Poussin and the Modes

Authored by: Sheila McTighe

The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture

Print publication date:  September  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415629256
eBook ISBN: 9780203629987
Adobe ISBN: 9781135956462


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On November 24, 1647, Nicolas Poussin wrote from Rome to his Parisian patron Paul Fréart de Chantelou, telling about his paintings' relation to the modes of ancient music. According to the artist, a mode established that “when all the things that entered into the composition were put together proportionally” the work had “a power to induce various passions in the souls of viewers.” 1 This was indeed a crucial element of ancient modes of music: the proportionate arrangements of notes in a mode conveyed not only mood but ethos, a manner not only of feeling but of behaving. From the accounts given later by Poussin's admirers, it appears that the artist's ideas about the modes predated this letter, and had been passed on orally to his companions during conversations in Rome during the 1640s. The immediate textual source for Poussin's 1647 statement was part 4, chapter 5 of Gioseffo Zarlino's Le Istitutioni harmoniche (1558). However, Giovanni Battista Doni's Compendio del Trattato de' generi e de' modi della musica (Rome, 1635), and Doni's presence at the Barberini court in Rome during the 1620s and 1630s, also probably informed Poussin's understanding of the musical modes. The system of the modes was a long-standing element in treatises on music, as well as in rhetoric and poetics, and remained a current topic through the end of the seventeenth century. However, the function of the modes both in theory and in practice was changing throughout the seventeenth century.

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