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Behind-the-scenes sounds of the 17th-century Vatican

Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

This Tuesday through Thursday, the Society for Historically Informed Performance presents the ensemble In Stile Moderno in “Un Concerto per Barberini,” featuring composers in the employ of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the smooth, cultured, and cautious 17th-century Vatican insider. Musically, Barberini (pictured) is best known as a prominent patron of opera just as opera was being invented — historically, as Galileo Galilei’s defender during the astronomer’s Vatican trial for heresy. But Barberini’s deftest accomplishment was surviving Roman Catholic politics, which, at the time, were, to describe it ecumenically, Byzantine.

Francesco’s position was nepotistic: Pope Urban VIII was his uncle. After Urban’s death, the Barberini family attempted a coalition with their longtime rivals, the Pamphili, supporting the election of Pope Innocent X — who nonetheless dissolved the truce, hounding his old enemies. Urban VIII had pursued a war against the duchy of Castro. After initial gains (which, characteristically, were celebrated with a Barberini-commissioned opera, Marco Marazzoli’s 1642 “Le pretensioni del Tebro e del Po”), the conflict ended in embarrassing defeat. Innocent X persecuted the Barberini into exile over the war’s financial irregularities, then he refought it, literally leveling Castro to the ground.


But, as Innocent X’s health declined, Olimpia Maidalchini — the pope’s sister-in-law, his most influential advisor — married her daughter to Francesco Barberini’s nephew, uniting the families in, effectively, an alliance against each other. When the new pope, Alexander VII, sought to strip Maidalchini of her status, Barberini attempted (unsuccessfully) to intercede. According to Gregorio Leti’s scurrilous but irresistibly gossipy 1667 “Vita” of Maidalchini, Cardinal Federico Sforza, disgusted by Barberini’s intercessions, called him “un gran diavolo.”

Nevertheless, Barberini maintained his ecclesiastic power; at his death in 1679, he was dean of the College of Cardinals, and still head of the Roman Inquisition, the job which, early on, had pitted Barberini against his own uncle over Galileo’s science. That Galileo was allowed house arrest rather than prison was largely due to Barberini. “I have always taken special note,” Galileo wrote, “of how affectionately Your Eminence has empathized with me.”



In Stile Moderno performs Tuesday, St. Peter’s Church, Weston; Wednesday, The Chapel at West Parish, Andover; Thursday at Emmanuel Church, Boston. All 8 p.m. www.sohipboston.org