Copyright 2005 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times (London, England)

August 29, 2005 Monday
London Edition 1


LENGTH: 1129 words

HEADLINE: Vivaldi and the chorus of unwanted children In the 18th century, Venice's foundling hospital was at the heart of the city's musical life. New research throws fascinating light on the talents it nurtured, William Packer writes



The Vivaldi industry still grows apace, and with it the myths abound. The musician was known as il prete rosso, the red priest, and one of the oldest rumours is that of his relationships with the beautiful girls of the Pieta in Venice, where he worked as music master. In the chapel of the Pieta in the early decades of the 18th century was to be savoured one of la Serenissima's special treats, as up in the gallery the sweet voices rose and fell behind the grille, the singers not quite out of sight.

Whatever the truth of the rumours, the facts are no less interesting. The Ospedale della Pieta was one of four institutions set up in Venice to serve charitable purposes: the Pieta looked after the city's foundlings; the Mendicanti, its beggars; the Incurabile, the incurable; and the Ospedaletto, the orphans. The tradition grew up of each having its own choir and orchestra and, of course, its maestro in charge to teach, direct and compose music for them. By the turn of the 18th century, they formed the heart of the city's musical life, with the Pieta, under Gasparini as maestro di coro, the most famous of the four.

Vivaldi, born in 1678 and in holy orders, refused the post of maestro di coro at the Pieta, although he had been teaching there for some years, and in 1716 the unique post of maestro dei concerti was created for him. His association with the Pieta continued off and on until 1740.

What we now know about the life of the Pieta is largely due to Micky White, an Englishwoman in her late 50s and a long-standing resident of Venice. Although no musicologist, she has devoted herself to Vivaldi and his music, an interest that led her to the Pieta.

The bulk of the Pieta's archival material - the governors' minute books, accounts, ledgers and a mass of loose papers - was moved elsewhere in the 1870s; the documents to the Venetian State Archive, the music to the Museo Correr, where it has long been open to researchers into the Venetian composers. As to the figlie di coro, however, the "daughters of music" - the girls and women of the Pieta who actually played and sang - little was known. But a substantial body of material had remained at the Ospedale, some of it dating back deep into the 17th century. There White found it much as it had been left two or more centuries ago, the entry registers still neatly tied by the ribbon that last closed them. Filling a small room were the libri della scaffetta, in which the circumstances of each infant's reception were meticulously entered, and the registri dei morti. It is from this mass of new-found material, correlated with that at the state archives and the Correr, that White has slowly drawn out a fascinating account of actual lives and characters. Sketchy though many of the details still are, here at last out of their shadowy anonymity come the Pieta's protegees - Geltruda, Lucieta, Margherita and Pelegrina.

The present church of Santa Maria della Pieta, on the Riva degli Schiavoni, was begun only in 1745, four years after Vivaldi's death in Vienna, but the Ospedale that he knew remains tucked away behind it, down the Calle della Pieta. To this dark street thedesperate parents would bring an unwanted baby and place it in the scaffetta, the hole in the wall, for the portinara to take in when the bell was rung. Some were left in the quiet meal-time in the middle of the day; some were left just as it was getting dark or just before dawn. The time of day was always noted, and the pattern is clear: it was a furtive act, performed when no one was about. It was the job of the scrivana, the senior woman who kept the register, to note down these details - not just date and time, but also the condition in which the child was left, what clothes it had, rich or poor, and any note of a given name.

Both boys and girls were taken in, the boys staying until they were 16, the girls until husbands could be found for them or for the rest of their lives. The unmusical majority made up the common body of the Ospedale, the figlie di comun, while the talented few were trained as figlie di coro, the musical elite of the Pieta.

White has concentrated her research on those of the coro who coincided with Vivaldi. Their number fluctuated, but there were usually about 60, and her conclusion - set out in a paper on the subject - is that "when we speak of figlie di coro, we are referring more often than not to mature women, not girls . . . In fact the average age of an active member of the coro was probably nearer 40 than 30." Last year, a small museum was set up to house the records, along with antique instruments and manuscripts, in the rooms where Vivaldi taught.

Within the Pieta, the members of the choir and orchestra were often known by their instruments or voices. Thus we find Diana dal Contralto, Paulina dal Tenor, Silvia dal Sopran and Lucetta Organista. Here is "Apollonia dal Sopran. Scaffetta M1609. Born 9 Feb 1692. Confirmed in coro 23 Aug 1720. Made figlie privilegiata before 14 Sept 1736. Disciplined and reduced to the status of figlie di comun for punching the portinara, 14 Nov 1738. Reinstated 17 Dec 1738 . . . sotto priora in 1746. Died from ciro nella smilza 11 Nov 1751 . . . Took role of Apollo in Porta's Il ritratto dell'eroe (1726)."

And here is "Anna Maria dal Violin. Born 1696 . . . Violin bought for her by Vivaldi July 1712, who was reimbursed by the Pieta . . . Made figlie privilegiata 14 Feb 1721. Put on special diet (of chicken) 23 Jan 1728 . . . Died from febbre e tabe nervosa 10 Aug 1782 . . . Also played viola d'amore, cello, lute, theorbo, mandolin and harpsichord . . . Concertos composed for her by Vivaldi (at least 25 for violin, 2 for viola d'amore), Brusa, D'Alay and Tartini . . ."

Many of these women developed into remarkably accomplished musicians, with reputations that extended far beyond the Pieta. The most talented had music composed specifically for them, and many of the manuscript scores that survive are annotated with their names. Some became composers themselves. Some would become figlie privilegiate, able to take in pupils from outside as figlie in educazione. Some would even rise to be maestre, sharing in the direction of the coro.

Life in the Pieta was not easy: it was a severely cloistered existence, strictly ordered by the governors' rules. Yet it represented a remarkable opportunity. As White notes: "The more deeply one goes into the records . . . the more evident it becomes that . . . whether or not the governors were aware of it, they enabled figlie di coro to achieve through music a degree of personal fulfilment that in the early 18th century must have been rare for women of any background, let alone the most despised of all."

The Piccolo Museo della Pieta, Calla della Pieta 3701, Venice. Tel +39 41 522271

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