Renaissance Art and Music

: the space between

Counterfeit Renaissance – A tale of pleasure and delight?

Description Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, London.

What find I here?
Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demi-god
Hath come so near creation?

-Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice III.ii.1483

Counterfeit Renaissance – A tale of pleasure and delight?

For many people, the word ‘counterfeit’ invokes a sense of excitement—illegal goods, large sums of bogus cash, or ancient artefacts meticulously crafted to fool even the most trained of expert eyes. Or maybe that was just some Dan Brown novel. Either way, the word ‘counterfeit’ also excites us over at Renaissance Art and Music, but perhaps not for these same reasons. But first, a quick and incomplete definition:

Counterfeit, adj. and n.

  1. 1.      Made in imitation of that which is genuine[1]

Other common words/phrases, some obsolete, in the 15+ definitions in the OED include, ‘fashioned’, ‘disguised’, ‘represented by a picture or image’, ‘imitation’, ‘not genuine’, ‘pretended’, and ‘false’. Not all the definitions, particularly the obsolete ones, necessarily imply negativity with this fakery (though some do, particularly in reference to people), but the moral ambiguity of the concept of counterfeit is part of what makes it an interesting starting point for our discussion of the connections between, and differences concerning, visual art and music in the renaissance.

So, why have we titled our seminar series Counterfeit Renaissance? It is certainly a broad theme, as the idea of ‘counterfeit’ appears in reference to many objects, people, concepts, and creations in the period. In addition to the sort of reference one would see today (counterfeit coins, documents, people being deceptive, etc.), the concept of ‘counterfeit’ is often applied to the Arts in terms of their relationship to real life.[2] Plato’s contempt for the visual and poetic arts as mere imitations of reality generated many debates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the nature and purpose of the creative arts.

On one hand, the positive concept of imitation was vital to music throughout the Renaissance. In their writings and compositions, Renaissance composers and theorists—such as Flemish composer and music philosopher Johannes Tinctoris (1435-1511)—frequently echoed Quintillian, the Roman rhetorician, who wrote:

‘It is from these [Cicero, Virgil, etc.] … that we must draw our stock of words, the variety of our figures and our methods of composition, while we must form our minds on the model of every excellence. For there can be no doubt that in art no small portion of our task lies in imitation, since, although invention came first and is all-important, it is expedient to imitate whatever has been invented with success. And it is a universal rule of life that we should wish to copy what we approve in others’.[3]

Yet some in the Renaissance were more sceptical of the concept, and differentiation between imitation in various art forms became a central point of debate (as well as each art form’s affects/effects on people). For example, poet and traveller Sir Philip Sidney describes poetry as a ‘truthful counterfeit’, different from other forms of rhetoric. In his Defence of Poetry (c. 1579), Sidney endorses poetry as an effective means to instil virtue and morality, disputing the Platonic assertion that poetry is inferior to philosophy because it is not real, thereby positing poetry’s metaphoric nature as an advantage. He argues that historians cannot help but lie, but in poetry the author ‘never affirmeth’.[4]  For Sidney, poetry is like painting, an art of imitation, ‘a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth— to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture- with this end, to teach and delight’.[5]  Since poetry is inherently a representation or counterfeit of reality, it cannot possibly attest to be actual reality, and therefore it, or rather, its author, cannot lie. He sees this presentation of moral truth expressed through poetry as only possible through divine inspiration, ergo, Plato’s model is re-evaluated via Christianity.[6]

In music, in particular, there was an ongoing discussion about mimesis, a concept related to yet different from Sidney’s conception of counterfeit, particularly relevant due to the (shifting) dominance of vocal music in the early seventeenth century. Is the music just there to support and illustrate the text?[7] Or can it ‘teach and delight’ on its own terms? This idea of separating music from pure mimesis was of particular concern to William Byrd, Thomas Campion, Robert Jones, and others, not surprisingly, who wrote instrumental music and solo-voiced song in addition to multi-voiced music.[8] And what of the visual arts? Perhaps you art historians could contribute something in the comments on this blog post (or, even better, attend one of our events and let me know in person!).

The bottom line: this debate over the concept of counterfeit, Truth, art, and mimesis, both explicit and inferred/interpreted, is just the tip of Counterfeit Renaissance-iceburg.

