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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.

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