1552-post 1618

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Girolamo Belli was born in Argenta, in Ferrarese territory about halfway between Ferrara and Ravenna, in 1552.  Despite a large number of publications which survive either complete or partially (and an almost as large number that are lost), little is known about Belli's career beyond the fact that he was a maestro di capella in his home town.  No trace of him is found in the ducal household at Ferrara during the reign of Alfonso II, although he had become a member of the Accademia degli Intrepidi by 1608.  He published a wide range of works including madrigals, canzoni, canzonette, motets, psalm settings, magnificats, mass and two sets of vespers.
Whatever his means, Belli was a pupil of Luzzasco Luzzaschi and was acquainted with Ippolito Fiorino, both organists and maestri at the Ferrara court, hence he had the opportunity to observe and learn from the musical environment it cultivated. His first surviving publication (and possibly his first single-composer print), the Madrigali a sei voci ... libro primo of 1583, was dedicated to Duke Alfonso and produced by Ferrara's ducal printer, Vittorio Baldini.  His subsequent book, the Primo libro de madrigali a cinque voci, was dedicated to the Duchess Margherita. Belli also contributed to two anthologies compiled at Ferrara in the early 1580s, the manuscript now known as Biblioteca Estense MS F1358 and Il lauro secco.  Both collections were products of the intimate world of the Ferrarese court, and it is unlikely that Belli would have been included in either if he were a rank outsider. 
Belli does seem to have looked for employment at most of the Po valley courts, and it may have been more bad luck than a lack of ability that prevented him from taking up an appointment.  In 1586 he dedicated his Secondo libro de madrigali a cinque voci to Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, signing the dedication on 20 August 1586.  Ottavio died less than six months later, and one of the first acts of his successor Alessandro was to fire almost the entire ducal musical establishment.  The following year, Belli dedicated his book I furti amorosi a sei voci con nova gionta ristampati, et coretti to Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga of Mantua (the first edition of the book was also dedicated to the Duke).  Belli was able to present the book personally to the Duke, and apparently received an offer of employment in return; however, this time there was only a lapse of six weeks between the dedication of the book, 1 July, and the death of Guglielmo on 14 August. 
Belli also cultivated friendships among the literary elite of Ferrara.  Several letters from the poet Alessandro Guarini (son of Giambattista and brother of Anna) to Belli survive, detailing both specific commissions and the particulars of Belli's impresa.   These letters also reveal that Belli was involved with the Accademia degli Armonici, which operated in Cesena (a town south of Ravenna near to the Adriatic coast).
Belli's own correspondence with Duchess Margherita, dating from 1616, reveals more about his connections with the Ferrarese court.  The letters were sent to Margherita some time after her entrance into the convent of Sant'Orsola in Mantua, which she founded in 1599, two years after her husbands' death.  Belli asks her for a recommendation for his only son, who had decided to enter religious orders, yet the letter also confirms his intimate involvement with the musical 'scene' at Ferrara in the early 1580s.  In a letter of condolence, sent in 1618 to Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga after the death of Margherita, Belli says that 'while she was at Ferrara ... she was my protector'. 

Bibliography references (primary and musical sources):  Belli, 1583; Belli, 1586; Belli, 1587

Bibliography references (secondary sources):  DurMart, 2000; Newcomb, 1981

Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 08 October, 2002.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and not those of the University of Southampton.