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date: 11 December 2019

Spataro [Spadario], Giovanni [Spatarius, Joannes]free

  • Bonnie J. Blackburn

(b Bologna, ?26 Oct 1458; d Bologna, 17 Jan 1541). Italian theorist, composer, and choirmaster. His name comes from his family’s occupation: his grandfather was a merchant who dealt in swords. He mentions his age in two letters, which yield a birth year of 1458 or 1459; since he is not listed in the baptismal records, which go back to 1 January 1459, the year is probably 1458, and the day possibly 26 October, the date of two of his wills. Spataro never attended university and did not take holy orders; he may have continued his family’s profession until late in his life (he bequeathed a forge to his ‘compare’).

During the 1490s Spataro was on friendly terms with younger members of the Bentivoglio family: Antongaleazzo received the dedication of his Honesta defensio, and one of his lost treatises was written for Hermes, as well as two masses on pears (a pear appears on Hermes’s arms). Only in 1505 did Spataro become a singer at S Petronio in Bologna, where he served sporadically until appointed ‘maestro de canto’ in 1512, a post he retained until his death. He was buried in a side chapel, but his tomb (designed by himself) no longer survives.

Spataro owes his musical formation to his revered teacher Bartolomeus Ramis de Pareia, whose disciple he became in the 1470s, continuing to 1484, when Ramis left Bologna. He carried on not only his master’s teachings but his pugnacious attitude, crossing figurative swords in print with Nicolò Burzio and Franchinus Gaffurius for their criticism of Ramis. Though Gaffurius called Spataro ‘illiterate’ since he did not write in Latin, he conceded that his musical understanding was acute.

With the exception of the treatise on sesquialtera, published with Pietro Aaron’s help, Spataro went into print only when responding to published works: Nicolò Burzio’s Musices opusculum (1487) attacking Ramis, and Gaffurius’s Apologia … adversus Joannem Spatarium (1520), Epistula prima in solutiones obiectorum Io. Vaginarii Bononien. (1521), and Epistula secunda apologetica (1521). Spataro and Gaffurius also corresponded privately over a period of at least 26 years; all these letters (including 18 criticizing Gaffurius’s De harmonia musicorum instrumentorum opus of 1518) are lost, but were partially incorporated in the Dilucide et probatissime demonstratione and Errori de Franchino Gafurio. Also lost are a treatise responding to Gaffurius’s annotations of Ramis’s Musica practica, treatises on mensural music, proportions, and counterpoint, and a 200-page critique of Aaron’s treatise on modes, which Spataro deemed ‘without order and truth’. 53 letters, mainly to Aaron and Giovanni Del Lago, survive (ed. in SpataroC).

Spataro valued reason above authority in support of his new ideas. He distinguished sharply between rules for beginners and theory for learned and speculative musicians; he claimed that while the rules of composition could be taught, gifted musicians were born, not made. His investigations of the tonal system led him to contemplate notes such as E♯ and B♯ and his discussion of Adrian Willaert’s famous ‘duo’ is our main source of knowledge of contemporary thought about this enigmatic composition. Although recognizing that Willaert intended Aristoxenean temperament, Spataro criticized it in Pythagorean terms. These and similar musical problems were avidly discussed by Spataro’s group of ‘musici bolognesi’ and their opinions are reported in various letters.

Spataro also had a keen interest in obscure canons, puzzles of mensural notation, and chromatic music. One complete composition and fragments of others survive in his correspondence, but many others, referred to in his letters, are lost. Some motets (identified through his letters) are preserved in the choirbooks belonging to S. Petronio, partly copied by him; an unknown number of the anonymous compositions are probably his as well. Except for certain experimental pieces, his music is competent but not very interesting; some of the more adventurous passages were eliminated when he copied the pieces into his choirbooks. He and Aaron frequently exchanged compositions, which they criticized in detail. Aaron found fault with Spataro’s dissonance treatment, which allowed augmented octaves and diminished 5ths; Spataro appealed to the judgment of the ear, claiming that the ‘silence’ between beats (i.e. suspensions) mitigated the dissonance. Another idiosyncratic theory was his insistence that notes under sesquialtera are perfect, without regard to the underlying mensuration. His Tractato di musica expounds this theory at length but suffers from repetition and lack of focus. A related theory, accepted by a small number of theorists, is that breves are equal in perfect and imperfect time; mensuration signs can therefore be used to indicate proportions.

