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.

The ospedali welcomed reformed prostitutes (“Dio Convertite“). In 1608, Thomas Coryate (1577–1617), author of Crudities (1611), estimated the population of the unreformed to be about 20,000, which helps to explain the large number of foundlings, as well as the spread of venereal disease. Dr. Baldauf-Berdes’s sources show that members who had been granted “sick-leave” had been known to spend it in the palaces and country villas of noblemen, but she does not stoop to rebut charges of promiscuous involvement in such cases. Or, indeed, in larger ones. The report of a Vatican secret agent taken from the archives of the Holy Inquisition at Venice in 1720—a few years earlier the chief censor of Venetian opera libretti3 was the Grand Inquisitor himself—states that one Anzola Trevisana, known as La Galinera, practiced the oldest profession at an address near the Madonnetta, and that her procuresses were “the mistresses of the Pietà,” from whence, moreover, girls were “frequently brought in.” Hester Thrale, Dr. Johnson’s sometime friend, repeated similar tales about ospedali girls, and a well-known letter by De Brosses mentions “a furious dispute amongst three convents of the city to decide which will have the advantage of giving a mistress to the new nuncio.”

Dr. Baldauf-Berdes does not provide answers, even hypothetical ones, for questions that will occur to many readers. “Musical activity began in the ospedali in 1525,” she writes, which would be during Andrea Gritti’s term as doge, but how this came about, whether through connections with older institutions of a similar sort in Constantinople and Rome (the Schola Cantorum) is not explained. And what kind of “activity” is meant? The date precedes the era of the Gabrielis and the cori spezzati, the music bandied from balcony to balcony in St. Mark’s. By 1565, however, the year of the earliest music known to have been composed specifically for an ospedale, this antiphonal style was flourishing, and the facing balconies of the Mendicanti confirm that it had been introduced there. (Architectural historians now believe that the curved walls of Palladio’s San Giorgio in Venice were used as sounding boards for the cori spezzati of St. Mark’s, who accompanied the Doge to the church on Boxing Day and in two groups, sang motets back and forth between the choir and the apsidal transepts.) The organ would have been the principal instrument at first, along with, as can be seen in paintings of processions in the Piazza, the tromba de caccia and the trombone; Galuppi himself sponsored the ospedali candidacy of two sisters who played the former.

Four thousand musical manuscripts survive, dating from 1565 to the end of the eighteenth century, some by members of the ospedali, some by composers, including Vivaldi and Galuppi, living outside the schools. This trove, Dr. Baldauf-Berdes tells us, has yet to be catalogued and studied, so we can only suppose that the instrumental music would feature organ sonate da chiesa, and, later, with the development of the string orchestra by Torelli, Albinoni, Corelli, and Vivaldi, sinfonias and concertos. Burney heard fugues in the Mendicanti, though he found the subjects “trite” and the choruses only “slightly put together.” Masses and motets, Magnificats and Misereres were sung, as well as arias and antiphons, cantatas and complines, Te Deums, Passions, responsories. On festive occasions, oratorios and religious music dramas were performed, some of them lasting as long as two hours, which implies a degree of structural complexity heretofore unknown for the early seventeenth century, and raises a thought about possible cross-fertilization from secular music. In 1709 a French visitor, C. Freschot, wrote that in the churches and ospedali one heard “the same arias that one has heard at the operas,” with different words, so that “instead of expressing, for example, the loves of Pyramus and Thisbe, [they] say something of the life of the saint whose feast day it is.” Dr. Baldauf-Berdes does not tell us this, or that orphanage girls must have been allowed to sing in opera. In 1715 “Marietta from the Pietà” appeared at the Teatro San Angelo in Handel’s Agrippina.

Nor does Dr. Baldauf-Berdes speculate on musical aptitudes in females as compared to those in males, or on the question of whether aristocratic Venetian society considered musical training more suitable for girls than for boys, as was often the case in bourgeois America sixty years ago, when piano lessons were held to be more appropriate to the education of girls than of boys, for whom they bore a taint of effeminacy. (When Byron remarked that an interest in music was an indication of this, Leigh Hunt controverted him with the argument, “It would be difficult to persuade the world that Alfred and Epaminondas, and Martin Luther and Frederick the Second, all eminent lovers of music, were effeminate men.”)

