Emiliano Ricciardi

Emiliano Ricciardi

UMass Amherst music historian Emiliano Ricciardi leads a digital humanities project that enables scholars and performers to explore works of and inspired by Italian poet Torquato Tasso.

As a young student of literature and music in Italy, Emiliano Ricciardi was regularly exposed to works from the Italian Renaissance, an essential part of Italian culture. This period, which spanned the 15th and 16th centuries, marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, and was known for its flourishing arts, including poetry and music.

While simultaneously studying literature at the University of Rome and violin performance at the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia, Ricciardi—a native of Southern Italy—found himself drawn to the work of Torquato Tasso, widely seen as the most prominent poet of late-16th century Italy. Tasso’s expansive body of work was set to music by virtually all composers of secular vocal music in Europe at the time and also served as inspiration for visual artists. Though these works are hundreds of years old, Ricciardi finds that the themes they address are universal.

“Tasso’s poetry explores in depth human passions and affects,” said Ricciardi, today an associate professor of music history in the UMass Amherst Department of Music and Dance. “It’s almost like a lesson in love. Even though these pieces were meant for a specific context hundreds of years ago, they still tell us a lot about human beings in the year 2024.”

Emiliano Ricciardi holding a collection of lyric poems by Tasso: Delle Rime del Sig. Torquato Tasso (Brescia: Marchetti, 1592).
Ricciardi holding a collection of lyric poems by Torquato Tasso,  Delle Rime del Sig. Torquato Tasso (Brescia: Marchetti, 1592), part of his own private collection of 16th century books.

Moreover, the musical settings of Tasso’s poetry are stunningly beautiful and “fascinatingly complex,” featuring the intertwining of multiple vocal lines. “The beauty of the intertwining voices in this music draws you in and highlights hidden details and meanings of the poetry,” Ricciardi remarked.

Ricciardi completed his master’s degree at the University of Cambridge and continued his path westward, landing at Stanford University for his doctoral studies. This move proved to be instrumental for his long-term trajectory: At Stanford, he became involved with the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities (CCARH), where he learned to apply cutting-edge digital technology to the study of Tasso’s poetry and music. 

After joining the UMass faculty, Ricciardi created the Tasso in Music Project in partnership with CCARH's Dr. Craig Sapp, a leading authority in the fields of music encoding and computational analysis. Since launching in 2017, the project has emerged as one of the leading digital projects devoted to the study of Renaissance culture. A rare achievement, it has garnered two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: a Scholarly Editions and Translations grant (2016–19) and a Digital Humanities Advancement grant (2022–25). In 2021, the project also received an honorable mention for the Digital Innovation Award of the Renaissance Society of America, the largest scholarly organization in the world focused on culture from 1300 to 1700. Today, Ricciardi is the director and general editor of the project, which features critical editions of more than 800 settings of Tasso’s poetry, encoded in a variety of non-commercial electronic formats. So that they can be accessible to today’s scholars and performers, Ricciardi and his collaborators transcribe and edit the pieces from Renaissance notation to modern notation. Accompanying the editions are extensive critical annotations and commentary. 

In addition, computational tools developed by Ricciardi and Sapp enable scholars to perform sophisticated analyses on the entire repertoire—which would be impossible for a human to do manually—shedding new light on questions of scholarly inquiry, such as the occurrence of specific rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns across the repertory. The site also features encodings of the poetic texts in Italian, with English translations, including interactive mark-ups of the text to indicate, for example, syllables, stress, rhyme, and variations found in different sources.

According to Ricciardi, the Tasso in Music Project website is regularly used by a broad community of literary scholars, music historians and theorists, performers, and others interested in the culture of the Italian Renaissance.

One of Ricciardi’s key goals with the project is to revive the beautiful music from this repertoire and make it accessible for modern performers. To that end, he has included features in the project in response to the needs of performers, such as transposing the pitch of a composition or viewing scores in original notation.

Digital technology gives new life to this music and poetry. This is what makes working on the Tasso in Music Project so rewarding.

Emiliano Ricciardi

Ricciardi compares his mission with the Tasso in Music Project to that of a museum unearthing treasure stored in its basement. “This music has been sitting in archives for so long that it’s important to revive it and bring it to life for audiences worldwide,” he said. “One of the most moving parts of this kind of work is seeing performers sing the music for the first time in 400 years—not only because of the beauty of the music and poetry, but because of the significance of the event.”

Unlike traditional print publications in the humanities, Ricciardi sees the project as a living thing—requiring ongoing maintenance and enhancement to cater to the needs of the scholars and performers who use it. For example, in the future, he plans to expand the project to include the body of visual art associated with Tasso’s poetry. Likewise, he plans to incorporate additional computational tools for the study of the interaction between music and poetry.

In addition to his work on the project, Ricciardi has published articles and reviews in journals such as Early Music, Journal of Musicology, Cambridge Opera Journal, and Renaissance Quarterly.  

Ricciardi appreciates the collaborative nature of his work. Though humanities scholarship can sometimes be a “lonely” pursuit, through the Tasso in Music project, he has been fortunate to establish collaborations with many scholars and performers both within and beyond his own discipline.

Moreover, he counts himself lucky to work with such a breadth of poetry and music—in contrast to more traditional musicological work, often focused on a single composer—and to help bring this art to the world, making it accessible and engaging through sophisticated computational tools.

“Digital technology gives new life to this music and poetry. This is what makes working on the Tasso in Music Project so rewarding,” Ricciardi said.


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