Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
My earliest known ancestor, Ambrose Lupo, was brought to England as part of an ensemble of string players around May of 1540 by Henry VIII. Some scholars believe this was in connection with Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, but given the timing, Ambrose and colleagues would have arrived as the marriage was waning, rather than being there in time to provide entertainment. Rather, Henry’s decision seems to have been guided by a desire to raise the standards of English music, and the impact these musicians had would be felt for more than a century. The Lupos, along with other families such as the Bassanos, the Laniers, and the Comeys, established musical dynasties that endured throughout the reign of the Tudor monarchs, and into the reign of the Stewarts. Ambrose and his sons, Peter (my ancestor) and Joseph, were among a group of musicians credited with introducing the violin to England.
Joseph Lupo first shows up in household accounts in 1566 and his brother Peter is first listed in 1570. Ambrose Lupo was among the musicians who marched in the funeral procession of Henry VIII and at the coronation of Elizabeth I, and Peter, Joseph, and their sons, each named Thomas, marched at the funeral of Elizabeth I. Ambrose served for over fifty years, ending with his death in February of 1591.
By the time Shakespeare arrived in London in the late-1580s, Peter and Joseph would have been well-established in their positions at court. Both would have been around thirty years older than Shakespeare, but there is evidence that Peter lived in the East End of London, in Aldgate, near the theater district. While it’s hard to say how much the musicians would have interacted with the playwright, there is evidence from Shakespeare’s work that he was acquainted with, and may have even drawn inspiration from the Italian musicians at court. Many of his plays are set in Northern Italian locales, such as Verona, Milan, and Padua, and his work is peppered with musical references, from the Duke in Twelfth Night proclaiming, “If music be the food of love, play on” to Hamlet admonishing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Though you may fret me, you will not play upon me.” A recent discovery suggests Shakespeare drew inspiration from the musicians for two of his best known plays.
As an Italian at the English court, Peter’s name was often rendered in many interesting ways. In some documents, he’s listed as Peter, in others he’s Petro, or Pietro. In the listing of New Year’s gifts for 1585, he’s identified as Petruchio Lupo. This discovery was made all the more intriguing by the fact, that, at the time, his wife’s name was Katherine. Petruchio and Katherine (or its Italian equivalent Katerina) are the main characters in The Taming of the Shrew. A look at other characters from this play yields more interesting parallels. In Shrew, Petruchio has a servant named Peter, a servant named Joseph, a servant named Philip, and a servant named Nicholas. “Petruchio” Lupo is better known as Peter, has a brother named Joseph, a son named Phillip, and a colleague named Nicholas Lanier. The similarities extend to a second play by Shakespeare.
Petruchio, in Shrew, claims to be the son and sole heir of Antonio, a wealthy merchant, recently deceased, from Verona. Verona is part of Veneto or Venetia which, in Shakespeare’s time, was in the Republic of Venice. This suggests that Petruchio could be connected to another of Shakespeare’s protagonists, Antonio, the title character from The Merchant of Venice. In that play, Antonio is the benefactor of Bassanio, and more than one scholar has noted the similarity of this character’s name to the family of musicians, the Bassanos. In Merchant, however, Antonio is presented as a bachelor without a son. Venice is notable in the history of the musicians, as it was Venice where the Lupos, Bassanos, and other musical families were recruited into royal service by Henry’s agents.
Peter’s brother, Joseph, married Laura Bassano, and Laura was cousin to Emilia or Aemilia Bassano, who married Alfonso Lanier the brother of Nicholas. Emilia Lanier is believed by a number of scholars to have been the Dark Woman of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Unfortunately, much of the evidence connecting Emilia to Shakespeare comes from a questionable source, Simon Forman, an astrologer with designs on Emilia. Forman states she was the mistress of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, who, as Lord Chamberlain, was the patron of Shakespeare. The facts that can be verified about her, however, make Emilia an ideal candidate for the model on which Shakespeare based Katerina in Shrew, not least of which being the fact that she’s the daughter of Baptist Bassano. Baptista Minola is the name given to the father of Katerina in Shrew.
Early in the 1600s, Emilia Lanier published a volume of poetry under her own name, something unheard of for a woman during this era. There are only a few known examples of women who published during this time. The theme of Emilia’s work was that women were every bit the equals to men, and she highlights a number of notable women throughout history, including Elizabeth I. She also focuses on the women surrounding Jesus, claiming they were better apostles, since his disciples all ran away when Jesus was arrested, while the women stayed with him throughout the crucifixion and later returned to prepare his body after he’d been laid in the tomb.
Evidence exists that suggests that the Lupos and possibly the Bassanos were Jews. Notably, Ambrose and colleagues appear to be among the “secret Jews” rounded up by Henry’s men early in 1542 and held in the Tower for a period of time before being allowed to quietly leave England. The Spanish ambassador, Eustice Chapuys alludes to this incident in a letter to a colleague, and hints at the musical background of the prisoners, “however well they may sing, they will not be able to fly away from their cages without leaving feathers behind” and in household accounts, the string players are listed with the notation, “they be gon to their contry.” Later, Ambrose shows up among records of the Inquisition in Venice, in testimony from a young singer named Orazio Cogno, identified as someone responsible for letting Orazio read material the Church deemed heretical, while Orazio was in England.
The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are among Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, Merchant for it’s harsh portrayal of Jews, and Shrew for it’s treatment of women. However, an important parallel can be drawn from Merchant, given that Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, and the musicians, if they were Jews, had to convert, or at least pretend to convert, to avoid repercussions in a hostile society. The purpose of the Inquisition, in fact, was to ferret out Jews who held to their faith while professing Christianity in public.
As stated, Peter Lupo was considerably older than Shakespeare, and his identification as “Petruchio” has only been found in this one place. The fact that he’s recorded as such, however, suggests he was sometimes known by this name, though whether or not Shakespeare heard him called this is unknown. Wikipedia identifies “Petruchio” as an English version of the name “Petruccio” but the main reference is to the character in Shrew. It may be Shakespeare drew nothing more than a few names from those around him. His other play set in Venice, Othello, does have a character named Emilia, though.
Still, it is nice to imagine Shakespeare’s work being performed with background music provided by my ancestor and his family. Peter would have been well-known around London, given his placement at court, and he did inhabit the same section of London Shakespeare would have frequented. In later life, Peter retired to Kent, where he died around 1608. His son Albiano was among the earliest settlers of Virginia, and his son Phillip, through a son by the same name, was the father of the earliest branch of the Lupo family in America.
Ashbee, Andrew, Records of English Court Music, Vol. VI, 1558-1603, Aldershot, England, Scolar Press, 1992.
Holman, Peter, Four and Twenty Fiddlers: The Violin at the English Court 1540-1690, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Holman, Peter, “The English Royal Violin Consort in the Sixteenth Century”, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 109 (1982/83).
Lupo, G. M., “The Lupo Family of Early Virginia“, The Virginia Genealogist, Vol. 36, No. 4, October – December, 1992, pgs. 281-288.
Prior, Roger, “A second Jewish community in Tudor London”, Jewish Historical Studies, Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Volume XXXI (1988-90).
Prior, Roger, “Jewish Musicians at the Tudor Court”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 69 (1983).
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, Vol. XVII, 1542, Printed for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office by the “Norfolk Chronicle” Company, Ltd., Norwich, London, 1900.
Testimony of Orazio Cogno before the Venice Inquisition on August 27th, 1577, The Ever Reader, Number 5, Spring/Summer 1997.
Wikipedia entry on Emilia Bassano.