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The Strange Case of a 15th Century Trombonist-Composer-Murderer
Bartolomeo Tromboncino (ca. 1470–ca. 1535) was raised in Mantua, Italy, where his father, Bernardino Piffaro, served as a musician at the Mantuan court. It was there that Tromboncino apprenticed and began his career as a trombonist in the court wind band. Like his father (a piffaro or shawm player), Tromboncino took on the name of his primary instrument.
Tromboncino was evidently a talented trombonist; even as a youth he was in demand at other Italian courts. In 1489, for example, when a trombone position in the Florence civic wind band became vacant, the famous patron Lorenzo de Medici became personally involved in filling it, making an offer to Tromboncino, although Tromboncino did not accept (source: McGee, Service).
By the late 1400s, Tromboncino began focusing on composing, particularly in a genre called the frottola, a type of secular song considered a predecessor to the madrigal. He became part of Isabella d'Este's personal retinue at the Mantuan court, serving as her personal composer, tutor, and accompanist.
Although Tromboncino was "much favored" by the Mantuan court, he began showing signs of a difficult disposition. As musicologist William Prizer puts it, "his career in Mantua seems to have been a stormy one." That may be an understatement.
Tromboncino fled to Venice in 1495 over an offense that was apparently egregious enough that he would return to Mantua upon his father's insistence. But it was in 1499 that he committed the act that has made him infamous in music history. In July of that year, Tromboncino discovered his wife in flagrante delicto–that is, in the act of adultery–and murdered her.
The blow-by-blow circumstances of the murder are related in a letter from the patron Isabella d'Este to her husband requesting that he pardon Tromboncino: “Today around five o’clock in the afternoon, Alfonso Spagnolo came to notify me that Trombonicino had killed his wife with great cruelty for having found her at home alone in a room with Zoanmaria de Triomfo, who was seen by Alfonso at the window asking him [Alfonso] to find a ladder; but, hearing noise in the house, [Alfonso] did not wait and went inside. He found Tromboncino, who had attacked his wife with weapons, climbing the stairs accompanied by [his] father and a boy. Although he [Alfonso] reprimanded him, Tromboncino replied that he had the right to punish his wife [if he] found her in error, and, not having arms, he [Alfonso] was unable to stop him, so that when he returned home for arms, she was already dead. Zoanmaria, in the middle of this, jumped from the window. Tromboncino then retreated to [the church of] S. Barnaba with the father and the boy. For myself, I wanted to tell the story to Your Excellency and to beg you that, having had legitimate cause to kill his wife, and being of such goodwill and virtue as you are, to have mercy on them, and also on the father and the boy, who, as far as Alfonso could tell, did not help Tromboncino in any way except to escape…” (Source: Atlas, Aragonese 350).
Tromboncino was apparently pardoned for these two offenses, for, as historians observe, he is mentioned in Mantuan documents throughout the remainder of 1499 and in 1500. The act of killing a wife for adultery was considered, after all, a gray area that was often legally pardonable. However, Tromboncino fled Mantua again in 1501. This was evidently a greater offense than the earlier ones: Mantua's Francesco Gonzaga wrote to Marco Lando of Verona that year that Tromboncino “has left our service in a deplorable manner and without permission, even though he was the best paid and had more favors and kindnesses and liberty than any of the courtiers in our house.” He added that Tromboncino “will be well advised not to leave the territory of St. Mark.”
Frottola by Tromboncino
Tromboncino spent the remainder of his career in Ferrara and Venice, apparently never returning to Mantua. Despite all this upheaval, Tromboncino managed an output greater than many musicians of his generation, including composing a number of the best frottolas of the genre. One leading musicologist called him “one of the most prolific, gifted and significant frottolists” (Prizer). Tromboncino's apparently erratic, troubled life is likewise belied by the light, carefree spirit of his musical output.
For another Renaissance trombonist who had difficulty staying out of trouble, see A Mischievous Trombonist in Renaissance Italy.
Note: The Prizer article from Grove's (see below) is the main source of information and should be considered the source unless otherwise indicated.
Atlas, Allan W. Music at the Aragonese Court of Naples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
McGee, Timothy J. “In the Service of the Commune: The Changing Role of Florentine Civic Musicians, 1450-1532.” Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn 1999), 727-743.
Prizer, William F., “Tromboncino, Bartolomeo,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. Vol. 19, 161-163. London: Macmillan,1980.