by Roderick Conway Morris

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In Search of Vivaldi's Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 22 December 1991
La Pietà, Venice
Santa Maria della Pietà
by Giorgio Massari, 1745-60



Venice in the 18th century, though no longer the imperial power it had once been, remained, for all the the talk of decadence and decline, a formidable cultural force. The outstanding musical contribution of the Serenissima's last century as an independent Republic is represented by Antonio Vivaldi (1687-1741), the composer of 'The Four Seasons' and 'L'estero armonico', whose works marked a turning point in the development of the concerto, and were decisive in shaping the classical symphony.

Vivaldi was born, raised and spent most of his life in Castello, the sestiere, or district, that forms the eastern end of Venice, the part least frequented by visitors. A walk through this neighbourhood in search of places associated with Vivaldi, including the extraordinary orphanages where Vivaldi and his father taught music, is a most rewarding excursion.

Our walk through Vivaldi's Venice - which can comfortably be done in a day - begins in Piazza San Marco. The appearance of the square is very much as it was in Vivaldi's day, when the brick paving of the piazza was replaced with the slabs of grey volcanic stone that now pave almost every square and street in Venice (the composer's younger brother Francesco contributed to this, since he was not only a wigmaker and publisher but also a paving contractor). To the right, as we face the basilica of San Marco, is Caffe Florian. It was opened in 1720, and though the present interior was redone in the old style somewhat later, the cafe is convincingly 18th century in decor.

Improbably, seeing its immense size and gorgeous decoration, the church of San Marco was, in the days of the Republic, the Doge's private chapel - the city's official cathedral, San Pietro, being stuck out on an island at the far end of Castello. The aim was to diminish the power of the Church in Venice, and thereby curtail the influence of Rome. So for centuries the 'chapel' of San Marco was the real focus of the Serenissima's religious life, and sumptuous ceremonies were staged to glorify the State, and dazzle Venetians and foreigners alike. Music played a vital part in these spectacles and, naturally enough, San Marco became the epicentre of musical life. Even with the rise of theatres and opera houses in the 17th century, San Marco remained musically important. Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, Antonio's father, a barber by trade, became a violinist in the San Marco orchestra a couple of years before Antonio was born, and, in due course, when the boy established a reputation as a virtuoso violinist in his own right, he was from time to time to deputize for his father.

Going to the left of the basilica, we pass by the Palace of the Patriarch (as the Cardinal of Venice is still called, in the Greek fashion), which was built in the last century when San Marco did, finally, become the cathedral church after the Republic's fall. Calle Canonica leads to a canal that runs behind the Doge's Palace; we cross the second bridge, with a good view of the Bridge of Sighs to the right, and enter the sestiere of Castello, taking the calle, or narrow street, on the other side to Campo SS Filippo and Giacomo. Vivaldi lived for nearly 20 years in this corner of Castello, for 11 years at the house on the left, now no. 4358. (Venice's curious numbering system, whereby each building in the 'sestiere', of which there are six, is numbered consecutively, from 1 into the thousands, was introduced by the Austrians in the 1840s.)

Vivaldi decided early to become a priest, entering upon Holy Orders at fifteen. His choice may have been directed by his poor health, which precluded a more strenuous occupation, but seems principally guided by his determination to be a musician and by the opportunities to pursue this vocation that the Church allowed him. He lived at home while preparing for the priesthood, which gave him the chance to continue his music studies with his father, from whom Vivaldi inherited not only his musical talents but also his red hair and nickname Rossi ('Red'). Eventually Vivaldi became known as il prete rosso (the Red Priest).

Leaving the campo by the top left, we follow an amusing sequence of street names: Calle Rimpeto la Sacrestia (in Venetian dialect, the calle opposite the sacristy), becomes in quick succession Calle Drio la Chiesa (behind the church), and, turning sharp left, Calle Fianco la Chiesa (beside the church). We now find ourselves in a small square before San Giovanni in Oleo (St John in Oil), also known as San Zaninovo (St John-the-New). Here Vivaldi received part of his religious training and in 1703 said his first mass - and, as it turned out, since nearly all his time was afterwards devoted to music, one of his last. The church facade is unfinished, with just the plinths and four truncated pillars in position and a vast expanse of brickwork above (this is very much how the Pietà church, with which Vivaldi's name was to become so enduringly linked, looked for over 150 years before it was completed in 1906). Inside the now deconsecrated building is an 18th century canvas above the altar showing the Romans attempting to boil in oil, in a large brass cauldron, St John, the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelations - an experience from which he emerged miraculously unscathed.

