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100 Objects

Object #6. Archival Documents of Napoleonic Milan

22 May 2017

By Alessandra Palidda (PhD)

My PhD project focuses on the relationship between music, society and politics in the city of Milan between 1790 and 1802. I have chosen this particular timeframe because, following the outcome of the so-called Napoleonic wars, Northern Italy went through a particularly complex political season, its government repeatedly changing within just a few years.

The case of Milan is particularly interesting not only because the city had already established a reputation as a prestigious venue for musical (and especially operatic) performances, but also because it was chosen as the capital of the various political entities existing within this period, from a Hapsburg province to a republican State. As a result, the different governing authorities would programmatically resort to musical events in order to communicate a specific set of values, earn the people’s favour or self-celebrate their power. The relationship between music and government within these years, although extremely rich, has traditionally been overlooked in comparison to the preceding and following periods.

As a result, my research has been heavily based on primary sources in the form of archival documents, like the one shown below, which have allowed me to retrieve several unexplored pieces of information on topics such as the use of music within different contexts and events, the figures involved in its commission and production and its relationship to contemporary society.

Object#7-Archival Documents of Napoleonic Milan

For instance, the document presented here is a poster affixed on 21 September 1796 on the walls of Milan by members of the republican government. In order to celebrate the anniversary of the proclamation of the French Republic, the regime offered the people a public feast involving music, dance, races and other forms of art and entertainment. In this and many other cases, the streets of Milan would become the venue for newly informed celebrations, in which music, charged with completely new values and programmatically paired up with other elements, played an important role.

The documentary evidence has also revealed a peculiar interaction between the music performed inside and outside the theatre according to the different propaganda strategies and the rapidly changing social and political context. Where one could have expected the repertoire of opera and ballet to change in obvious ways according to the changing political layout, the reality is much more complex. Through the analysis of documents as the 1796 poster, I am thus trying to reconstruct and describe a rather unique context where the interaction between music and society is characterized by complexity and instability. Through my research I also experienced the issue of having to shape my work on the evidence emerging from archival research and balancing it with my original expectations and with the information coming from secondary literature. This continuous shaping and re-shaping has helped me a lot understanding the methodology and challenges of undertaking research.

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