Genius and Melancholy

Dusted down from the work of Marsilio Ficino (1433 - 1499), the ancient reflexion on a mental peculiarities of the melancholic temperament exercise, in the artistic milieu of the academia, a potent influence which one would dare to compare to that of Goete in the 19th century.


A restless spirit, addressing himself to a generation which was emotional and easily disturbed, Ficino casts a new light on unstable disposition, on the anguish and anxiety which the medical sources place under the influence of Saturn. This planet is the most distant from the centre of the Earth, but also the slowest, the most solemn and darkest of the firmament. The deity responsible for melancholy, genius and adversity, it reveals itself as naturally hostile to normal existence. Star of extremitas, described by Ficino as quammodo dissonum (exceedingly dissonant), Saturn shatters the harmonious balance of humours: it corrupts balance of thought, plunging the melancholic into a tragic condition divided between the states of distress and manic distraction (delirio). The sinusoidal cyclothymia could find no more eloquent expression than in a classic definition of dissonance as the opposite of irreconcilable differences. Daemon of extremitas, enemy of the happy medium and of mediocrity, Saturn takes the struggle of the human condition to its peak, where the troubled imagination of the Saturnian finds itself to sink to the lowest depths of ignorance, or to rise itself to the highest spheres of knowledge. To say that Saturnian definies a temperament given to contemplation would be an approximate description of the facts. Melancholy alternates, even coexists with, states of distress and enthusiastic passion, which transforms the roughest artist into a Alter Deus, a superior and inspired being, stupid but endowed, at time, with a extraordinary speed of action.


The idea of basing the modern philosophy pf creative genius on the myth of Saturn and melancholy has come to appear a logical result. Contemporary witnesses, moreover, report that Ficino sometimes sing, aroused with enthusiasm, intoxicated by the vapours of black bile, sparkling eyes raised to heaven, like a baroque Saint Cecilia. Doctor, humanist, philosopher and musician, he can isolate from the Greco-Latin authorities the principles of a musical pharmacopoeia of the passions, which allows him to traslate the qualities of the mind into sound. The discordant harmony of the melancholic temperament can then take form in the elements of the composition, and a lucid exegesis of the score can attempt to identify it.


Commonplace in history of art - melancholy is the object, thanks to the three authors of Saturn and Melancholy, of an ad hoc discipline - this field of investigation has remained curiously hidden from the sight of musical historians, where the discussion has only rarely exceeded the limite scope of an iconographic analysis. One can envisage it from the point of view of a reflexion on creative enthusiasm, or even, by putting the emphasis on looking back into the past, on the therapeutic value of certain modes and certain instruments in the harmonisation of melancholic extremitas. But in either case, the rapport with the music assumes too vague a configuration to allow a sufficiently precise definition of the musical representations of melancholy. On the other hand, the perspective which we have just described, where the word melancholy indicates one of emotional qualities which the elements of musical syntax carry, seems the most legitimate. The scores, which the Daedalus Ensemble present here, have been collected in accordance with this precise criteria.

Mercé, grido piangendo - Carlo Gesualdo

Cor mio volunturioso - Anonyme

Se quel dolor  – Luca Marenzio

Ballo delle Ombre - Mauritio Cazzati