Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal O Mirtillo, Mirtillo anima mia (1605) represents a cornerstone in the history of Western music not only for its bold expression of Battista Guarini’s text, but also for the famed debate that it provoked. Giovanni Maria Artusi’s criticism of 1600 deemed the madrigal a monstrosity of modal incoherence, while the 1607 defence by Monteverdi’s brother, Giulio Cesare, has been seen as feeble in its appeal to the legitimacy of the mixed modes. Few analysts from Artusi on, however, seem to have followed the hint of the madrigal text to ‘see what lies in the heart’ of the piece—a perspective that, Giulio Cesare tells us, can only be gained when considering ‘not merely the portions or passages of the composition, but its whole’.

 A renewed approach to uncover ‘what lies in the heart’ of Monteverdi’s work, and to weigh the validity of Artusi’s and Giulio Cesare’s claims about its modal integrity, reveals that the madrigal’s construction is far from haphazard, as Monteverdi himself contends, raising the question of whether it was truly the music alone that drove Artusi to single out Monteverdi for attack. This enquiry ultimately reaches beyond the music itself to the political landscape of northern Italy, and to the very performance of Monteverdi’s music in 1598 Ferrara, where Artusi was confronted directly with the brazen face of modern music.

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