Spataro used a ‘cartella’ as an aid to composition; he described two sizes but not the material, nor how he wrote the music down; he may have used score format, but it is more likely that the voices were approximately aligned or even in separate fields. When he criticized Aaron’s compositions for their contrapuntal infelicities (such as parallel 5ths), he did not score them but compared pairs of voices; the faults were noted without regard to the contrapuntal context, and thus were more stringently censured than warranted.

Spataro’s sometimes irascible temperament led to breaks in relations with his correspondents, but he was always ready to resume discussion for the sake of furthering ‘our delectable harmonic science … first to learn, second to teach, and third to correct my faults, if I have erred in any way in my works’ (letter to Aaron, 1532; SpataroC, no.41). The questions he raised and his probing answers reveal him to be one of the most interesting figures in Italian theory of the 16th century.


Ave gratia plena, 4vv, I-Rvat, ed. SpataroC, pp.555–61; Bsp A.45

Gaude Maria virgo, 4vv, Bsp A.45 (discussed in SpataroC, no.49)

Hec virgo est preclarum vas, 4vv and 5vv, Bsp A.45, ed. K. Jeppesen, Italia sacra musica (Copenhagen, 1962, discussed in SpataroC, nos.35, 37, 39)

In illo tempore missus est angelus Gabriel, 4vv, Md (2266), ed. in AMI, i (1897)

Nativitas tua, 5vv and 6vv, Bsp A.45 (discussed in SpataroC, nos.36–7, 39)

Tenebre facte sunt, 15083, ed. Jeppesen 1935

Virgo prudentissima, 4vv, Bsp A.45, ed. K. Jeppesen, Italia sacra musica (Copenhagen, 1962, discussed in SpataroC, nos.35–6)


Ave Maria, 6vv (SpataroC, no.16)

Cardinei cetus (for Leo X, probably composed 1515, SpataroC, nos.15–17, 19)

Deprecor te (SpataroC, nos.20–22)

Magnificats (one sent to Ercole d’Este in 1482, SpataroC, nos.4, 55, 58)

Missa Da pacem (SpataroC, nos.2–3, 44)

Missa de la pera (for Hermes Bentivoglio, SpataroC, nos.17–21, 80)

Missa de la tradictora (SpataroC, no.3)

Missa O salutaris hostia (composed 1533, SpataroC, nos.50–51, 55)

Missa Pera pera (for Hermes Bentivoglio, SpataroC, nos.18, 20–22, 24)

Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (SpataroC, nos.6–7, 15–16)

Missa Tue voluntatis (SpataroC, nos.8, 41–5)

Nativitas gloriose (SpataroC, no.49)

Pater noster, 5vv (composed 1529, SpataroC, no.20)

Salve regina (composed c1493, SpataroC, no.52)

Ubi opus est facto (SpataroC, nos.2, 44–5, 47–8)

unidentified motets (SpataroC, nos.6, 30, 35)

MSS copied by Spataro: I-Bsp A.XXIX; A.XXXI; A.XXXVIII; A.LXV; A.LXVI; portions of Bc Q18


