Orphans and Musicians in Venice
Denis Stevens describes a unique system of social support in 18th-century Venice that brought great economic, social and cultural benefits.
Contributor: Denis Arnold
By the late middle ages, at least one European city had taken steps to solve
some of the ills associated with poverty and a rising population. Unwanted
babies may have appeared every day, but they were very well looked after.
Venice, even in the time of its incipient decadence, had evolved a splendid,
practical and economic solution to the age-old problem. Everybody in trouble
knew exactly where to go.
Down-and-outs, or `derelicts', for example, could repair to the Derelitti, later
known as the Ospedaletto, opposite the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, and which
from 1674 onwards was a building of remarkable Baroque extravagance. In the
early eighteenth century, they could study violin-playing behind those Baroque
facades with a lady teacher known simply as Anna-Maria, whom the French
lawyer-scholar Charles de Brosses described in 1739 as being technically on a
par with Giuseppe Tartini, the great Paduan virtuoso.
Those saddled with incurable diseases would be taken off to the Incurabili,
which was founded in 1522 on the Zattere -- a long fondamenta or paved street
facing the Giudecca and named after the rafts that unloaded wood there. And at
the Incurabili they might be lucky enough to have harpsichord lessons with
Baldassare Galuppi, `Il Buranello' (he of Browning's poem `A Toccata of
Galuppi's', published in 1855), or with the maestro di violini, Matteo Puppi,
who taught at the Incurabili between 1736 and 1776.
Others might feel reduced to bare-faced beggary. If so, they too need have no
problem, as they could seek out the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, or S. Lazzaro (not
named after the Lazarus raised from the dead in John 11:12, but his namesake who
begged daily at the gate of the wealthy Dives in Luke 16:19). There in the early
years of the eighteenth century Giorgio Gentili would be teaching the violin in
between writing his admirable trio sonatas and ensemble pieces, while from
February 1701 and for ten years Antonio Biffi trained the chorus in readiness
for his next Lenten concert.
Unwanted babies had perhaps the best opportunities of all. If carefully placed
in a basket in the portico of the Ospedale della Pieta on the Riva degli
Schiavoni, they would be taken in, fed, clothed and educated `at enormous
expense both public and private'. `Their prioress is appointed by the Doge
himself,' wrote the Venetian historiographer Francesco Sansovino in 1581. More
than this, they would also learn singing or a musical instrument. Even the
Mendicanti in the 1660s took in from four to five hundred wretches, and
Sansovino's successor, Giustiniano Martinioni, tells us that most of them
studied music and became proficient in it, performing at Mass, Vespers, and
Compline throughout the year.
Very public-spirited, one might think. As so it was, yet the entire Venetian
populace derived a distinct advantage from it. In those days, there was nowhere
to play football, and Venice had no playgrounds. The only respectable amusement
being music, every available musician rehearsed intensively and gave concerts in
churches all over the city.
The singers and players did not suffer because there was nothing else to do. And
what a way to bring in the crowds! Tourists were thick on the ground, and they
loved to write home about what they had heard.
The Ospedale della Pieta served as the highest-ranking school of music in the
eighteenth century. Charles de Brosses admitted that, of the four ospedali he
visited, he liked it best:
The Pieta had a long history of
charitable works beginning in the late Middle Ages. But alongside this charity
grew an abuse of privilege, for the tuition was renowned far and wide as being
thorough and exceptional. Middle- and upper-class Venetians also wanted their
children to be brought up in this prestigious hospital and sometimes were
willing to feign poverty or disaster to achieve their aim. In the mid-sixteenth
century a stone was placed in the wall of the church that can still be seen
The political and economic
climate of Venice encouraged the populace to seek enjoyment, especially if in
doing so there were a charitable aim. The tourist trade, always good for the
city and its permanent inhabitants, reflected a vein of prosperity that was very
real. Comparatively little poverty of an enduring nature could be found, and the
city took rapid and efficient care of any lapses that might occur, through their
hospitals thus avoiding some of the major scourges of everyday life. It was a
politically stable city, for the leadership entrusted to the Doge purposely
avoided giving him any special powers. His hands were fettered. True government
lay in the experienced hands of the Council of Ten, and in general the financial
and political affairs of the city moved undeterred on their unswerving course.
Boundless praise came from all sides. The cleanliness and beauty of the city
continued to charm visitors, and if their eyes found visual harmony their ears
certainly approved of the widespread musical excellence. Visiting in about 1700,
the Russian diplomat Pyotr Tolstoy found that nowhere else could one savour such
sweet and harmonious sounds. And a decade later Frederick IV of Denmark attended
a choral-orchestral Mass and heard a concerto played and directed by Vivaldi.
