The history of the Venetian musical civilisation ran parallel with that of
St. Mark's music chapel and the cultural life that grew within it.
Following the basilica's consecration in 1094, the first important news
in the music circle dates to June 8, 1316, the year a document was written,
wherein we read: "Desemo a Maestro Zucchetto ducati 10 per onzamento degl'organi
grandi de San Marco li quali era vastadi" ("We're giving Maestro Zucchetto
10 ducats for maintenance of St. Mark's major organs"). This date marks
the start of the "first musical era" of the basilica, distinguished by
the presence of fourteen organists. In 1489 Fra Urbano placed the left
organ - called the first organ - and Francesco Dana inaugurated it on
August 20, 1490. This brief period, commonly known as the "second era",
is characterised by the simultaneous presence of two organists to who
the important figure of the Maestro of the Chapel, Fleming Pietro de Fossis,
was added in 1491. He also had the job of instructing the choristers.
It is the beginning of the so-called "third era".
By the will of the Venetian government with its decree of June 18 1403,
the Chapel of St. Mark was also a music school.
In the beginning, "otto putti veneti diaconi" ("eight child deacons of
Veneto") were admitted to learn "to sing well" with the gift of one ducat
Along with the death of the Flemish maestro in 1527, the responsibility
for instructing the choristers was handed down to his successor, Adriano
Willaert, who personally was in charge of it until 1562. The Chapel of
San Teodoro was assigned to the school.
A second chant school was established in 1577 at the service of the church
called Seminary of St. Mark. Opened in 1580, its seat is Primicerio Palazzo.
The ducal seminary was transferred to Sant'Antonio di Castello, to the
building called Sepdale di Messer Gesł Cristo, in 1591.
In the meantime, former chant maestro Baldassare Donato was named Maestro
of the Chapel of St. Mark. In the clauses regarding his appointment, Donato
had the duty of teaching the seminary's clergymen figured chant, plainchant
The two schools were very active and numbered excellent pupils. One for
the "zaghi di chiesa" ("younger priests of the church") and the other
for the "pupils of the ducal seminary", they educated choristers, players
and composers sought after by the musical world of the time.
The most famous pupils of Adriano Willaert were not Venetians. Cipriano
de Rore was Flemish, Gioseffo Zarlino was from Chioggia, Contanzo Porta
was from Cremona, Claudio Merulo was from Correggio, Francesco della Viola
came from Ferrara and Andrea Vicentino was a native of Vicenza.
This group of musicians constituted the Flemish school of Venice and depicted
the conservative trend of St. Mark's culture.
The Flemish line was opposed by two brilliant composers who were Venetian
by birth: Baldassare Donato and Andrea Gabrieli, leaders of the progressive
movement tending to striving to enhance the value of local culture. Donato
knowingly followed a trend alternative to the Flemish counterpoint culture.
Zarlino, who did not approve of his didactics, did all he could to break
up the small chapel where Donato was carrying forth his new musical ideas.
The conflict between Chapel Maestro Zarlino and Donato noisily and publicly
erupted during the feast of St. Mark, a solemn day of festivities, with
the protest of the choristers and their revolt against the higher orders.
Baldassare Donato's animated opposition continued with the activity of
one of his followers, Giovanni Croce, to whom he had taught chant and
composition. Croce's work developed under the imprint of the maestro,
above all in his madrigal and motet writing and for double choir. In 1565,
at the age of eight, he was presented as a contralto in order to be taken
into the Chapel of St. Mark, at the time under Zarlino. In his capacity
as chorister, he benefited from the music taught to the young men in Donato's
small chapel. He witnessed the above-mentioned incident between his maestro
and Zarlino at the age of 12. He was named deputy maestro in 1594 on Donato's
suggestion, who in the meantime went on to manage the Chapel following
Doge Marino Grimani wanted an energetic and strict successor on Donato's
death, who he saw precisely in the person of Croce.
Croce's appointment, which took place on July 10, 1603, can be seen as
a victory of the new Venetian musical forces against the involutional
tradition of the Flemish maestros. Giovanni Croce died in the rectory
of St. Mark's in 1609. The other leader of the anti-Flemish movement,
Andrea Gabrieli, worked together with Donato to increasingly break away
from the Flemish counterpoint tradition. Gabrieli gave organ and composition
lessons at San Geremia. Afterwards, he established himself at San Samuele
with his appointment at St. Mark's, where he continued his important teaching
By an odd coincidence, the three musicians who opposed the Flemish movement
in the wake of Donato and Gabrieli were all named Giovanni: Croce, Bassano
and Gabrieli. The vitality of the trends that these three musicians depicted
brought about a succession of pressures on the Venetian environment, to
such an extent that they forced Cipriano de Rore, the new Flemish maestro
named at St. Mark's Basilica, to waive the position and go to work for
Ottavio Farnese, the duke of Parma and Piacenza. The same thing happened
with Flemish movement promoter Claudio Merulo, who in 1584 had to move
to Parma with his family.
Nonetheless, Zarlino remained the charismatic figure of the traditionalist
movement, representing it influentially both officially and in his capacity
as composer and theoretician.
The "fourth musical era" of the basilica, characterised by one maestro,
one deputy maestro and two organists, reached the peak of its splendour
with Claudio Monteverdi, who took leave of the Mantuan court to replace
Giulio Cesare Martinengo in 1613.
Venice's unusual geopolitical position and its continuous exchanges with
various European and Mediterranean cultures made St. Mark's Chapel a universally
recognised point of reference for a long period, which unquestionably
contributed to making it one of the world's music capitals. But even afterwards
the chapel's function as proposer of ever-newer ideas remained a constant.
This unique group is one of the few remaining in Italy to regularly perform
polyphony of merit during the liturgical service, in continuity with its
very own tradition. It has been regularly present at the basilica's most
important functions for centuries without interruption, and this cultural
heritage, this modus cantandi, is immortalised in an unmistakable style
that is continuously fuelled under the vaults of St. Mark's at the source
of charisma of the Evangelist artist.
St. Mark's Chapel is one of the living symbols of Western music tradition.
Aware of this, in the 19th century its maestros started to recover the
oldest patrimony, which also sprung forth within its walls, with the intention
of restoring and keeping alive the enormous wealth that the past has handed
down us. Whoever enters the basilica today can listen to music written
as far back as eight centuries ago or music written only a few weeks old.
At present: Chapel Master, Marco Gemmani; Chief organist, Roberto Micconi;
Second organist, Pierpaolo Turetta.