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Danse Macabre


Christine Kiessling Wolf

October 17, 2020

During this plague year, I've been infected with memories of a strange song I discovered as an exchange student in Italy. The song has roots in the arts and history of Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak. In the spring of 2020, more than half of the city's inhabitants tested positive for the virus, but not before the Regione had been so overwhelmed with the death, grief and exhaustion that funeral homes, mortuaries and cemeteries could not contain it all.

In the 1970s, a conservatory-trained practitioner of the questionable genre of progressive rock named Angelo Branduardi drew on Medieval and Renaissance themes of love and death. His muse, if you will, was the time of plague in Italy. Not the recent plague, but the bubonic plague, the Black Death that ebbed and flowed for an astonishing 500 years.

We mock prog rock now, and even back then a lot of the music was, shall we say, a tad histrionic. But Branduardi was the real deal, a virtuoso violinist and composer. He possessed a peculiar vision that limited his audience but led to high-octane collaborations with British rock royalty, including Paul Buckmaster, the musical polymath who arranged for everyone from David Bowie to the Grateful Dead.

Onstage, Branduardi was a madman. This was in keeping with the times; this was the 1970s and early 1980s. (Remember Ian Anderson?) But Branduardi's music suddenly seems not only relevant but necessary. He evoked not only the words and melodies of the Plague Years, but archetypal themes. The plague years that stretched from the 1300s to the 1800s was a time of grief and madness not unlike our own.

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I would never have encountered Branduardi if I hadn’t spent my junior year abroad studying art history in Padua. I was living in a house with American students and everyone was going to the concert. I was on the third day of a migraine, but I was damned if I was going to miss a concert with so much buzz in the household. The pain was such that I could not imagine it being worse and I figured that it was only going to last three days anyway, so it didn’t matter. You think these kinds of things when you are twenty years old. So I went, and it became a touchstone of my year in Italy, which shifted my life’s foundations.

Even for those of us without migraines, there was some question about the advisability of attending the concert. U.S. Army general James Dozier was chained to a steel cot within walking distance of the concert venue. The Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist organization committed to revolution through armed struggle, had kidnapped him from a nearby U.S. Army base. Americans should take extra care in their movements, or so the U.S. Department of State had warned.

Before this audacious action against the U.S. military presence, the Red Brigades had shocked the world with the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, a much-loved former prime minister of Italy. This was part of a grand plan to thwart the creation of a center-left coalition linking the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the mainstream Italian Communist Party.

The Red Brigades and Black Shirt fascist sympathizers were engaging in dueling atrocities. Fortunately for us, the previous director of our study abroad program had worked out some kind of agreement, apparently still being respected by the local Marxist cell, that University of California students remain unbothered.

Once arrived and safe from possible drama in the streets, the evening delivered the kind of concert that stays somewhere between your ringing ears and throbbing solar plexus. As much as I had done everything “wrong” for my migraine, the staging of the concert was identically wrong. The concert hall’s acoustics were that of airplane hangar and the show’s conceptual design was atrocious: the stage was too low and all you could see was a black hole punctuated by spotlights heaving into the gyrating audience.

And yet the mastery of the compositions, the musicianship, and Branduardi's manic energy exceeded the horrendousness. Branduardi’s synthesis of pop with Medieval and Renaissance themes and musical styles was irresistible. I had a wonderful time.

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When I returned to school in Davis, California, I played my Branduardi albums incessantly. I was trying to prolong.... something. They say that the culture shock when you come back to America is worse than the culture shock when you’re abroad: everything is the same yet feels different.

Branduardi was my therapy. What rose to the top in my music rotation was Ballo in Fa Dieses Minore, Dance in F Sharp Minor from the 1977 album La Pulce d’Acqua, The Water Flea. The song stood out for its ancient melody and what felt like a compelling dialogue to a young woman questioning her identity: Branduardi played two roles: Death and an artist appealing to Death.

What made this song so compelling, was what it was not. It was unexpected, commanding, even joyful. It had the kind of cool that leads students on the Grand Death Tour of Europe, the one with stops in Rouen for the plague house carvings of skulls on half-timber buildings, the Death Strip of the Berlin Wall, Paris’ Musee Carnavalet’s stuffed monkeys and models of guillotines, Roman catacombs, and other exuberant and excessive corpse dispositions, along with random gruesome themes in frescoed churches and in art museums. Death is attractive when you are young enough not to feel its fetid breath upon your neck.

