March 27 is the 600th birthday of Antonio Squarcialupi, Florentine organist — and curiously eminent posthumous celebrity. For centuries, Squarcialupi was famous for, ultimately, being famous. No music by him has survived; reports of his prestige almost invariably allow more equivocal readings. Squarcialupi’s repute seems to have resulted from sufficient talent, fortuitous timing, and top-notch patronage. Even his name is a contrivance; Antonio only used it later in life, and only occasionally. Most contemporary sources refer to him as Antonio degli Organi: Antonio of the organs.
Perhaps Antonio’s father, a member of the butchers’ guild, helped the 14-year-old organist get his first job, at Florence’s Orsanmichele, the chapel for such guilds. Within a year he was playing at the cathedral — a most visible position just as Florence witnessed the rise of a most formidable dynasty: the House of Medici. Squarcialupi became particularly friendly with Giovanni de’ Medici, the youngest Medici son. He was a fixture at Giovanni’s house — and, it would seem, prevailed upon his influential acquaintance to smooth over trouble at work. Squarcialupi corresponded with Guillaume Dufay, one of the era’s leading composers, but only, apparently, to sound Dufay out about providing music for a poem by Giovanni’s brother Piero.
One surviving reference to Squarcialupi-as-composer is hardly favorable: For a friendly competition, he tried making a song out of some verses of Giovanni’s, but the task taxed his abilities; the verses instead were set by a cathedral chorister with more up-to-date musical knowledge. (A famous source of Renaissance music — the Squarcialupi Codex — was in Antonio’s library but contains nothing by its owner.)
Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giovanni’s nephew, laid the groundwork for Squarcialupi’s immortality. Right around Squarcialupi’s death, in 1480, Lorenzo — who zealously consolidated and expanded Medici power — decided to make the Florence cathedral a shrine to the city’s illustrious (and Medici-sponsored) men of art and letters. The scheme yielded a handful of marble busts; Squarcialupi made the cut on the combined basis of Lorenzo’s personal regard and, presumably, an eagerness to advertise Medici munificence.
It worked: Well into the 20th century, music histories commonly and uncritically referred to Squarcialupi as 15th-century Italy’s most famous musician. And, who knows? Maybe he was. The historical record’s fragmentary ambiguities conceal as many reputations as they preserve. What’s intriguing about Squarcialupi is that the reputation is all we have. His playing is long since gone, his music is lost; virtually the only thing left is his renown. Fame has a life of its own.