Male foundlings did not receive the same musical training as females, though until age ten, boys, who functioned mainly as acolytes, attended classes and religious services together with girls and apparently received the same musical instruction. In the sixteenth century, groups of eight boys from an ospedale, playing wind instruments and led by a fugleman, or priest, took “alms walks” to the campi seeking donations for their “begging baskets.” In 1628 the Mendicanti extended the musical education of its young males, but stopped doing so abruptly for reasons Dr. Baldauf-Berdes does not vouchsafe. The ospedali accommodated far fewer boys than girls—one census at the Derelitti lists 40 for the one sex as against 125 for the other—but of course boys were employable in the outside world.

Dr. Baldauf-Berdes has little to say about whether or not music composed by women is, or should be, different from music composed by men, a contested issue frustrated by the circumstance that the art’s images of femaleness were created by men. Still, as the editor of violin concertos by the ospedale violinist and composer Maddalena Lombardini, she might have confided either a discovery of, or a failure to discover, some quality of emotion, or grace, not expressed in quite the same way in music composed by a female. Perhaps the uniformity of styles during this period, the second half of the eighteenth century, would tend to obscure sexual differentiation, but this could also be the case in the opposite situation of today’s smorgasbord of styles.

The author remarks, justly, that the musical attainments of the ospedali are “all the more praiseworthy” in that “they took place in oligarchic and, therefore, overwhelmingly patriarchal Venice,” but adds unjustly that “the women musicians of Venice might still [in the 1990s?] be conducting new experiments…if it were not for…the actions of some who felt threatened with the loss of status as the result of women’s achievements.” No. The decline of the ospedali was a result of the destruction of Venetian social structure and economy, which began with the arrival of Napoleon in 1797, not of a conspiracy by threatened males. She is unfair, as well, to some female musicians in asserting that Alfred Einstein’s discussion of women musicians in Venice is limited to “courtesans”—i.e., “kept women,” or “prostitutes”—since the word can hardly apply to all female singers in the madrigals that are Einstein’s subject.


Dr. Baldauf-Berdes tells us, with some disapproval, that “as regards Venetian music history, investigative energies have been directed over the past half-century toward collections of works by Antonio Vivaldi….” And when, in the prologue to his book, Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque, H. C. Robbins Landon informs us that the Reverend Don Antonio Vivaldi’s inescapable Four Seasons (published in 1725) has become the most popular piece of classical music in the 1990s, with more than 150 recordings on the market, we are hardly surprised. Of Vivaldi’s almost 500 concertos, these four were always the most widely known and admired; even Joseph Haydn, in faraway Hungary, had a copy of them. Twenty years after Vivaldi’s death, in Vienna, in 1741, aged sixty-three, Carlo Goldoni referred to him as “the famous composer of the Quattro Stagione.” In Paris, the Primavera Concerto, “applaudissait toujours avec transport,” had been repeated by demand in 1729, and in the following year Louis Quinze expressly asked for it. Yet no performance seems to have taken place between 1803 and its revival after World War II, during which century and a half Vivaldi sank into oblivion.

Ezra Pound’s contribution to the rediscovery of the composer is well known. In the mid-1930s the poet persuaded the American violinist Olga Rudge to catalog the more than three hundred manuscript pieces of instrumental music by Vivaldi in the National Library in Turin. Following this work, she and an Italian musicologist founded the Centro di Studi Vivaldiani in Siena, where a Vivaldi festival was held in September 1939. In 1947, publication of the music began, and in 1950, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s edition of Le Stagione appeared. Since then, the opus has been climbing to the top of the charts, overtaking Tchaikovsky and Mahler on the way, a mood swing, parallel to the rise of minimalism, from the Romantic Agonies to the simple emotions and constructions of a comparatively remote period.

