Over some 20 years, Marenzio wrote more than 400 madrigals and around 80 villanelles, published in 23 books, as well as many sacred works, including about 75 motets. As a court musician with powerful patrons, he exercised considerable influence over the composers of his own time and the succeeding generation, notably Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Marenzio also gained an international reputation in the period of transition between the austere vocal styles of the late Renaissance and the colorful "new music" of the Baroque. The madrigals reflect the growing confidence, freedom of subject and passionate expression that characterize Monteverdi's own essays in the genre, ranging from light pastorals to sonnets and love songs, with all the variety and imagination of his great Italian contemporary. As Alec Harman and Anthony Milner wrote in the 1988 edition of their Late Renaissance and Baroque Music, "Marenzio is the summation of practically all the previous trends in the madrigal."
By the end of the sixteenth century, the "normal" sacred and secular madrigals of the late Renaissance were being replaced by works more suited to public performance, and with greater emphasis on humanistic and literary concepts, such as love and contemplation. Due to the changes in style and substance taking place by the late sixteenth century, the madrigal in four to six parts, with or without instruments, flourished and became a vehicle for dramatic new developments.
Marenzio was probably a pupil of Contino in Brescia. He moved to Rome in 1574, and remained there until 1586, serving cardinals and other wealthy patrons, including Luigi d'Este. In 1557, he went to Verona, where he served Ferdinando de Medici in Florence for a year, and composed the instrumental music for the Duke's wedding celebrations. Later, he was a member of the Duke of Bracciano's household until 1593, also entering the service of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini. In 1594, he held a Vatican apartment; the following year, he visited the Polish court. Marenzio returned to Rome in 1598.
Marenzio's consummate skill in musical "word painting," especially in the madrigals, was much admired by the cognoscenti of his time. Some works, such a the great madrigal cycle Si quel dolor (Books 13 and 22) contain mysterious and somber thoughts expressed in powerfully evocative chromatic sounds, while the lighter Bacci soave et carri cycle belongs more to the risky territory of Western love-making manuals, being a musical exploration of kissing in its many varieties. The Concerto della donna, a choir of young ladies of Ferrara led by the composer, is well represented in the six-part pieces for voices in Book 6. The predominantly pastoral villanelles have a charmingly unselfconscious, open-air feeling about them.
As it took more than 200 years for Monteverdi's reputation to be re-established, it is, perhaps, not surprising that a composer whom John Dowland called "the most famous Luca Marenzio" is still not widely known, though as a mainstream composer of his time he has been the subject of some attention in academic circles; however, the important thing about this music is not only its technical mastery, but also its drama and potency, and the way in which it comes alive in a convincing performance. In 1949, the musicologist Alfred Einstein described Marenzio as "the embodiment of artistry in its purest form . . . art for art's sake" and "a dreamer and a sensualist for connoisseurs."