  • Honesta defensio in Nicolai Burtii parmensis opusculum (Bologna, 1491/R1967 in AntMI, Monumenta bononiensia, 2/1)
  • Utile e breve regule di canto (Cod. Lond., British Museum, Add.4920), MS dated 1510/R1962 in AntMI, Monumenta bononiensia, 2/2; also ed. G. Vecchi, Quadrivium, 5 (1962)
  • Dilucide et probatissime demonstratione de Maestro Zoanne Spatario musico bolognese, contra certe frivole et vane excusatione, da Franchino Gafurio (maestro de li errori) in luce aducte (Bologna, 1521/R1925 with Ger. trans.)
  • Errori de Franchino Gafurio da Lodi, da Maestro Ioanne Spatario, musico bolognese, in sua deffensione, et del suo preceptore maestro Bartolomeo Ramis hispano subtilemente demonstrati (Bologna, 1521)
  • Tractato di musica di Gioanni Spataro musico bolognese nel quale si tracta de la perfectione da la sesqualtera producta in la musica mensurata exercitate (Venice, 1531/R1970 in BMB, section 2, xiv) (SpataroC, nos.30, 32–7, 39, 44–5, 66, 69
  • 53 letters in A-Wn S.m.4380; F-Pn Ital.1110, I-Bc Lettere di Spataro, Rvat Vat.Lat.5318 (ed. in SpataroC)
Lost writings
  • Appostille (response to Gaffurius’s criticisms of Ramis; SpataroC, nos.22, 28–9, 30)
  • Epistole (correspondence with Gaffurius; SpataroC, nos.6, 22, 30, 36, 48)
  • Tractato de canto mensurato (SpataroC, nos.8–11, 16–22, 28, 30, 33, 44–5, 47, 55, 58–9, 74)
  • Tractato de contrapuncto (SpataroC, nos.17, 20–21, 23–5, 27–30, 33, 55, 57–8, 60)
  • Tractato delle proportioni (SpataroC, nos. 17, 20–28, 30, 33, 80–81)
  • 200-page critique of Aaron’s Trattato della natura et cognitione di tutti gli tuoni (SpataroC, nos.27, 30)



  • L. Frati: ‘Per la storia della musica in Bologna dal secolo XV al XVI’, RMI, vol.24 (1917), 449–78
  • K. Jeppesen: Introduction to Die mehrstimmige italienische Laude um 1500 (Copenhagen and Leipzig, 1935/R)
  • K. Jeppesen: ‘Eine musiktheoretische Korrespondenz des früheren Cinquecento’, AcM, vol.13 (1941), 3–39
  • E.E. Lowinsky: ‘Adrian Willaert’s Chromatic “Duo” Re-Examined’, TVNM, vol.18 (1956–9), 1–36; repr. in Music in the Culture of the Renaissance, ed. B.J. Blackburn (Chicago, 1989), 541–64
  • G. Vecchi: ‘Le Utile e brevi regule di canto di Giovanni Spataro’, Quadrivium, vol.5 (1962), 5–68
  • O. Mischiati: ‘Un’inedita testimonianza su Bartolomeo Ramis de Pareia’, FAM, vol.13 (1966), 64–6
  • G. Gaspari: Musica e musicisti a Bologna (Bologna, 1969) [repr. of collected writings]
  • F. Tirro: Giovanni Spataro’s Choirbooks in the Archive of San Petronio in Bologna (diss., U. of Chicago, 1974)
  • F. Tirro: ‘La stesura del testo nei manoscritti di Giovanni Spataro’, RIM, vol.15 (1980), 31–70
  • C.V. Palisca: Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought (New Haven, CT, 1985), esp. 232–5
  • F. Tirro: Renaissance Musical Sources in the Archive of San Petronio in Bologna, i: Giovanni Spataro’s Choirbooks (Neuhausen, 1986)
  • O. Gambassi: La cappella musicale di S. Petronio: maestri, organisti, cantori e strumentisti dal 1436 al 1920 (Florence, 1987)
  • S.F. Weiss: ‘Bologna Q 18: Some Reflections on Content and Context’, JAMS, vol.41 (1988), 63–101
  • A.M. Busse Berger: Mensuration and Proportion Signs: Origins and Evolution (Oxford, 1993)
  • J.A. Owens: Composers at Work: the Craft of Musical Composition, 1450–1600 (New York, 1996)
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘The Dispute about Harmony c.1500 and the Creation of a New Style’, Théorie et analyse musicales 1450–1650/Music Theory and Analysis: Louvain-la-Neuve 1999, ed. A.-E. Ceulemans and B.J. Blackburn (Louvain-la-Neuve, 2001), 1–37
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘Publishing Music Theory in Early Cinquecento Venice and Bologna: Friends and Foes’, Music in Print and Beyond: Hildegard von Bingen to the Beatles, ed. C.A. Monson and R.M. Martin (Rochester, NY, 2013), 39–61
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘Theorists as Primedonne: Reviewing Music Theory in the Early Cinquecento’, Studi musicali, NS vol.6 (2015), 263–82
Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale
Rivista italiana di musicologia
Fontes artis musicae
Rivista musicale italiana
Acta musicologica
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Musiksammlung
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse muziekgeschiedenis [and earlier variants]