To counter Plato’s vision of a world in which there was no need for poets, artists, or musicians, excuses for the arts had to be made (some things never change), but these justifications were both diverse and inconsistent. It has always been difficult to rationalize the obstinate human desire to create and experience artful imitations of experience and emotions, whether through painting, poetry, or music (or another form entirely). Few doubt the very real, persuasive manifestation of ‘passion’, to use a popular contemporary word, that hearing or seeing a piece of emotional art provokes.[9] Yet few agree on much else. It is clear, however, why the ‘counterfeit’ nature of the arts was a point of contemplation, skepticism, and adoration amongst early modern thinkers and artists alike.

Getting back to practical matters: What might ‘counterfeit renaissance’ mean to our seminar discussions? Some possibilities include:

  • an exploration of how we present and experience the senses (in the renaissance, but with implications for today), and whether any sort of recreation attempting to evoke an ‘experience’ is anything more than a fake, a counterfeit (i.e. historical performance),
  • how contemporary perceptions of the nature of the arts were manifest in musical and artistic creative output,
  • how, both practically and emotionally/aesthetically, art and music could have been experienced together,
  • how music and image were used by post-Reformation religious sects to consolidate their own confessional groups and create both unique identities for individuals as well as corporate identities,
  • how the historical distance between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and ‘us today’ has created ‘counterfeit’ renaissances.

This first session, held at The Courtauld Institute on 15 April, will be featuring guest panelists Dr Tim Shephard (Sheffield), Dr David Allinson (Bristol), and Dr Flora Dennis (Sussex), and will be focusing on the issues and ideas particular to the music side of our conversation (thereby, perhaps, making this session most useful to art historians!). We do hope you’ll join us for some interesting discussion and free wine. Did we mention free wine?



[1] “counterfeit, adj. and n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 20 February 2013 <;.

[2] Indeed, the entire concept of Truth had been shaken in the Renaissance period. Reformation, printing, the ‘discovery’ of the New World, the popularity of travel writing, the eventual rise of empiricism, and other factors all contributed to a shaking of the classic authorities (the ancients, Papal authority, etc.).

[3] Institutio oratoria, 75 (X.ii.1-3).  Cited in Patrick Macey, ‘“Qui habitat, Memor esto”, and Two Imitations Unmasked’ Journal of the Royal Music Association 118/1 (1993), 42.

[4] Diana B. Altegoer, Reckoning Words: Baconian Science and the Construction of Truth in English Renaissance Culture (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), 72-3.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Though, not surprisingly, as a poet, Sidney thinks of poetry as a higher art than music or painting (or indeed geometry, astronomy, and other Sciences), which simply imitate nature without improving upon it (AKA mimesis. Though only music, ‘the most divine striker of the senses’ can accompany poetry). In his opinion, only poetry ‘doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature’. Toon Houdt, On the Edge of Truth and Honesty: Principles and Strategies of Fraud and Deceit in the Early Modern Period (Leiden: BRILL, 2002), 14. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. Vol. XXVII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. [22.2.13]

[7] Thomas Morley’s otherwise rather comprehensive 1597 treaties, A plaine and easie introdvction to practicall mvsicke, barely touches on the issue of word setting. ‘It followeth to shew you how to dispose your musicke according to the nature of the words which you are therein to expresse, as whatsoeuer matter it be which you haue in hand, such a kind of musicke must you frame to it’. Mimesis is the literal imitation of a text in music, for example, ascending notes on the word ‘rise’ or ‘ascending’, as often found in madrigalian word-painting. Thomas Morley, A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (London: 1597), 177. Early English Books Online. 1 Sept 2011 <;.

[8] In Robert Jones’s 1600 First Book of Song and Ayres, he writes, ‘I wil not saie my next shall be better but I will promise to take more paines to shew more points of musicke, which now I could not do, because my chiefest care was to fit the Note to the Word’. This also opens up a library’s worth of discussion about the relationship between music and poetry in the period I could not possibly begin to address here.

[9] To natural philosophers, ‘Passions’ were the physical manifestations that bridge emotion and action. Susan James, Passion and Action: The Emotions in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (Clarendon Press, 1997), 4.

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2013 by in Blog Post and tagged , , , , , , .

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