Italian musicians at the Tudor Court – were they really Jews?

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Ten years ago an article appeared in jemish Historical Studies which attempted to revolutionize the history of the Jews in sixteenth-century England.2 The author suggested the presence in London of a second Jewish community, different from that of the Portuguese Marranos whose presence was already well known, con- sisting of the Italian musicians who were active at the Tudor Court. The present study seeks to refute this thesis, starting with a critical discussion of some docu- ments that have recently come to light.

The article which proposed the existence of a second Jewish community in London is the culmination of a series of others that appeared during the preced- ing decade.3 The starting point can be identified as a work in which Roger Prior collected evidence which, in his opinion, demonstrated the Jewish identity of the Bassano family who served King Henry VIII in the first half of the sixteenth century.4 In his latest work, however, Roger Prior admits that ‘no single piece of surviving evidence proves conclusively that the Bassanos were Jewish or of Jewish origin, yet a wealth of circumstantial evidence strongly suggests 50’.5 Even today, the belief that there was a second Jewish community in sixteenth- century London composed of Italian musicians is widespread.6

The debate on English music of that period has been greatly affected by Professor Prior’s theory firstly because the presumed Jewish musicians were very important and had a great influence on English music of that period, and sec- ondly because this opinion led an important scholar to formulate a new theory about the spread of the viola da gamba in Europe.7

The musical environment of the English Court indeed underwent a profound transformation in the 15405 following the engagement of a number of foreign musicians by the king. Most came from Italy with their families, and for over a century they exercised a practically unchallenged influence over instrumental music for ‘consorts’. At Court, the Bassano family founded the consort of recorders which, until the mid-seventeenth century, was composed almost entirely of members of the family and of persons closely related to them.8 The arrival in the same period of a new string consort which included many members of the Lupo family had a decisive influence on the spread of the viola da gamba in England.9 The Lupos very probably came from Milan, as many documents in the English archives suggest. Yet it is likely that before moving to England the family spent several years in Venice, from where they moved to London together with the rest of the string consort to which they belonged.10 Italian musicians dominated the consorts of cornets and trombones for a long time. Numerous descendants of the Bassano, Lupo, Kellim, Galiardello and Comey families served the Court as musicians and instrument-makers until the mid- seventeenth century.11

The consort of recorders and the string consort, which were the most important attached to the Court in those years, both came from Venice where, during the same period, La Fontegam, the first Italian treatise on the

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