The Vivaldi boom has increased to the extent that in 1991 a single autograph letter from him to the Marchese Guido Bentivoglio, his patron in Ferara, fetched over $100,000 at a New York auction. Robbins Landon confesses that he was inspired to write this book by the “extraordinary phenomenon” of Vivaldi’s renown, going on to say, and compounding the redundancy with fatuity, “Pieces of music do not arrive at such an august position—one of solitary splendor which not even Mozart has managed to approach—without some reason.”

The facts of Vivaldi’s life remain scant, but have increased apace, and Robbins Landon’s new book provides a useful updating. Even the exact day of the composer’s birth (March 4, 1678) was unknown before the 1960s, but now facsimiles of the entry of this event in the register of San Giovanni in Bràgora (May 6, 1678) are sold as tourist tchotchkes to be treasured alongside the glass grotesques of Murano. Manuscripts of works known and unknown have been recovered; and letters, though many fewer from the composer than to and about him.

Vivaldi’s grandfather was a musician, his father a barber and a violinist in the orchestra of St. Mark’s. The bambino Antonio seems to have been born prematurely, and in any case was baptized at birth by the midwife, who thought him near death. As the oldest of six children in a poor family he was destined for the priesthood, but was found to be musically precocious, and at age eleven was able to deputize for his father during an absence from Venice. In 1703 he became a violin teacher at the Pietà.

Vivaldi himself is the only source, in a letter to Marchese Bentivoglio, for the facts concerning his ecclesiastical career. He took first holy orders at age fifteen and a half, but did not become an ordained priest until ten years later. Piety was undoubtedly a lesser motive in this decision than the guarantee of security. (Other composers of secular music had also been priests, among them the madrigalist Orazio Vecchi and the Escorial’s Padre Antonio Soler who, in reference to the radical modulations in his keyboard sonatas, acknowledged a debt to Gesualdo.)

In his letter Vivaldi tells Bentivoglio that he had said Mass in the Pietà for a year, but on one occasion had to leave the altar three times without being able to finish. He no longer says Mass, the letter goes on, nor did he do so while in Mantua, where he spent three years (1718–1720) as maestro di cappella da camera to the Habsburg governor. The reason is that he has suffered since birth from a constriction in the chest combined with asthma. Because of this disability he leaves home only in the afternoon, and only in a gondola or sedan chair, and on his journeys outside Venice requires the assistance of four or five people, which is very costly. Here it must be said that Vivaldi’s tale seems somewhat incongruous, for the most immediately apparent quality of his music is its robustness and high-speed movement. If he were unable to stand for long at the altar, he presumably remained upright and did not have to depart while conducting orchestras and playing the violin in concerts.

At the beginning of his career at the Pietà, Vivaldi published a set of trio sonatas that show the influence of Corelli but have the characteristically Vivaldian rhythmic propulsion and grasp of form. Henceforth the few known facts of the composer’s life concern his travels as a performer and producer of his work, his involvement in litigations, and his scandalous connection, as a priest, with Anna Giraud, “La Girò,” his favorite singer in the Pietà and later his stellar opera performer, presumed to be his mistress.

Only recently, with the discovery of a letter from him to the Principessa Borghese, has anything been known about a stay of his in Rome in 1723 to produce one of his operas, Ercole sul Termodonte. Another of them, Giustino, staged there the following year, introduced the Lombardian rhythm, or Scottish snap, that became the rage of Rome and apparently brought him greater success than he had ever enjoyed in a Venetian, theater. The Pope invited him to play the violin in the Vatican, and he was well received by Prince Colonna and Cardinal Ottoboni, Corelli’s patron. After Ottoboni’s death, a part of his music library, including a batch of twelve Vivaldi violin sonatas and a version of the sempiternal Stagione, found its way to Manchester, England.

