Penn State musicologist Marica Tacconi wasn’t planning on discovering forged music books when she started her sabbatical research at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in 2018. But when she encountered an embellished, leather-bound music book ostensibly from the 17th century, something about it struck her as off. Subsequent analysis showed that her instincts had been right: the book was an early 20th-century forgery, as were two other music books, supposedly from the same period, that she examined in the collection. Tacconi gives a full account of her investigations in a recent paper published in the Journal of Seventeenth Century Music.
The Marciana Library acquired the music books—catalogued as MSS 740, 742, and 743—in 1916 and 1917 from a musician and book dealer named Giovanni Concina. But before Tacconi undertook her analysis, the books had neither received much scholarly attention nor been studied as a set.
At first glance, the books appear genuine enough. Per Tacconi, the worn leather and the paper look and feel authentic, as does the music calligraphy. They exhibit the mild deterioration and occasional wormhole one would expect with 17th-century tomes. MS 740 bears the coat of arms of the influential Contarini family in the bottom margin and again at the end of the manuscript. MS 742 is a bit smaller, with richly decorated pages, including illuminated initial capital letters for each composition. There is a bookplate on the first flyleaf for Caterina Dolfin, a prominent late-18th-century figure in Venice who hosted salons and intellectual soirees. MS 743’s binding and ornate style are nearly identical to MS 742, and the first page also features the Contarini coat of arms.
Those were exactly the kind of details that initially aroused Tacconi’s suspicions. “The fabricators of MS 740 almost tried too hard to make their handiwork look old,” she wrote in her paper. “There are anachronistic elements that point to an effort to medievalize the book: the heavy leather binding with its brass bosses, the numerous large, illuminated initials and their bold color palette, the gothic lettering marking the composers’ names.”
Tacconi is not the first to question the authenticity of the manuscripts. In 1972, a scholar named Lorenzo Bianconi proposed a 19th-century date, but his suggestion was just a marginal note in a book review and didn’t catch the attention of other scholars. So the fakes went largely undetected for a century. Together, they comprise a collection of 61 genuine musical compositions from 1600 to 1678, by as many as 26 different Italian composers—some quite well known, others less so—and covering a wide range of musical styles (although all are songs and arias for one voice and basso continuo).
That odd mix of composers also struck Tacconi as suspicious, since it was unusual for the period. “Music anthologies tended to be more monographic in content,” she said. “In addition, seventeenth-century scribes would not have had access to such a wide range of music, as many of those pieces had not yet been printed and existed only in manuscripts that did not circulate widely.”
That was enough to prompt Tacconi to take a closer look at the set. She soon noticed some odd editorial quirks more typical of 20th-century music editions, leading her to conduct a detailed comparison between the three suspected forgeries and various modern musical anthologies. For instance, the third through 16th entries of MS 740 are in the identical order as they appear in a 1901 anthology by Hugo Goldschmidt. Given the aforementioned 20th-century editorial quirks, it seems more likely that whoever created MS 740 drew on the later Goldschmidt tome rather than the other way around.
MSS 742 and 743 are a bit more subtle forgeries, according to Tacconi, dispensing with a “wholesale lifting” of material and opting to borrow from a mix of more modern sources. But she found conclusive evidence that they, too, were forgeries. Most notably, both include a song by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) called “Torna o torna pargoletto,” originally published in a 1611 collection. It’s the only known 17th-century source for the song. Peri’s composition was also included in a 1912 anthology by Hugo Riemann, except with the occasional wrong note, misspelling of a word, slight change in lyrics, or shift in metric organization.
The forged manuscripts have those same editorial quirks. “It was obvious that the fabricator copied the music from Riemann’s 1912 publication and not from the 1611 print,” Tacconi said. “This was the ‘smoking gun,’ the confirmation that these books were indeed forgeries.”
Tacconi pegs the likely date of forgery as sometime between 1912—when the Riemann anthology was published—and 1916/1917, when the Marciana Library purchased them from Concina. The library already holds the Contarini family’s entire collection of books and manuscript scores, so the inclusion of the family coat of arms in two of the forgeries might have been the forger’s attempt to add value to the work.
According to Tacconi, it’s impossible to conclusively determine whether Concina was the actual forger. He was a Venetian organist and composer who may have owned a music shop in Venice and thus certainly had the means and opportunity. By 1916, he was a trusted seller of music items to the Marciana Library. Tacconi did uncover one other fabricated music manuscript that Concina sold to the library in 1917, purportedly a treatise from 1664, but there is no evidence that Concina knew any of these books were forgeries. And he lacked a strong financial motive. The invoice for MS 742 shows the library only paid the equivalent of about $220 to acquire it, which is hardly a princely sum, given how much work it must have taken to make the forgeries.
The music anthologies may be fakes, but the compositions within are not—another unusual characteristic of the find, since musical forgeries typically also falsify the actual music. In fact, from a musicologist’s perspective, these musical compositions are of historical interest. “The manuscripts include arias that were foundational in the history of opera—a genre that emerged in the early seventeenth century,” said Tacconi. “They include musical gems that can tell us a lot about the origins and development of opera.”