Music and the Book of Nature: Vincenzo Galilei on the Conundrum of Musical Consonance

Author: Konoval, Brandon

Publication details: I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 22, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 93-119.


Abstract: Few figures have drawn more scholarly attention to the relationship between Renaissance musical humanism and early modern science than Vincenzo Galileo (c.1520/30–1591). From the Dialogo della Musica Antica et della Moderna (1581) through to the late discourses in manuscript, the acoustic investigations and theoretical contributions of Vincenzo have been conventionally understood to represent the defeat of numerology and the disenchantment of a traditional Pythagorean or neo-Platonic worldview. Where the source documents themselves strikingly diverge from such an account, the discrepancies are correspondingly portrayed as departures from an empirical orientation and as wholly extraneous to Vincenzo’s genuine findings and fundamental intentions.

An alternative perspective may be brought to these matters, informed by Foucault’s account of an “incomplete” Renaissance in The Order of Things. Vincenzo’s seeming departures from empiricism are reconsidered here as a considered response to the serious challenges confronting physico-mathematical approaches to music and acoustics in the sixteenth century, above all in the problem of musical consonance. From this perspective, Vincenzo’s signal contribution can be understood as a reframing of the problem of consonance, establishing new parameters for acoustic investigation that thrust a mathematical conundrum upon his inheritors—as directly evidenced in the work of his son, Galileo—thus setting a challenge to which they were obliged to respond. Furthermore, Vincenzo’s own recognition of this challenge might help us to understand the otherwise perplexing record of his claims, which marked an incomplete Renaissance of music theory and acoustic investigation that stimulated important developments in the early modern science of motion.