by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pietà Church by Giorgio Massari, 1745-60

The 'Vivaldi' Church

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 November 1991


Four years ago the Vatican decreed that entrance to all musical performances held in Catholic churches should be free of charge. One can sympathize with Rome's anxieties about the commercialization of places of worship, while deploring the resulting discouragement of live sacred and classical music: for professional musicians cannot live on air, and in the absence of the wealthy music-loving patrons of the past, the accepted way to raise the money to pay them is, of course, through the sale of tickets.

Venice is fortunate, then, to have a church which, being an orphanage chapel owned by a charitable foundation, falls outside the scope of this ruling, and where, since tickets can be sold, there are concerts, mainly of Venetian and baroque music, every week of the year, in an ambience of architectural and musical harmony that would be difficult to surpass.

The church, on the waterfront a few hundred yards from Piazza San Marco, is Santa Maria della Visitazione, better known as La Pietà, or often simply the 'Vivaldi church', since it was at this Foundling Hospital that the composer Antonio Vivaldi, who died 250 years ago, taught for many years.

Vivaldi was born close by the Pietà in 1678. His father was a barber who also played in the orchestra of the church of San Marco. Vivaldi soon became a virtuoso violinist, on occasion deputizing for his father. In 1703 he was ordained as a priest, a choice probably dictated by his wish to pursue a musical career. That autumn he became Violin Master at the Pietà, one of the city's four great Foundling Hospitals.

Venice's Foundling Hospitals, or orphanages, played an absolutely central role in the Republic's musical life. Choirs and orchestras, made up exclusively of girls, were formed from those orphans that showed musical talent. They were trained by the finest musicians and composers, whose salaries were paid by the governors, sometimes out of their own pockets. The girls' regular performances of sacred and secular music were packed with Venetians, including the nobility (some of whom sent their daughters to train with the orphan girls), and were an indispensable venue for foreign grand tourists, who waxed lyrical about the foundlings' virtuosity and angelic singing. Some soloists attracted enthusiastic followings, and the girls' marriage prospects - most left the Hospitals by the age of 25 - were greatly enhanced by the admiration they enjoyed, not to mention the attractive dowries given them by the Doge.

Vivaldi taught at the Pietà on and off throughout his life, and his enduring, special relationship with the orchestra and choir there gave him the opportunity to experiment with innovative and äoriginal forms that were to have a profound effect on musical history, especially on the development of the concerto. Although a relentless and prolific composer - he wrote 500 concertos and over 50 operas - he was clearly a dedicated and inspired teacher: so much so that he seems to have come close to working himself out of a job: under his tutelage the Pietà musicians reached such a high standard that, when Vivaldi was absent travelling, or the governors were trying to economise, the older girls were quite capable of instructing the novices.

In Vivaldi's era the Pietà was home to over 5,000 orphans. Happily, at present, there are fewer than five. One of the main buildings is now the Metropole Hotel. The Palladian-style Pietà church we see today was in fact dates from shortly after Vivaldi's death, but captures perfectly the atmosphere and spirit of 18th-century Venice. A competition was held to choose the new design, for what was intended to be as much an auditorium as a church and, before work began (financed by a series of lotteries), the Doge insisted the acoustics of the winning architect's plans be scrutinized by two mathematicians from Padua University.

The oval oratorio is surrounded by an atrium to keep out noise from the quays and harbour outside, and the interior balconies, organ lofts, choirs for the choristers and players, and the decoration and stucco-work are inescapably, self-consciously theatrical. The great ceiling fresco, The Coronation of the Virgin, is by Gianbattista Tiepolo - another indication that the governors wanted the best, regardless of cost. It is a tumultuous celestial vision of storm clouds, sun-bursts, trumpeting angels, tumbling putti, and the girls bowing, plucking, blowing instruments and singing for all their worth.

Emerging the other night onto the waterfront after a vigorous and exciting performance of concertos from L'estero armonico, the publication of which in Amsterdam in 1711 established Vivaldi's international fame and influence, a newly-arrived friend observed how relaxing it was not to come out of a concert into the usual metropolitan combat zone. And, with not a minatory mendicant or mugger in sight, and the moonlight sparkling on the lagoon, her husband went further: 'I think we've all been killed in a car crash, and we're in heaven,' he said.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024