Forty-odd Vivaldi operas have been preserved, not all of them complete. Only two of the three acts of both Armida and Catone, for example, are extant. Some of the operas, moreover, are only partly by him, and some of the later ones, including Bajazet and Rosmira, are largely compilations from the works of other composers, including Pergolesi, Leo, Galuppi, Hasse, and even Handel. There is no evidence of Vivaldi’s interest in the theater before Handel’s arrival in Venice in 1709, and his first opera dates from 1713. No doubt Vivaldi realized that composing operas could be more lucrative than teaching at the Pietà, and that producing them and assuming the role of impresario could be financially profitable, if sometimes risky. Later, when his own operas had fallen from fashion, he readily mounted those of other composers. In Venice, where “all is fashion,” De Brosses observed in 1739 or 1740, “Vivaldi is an old man, who has a fury of prodigious composition…[but] his music has been about for a long time and the music of last year no longer earns money.”

Robbins Landon has little to say about Vivaldi’s operas, summarily dismissing them as “static,” “undramatic,” and unpalatable for today’s audience. Other Vivaldi scholars, including Michael Talbot, author of the entry on him in Grove and one of the few familiar with many of the operas—musicians in general know only one, Orlando—have remarked on their admirable “control of pace,” their “secure sense of form,” “gift of succinct characterization,” and the use of stock characters, which enabled the composer to fit arias with new words and insert them into other operas. Vivaldi seems to have reserved arias for scene endings, after which the singer would acknowledge applause and exit. One also would like to know more about the “lavish sets” and the stage pictures of Vivaldi’s Mexico (Montezuma), China (Il Teuzzone), and his operatic Egypt (Armida), Persia (Bajazet), Macedonia (Filippo), Scotland (Ginevra, Principessa di Scozia).

In November 1737, two days before Vivaldi was due to leave Venice for Ferrara to produce an opera there, Robbins Landon tells us, Tomaso Ruffo, Cardinal of the Este city, ordered him not to come, partly on grounds of his relationship with “La Girò,” who by this time was popularly known as “Annina of the red priest.” Vivaldi, who had large sums at stake in contractual obligations to singers, dancers, and other participants, wrote to Bentivoglio denying the allegation of impropriety with Giraud and asking him to intercede and protect his interests. The composer protests that Anna resides at a great distance from him. But in connection with a writ against him, one Antonio Mauro, a scene painter Vivaldi had asked to precede him to Ferrara, states that it was delivered to the Reverend Don Antonio’s house and “was given to a woman.” Carlo Goldoni’s memoirs further establish that Annina and her sister Paulina shared the composer’s house, and that Annina had “a good figure, beautiful eyes and hair, and a shining warmth.”

Vivaldi’s living arrangements are attested to by other sources. Robbins Landon quotes a description of a party given by the Spanish ambassador in Venice: “the music was by the singer La Girò, who lives at the house of the abate Vivaldi; the composer himself sat at the harpsichord and indicated the tempo to the instruments…. The music went on until three o’clock in the morning.” Taking La Girò’s defense in a lawsuit, Vivaldi stated that she lives near Santa Maria in Formosa, which is not far from S. Giovanni in Bràgora, and may have been his residence as well. The claimant in the suit was an instrument maker from whom she purchased a harpsichord with “money from an admirer,” the Duke of Massa Carrara. (The builder contended that she had not handed over all of the money, but his case was dismissed as without merit.) A letter of 1726 from the Neapolitan ambassador to his government on the subject of Venetian licentiousness also refers to her:

It’s just as with us, one makes love all day long…everyone sings and there are fine voices…[such as] that of Annina from the Pietà who is now creating a furore at all the best theaters…. Here they sing and play in boats….

Mauro’s writ also accuses Vivaldi of cheating, dishonesty, untruthfulness, and sharp business practices: “Neither God nor the world can applaud [your] trickery and dealings.” Vivaldi responded by charging Mauro with theft and ingratitude, but the composer is less straightforward and less convincing. From this and other evidence, it was clear that Vivaldi was a contentious arm-twister, always seeking advantage. He drove hard bargains, charging a guinea for each of his concertos, which was considered exorbitant. “Vivaldi has become my intimate friend for the purpose of selling me some very expensive concertos,” De Brosses wrote. Another feature of the composer’s character was a servility and groveling before superiors in dedications and letters excessive even for the age: “I beg to lie at the feet of all the illustrious members of your house.” But the other side of the ledger, and of the personality, is inferable from the vivaciousness and the gentle sentiments of his music.

