Francesco da Milano
by Thomas Stiegler
Francesco da Milano was born on 18 August 1497 in Monza, a small town northeast of Milan. During his lifetime he already received the name “Il Divino” (a name which he shares with Michelangelo Buonarotti after all).
He was one of the most famous musicians of his time and Lucas Guarico, the astrologer of Francesco’s patron Pope Paul III, even considered him “the most important and influencing musician of all, (…) better than Orpheus and Apollo when he plays the lute or another instrument“.
His works are also among the most important written in the Renaissance and have influenced composers throughout Europe for more than a generation.
His father Benedetto was a talented musician himself, who sent his son Francesco to Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, the lutenist at the court of Mantua at the age of eight, where he began his musical education.
As early as 1514 he became a member of the papal household in Rome and was lutenist for Pope Leo X. A position he held until his death in 1521.
He also remained in Rome in the following years and was mentioned by name in 1526 when he performed for Pope Clement VII and Isabella d’Este.
The following year he returned to northern Italy, where he became canon in the Basilica of San Nazaró Maggiore in Milan in 1528. Already at this time he was so famous that publications of his music appeared throughout Italy and Europe.
Between 1531 and 1535 he served Cardinal Ippolito de Medici in Florence. Together they moved to Rome in 1535, where he also became the lute teacher of Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, a nephew of Pope Paul III.
In a document dated 1 January 1538, Francesco is listed as a member of the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a famous patron of the arts, and accompanied him to a meeting of the Pope with Charles V and Francis I in Nice.
In the same year he married the wealthy aristocrat Clara Tizzoni and together they settled in Milan. But already next year we will see him again at the papal court in Rome.
Little is known about his last years and his death except his date of death, January 2, 1543, which was again recorded by Luca Gaurico.
Even today, a tombstone in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Milan commemorates this most important lutenist of all time, who spent his life in the service of the church and who was so important for the development of Western music.
The work of Francesco da Milano is so powerful that it can still speak to us today, after more than 500 years. Above all, it is his unique peace and contemplative mood that lends him a special atmosphere and captivates the listener.
Among his 124 compositions for the lute, published between 1536 and 1548 in seven books, are 60 ricercars, 40 fantasies, a toccata and arrangements of various vocal music pieces, all of which are among the most important works of this instrument.
Milano’s music shows the transition from the loose improvisation style of his predecessors to the refined polyphonic textures of later composers. One of the characteristic features of his style is the use of short melodic fragments that are imitated in various voices and processed throughout the piece.
He used techniques that he found in contemporary vocal music such as a Josquin Desprez, such as strict canon formation, a free counterpoint, reduction and enlargement of individual motifs, etc.
Today his reputation rests mainly on his ricercaren and fantasies, but contemporaries considered his arrangement of vocal works by other composers to be the better part of his oeuvre.
In these arrangements he used his outstanding virtuosity to create idiomatic lute pieces from these polyphonic compositions.
Today his work is marked with”Ness-Nummern”, according to the modern edition of Arthur Ness (1970) and is available to us in numerous photographs.