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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.

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 façades 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 di 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 Pietà 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 Pietà 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:

It is also the first for the perfection of the symphonies. What strictness of execution! It is only there that one hears the first attack of the bow, so falsely vaunted at the Paris Opéra.

The Pietà 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 today:

Fulmine il Signor Iddio maledetione e scomuniche … May the Lord God strike with curses and ex-communications all those who send, or permit their sons and daughters – whether legitimate or natural – to be sent to this Hospital of the Pietà, having the means and ability to bring them up, for they will be obliged to pay back every expense and amount spent on them, neither may they be absolved unless they make atonement, as is clearly set out in the bull of our lord Pope Paul III, dated AD L November 12th, 1548. 

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 Pietà; and about 1765 another Englishman, Samuel Sharp, stated that the concerts were finer than one might expect in any other place than a theatre.

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 Pietà, although in 1770 he wrote that:

The band here is certainly very powerful, as there are in the hospital above a thousand girls, and out of these, there are seventy musicians, vocal and instrumental.

Burney also made the rounds of other Venetian churches where instrumental music could be heard. At S. Lorenzo (along the canal from the Pietà) he delighted in a violin concerto played by Antonio Nazari, a pupil of Tartini:

The first violin of Venice, (Nazari) is certainly a very neat and pleasing player; his tone is even, sweet, and full; he plays with great facility and expression, and is, on the whole, one of the best solo players that I had heard on this side the Alps.

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 secuity for a great composer. In a letter to a Mantuan counsellor, Monteverdi stresses the independent power of his postion as Director of Music:

His allowance is assured until his death: neither the death of a procurator nor that of a doge interferes with it, and by always serving faithfully and with reverence, he has greater expectations, not the opposite; and as regards his salary money, if he does not go at the appointed time to pick it up, it is brought round to his house. And this is the first particular, as regards basic income; then there is occasional income, which consists of whatever extra I can easily earn outside of St Mark’s of about 200 ducats a year (invited as I am again and again by the wardens of the guilds) because whoever can engage the director to look after their music – not to mention the payment of 30 ducats, and even 40, and up to 50 for two vespers and a mass – does not fail to take him on, and they also thank him afterwards with well-chosen words.

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 Pietà and Francesco Negri was there for five years before his death in 1770. Vivaldi too taught music to the girls of the Pietà 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:

It was really curious to see, as well as to hear every party of this excellent concert, performed by female violins, hautbois, tenors, basses, harpsichords, french-horns, and even double bases. There was a prioress, a person in years, who presided: the first violin was very well played by Antonia Cubli, of Greek extraction; the harpsichord sometimes by Francesca Rossi, Maestra del coro, and sometimes by others; these young persons frequently change instruments.

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 età, 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,

. . . by an itinerant band of two fiddles, a violoncello, and a voice, who … performed so well, that in any other country of Europe they would not only have excited attention, but acquired applause, which they justly merited. These two violins played difficult passages very neatly, the base stopped well in tune, and the voice, which was a woman’s was well toned, and had several essentials belonging to that of a good singer, such as compass, shake and volubility. Shortly afterwards in the Piazza S. Marco there were a great number of vagrant musicians, some in bands, accompanying one or two voices; sometimes a single voice and guitar; and sometimes two or three guitars together.

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 città 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 Pietà’s organ gallery singing and, playing at a concert or service. This aspect of Venetian Baroque music is frequently forgotten in modern performances, even those by ‘authentic’ early-music ensembles.

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 città nobilissima (1581) in the edition by Giustiniano Martinioni (Venice, 1663); P. 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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