Vivaldi’s claim that he never ventured outside on foot is contradicted by the visiting German violin virtuoso Pisendel, who recalled “walking with Herr Vivaldi in St. Mark’s Square” and from there to his house. The composer is known to have traveled a great deal, slipping off to Amsterdam in 1739 to produce a theatrical spectacle, conduct, and play one or two of his violin concertos, and to Bohemia in 1729 or 1730, as well as, probably, Moravia (autograph parts of three Marian antiphons survive in Brno); two of his operas were staged in Prague in the latter year. In Trieste, the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI, an accomplished musician, ennobled Vivaldi, gave him money as well as a gold chain and medal, and was presented in turn with a clutch of concertos.


Robbins Landon’s chapter on the Stagione serves notice that “it is not the purpose of this book to enter into complicated musical analyses.” Since the clockwork ritornelli and alternating tutti/soli of these simple pieces could hardly warrant or sustain anything of the sort, what the book does enter into, none too successfully, are the music’s very uncomplicated, not to say banal, “programmatic” aspects. According to Robbins Landon, the slow movement of the Inverno (Winter) Concerto, for example, depicts the retreat indoors from a “driving” rain to a “roaring open fire,” but to at least one listener, this lovely tranquil piece neither “drives” nor “roars.” In warmer weather, the violin trills believably imitate bird calls, and loud repeated notes and upward-flashing scales suggest thunder and lightning. But what is one to make of Robbins Landon’s claim that with an “incredible stroke of genius” Vivaldi evokes a growling dog? This miracle is achieved by assigning the lowest line to violas (instead of to basso continuo), who play two notes in slow tempo and in the same rhythm in every measure, the second note twice as long as the first and at the same pitch. This sounds like “woof-woof, woof-woof” to the eminent scholar though even the besttrained performing pooches neither growl nor bark in rhythmically steady, evenly held tones. The music actually reminds him of a canine, “howling or barking at the moon on a still moonlit night in a solitary northern Italian landscape.”

Robbins Landon believes that the core of Vivaldi’s artistic thought is sacred music, which he had been composing from at least the age of thirteen, according to the date on his manuscript of a Laetatus now in Turin. He cites a movement of another sacred piece as “a trance of beauty,” and mentions fugal and polyphonic passages in various Credos, Kyries, and Glorias, but instead of music examples offers only adjectival descriptions, forgetting that an “incredible pedal point on the dominant” and “cascades of choral sound” mean nothing to readers without scores.

In Graz, in October 1740, La Girò sang in Vivaldi’s opera Catone in Utica, and it seems likely that the “prete rosso,” though doubtless the “prete bianco” by then, accompanied her there, since he is next located in Vienna, February 7, 1741, as a guest of the Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen. (Vivaldi’s imperial patron, Charles VI, had died a few months earlier from eating poisonous mushrooms.) The composer is heard from only once more on June 28, when he signed a receipt, now in the Moravian Library in Brno, for a sale of his music to the Count of Collalto, a name that occurs in the history of the child Mozart. A month later, on July 28, Vivaldi was dead from “internal inflammation,” which, whatever that means, was also given as a cause of Mozart’s death.

The facts of Vivaldi’s funeral in Vienna read like a rehearsal for Mozart’s fifty years later. Both composers had known periods of comparatively good earnings, yet both died poor, a result of “disorderly prodigality” in Vivaldi’s case, according to a Venetian obituary, and something similar was intimated of Mozart. Vivaldi’s service, with the nine-year-old Joseph Haydn as one of six choirboys, took place in the Stephanskirche, as Mozart’s did. And, like Mozart, Vivaldi was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.


Correction November 16, 1995

  1. 1

    Atheneum, 1994.

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1971.

  3. 3

    For an account of the background of ecclesiastical censorship, see Paul Grendler’s The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540–1605 (Princeton University Press, 1978).