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Women Musicians of Venice and The Red Priest


Not a single evening goes by without a concert somewhere. The people run along the canal to hear it…you cannot imagine how crazy the city is about this art…The transcendent music is that of the ospedali. There are four of them, made up of illegitimate and orphaned girls and those whose parents are not in a position to raise them. They are brought up at the expense of the state and trained solely to excel in music. They sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, and the bassoon…They are cloistered like nuns…about forty girls take part in each concert.”

—Charles de Brosses,
from Le Président de Brosses en Italie: Lettres familières
écrites d’Italie en 1739 et 1740 (1858)

During the century and a half before the center of musical activities relocated in Vienna, the orchestras and choruses of the ospedali grandi, Venice’s female charitable institutionscum-conservatories of music, were the most highly esteemed in all Europe. A Russian visitor, Count P. A. Tolstoy, noted in 1698 that “in Venice there are convents where the women play the organ and other instruments, and sing so wonderfully that…people come to Venice from all parts of the world to refresh themselves with these angelic songs….” Henry III of France, Gustavus III of Sweden, Frederick IV of Norway and Denmark, the future Tsar Nicholas heard and admired them, as did Rousseau and Goethe, who described an oratorio in one of them as “infinitely beautiful,” the “voices, behind a grille”—“a delicate cage,” he called it—“were magnificent.” In the summer of 1771, Charles Burney, the music historian and father of Fanny, wrote that a Salve Regina performed in an ospedale was

new, spirited, and full of ingenious contrivances for the instruments …there seemed to be as much genius in this composition as in any that I had heard since my arrival in Italy…. The Venetian is a good school for Counterpoint.

Dr. Baldauf-Berdes disarmingly describes her account of Baroque music’s most curious phenomenon as a barely adequate introduction to the subject. But whatever the size of the dent, her book is a major contribution to our knowledge of Venetian culture. The late John Hale’s recently published The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance1 mentions only one of the ospedali, which he calls a “reformatory,” while Brian Pullan’s Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice2 discusses them as social but not musical institutions. Dr. Baldauf-Berdes’s extramusical, religious, social, political, civic, economic scope—Venice, she writes, was a “salvation-based social welfare economy” with “an ellipsoidal church and state form of government”—far exceeds the promise of its name. It must also be admitted, however, that the title Women Musicians of Venice: Musical Foundations, 1525–1855 is misleading, since Baldauf-Berdes touches only in passing on secular female musicians, the female madrigal singers and the prima donnas of the opera houses that flourished contemporaneously with the ospedali.

The four musical “convents” were located on the city’s three principal waterfronts, most centrally the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (House of Mercy) on the Riva degli Schiavoni, founded in 1346, whose composer, maestro di concerti, and violin teacher for thirty years was Antonio Vivaldi. Illegitimacy was a prerequisite for wards of the Pietà, which gave names to the infants it rescued, baptized them, and, before farming them out to wet-nurses, branded them with a “P.” By 1677 the Pietà, part of which is now the Hotel Metropole, had become a foster home for some six thousand esposti (foundlings), an unprecedented acceptance of responsibility on such a scale by a state.

Like the Pietà, two of the other ospedali, the Derelitti (orphanage and boarding school) and the S. Lazzaro dei Mendicanti (originally a home for beggars, and before that the world’s first lazaret), are near each other on the de citra side of the Grand Canal; the Mendicanti, much the largest of the four, with two cloisters, abuts on the northern lagoon in a monastery built by Longhena. The fourth, the Ospedale degl’ Incurabili (hospice for the chronically ill, as well as, later, a school and conservatory of music), on the de ultra side (the Fondamenta de Ca’ Bragadin at the Zattere intersection of the Rio S. Vio), was demolished in 1821, though its high brick and stone walls, topped by putti, still survive. It was founded as a hospital in the modern sense—Venice had the world’s first public health department (1485)—dispensing medicines and medical care and providing food and lodging. Later, as a college of music, it was superior to the others, Burney thought, at least when under the direction of Baldassare Galuppi, who was at the same time maestro di cappello at the Basilica of St. Mark’s. The Incurabili, divided into male and female halves (a monasterium duplex), provided a model for the others in both architecture and management, and its members enjoyed an elevated social standing.

Dr. Baldauf-Berdes devotes ample space to the structure of Venetian society in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and to the growth of the Serenissima from corporate communities to state, nation, and empire. While this political history is familiar, and available in countless other books, her account of class calibration beneath the doges, who were elected by the nobles, is worth some attention. The aristocrats, immediately below, formed the powerful Council of Ten and served as senators and procurators (administrators); some of the latter were women, most famously the eighteenth-century procuratessa Mocenigo, from the family that produced seven doges and patronized Palladio.

Five percent of the population of 88,000, according to a mid-seventeenth-century census, were members of the aristocracy. They were subject to a strict code that allowed males to marry beneath their class only on condition that their children did not inherit their father’s patrician status, and that, in order to keep substantial dowries within the city, forbade well-to-do females to marry non-Venetians. Patricians were also barred from acquiring skills: the nobleman composer Benedetto Marcello was not permitted to conduct or play an instrument in his own works, for that would have been thought shameful. Baldauf-Berdes writes that musicians outside the ospedali were comparatively prosperous.

