Music at San Marco


During the period 1523-1570, the Basilica San Marco in Venice witnessed a unique collaboration between Italian architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) and Flemish composer Adrian Willaert (1490-1562) under the patronage of Doge Andrea Gritti (1455-1538), the political and spiritual head of the Venetian Republic. This period was marked by major acoustic innovations with music being performed in accordance with the architecture of the Basilica, and architectural modifications being carried out to accentuate new musical compositions [1]. The intention of this study was to create an interactive timeline to map the major relevant changes that took place in this regard, and allow the listener to actually experience and appreciate the differences in sound quality that resulted from these changes.

Status quo: Literature review

There were two works of special interest and relevance to this project. The first of these was the CAMERA project (Centre for Acoustical and Musical Experiments in Renaissance Architecture) by Laura Moretti [2, 3] and the second was a thesis carried out by Braxton Boren at the University of Cambridge [4]. The CAMERA project performed recordings in the current church by placing sound sources and sensors at important locations within the Basilica. Boren used acoustic simulations, factoring in the sound absorption, reflection, scattering and propagation characteristics from different surfaces (such as statues, walls or pillars) to simulate the sound received at specific points within the church as it was in the 16th century. While these detailed results served to have a good idea about the theoretical parameters associated with the construction and layout of the church, there is still no platform to understand the aural implications of these studies and actually transport the listener to the 16th century.

Aim of this study

The aim of this study was to focus on 4 interesting time-points, of which two reflect the major changes brought about by architect Jacopo Sansovino. The first time-point would be the situation before any changes were made by Sansovino – when the Doge would occupy the hexagonal bigonzo pulpit outside the chancel. The second would be when the new Doge Andrea Gritti could no longer climb to the pulpit due to obesity, and had to move down to a throne in the chancel: Sansovino then built a pergolo (small balcony) near the throne. Consequently, the choir was relocated to the pergolo, and five years later, to facilitate the appreciation of the nuances of the performances of the coro spezzato (separated choirs) created by Willaert, Sansovino added a second pergolo opposite to the first one. This would be our third time-point of the timeline. The last time point would be the state of the church some years after the period of collaboration between Willaert and Sansovino, in order to offer a comparison between the musical quality and effects experienced in the 16th century versus those observed later. To simulate these configurations, we reused Laura Moretti’s soundtracks [5] and modified them in accordance to Boren’s results.

Tools and methods

To modify the soundtracks, we used the free software Audacity, which allows one to make various changes to the waveform of the audio signal that is used as the input to the software, such as introducing delay, reverberation, amplification, echo, etc… We mainly decided to focus on reverberation and amplification as these effects were the most pertinent to describe the impact that a structure like San Marco may have on the sound. To estimate the parameters associated with these two effects, we used the knowledge of the dimensions of the interior of the church. For instance, to recreate the sound as heard from the nave, we introduced reverberation considering that the width of the nave was 30m. However, the sound thus obtained was quite feeble and we therefore added an amplification step so that the volume remained unchanged compared to the original.

Sans titre

The aforementioned 4 time-points were represented in the form of an interactive timeline using the online tool Prezi. On this interface, it is possible to view the entire timeline with all the important events in this period, and to zoom in on a particular event to view the associated details. Finally, coming to the presentation of the actual aural renditions of the work we carried out, the user can zero-in on a specific time-point to view the relevant locations within the church. The listener can then select one of the locations within this view to hear the soundtrack obtained by us that corresponds to that particular location within the church at that particular time.

Results and interpretations

The sounds that we generated for each of these time-points were concordant with the results of Boren. For instance, at the first time-point, one can hear that the sound perceived at the nave is much more indistinct than the one that would have been heard by the Doge seated at the bigonzo. Additionally, our results also allowed us to evaluate the impact of the introduction of coro spezzato in San Marco, and the modifications made by Sansovino to highlight the subtleties of this particular style of music brought to Venice by Willaert. In our third time-point, one can notice that the relocation of the second part of the choir to the second pergolo built by Sansovino allows a much better discernment of their vocal performance, compared to the situation of the second time-point where it used to perform behind the high altar in the chancel.


With the timeline produced as part of this work, the listener can really appreciate how the acoustics of the Basilica San Marco changed with the introduction of new styles of music as produced by Willaert coupled with the corresponding architectural modifications brought about by Sansovino. This work has the capacity to have a broader impact on the general awareness about acoustic ideas that existed in the 16th century in Venice, since the output in the form of an interactive timeline with visual and audio information is more intuitive and accessible as compared to pure theoretical acoustic considerations. Further, the concepts and methodology used in this work are easily extendable to other periods and locations in history, and also other domains of study.



1)      Frederick Hammond – Performance in San Marco: a picture and two puzzles, Early Music, Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, 2012

2)      Laura Moretti – Architectural Spaces for Music: Jacopo Sansovino and Adrian Willaert at St. Mark’s, Early Music History, Vol. 23, p. 153 – 184, October 2004

3)      Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti – Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, Yale University Press, 2010

4)      Braxton Boren – Music, Architecture, and Acoustics in Renaissance Venice: Recreating Lost Soundscapes, dissertation submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, 2010