied lutes (di corpo longo),
the first experimental models of which were built around 1594-96 in Venetian workshops for Duke
Alfonso II, is in fact well noted. As Orlando Cristoforetti has correctly pointed out,
Alessandro never boasted of having invented the theorbo or the chitarrone (which seems instead
to have orginated at the Florentine court), but only of having first come up with the idea of
lengthening the neck for low strings, thus transforming the lute into an arch-lute and leading
somehow to a similar configuration in the chitarrone (which is distinguished by having the
first two strings tuned an octave lower than those of the lute).
Cristoforetti´s ideas are confirmed by the above-mentioned letter of 1614 from Piccinini to the
marquis Bentivoglio in which he writes If the correnti that your lllustrious Lordship
desires were for the lute, I would already have sent them to you, but I have never done
anything on the theorbo except for certain little things taken for sport from the lute,
((pieces)) which everyone has in Ferrara.
It is probable that the Roman fashion begun by Kapsberger had an effect on the later decision
also to include music for the theorbo in the 1623 publication, while the posthumous book of
1639 is only for the lute.
While musicological research has finally dismantled the belief according to which art of lute
playing disappeared with the onset of the 17th century, the increasing use of historical
instruments in modern performances has at the same time restored to Alessandro Piccinini,
unjustly considered the last lutenist (Vatielli), his place as one of the great
composers of his time.