Afranio, a Virtuoso Phagotus Player

Written by  Camilla Cavicchi
Scenes of musical life at court.
Among the paintings of the Ferrara school acquired by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara there is a curious painting ascribed to the Maestro dei Dodici Apostoli, which provides a striking insight to some aspects of musical life in Ferrara in the early sixteenth century.

The painting, entitled Jacob and Rachel at the well, was produced in 1530-1540 and features a pastoral scene from the Old Testament.
It is full of background details, from little animals to the minutiae of dress, but what is particularly surprising is the choice of musical instruments depicted by the artist. It does not feature the musical instuments usually attributed to shepherds; rather it depicts courtly and fashionable instruments, close to the idealised bucolic world of eclogues and pastoral works which were favourite theatre pieces at the Este court.

Three are recognisable instruments: in the background on the left, there is the keyboard of a cordophone of the viola da mano family; in the centre of the canvas, hanging from the shoulder belt of the kneeling shepherd, a soprano crumhorn; in the foreground, to the left on the ground, a phagotus. The presence of this last instrument is particularly unusual piece of documentary evidence.
The phagotus was a particular type of wind instrument with a double reed, operated with a bagpipe mechanism which produced polyphonous music with a wide range of dynamics and tone.

The phagotus was invented by Afranio degli Albonesi da Pavia, a canon in the service of cardinal Ippolito I d'Este and, after his death in 1520, of Duke Alfonso I. The history of its invention, with a picture of the instrument, was recorded in the Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam written by Afranio's nephew, Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi, and printed in Pavia, by Simoneta, in 1539. According to Teseo Ambrogio, the instrument was first produced in Ferrara around 1521 with the help of the skilled court wood-turner Giovanni Battista Ravilio after a series of apparently unsuccessful experiments. Afranio himself was a virtuoso player of his instrument.

The depiction of the phagotus discovered in the Maestro dei Dodici Apostoli painting is of great documentary significance. It confirms that the artist was a frequent visitor in court circles. The presence of the instrument in a typical pastoral setting also establishes a hitherto unknown context. Rather than a precursor of today's bassoon, the phagotus was a refined version of the bagpipes which conjured up the courtly image of bucolic life so popular with the cultivated audience of eclogues and pastorals at the d'Este court.