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Caravaggio: Renaissance rock star

The alluring paintings of Caravaggio, Leonardo and Lorenzo Costa hint at the passion of Renaissance secular music

In Caravaggio's picture The Lute Player, which the fiery Lombard artist painted in Rome in the mid-1590s, a beautiful man plays a round bodied instrument that was the electric guitar of the Renaissance. But a lot quieter. People learned the lute for the same reason that teenagers since the 1960s have learned rock guitar, because they thought it made them look sexy. In Caravaggio's painting it works – the lutenist sings seductively among sensual fruits and flowers. But what is he singing?

I've been listening to modern recordings that attempt to capture the sound of Renaissance music, and I am more baffled than ever about what it really sounded like. Looking at Caravaggio's lutenist, we imagine a romantic, alluring song. Yet in many recordings Renaissance madrigals sound like church music, they are so harmonious and pristine.

Maybe musicians who play early music should look harder at Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Works such as Leonardo's portrait of a musician, or Lorenzo Costa's picture of a woman and two men singing together, give intimate glimpses of the world of Renaissance secular music. And again and again, what they stress is the frisson of excitement and desire at the moment of performance.

There was no way to record music in that age; it was always live. That meant it was always a drama between performers and audiences. What Caravaggio's painting shows is that it could be a dangerous, daring drama, with deep issues of love and longing electrifying the chamber where those tender lute notes sounded.

So perhaps when consorts and choirs today recreate early court music, they should have a bit more fun and think less of the harmonies of Pythagoras, and more of a rock concert's drama compressed into a room that happens to be hung with gorgeous tapestries and paintings.

There is one abundantly alive genre that links us directly to the emotional power of music in the age of Caravaggio: opera. Few would deny that opera tends to be passionate and extravagant. It was invented in late 16th-century Italy, drawing together the sounds and sights of the age in a spectacle that delighted the senses.

You can still feel a tension and mythic impulse in a very early opera like Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece Orfeo. The story Monteverdi tells in his opera is disturbing: Orpheus pursues his lost love into the underworld, and almost succeeds in bringing her back to the realm of the living, but fails at the last moment. It is a story of sex and death that perfectly matches the provocative beauty of Caravaggio's lutenist. This is what music meant 400 years ago: longing and deep emotions. Renaissance music is reborn every time an opera house thrills to grand passions. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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