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"A novelist is a person who lives in other people's skins."
- E.L. Doctorow

BBC Documentary
The BBC did a seven part program about Vivaldi and the Pieta. Check it out!
Part 1, Part II. Part III
Part IV, Part V, Part VI
Part VII

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The Four Seasons, by Laurel Corona

The Four Seasons: Vivaldi & the Pietà

The Ospedale della Pietà

The Ospedale della Pietà was not a convent, or an orphanage, or a music conservatory, or even a home for girls, although it had elements of all four.

It was a lay institution, having no official connection with the church, although life inside its walls was ordered according to the Holy Office, the same regimen of prayers and activities used in convents and monasteries. It was a charitable institution that took in orphans, but poor and indigent parents also abandoned children at its doors, and daughters from wealthy families were sometimes sent to live there, usually for short periods. For only a small percentage of the residents did it resemble a music conservatory, since most girls received only basic lessons.

Contrary to the perception that the Pietà was an all-female institution, a small number of boys abandoned at the Pietà were raised in a separate part of the building. Boys left as soon as they were old enough to become apprentices, but those who were physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves became, like women in similar situations, residents for life.

At times the Pietà had in excess of nine hundred residents, only a few dozen of whom were in the coro. The Pietà was funded in part by the city of Venice and in part by donations, but it required long hours of work by its residents to meet operating expenses. Figlie di comun, as the non-musicians were called, served in various money-making workshops in the Pietà, making lace, mending sails, dying silk, and turning out other desirable products for sale.

Painting by Canaletto
Painting by Canaletto showing the view past the Doge's Palace
to the Pietà (building with many chimneys, right of center)

The figlie were paid small amounts of money for their work, which were kept in individual bank accounts administered by a board of directors known as the Congregazione. In certain situations residents could buy small things with the money, but it was mostly meant to contribute to their dowry, or to the payment necessary to secure a place in a convent. A small, mostly symbolic portion of their earnings was subtracted as a contribution to their upkeep.

The Congregazione handled fund-raising and banking, set policy, and served as the voice of the institution in civic life. Although music was originally viewed as a skill to increase the marriageability of their wards, at some point the Congregazione realized that the rigid monastic environment provided the discipline, time, and means to develop the exceptional musical talent apparent in some of the girls. The main motivation for doing this was financial, since paying the bills for such a large and expensive institution was always a struggle. Though church services were free, people who wanted to sit down to listen to the coro during the mass and the concert afterwards had to rent a bench. Programs were provided for a small charge. The real source of income, however, came from endowments, bequests, and fees for private concerts coming from wealthy patrons who fell in love with the music, and often with the musicians themselves.

It was, therefore, important to find among hundreds of girls that few dozen who could be trained to play or sing at a professional level. They became figlie di coro, "daughters of the choir." Since men were not allowed inside the Pietà except under very limited circumstances, the figlie di coro largely taught each other. Each figlia from advanced beginner on up had both a teacher and pupils. The music program was run by several maestre, who conducted rehearsals, oversaw promotions, meted out discipline, and took charge of instruments and sheet music; and sotto-maestre, who were responsible for overseeing lessons and other necessary training for each division of the coro.

Contemporary drawing of the Pieta
Contemporary drawing of the Pietà

The Pietà thrived on self-governance by women, as did the many convents in Venice and elsewhere. Life in the cloister was overseen by the Priora, assisted by others responsible for various aspects of the institution. Women who came to the institution as babies rose through the ranks to become its leaders. In the case of the coro, performing members generally served until they were forty and then were permitted to retire, remaining at the Pietà for the rest of their lives, with few obligations other than occasional duty as chaperones.

The typical resident, however, did not stay for life. Wards of the Pietà, unless they were in the coro or needed as teachers, were often gone before they were out of their teens. The expression "maritar o monacar" (marry or take vows) applied to most young women at the Pietà, just as it described the limited options available to women who lived outside its walls.

Ironically, as The Four Seasons explores, the women of the Pietà and the other Ospedali actually had a wider range of options than women living outside. Here the view of women as capable leaders of communities was encouraged, and women's capacity to rise to the same level of professionalism as men was demonstrated. Whether she and Maddalena were better off having been abandoned is a question Chiaretta ponders in The Four Seasons, and however unsettling such a question might be today, it provides insight into the shaping influences on the real girls and women who lived in Venice at the time.

The Votive Bridge
This painting, "The Votive Bridge" by Johann RIchter, includes a group of young girls from the Pieta coming home from a church service at Santa Maria della Salute, across the Venetian lagoon
(detail on right)
The Votive Bridge (Detail)
Detail of "The Votive Bridge"

Antonio Vivaldi:

Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi
March 4 1678 - July 28 1741

Antonio Vivaldi's life had music in it from birth. His father, a barber, was considered the best violinist in Venice, and played with the orchestra of San Marco. Because the family was poor, Antonio's best prospects for security lay with the church, and he was ordained at age 26. Known throughout his life as The Red Priest (Il Prete Rosso) because of his bright red hair, after only one year as a parish priest he told his superiors he could no longer officiate at mass due to chronic, severe chest pains (most likely asthma or angina). His infirmity was real and well documented, but it did not stop him from composing, performing and conducting hundreds of his own works, serving as music master at the Ospedale della Pietà, and managing the productions of a Venetian opera house, the Teatro San Angelo, and others in Rome and elsewhere.

Caricature of Vivaldi by P.L.Ghezzi, Rome (1723)
Caricature of Vivaldi
by P.L.Ghezzi, Rome (1723)

In 1703 he was appointed violin master at the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four such institutions in Venice with a renowned all-female orchestra and choir. Over the next several decades, he was in and out of residence in various teaching and composing roles, writing hundreds of vocal and instrumental pieces for the Pietà, and sometimes serving as conductor and soloist. On one occasion he was fired, although it appears this was caused by financial troubles at the Pietà, rather than unhappiness with his work or comportment.

During these decades, Vivaldi struggled to make ends meet by composing music on commission for patrons, as well as writing, directing, and producing dozens of his own operas in Venice and elsewhere in Italy. The circumstances surrounding the composition of Vivaldi's best known work, The Four Seasons (published in 1726), are unknown. Even the dates of composition of many works that remained unpublished in his lifetime are not known for certain, but some were clearly for the Pietà because they have names of his preferred musicians and singers written on the score next to their parts.

A Memorial to Vivaldi
Three women make music in this memorial to Vivaldi in Vienna, where he died

Personal and financial trouble dogged Vivaldi much of his life. Even though he insisted the relationship was platonic, his friendship (and sometimes cohabitation) with Anna Giro, an opera singer, and her sister Paulina raised eyebrows within the church and cost him important commissions. His operatic style lost favor with audiences dazzled by Handel, and his innovations in chamber music were often not fully appreciated.

Nearly penniless, Vivaldi sold off much of his sheet music to finance a trip to Vienna, where he believed commissions from King Charles VI, and perhaps an appointment as court composer, awaited. The king's untimely death left Vivaldi with no means of support, and he too died soon after. He is buried in Vienna.

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