ABSTRACT

11“What a headache, what a pain in my ears” says Severo complaining about shrieking coming from a music school: “they make such harmony that mice are running away; they sound like a bunch of cats yowling.” 1 Grazioso Uberti’s Contrasto musico, a treatise from 1630 written in the conventional format of a fictional dialogue between two men, is articulated around a stroll through the most important spaces in which music was made in Rome at the time of pope Urban VIII Barberini. The two friends converse about the virtues and defects of music, Severo (the “strict” one) taking a rather dismissive stand against music, and Giocondo (the “cheerful” one) advocating the usefulness of music as an intellectually edifying practice and a remedy to balance the affects. In Giocondo’s opinion, music has two main functions: first to sing the praise of God, and second as a recreation for the soul and a consolation from everyday harshness. 2 Trying to convince his friend of the benefits of music, Giocondo takes Severo on a journey for the ears that will see them stop to contemplate the use of music in a variety of spatial contexts, starting with the schools from which the above mentioned shrieking comes, then the houses and the palaces, churches and oratorios, piazzas, and eventually the houses of composers. Along the way, almost as a constant soundtrack to their walk, Giocondo and Severo experience also a variety of sounds and noises, described in an unusually detailed way that gives us a chance not only to imagine an aural dimension of the city that is otherwise irremediably lost, but also to “hear” sounds, music and noise that we, with our modern ears, might disregard and ignore. Not only are the sounds lost, but people experienced, listened to and interpreted them in a different way. 3 At a time when the ambient sounds’ levels were far lower than today’s, everyday sounds such as conversations, insults, the noises of craftsmen’s tools and of speeding carriages played a major role in the urban soundscape, along with loud charivaris, fireworks, and the omnipresent bells. 4