Philippa Ovenden

Philippa Ovenden

Jean-François Malle Fellow
Johannes Vetulus de Anagnia’s Liber de musica
Philippa Ovenden


Philippa Ovenden is a music historian specializing in the intellectual and performance histories of music in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She received a PhD from Yale University, an MMus from King’s College London, and completed undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the University of the Arts in Berlin. Her research has been published in the interdisciplinary volume Atomism in Philosophy: A History from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Ugo Zilioli (Bloomsbury, 2020). She was previously a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Project Summary

At the turn of the fifteenth century a style of music arose in Europe that was characterized by complexity of notation, rhythm, and pitch. Commonly believed to have entered Italy as a result of the influx of French musical practices, this style is referred to in musicological scholarship as the ars subtilior, the “more subtle art.” Combining intellectual history with perspectives from music performance, this project presents a new approach to the study of this musical style. It examines its status as a manifestation of a range of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary interactions that took place in Italy in this period. The project takes as its focus Liber de musica (The Book on Music), an obscure treatise written in the second half of the fourteenth century by the eccentric Italian music theorist Johannes Vetulus de Anagnia. Vetulus’s work presents an extraordinarily complex method for the measurement of every sound using an atom of time worth 5/36 of a second. Vetulus situates this project within a Neoplatonist framework influenced by theologians such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and the Catalan-speaking mystic Ramon Llull. By examining Vetulus’s work within its wider intellectual and performative contexts, this project aims to arrive at a deeper understanding of music’s role in uniting the silent and speculative branches of learning with sounded performance.