A sotoportego, or passageway, leads out of the square to a pretty winding canal and Campiello Querini-Stampalia. The Palazzo of the same name has a museum, now closed for restoration but due to re-open in spring 1992, with fine 18th-century interiors, and entertaining paintings of domestic and everyday scenes, by Vivaldi's near-contemporaries Pietro Longhi and Gabriele Bella.

The main square beyond is that of Santa Maria Formosa ('the Comely'), a name commemorating a 7th-century apparition of the Virgin Mary. To the left of this lively open space, with its handsome, if dilapidated, facades and colourful vegetable stalls, is Fondamenta del Dose. From 1722 to 1730 Vivaldi lived here at no.5879, the house with the Turk's head above the door.

Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa, over on the far side, takes us out of the square, and Calle Trevisana brings us to Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, dominated by the magnificent Domenican church of SS John and Paul. In the centre is the 15th-century equestrian statue - a rare sight in this city of seafarers and boatmen - of the condottiere, or mercenary commander, Bartolomeo Colleoni. He left all his money to Venice, on condition that they put a statue of him 'in front of San Marco'. The Senate side-stepped this provision by putting it not in front of the basilica but the scuola of the same name, the building to the left of the church with the stiking trompe-l'oeil facade.

Venetian scuole were citizens' confraternities that built their own halls, chapels and altars dedicated to their chosen patron saint, and acted as mutual aid associations for their members, as well as engaging in other charitable activities, such as feeding the poor. There were fourteen scuole by the 13th century, and dozens more were established over the following centuries.

Meanwhile, a new kind of charitable institution arose, the ospedale, or hospital, the four largest of which were called the Ospedali Maggiori, or Great Hospitals. Though first set up to deal with different types of need - leprosy, incurable illness, poverty and parentless children - by the 17th century all four had become primarily foundling hospitals or orphanages.

All the Great Hospitals took in both girls and boys, but whilst the boys were taught trades and crafts, the possibilities for the girls were much more limited. One outlet for the girls' energies was found in the formation of choirs and orchestras for services in the orphanage church. Gradually, these musicians' performances attracted an increasingly large public, earning considerable revenue for the orphanages, through the collection box and the support of music-loving patrons. As competition developed between the Hospitals, well-known musicians and composers were recruited to teach the girls, music was specially commissioned for them to play, and the orphanage churches modified, even entirely rebuilt, to enhance the quality of the sound.

Our first visit is to San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, the oldest of the four Hospitals, where Vivaldi's father taught violin between 1689 and 1693. For 350 years the San Lazzaro hospital cared for lepers on an island in the lagoon, now the Mechitar Armenian monastery. In the 17th century, with leprosy in decline, the foundation moved to its new site, where it today forms part of the large complex of Venice's main city hospital. To reach the San Lazzaro church we go through the front door of the Scuola San Marco (the entrance of the modern hospital), a couple of hundred yards straight on past various medical and emergency departments, and through a cloister into a large atrium (almost certainly built to keep noise outside from disturbing the concerts). Both church and cloisters are by the 17th-century architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. The superb facade by Giuseppe Sardi, can be admired by walking along Fondamenta dei Mendicanti outside.

In the walls of the church, below and beside the organ on one side and the pulpit on the other, are grey latticework screens, behind which the Mendicanti girls sang and played, shielded from the gaze of the audience. There are several busts and tombs of benefactors, and paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, Guercino and Salviati brought here when the church of another Hospital, the Incurabili, was demolished. At the back of the church is a statue of Admiral Francesco Mocenigo, killed in 1654, during the epic 22-year seige of Iraklion, in Crete, by the Turks, with dramatic sea and land battles, frozen in Giuseppe Sardi's bas reliefs, raging on either side of him. On the other side of the wall, in the atrium, are the Mocenigo arms and stone reliefs of fortifications.

The first orphanage to have a girls' choir, as early as the mid-16th century, was Santa Maria dei Derelitti (of the Destitute), generally know as the Ospedaletto (Little Hospital, because it was the smallest of the Big Four), which is behind SS Giovanni e Paolo. Originally set up in the woodshed of a timber yard in 1527 to shelter famine victims from the mainland, the Ospedaletto is now an old folks' home.

The church facade is a bizarre concoction, whose sculptures looked to Ruskin like 'masses of diseased figures and swollen fruit'. The extreme foreshortening of the figures was an attempt to compensate for the narrowness of the street, but other deliberately grotesque features seem the product of sheer riotous flamboyance. The interior - reached by going through the frosted-glass doors to the right of the church, marked 'San Giovanni e Paolo Casa di Riposo', and then turning left beyond the porters' office - is more restrained. The need to create space for the musicians was here solved by a wide balcony, running back from above the altar, where the organ stands in an elaborate gilded case. There is a grille of finely wrought iron to preserve the girls' modesty, and a pair of screened arched windows on either side of the altar, behind which is more space for the musicians.

