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Aristotle’s School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg

Vincenzo Galilei

Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1520 – 2 July 1591) was a scholar, a musician, a member of the Florentine Camerata and Galileo Galilei’s father.


In 1453, when the Byzantine empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, a large number of Greek scholars fled carrying with them many of the works of ancient Greece. This led to a genuine rebirth in Western Europe, aptly called the Renaissance.

The Renaissance has an itinerary. It began in Italy and then spread to France and to other countries in central and western Europe. As scholars became acquainted with the writings of the Greeks, drastic changes occurred in every area: literature, philosophy, painting (perspective, the Golden Section, Divine proportions, etc.), music (monody), literature, philosophy, education…

However let us focus on the Academies.


Byzantine Eagle (www.hubert-herald.nl)


The name finds its origin in Plato (424/423 BCE– 348/347 BCE), but we still have schools named academy. Moreover in 1635, when he ruled France, Richelieu founded the Académie-Française. At present, l’Académie-Française is one of the five academies constituting the prestigious Institut de France. When Richelieu founded the Académie-Française, he gave it the task of regulating the French language and writing a French dictionary, which it published in the last decade of the seventeenth century.

Camerata: an informal academy

But we must return to Italian-language lands where a large number of formal academies were founded. However, less formal academies, academies resembling salons, began to sprout. The most famous of these academies was Count Bardi‘s Camerata, founded in Florence, in 1573. Vincenzo Galilei was the foremost member of Count Bardi’s Camerata whose membership also included Giulio Caccini.[1]


Vincenzo Galilei was a man of considerable erudition and had studied music under Giuseffo Zarlino (31 January or 22 March 1517 – 4 February 1590), the maestro de cappella at San Marco, in Venice. This was the position Franco-Flemish musician Adriaan Willaert, the founder of the Venetian School, had held and after him, Cipriano da Rore.

Giuseffo Zarlino, the author of Le Istitutioni harmoniche, published in 1558, is arguably Europe’s most prominent theorist before Jean-Philippe Rameau (see A Portrait of Giovanni Battista PergolesiCounterpoint & Harmony) and he had been a good teacher to Vincenzo.

However, a quarrel separated the two when Vincenzo Galilei started to scrutinize Greek texts. For one thing, Vincenzo opposed the extremely complex contrapuntal writing of the Venetian School. You may remember that, according to some scholars, Carlo Gesualdo had destroyed the madrigal when he published madrigals that contained 6 or 7 voices.

Monody and equal temperament

Vincenzo’s preference was for a less complex texture, as was Caccini’s preference as well as Count Bardi’s. In fact, Vincenzo championed Caccini’s monody: one voice or the solo voice, as did Bardi. Count Bardi wrote a Discorso mandato a Caccini sopra la musica antica (1580; “Discourse to Caccini on Ancient Music”) in which “he develops ideas similar to those of Caccini and Galilei.”[2] Giulio Caccini (8 October 1551 – 10 December 1618) is the author of Le nuove musiche (1602; “The New Music”).

As for Vincenzo Galileo, he is the author of a Dialogo della musica antica, et della moderna (1581; “Dialogue about Ancient and Modern Music”) in which he differed from his former teacher not only regarding monody, but also on the thornier matter of just intonation (tuning).

Most listeners cannot hear the difference, but there is difference between F sharp and G flat, even though these pitches are produced using the same key: the first of the three black keys of a piano keyboard. Now, it is possible for a violinist to give this pitch its just intonation, but keyboard instruments do not have that flexibility.

The matter was resolved by dividing the interval, or space, i.e. between ‘do’(C) and ‘si’ (B) into twelve equal tones or temperaments. Vincenzo Galilei favoured this slightly distorted division because it allowed instruments to play together. According to the author of the Encyclopædia Britannica‘s entry on “equal temperament,”

Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei) proposed a system of equal intervals for tuning the lute.[3] 

Copernicus and Galileo Galilei made what is perhaps the most important discovery of the Renaissance. They discovered heliocentrism. But Vincenzo’s contribution to music cannot be triviliazed. He created the ensemble, instruments playing together,.

In 1722, Johann Sebastian Bach published a first set of twenty-four preludes and fugues. Twenty years later, in 1742, he published a second set of twenty-four preludes and fugues which, combined with the initial set, constitute the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of the Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 846-893): the Well-Tempered Clavier. JS Bach’s was not a theorist, but a Kapellmeister, a teacher, and one of history’s finest composers. His “Forty-Eight,” as they are often called, demonstrate the usefulness of the somewhat artificial, but very practical, equal temperament. Twelve-tone music has survived, which is a tribute to Vincenzo Galilei’s inventive mind.

I have reflected on the ability to create the appropriate illusion. It belongs to the realm of ingenuity and creativity. In fact, and ironically, illusion is often the better and sometimes the only way of conveying the truth. Jesus spoke in parables. He used obliqueness. But isn’t art always somewhat indirect, metaphorical?


[1] “Giulio Caccini.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Dec. 2011.             <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/87773/Giulio-Caccini>.

[2] “Giovanni Bardi, conte di Vernio.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Dec. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/53135/Giovanni-Bardi-conte-di-Vernio>.

[3] “equal temperament.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Dec. 2011.             <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190596/equal-temperament>.

Giulio Caccini/Vladimir VavilovAve Maria
Sumi Jo



The Madonna of the Pinks, by Raphaël, c. 1506–7, National Gallery, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
28 December 2011