Living in Padua, the largest city on dry land that was part of the Venetian empire, had led all of us students to develop a fascination with 18th-century Venetian decadence, when people wore masks of the Commedia dell’Arte characters on visits, in the streets, going about their daily lives. The Venetian genre artist Pietro Longhi chronicled this world of the masked surfaces, or, better, “la facciata,” which was simultaneously mundane and excessive in the celebration of obvious falsity associated with life in a city of mirrors and watery main thoroughfares. Of course, the coolest masked character was the one seen out and about signifying Death and the effort to keep it at bay: the Plague Doctor.

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Plagues and echoes of plagues. Growing up in California, I was more accustomed to disasters of the tectonic and conflagatory variety. I had no idea that plague had been a nearly constant feature of the human landscape for millennia.

Starting in the Nile Delta in 541 A.D., a plague thought to be typhoid swept through Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, and until it faded around 755, killing between 20 and 50 million people. The second great plague, the infamous Black Death, lasted from the 1330s until the 1830s.

Just as the coronavirus is breaking apart political economies worldwide and reconstituting them in new forms, successive plague outbreaks throughout history affected every aspect of society. In his 2019 book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the PresentYale University professor Frank Snowden reconsiders plagues as movers of history. Plagues changed the outcome of wars. Epidemic illness exacerbated the slave trade and the atrocities of the Middle Passage. Typhoid drove Napoleon’s armies out of the New World, resulting in the Louisiana Purchase that doubled the size of the United States, making the new country a force to be reckoned with globally.

It's certainly no surprise that such an overwhelming and poorly understood destructive force led many to an outpouring of piety. Yet the randomness of plague’s choice of victims also generated what Snowden calls “a powerful undertow” in the opposite direction. “The result was not so much atheism but a mute despair,” he writes.

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Danza Macabra, Simone Baschenis, 1539. Baschenis came from Averaria, a town near Bergamo. 

Italy was among the first countries to be ravaged by plague by virtue of its central place on Mediterranean trading routes. It is no wonder then, at the immense number of Last Judgments, plastered in churches. Jesus Christ returns to separate the blessed and the damned, bodies emerge in decay from their graves. What was already “nasty, brutish, and short” was made visible according to received spiritual wisdom. At least, that was one of the ways the Black Death played out in sacred art.

Not far from Bergamo is the little town of Clusone, famed for its Oratorio dei Disciplini, part of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. On the Oratorio exterior wall is a remarkable fresco depicting The Triumph of Death painted by Giacomo Borlone de Buschis in 1485. Nothing can prepare you for the force of Triumphant Death, a living skeleton, crowned and wearing a richly embroidered cloak spread over her victims of plague, the great and powerful, the paupers, the developing mercantile class, the religious, the irreligious, the just and the unjust.

This is not the Grim (and abstractly masculine) Reaper. The representation is La Morte, the ancient feminine Queen of Death--a woman, according to the scholarship. In her bony hands are the ends of two unfurling scrolls declaring her power. The only wealth she knows are lives.

She is flanked by two skeletons who fire at their earthly mortal targets, one with an elaborate bow and the other on the right, with an early arquebus, the long gun of the Ottoman Empire. At her feet are the corpses of a Pope and an Emperor sharing an open stony sepulcher, together with snakes, frogs and scorpions. Below her are “powerful” figures, a cardinal, a bishop, a king and a philosopher, beseeching her with useless riches and gifts in a hopeless effort to avoid the fates of the dead around them.

Below the crowning register of victorious Death is a band of figures, mortals alternating with skeletal guides. This is the Dance of Death, a Danza Macabra, arrayed in a calm and regular manner, not “dancing,” but walking in a metaphorical “dance.” Their pace is measured and orderly. Death cannot be avoided. We must accede to Her demand. The Oratorio’s fresco leads us, through its doors to the interior, to find our hope in more conventional art, renderings of Christian doctrine and penance and piety.

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The Triumph of Death, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, 1485.