Religiosi comprised 4.7 percent of the population, which rose to 6 percent in the seventeenth century, the popolano, or commoners, 75 percent. Otherwise a strict caste system obtained among workers skilled (gondoliers, artisans, fishermen, vendors, merchants, lace-makers) and unskilled (manservants, ladies’ maids). Even the very poor were divided into three social classes. Strict social barriers notwithstanding, it seems that by 1700 wealth and power in Venice were concentrated in about ten families.

Life in the ospedali too, Baldauf-Berdes tells us, was highly regulated. The sequestered women rose with the sun, recited prayers aloud while dressing, dined in silence in refectories while spiritually edifying texts were read to them. They were required to attend Mass daily, the services of the canonical hours at least three times a week, and to confess frequently. Between times, and betwixt other duties, they sewed sails, worked in the kitchens and laundries, and the musical among them copied music, for which extra lamp oil was provided. Older musical sisters, the elite privilegiate del core, taught the younger ones to play instruments, as well as performance practice, solmization, eartraining, theory, and harmony. The teachers took the names of the instruments they played: “Maestra Lucretia della Viola, Maestra Cattarina dal Cornetto, Maestra Luciana Organista.” Singers repeated vocal exercises and instrumentalists rehearsed by themselves and in ensembles.

Close relatives, for those who had them—the ospedali served as boarding schools for upper-class nonmusical girls, figlie di comune, who were seeking a general education in Latin, arithmetic, religion—could visit only once a month and only in the presence of an official. Correspondence was censored or not delivered at all. Only one day of vacation a year was granted to each member, but as groups they were taken “on holiday excursions.” The tendency of the ospedali, Dr. Baldauf-Berdes remarks, was to make “Aspasias out of the girls rather than nuns.”

Discipline was strict. The penalties for “casual talk,” “frivolity,” and “obstreperousness,” let alone serious infractions such as tardiness and leaving Mass or other Office (to relieve nature, one supposes), included haircutting, fines, the withholding of income (Baldauf-Berdes tells us that performers were paid, but not how much or in what proportion), a bread and water diet, solitary confinement, and deprivation of the privilege of wearing the ospedale uniform, blue (faith) at the Incurabili, red (charity) at the Pietà, white (virginity) at the Derelitti, and purple (mourning) at the Mendicanti. Harsh as the ospedale regime sounds, it was regarded as enviable in a society that permitted parents to sell their children into slavery and their sons as galley oarsmen.

Marriage was the only generally accepted reason for withdrawal from the “asylums,” and upwardly mobile matches, like that of Elizabetta Torogood, an English-born violinist at the Derelitti who married a nobleman and received a handsome legacy, were promoted. But permission had to be obtained from governatori known for refusing it to musicians of outstanding ability (the privilegiate) and hence of value to the ospedali. These governors, one of whom was the painter Lorenzo Lotto, also served as talent scouts, combing the city for children to enclose. It was said that the primary reason for seeking the young ospedali women in marriage was their innocence of worldly experience. One wonders how the bachelor and widower suitors of the vestals became acquainted with them in their cloistered environments, but Dr. Baldauf-Berdes reveals that the performing musicians were allowed to mingle with their audiences after outside concerts such as those portrayed by Guardi at the Sala dei Filarmonici and the Ca’ Rezzonico; in the latter picture one notes that the hundred or so performers are being led by a maestra, possibly one of those mentioned by Charles de Brosses:

There is nothing so diverting as the sight of a young and pretty nun in a white habit, with a bunch of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, conducting the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable.

Those who did not find husbands, among them the indigent offspring of impoverished nobles, not dowried and therefore not marriageable, were taught to think of themselves as being married to music, and thus metaphorically to Christ, music being the ancilla religionis, the art that mirrored the Divine Order and was practiced in Heaven, where angels sang and played instruments. If the older unmarried women of the choirs lost their voices, they were transferred to the ripieni, the back-stand string sections of the orchestras, which testifies to the broadness of the ospedali musical training: everyone was taught to play every instrument.

Some of the ospedali musicians aspired to careers beyond the grille, and some, such as the violinist Regina Strinasacchi, from the Pietà, did achieve eminence as itinerant virtuosi Mozart composed his Sonata K. 451 for her, and performed it with her in Vienna in 1784, writing to his father afterward that she is “a very good violinist who has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing.” A number of ospedali singers became prima donnas in opera houses throughout Europe, among them Nancy Storace, for whom Mozart wrote the soprano scena “Chi’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, and who created the role of Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. In the revival of the opera the Mendicanti-trained Adriana Ferraresi sang the same role, with two new arias composed for her by Mozart, who then went on to create the part of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte. Biancha Sacchetti, for whom Haydn composed a cantata, was a former prioress and organist at the Mendicanti, and Caterina Giusti, another alumna, held the position of chief organist for more than a dozen years at the Basilica of San Marco, against all male competition.

  1. 1

    Atheneum, 1994.

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1971.

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