Tim Shephard on “Music in the Art of Renaissance Italy, 1420–1540”

A contribution by

TIm shepard

Tim Shephard
University of Sheffield

Sister Arts?

Leonardo famously claimed that “Music is to be called none other than the sister of painting.” His assertion fits well with the Renaissance epistemology of the arts, personified as women and placed into sibling relationships as Liberal Arts or Muses. In such a system, the idea that two of the arts might be closely related arises quite naturally; indeed, claims that practice in one art might lean upon knowledge of another were actually very common.

In fact, ‘music’ and ‘art’ were rather heterogeneous domains, in both conception and practice, providing no firm foundation to evaluate Leonardo’s notion of a genetic relationship. Nonetheless, musical and visual cultures enjoyed rich and varied interactions throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy.

Church interiors were enlivened by altarpieces representing biblical and heavenly musicians. The interior spaces of palaces and private houses were adorned with paintings depicting musical characters and myths of the ancient world, and with scenes of contemporary festivity in which music played a central role. Musical luminaries and dilettantes commissioned portraits symbolising their personal and social investment in musical expertise and skill.

Because of its ubiquity as a subject for visual representation, the lived experience of visual and musical cultures created insistent overlaps and co-ordinations between the arts, both intented and coincidental. The angelic musicians of altarpieces inhabited a space filled with the music of the earthly liturgy. Domestic spaces graced with images of the Muses or Orpheus were the setting for music lessons and lute practice. Cassoni decorated with music-filled wedding scenes from Roman history commemorated recent processions and dances accompanied by a civic wind band.

This rich research terrain was mapped in 2014-17 by the project ‘Music in the Art of Renaissance Italy 1420-1540’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and hosted at the University of Sheffield. Co-authored by the interdisciplinary project team, Music in the Art of Renaissance Italy aims to uncover the meanings attached to music in and through visual representation, and to posit active, vital relationships between musical and visual practices in the lived experience of Renaissance Italians.


“The fruit of a sustained and cutting-edge interdisciplinary collaboration among musicologists and art historians, this book reopens unresolved issues regarding the relationship between music and the visual arts, from both sides. The authors astute analysis and ability to connect a vast array of materials and concepts.”
Giovanni Zanovello, Indiana University

“This richly detailed, wide-ranging book provides a valuable and evocative account of the relationships between musical and visual cultures in Renaissance Italy.”
Flora Dennis, University of Sussex

Now Available

Music in the Art of Renaissance Italy, 1420–1540

By Tim Shephard, Sanna Raninen, Serenella Sessini,and Laura Stefanescu