Beyond the courtyard at the back is a charming Sala della Musica (Music room) with delightful frescoes by Jacopo Guarana, one showing the girls playing for Apollo, conducted by Paquale Anfossi, their music master in the 1770s. The room was used to entertain distinguished guests, and many years' restoration work have just been completed (for viewing arrangements, see Visitors' Guide).

Emerging from the Ospedaletto, we take the calle of the same name to the bridge by Palazzo Cavagnis, the home of Chiesa Valdese, the Waldensian Protestant Church in Venice. Crossing the bridge we make our way via Calle Madoneta, Calle Longa San Lorenzo and Fondamenta San Lorenzo to Ponte dei Greci, by San Giorgio dei Greci, the Greek Orthodox church, with its tranquil courtyard and tall leaning tower. This part of Castello was once very cosmopolitan: close by is Ruga Giuffa, a shopping street named after the Armenians who came to Venice from Juffa, at Isfahan in Persia; and, continuing to Ponte Sant'Antonin, we see on our left the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, the confraternity hall 'of the Slavs', the merchants, seamen and other residents from Dalmatia. The influence of eastern music on Venice is yet to be fully investigated, but at least one Vivaldi scholar has detected Dalmatian elements in the composer's use of syncopation.

At the end of Salizada Sant'Antonin, a sharp right brings us into the main square of this the ancient parish of Bragora, named Bandiera e Moro, after two Venetian patriots executed by the Austrian occupiers. Vivaldi was born in or just off this campo and christened (for the second time, since the midwife had hastily baptised the new-born Antonio, who seemed too weak to live), in the church here of San Giovanni in Bragora, with its beautiful Cima painting of the Baptism of Christ.

Retracing our steps to Salizada Pignater, crossing the bridge to Corte Venier and Calle Munegheta, we come to the towering outer walls of the Arsenal, the Republic's shipyard, where the galleys that made the Serenissima a world power were built, armed and provisioned. (A high proportion of orphanage boys were apprenticed to the shipyards and the navy.) Turning right down the fondamenta we follow a snaking canal to the church of San Martino. The quaint 15th-century building on its right, with overhanging eaves, was the meeting hall of the Musicians' fraternity - Vivaldi's father was a founder member in 1685 - which, apart from offering mutual aid, operated as a trade union. Over 300 players, singers and composers were enrolled by the mid 18th century, and there are two canvases of their patron saint Cecilia, shown playing the organ, on the right in the church next door. (The musicians shared their hall with an older brotherhood, that of the Calafati, or caulkers, who sealed the ships' hulls with pitch in the Arsenal.)

The canal that runs along the front wall of the Arsenal brings us to the land gate, guarded by a diverting collection of marble lions, and from a wooden bridge leading off the square, we can admire the Arsenal's twin-towered water gate, through which the completed ships emerged into the lagoon. A pleasant walk along the waterfront back towards San Marco brings us to the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, better known as La Pietà, or simply La chiesa di Vivaldi, 'Vivaldi's church'.

The Pietà was the only one of the four Great Hospitals to be founded as an orphanage from the outset in the 14th century. When Vivaldi was appointed violin master here in 1703 there were several hundred boys and girls at the Pietà. The composer taught here for six years, and then for further periods throughout the rest of his life - the irregularity of his employment due to the governors' need to economise, and to Vivaldi's own absences to write, stage and manage his operas, of which he wrote at least 50 for the commercial theatre. Even when he was not regularly engaged at the Pietà, he continued to compose pieces for the choir and orchestra, who were trained by the older girls when outside teachers were lacking.

The first Pietà church was replaced soon after Vivaldi's death by a dormitory wing (now the Metropole Hotel), to the left of which a new church, designed by Giorgio Massari, was built. The glorious oratorio is surrounded on three sides by an atrium to exclude noise, and the Doge had mathematicians brought in to approve the acoustics of the architect's plans. The interior has a strong theatrical feel, with light, delicate stucco-work, two organ lofts, and semi-circular choirs for the musicians, delicately screened by gilded iron-work traceries of intertwining tendrils and pomegranate flowers. The crowning splendour is Tiepolo's oval ceiling fresco, the Coronation of the Virgin, a celestial vista of sunlight, rolling clouds, winged putti, angels and the orphan players and singers.

If we are in luck, there might be a concert here tonight. And certainly there could be no better way of spending the evening, rounding it off with a stroll back through a now hushed Piazza San Marco, and dropping in - why not? - for a final nightcap at Florian's.

First published: New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023