by Roderick Conway Morris

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Illuminated Musical Manuscripts and Painted Castles

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENT, Italy 19 August 2000
Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento
'January' from the Cycle of the Months
at Castello del Buonconsiglio, c.1400



One of the spectacles of the last 'Latin' Jubilee of 1950 was the performance in St. Peter's before Pope Pius XII of an elaborate polychoral baroque Mass by the 17th-century ecclesiastical composer Orazio Benevoli. It had only shortly before been rediscovered by the musician and musicologist Laurence Feininger, who transcribed it and created a new choir to sing it.

Within a decade and a half, the Second Vatican Council had decided to abandon Latin, radically rejigger the liturgy and exclude even sung Latin from the regular celebration of the Mass.

This was a bitter blow to Feininger's lifelong crusade not only to revivify and improve the standard of sung Latin within the Roman Catholic Church, but also to reintroduce forgotten works and bring the full historical repertoire of Gregorian chant, polyphony and polychoral works back into use. And by the time he died in an automobile accident on the Brenner highway in 1976, he was a profoundly disappointed man.

But Feininger still managed to leave an extraordinary legacy in the form of a collection of nearly 2,000 musical manuscripts and books, many beautifully illuminated and illustrated and unusual in historical scope, dating from the 13th to the 20th century, which are kept at the library of the Castello del Buonconsiglio, where there is now a timely and impressive display of more than 100 of the finest of them (until Oct. 31). The exhibition is intelligently constructed around the high points of the liturgical calendar and one can listen to extracts from some of the key manuscripts on show through headphones along the way.

Feininger was born in 1909, son of the German-American painter Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), a pioneering Cubist, an associate of the Blaue Reiter group, later a teacher at the Bauhaus and a fugitive from the Nazis. The entire family was musical, and Laurence, who was for the most part educated in Germany, revealed prodigious talents in playing several instruments, composing and analyzing scores. His immersion in Latin liturgical music led him, at the age of 25, to convert to Catholicism and to take holy orders in 1947.

He turned down academic posts in Rome and at educational institutions elsewhere in Europe and in America, preferring to make his base at Trento, the scene of the counter-Reformation Council of Trent during the mid-16th century, and the depository of some unique historic musical manuscripts. Feininger's eloquent and passionate appeals following Vatican II to the pope himself and those close to him to save the old Mass fell on deaf ears.

Realizing that the abolition of traditional forms could only hasten the dispersal and even destruction of manuscripts and books containing them, Feininger redoubled his efforts to acquire this 'outdated' material. Selling everything he had to raise money, including his father's pictures, he rescued rare examples that would otherwise have been broken up for sale piecemeal on the antiquarian market.

Although primarily interested in their musical content, through his efforts Feininger also saved for public ownership some exquisite art work. And the fact that these lovely pieces are now lodged at the Castello del Buon Consiglio is additionally appropriate given that one of the castle's towers - the Torre dell'Aquila - houses a marvelous series of frescoes, executed at a time when illumination was exerting a tremendous influence on painting.

The 'Cycle of the Months' was done by an unknown hand in about 1400 and follows the activities of court and country, lords and ladies, artisans, peasants, herdsmen, shepherds and

hunters through the progress of the seasons. The scenes are in many ways like miniatures blown up to a grander scale, and yet they preserve that delicacy and loving observation of the telling detail that characterizes the best of the illuminators' work.

By happy coincidence, not far north of Trento, at Schloss Runkelstein or Castel Roncolo, just outside Bolzano, another important series of frescoes from the same period has just been permanently reopened to the public after restoration project lasting nearly a decade. This is also the occasion of a special show, 'The Painted Castle,' devoted to the history of this picturesque fortress clinging to a precipitous red-stone crag above a rushing river. The show runs until Oct. 29.

The castle dates from the 13th century but enjoyed its high point after being bought by Niklaus and Franz Vintler in 1385. The family's origins were mercantile rather than noble, but by this time they were immensely rich and influential. And here they thoroughly compensated for their lack of aristocratic lineage by creating an extended paean to the legendary chivalric heroes of the past. Interiors and walls facing the central courtyard were filled with scenes of knightly adventures, war and courtly love, prominent among them the tale of Tristram and Isolde.

There are many curiosities, from exotic animals to figures left naked because the artist never got around to painting on the clothes, and a 'how-to' and 'how-not-to' guide to proper deportment at tournaments: one wall showing knights knocking each other off horses in the time-honored, gentlemanly fashion, and another depicting a disgraceful free-for-all of knights beating the living daylights out of each other like a mob of football hooligans, with blood all over the place.

After its golden period, the castle experienced a series of accidents, being severely damaged by the explosion of a powder magazine in 1520, a devastating fire in 1672 and the collapse of an entire outer wall in 1868 after the rock was blasted in the cliff below to build a new road. Indeed, during the 19th century its advancing state of melancholy decrepitude made it the South Tirol's primary Romantic Ruin and a mecca for artists and photographers, amateur and professional.

Considering the vicissitudes the building suffered, it is astonishing how many of Schloss Runkelstein's frescoes have come down to us - and a tribute to the robust quality of the work of those anonymous artists who peopled its walls with such a rich panoply of the myths, dreams and human activity of 600 years ago.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024