by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hark, the orphan angels sing

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 21 December 1991
Ospedaletto, Venice
Fresco by Jacopo Guarana, 1776-77, in the Music Room at the Ospedaletto



Venice's celebrations this year for the 250th anniversary of the death of Antonio Vivaldi have served not only to draw attention to the composer and his works, but also the unique musical role played by the four Great Foundling Hospitals, the Ospedali Maggiori; a contribution not confined to music, for they have left, too, a distinctive artistic and architectural legacy - as was highlighted by the unveiling a few weeks ago, after many years' closure for restoration, of the Ospedaletto's Sala della Musica.

The Ospedali were founded over the centuries to confront varying social crises: the Mendicanti in 1224 to care for lepers; the Pietà, with which Vivaldi was to be associated throughout his life, in 1364, for orphans; the Derelitti (or Ospedaletto, 'Little Hospital', the smallest of the Four), in 1527, to receive famine victims from the mainland; and the Incurabili, in 1577, for 'the incurable', primarily syphilis sufferers.

In time all became primarily foundling hospitals. One of the early governors of the Ospedaletto taught the boys hymns and led them singing in procession through Venice's streets collecting alms. By the mid 16th century the girls, or putte, were singing in the orphanage church on Sundays, a practice adopted by the other hospitals.

As interest increased in the putte's performances, a lively rivalry developed between the hospitals, not least because the girls attracted substantial donations in the collection box, as well as gifts and bequests. Part of the revenue was ploughed back into the buying of instruments, the employment of first class music teachers and composers, and even into architectural modifications to the hospital chapels to improve the quality of the sound. Money was also put aside for the dowries of the girls, many of whom became celebrities with ardent followings, their prestige and marriage prospects thus immeasurably enhanced. Fears that audiences were attending for other than pious reasons led, at one point, to the suspension of performances at the Ospedaletto, but not for long.

All four Great Hospitals still exist, though the Incurabili's church was demolished in the last century, and its paintings, by Veronese, Tintoretto, Guercino and Salviati moved to the Mendicanti. Few visitors to Venice seem aware that the Mendicanti and the Ospedaletto are publicly accessible. The former, where Vivaldi's father was at one time violin master, is now the chapel of the city's main hospital. (It can be reached by going through the hospital's front entrance in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, past Casualty, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Gastroenterology.)

A pretty cloister, one of two flanking the church, leads to a large antechamber, apparently built to minimise disturbance from the canal outside. In the church the choirs on either side of the nave where the putte sang and played are concealed by lattice screens reminiscent of some oriental harem.

The Ospedaletto, on the other side of the square, is now an old people's home, and the church, (entered via the door to the right marked 'Casa di Riposo di San Giovanni e Paolo'), has concert seasons at Christmas and Easter. Here the girls performed on a spacious balcony set back above the altar, and in a small chamber behind it, hidden by wrought-iron grilles. Overlooking the courtyard behind the church is the Sala della Musica.

All the hospitals once had such music rooms to entertain special guests and benefactors, but this is the only one to survive. The room is light and airy, the proportions pleasing, and the trompe-l'oeil columns, cornices, pediments and other architectural features by the theatrical painter Agostino Mengozzi-Colonna accomplished and amusing.

The Sala was built in the mid 1770s, a period of deep financial crisis (the Incurabili had already gone bust), not long before the Republic's fall. Nonetheless, the original plan to decorate the room with stucco was abandoned in favour of far more expensive frescoes by Jacopo Guarana. They were, it seems, paid for by the girls themselves out of their dowries, and the artist responded with panache and originality. His Apollo, violin bow in hand, surrounded by the putte, conducted with a rolled-up score by their music master Pasquale Anfossi, is realistic, witty and wonderfully executed. One of the girls holds the sheet music of Anfossi's operatic aria 'Combatteremo Insieme' (Together we'll fight on), a clear reference to the putte's determination to keep the show on the road against all odds.

The pinnacle of musical foundling hospital architecture on the grand scale is the church of the Pietà (still a children's home), where Vivaldi taught from 1703 to 1709, and then on and off for the rest of his career. Even when he became immersed in writing and directing opera for the commercial theatre and supplying works to private patrons, the Pietà continued to commission from him dozens of concertos, oratorios, motets and psalms for the girls to play.

The present Pietà church, on the waterfront near Piazza San Marco, was built shortly after Vivaldi's death, financed by a series of lotteries. Conceived as an auditorium from the outset - the acoustics of the architect Giorgio Massari's plans were vetted by mathematicians from Padua University - the interior is engagingly theatrical, with stylish choirs and organ lofts adorned with delicate gilded screens. Tiepolo's central ceiling fresco is a celestial extravaganza depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, with angelic choirs and the Pieta putte fervently playing and singing away together on giddy banks of cloud and lofty balconies and parapets.

The Pietà is the now only church in Venice where there are concerts every week (usually on Mondays and Thursdays). This is possible because it is still a private institutional chapel, and not subject to the Vatican's ban of four years ago on the sale of tickets to concerts in churches (which is taken seriously in Italy, if not elsewhere). Thus, happily, this elegant building continues to serve the purpose for which it was intended, and keeps alive the memory of the putte, who once added so much verve and charm to Venice's musical life.

First published: Spectator