27 August 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of the death of composer Josquin Desprez, the artist who made his musical mark on the Renaissance, and on whom every musician still trains today. Born on the border between Belgium and France, his career was divided mostly between Italy and France. In Milan (where he was cantor and composer to Ludovico Il Moro), Leonardo portrayed him in his Ritratto di musico. In Rome, he sang for the Pope in the Sistine Chapel for five years. He is musician to at least two kings of France. Baldassarre Castiglione testifies that in the courts of his time, music was only appreciated if composed by Josquin. Luther calls him ‘the master of notes’. And when his contemporaries want to make comparisons, they have to resort to Michelangelo. No less than for Shakespeare, armies of scholars and enthusiasts continue to chase the trail of his mysterious figure. And the fascination his music exerts, yesterday as today, is incalculable.
This feature-length documentary traces the artistic and human journey of Josquin Desprez, following this man of shy disposition through the most prestigious courts of Europe, alongside the most celebrated artists and men of letters of the Renaissance. The film, however, does not adhere to the criteria of a classic documentary, but wants to have a cinematic scope, using all the tools of art cinema, and expressively enhancing environments and landscapes. As if the exceptional beauty of the Benedictine abbey of Farfa were not enough, the film dwells at length in environments of the Vatican that have never been seen before, and that hold astonishing secrets that the film reveals for the first time ever. And even environments well known to the general public, such as the Sistine Chapel, are shown in a completely new light. Added to this is the world premiere of a piece of Josquin’s music performed from the Sistine Chapel choir, a privilege never before granted: we can thus not only appreciate the Sistine Chapel from a totally new angle, but for the first time ever we can also appreciate the original acoustics of that unique environment in all its charm. The piece of music performed in the Sistine Chapel (performed by selected elements of the prestigious and multi-award-winning ensemble De labyrintho, directed by Maestro Walter Testolin) is part of a rich musical programme, performed live especially for this film in the sublime setting of the Abbey of Farfa. Here, the Odhecaton ensemble, one of the most prestigious and award-winning ensembles at international level, conducted by Maestro Paolo Da Col, performed some of Josquin’s most celebrated sacred and secular pieces, which we can enjoy in the superlative sound recordings by Matteo Costa, one of the most renowned sound engineers on the world music scene today.
However, the film does not want to sacrifice its documentary nature, instead presenting the world of culture and art with surprising revelations, starting with the interpretation of the symbolism of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ritratto di musico: thanks to a complex and exciting investigation, conducted with rigorously philological criteria, it will henceforth be possible to identify with absolute certainty the Leonardesque character in Josquin Desprez, after decades of futile attempts by the most prestigious musicologists and art historians.
But the discoveries are not limited to Leonardo’s painting: the film reveals the existence, alongside the only known portrait of Josquin, of no less than four other portraits of the composer, two of which are hidden within the walls of the Vatican. Throughout the film, the viewer is immersed in the almost mythical era that is the Renaissance, through an impressive use of very high-resolution period images, which allows for a truly ‘immersive’ experience, such as is very rarely seen in a documentary. Some of the film’s most fascinating texts are recited in voice over by Sandra Ceccarelli (Golden Lion for Best Actress at the Venice Film).