How does mass death affect us? This fresco tells one tale. The Oratorio and its complex was the home of the “Disciplini Bianchi,” a lay confraternity of prayer, penance, and self-flagellation. Their practices arose in response to the devastation caused by wars between the Papacy and Holy Roman Empire from 1048 to 1257, and to the recurrent disease and plagues brought with warring armies.

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Fresco at Clusone. The Disciplini.

Barring self-flagellation, what can stay Death’s hand? Even for a brief while? Branduardi’s inspiration for the Ballo in Fa Diesis Minore was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In the influential 1957 film (pace Woody Allen) the Knight distracts Death long enough to allow a minstrel and his family to escape. It is this minstrel who has the film’s last words, as Death leads the Knight and his other victims out of life. Music survives. Art lives on.

Branduardi said he was influenced by Bergman, but the song’s material goes back further. The lyrics for Ballo in Fa Diesis Minore were set by Branduardi’s wife, Luisa Zappa. She collected the original text from a fresco painted in 1539 on the church of San Vigilio in Pinzolo, a small town in the Italian Alps to the northeast of Clusone. The fresco on the church's exterior shows a Dance of Death, complete with skeleton musicians, echoes of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The words painted on the wall are an exhortation concerning Death’s power over all:

Io sont la morte che porto corona

Sonte signora de ognia persona

Et cossi son fiera forte e dura

Che trapasso le porte et ultra le mura

Et son quela che fa tremar el mondo

Reuolgendo mia falze atondo atondo

O uero l'archo col mio strale

I am death and wear the crown

I rule over everyone

I am proud, strong and hard

I pass through doors and over walls

I am feared by the world

Swinging my scythe round and round

For the melody, Branduardi chose an oddly upbeat Schiazarula Marazula, a medieval northern Italian folk tune claimed to have a reputation for accompanying exorcism rites that had recently been recorded using ancient instruments. Confronting death doesn’t normally bring to mind a jaunty dance tune. Was Branduardi exorcising death or celebrating it?

The finished song exceeded the original texts collected by Zappa. It did not end with Death’s aim being “true,” a la Elvis Costello, but changed from a minor key to a major one and made a different claim:

You are the guest of honor

at this dance played for you

Put aside your scythe and

dance a round and a round

the twirl of one dance and

then still yet another

and you will no longer be the

Queen of Time

Branduardi's Ballo in Fa Dieses Minore was noted by fans in comments and blogs that arose during the terrible Spring of 2020. The association of Death and her crown were seen in the virus as a “corona.”

Yet Branduardi was not viewed as having been part of a terrible link in a chain forged again and again in Bergamo. He was not foretelling the horror of an eternal return of plague in an ancient plague ground, but was instead a prophet of sopravivire, survival.

As a much younger person it was easier to see, or believe in, immersion in art as life’s prima mobile against Death—a promise of immortality, if only in theory. If I were my younger self perhaps I might still believe that. My current self asks whether art is enough. Is there any art powerful enough to transcend the unholy marriage of human pathology with a plague whose randomness is enough to drive anyone mad. Perhaps that’s always what we’ve been doing all long, distracting ourselves from the one real certainty: Death.

I hear something different now, when I listen to Branduardi. The mad dance leaves us somewhere else, drained, down to essentials. Beauty is still resistance, but the resistance requires everything we have and more.

Taking a cue from Bergman’s famous scene whereby the Knight abjures the artist to slip away when Death’s attention is elsewhere, Branduardi and Zappa added text and music that provided a way to “distract” Death by persuading her “to put down [her] scythe and dance a round, and a round.” In this way, one might escape her embrace long enough to perform a “meaningful deed,” that will allow others to survive.

Unlike the film, in Ballo in Fa Diesis Minore, Death is not simply “looking away” briefly to allow an artist to steal away with his little family. Seduced by Branduardi's whirl, Death is called to join in with the living. She feels the music course through her body. She dances.

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Christine Kiessling-Wolf is an art historian with a studio experience. She has taught at universities and consulted on art acquisition. She has advocated for endangered African wildlife, and claims to have used her powers of deconstruction at San Francisco public school meetings.

Angelo Branduardi ::: Ballo in Fa Diesis Minore, Live 1978

Angelo Branduardi ::: Il Bambino Dei Topi, Live 1991

Angelo Branduardi ::: Cogli la prima mela, Live 1996

Angelo Branduardi ::: Cogli La Prima Mela, Live 2012