In 1720-22 an Englishman, Edward Wright, commented on some surprisingly good
performances, and following him in the 1730s came two Germans: J.G. Keysler, who
pointed out that funds for the music-teachers came from the Republic, and K. L.
von Poellnitz, who named some of the artists and marvelled at the vast throng of
listeners. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Confessions (published posthumously,
1788), recalled nothing so voluptuous and moving as the music that came from the
organ loft of the Pieta; and about 1765 another Englishman, Samuel Sharp, stated
that the concerts were finer than one might expect in any other place than a
But the most generously persuasive of all was Dr Charles Burney (1726-1814), the
musician and father of the writer Fanny Burney. Enduring frightful summer heat
and the stings of countless mosquitoes and other insects, he went back again and
again to listen to those angelical sounds. He noticed that the girls at the
Mendicanti accompanied the voices better than at the Pieta, although in 1770 he
Burney also made the rounds of
other Venetian churches where instrumental music could be heard. At S. Lorenzo
(along the canal from the Pieta) he delighted in a violin concerto played by
Antonio Nazari, a pupil of Tartini:
A few days later he went to
`the church called la Celestia, which was much crowded' and again heard Nazari
(still neat and pleasing) in another concerto, `I know not of whose composition,
but it was by no means remarkable for novelty'. Burney's reference to la
Celestia serves to remind us of the subsequent disappearance of many Venetian
churches, a reflection of the city's gradually waning economic power. Where was
la Celestia? Sansovino supplies what modern guide-books lack, for he reveals the
story of the church, whose full name was Santa Maria della Celestia. Formerly
known as the Church of the Assumption, it was built in the early thirteenth
century, burned to the ground in 1569 due to a fire at the nearby Arsenale,
rebuilt after 1611 and then finally demolished.
In addition to the numerous smaller churches and hospital churches, there were
several larger edifices with high-quality music, notably St Mark's, which by its
size, splendour and antiquity held pride of place. Not only a bastion of
Christianity, it was of enormous importance because of the wealth of its
treasury; and wealth, to a Venetian, implied stability. We have only to turn
back a century to find evidence of an eminent musician's admiration for this
quality. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) had exchanged the unreliable and
dissipated court of Mantua, with its debased scudi, for the resplendent city of
Venice, with its golden ducats, good health, and a reliable situation providing
freedom and security for a great composer. In a letter to a Mantuan counsellor,
Monteverdi stresses the independent power of his postion as Director of Music:
In the eighteenth century,
considerable contributions to the city's musical life were made by natives to
the city who taught privately or in one of the ospedali. In addition to those
already mentioned, Giovanni Gentili was active at the Mendicanti from 1702 to
1717, Lorenzo Morini spent two years (1750-52) at the Pieta and Francesco Negri
was there for five years before his death in 1770. Vivaldi too taught music to
the girls of the Pieta for many years.
With so many musicians in the four hospitals, not to mention those on the
payroll of St Mark's, it is surprising that so few names have come down to us
other than those in local archives or contemporary publications. Even then they
appear only as first names followed by the instrument: Lucieta dalla viola,
Chiaretta, Silvia, Anna-Maria and Michieletta del violino. Burney, however gives
full names in his account of a visit to the music school of the Mendicanti
(August 17th, 1770) when a two-hour concert was put on entirely for his benefit:
As is clear from Burney's last
remark, most of the girls had studied more than one instrument sufficiently well
to enable some `doubling' to take place when needed, and this was the usual way
to take care of unusual orchestrations such as are found in the music of Vivaldi
and his contemporaries.
It is to Burney's tireless pen that we owe delightful descriptions of the
musical street scene, for it was difficult not to come across a musician or a
duo team in the course of a morning's stroll through the city. More than two
hundred years later, it is possible to add to Burney's account by looking
through the coloured illustrations of people and their costumes in Gli abiti de
Veneziani di quasi ogni eta, a four-volume collection made by G. Grevenbroch in
the mid-eighteenth century (to be found today in Biblioteca Correr, 52 Piazza S.
Marco), catalogued as Gradenigo Dolfin 191, collocamento no. 49.
Colour reproductions from this unfamiliar source show, amongst others, an
ambulatory performer on a fretted basso da camera -- the SR sign on his surplice
refers to the Scuola di San Rocco, famous for its music; a walking advertisement
for a saint's day, showing a violinist in action with a man carrying an emblem
and a money-box; and two blind musicians playing fiddle and guitar, guided by a
boy collecting alms. Burney tells us about some street music he heard:
Music in the piazza is still
played by bands and orchestras, and if the repertory has changed the purpose
remains the same as before -- to amuse, divert, and earn money. As in the
piazza, so in the churches. Described in Sansovino's Venetia citta nobilissima,
the buildings and their instruments are listed district by district: Sestiero di
Castello -- 29 churches, 32 organs; San Marco -- 18 churches, 40 organs. The
diaries of visitors tell what they saw and heard. Wright, Tolstoy and de Brosses
all mention that women played the organ parts, while one image from
Grevenbroch's collection shows orphans in the Pieta's organ gallery singing and,
playing at a concert or service. This aspect of Venetian Baroque music is
frequently forgot: ten in modern performances, even those by `authentic'
In their day and age the hospitals undoubtedly played their part in civic life,
and since the city treasury also contributed, the end result must have been a
near-perfect union of finance and the arts.
FOR FURTHER READING
Eleanor Selfridge-Field, Venetian Instrumental Music from Gabrieli to Vivaldi
(Oxford, 1975, Dover Publications, 1996); Francesco Sansovino, Venetia citta
nobilissima (1581) in the edition by Giustiniano Martinioni (Venice, 1663); R A.
Scholes (ed.) Dr Burney's Musical tours in Europe (London, 1959); Denis Stevens
(trans. and ed.) The Letters of Claudio Monteverdi (Clarendon Press, 1995)..
Denis Stevens is Emeritus Professor of Music at Goldsmith's College, London,
and author of Early Music (1996).
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