Saturday, April 18, 2009

Antonio Vivaldi, Venice Hometown boy - The Flaming Red Priest

Antonio Vivaldi by François Morellon de la Cave (1725)
(Venice, Italy) Antonio Vivaldi's music seems to be Everywhere-All-the-Time in Venice, so it may surprise many of you to learn that he had disappeared from history for about 250 years. While searching through my archives for another document, I stumbled upon the unpublished article I had written about Vivaldi for the International Herald Tribune - Italy Daily back back in 2001; the one I had recently mentioned in the Palazzo Mocenigo - The Lives of Spaces post.

I just read the 2001 piece again. Poor Vivaldi! Always being supressed. I love Vivaldi's music, and that he died on my birthday, July 27th, back in 1741 is another wonderful coincidence. Anyway, I thought I'd share the article with you, slightly edited:

Antonio Vivaldi - The Flaming Red Priest
by Cat Bauer

If ever a hometown boy was inspired by the sounds of his city, it was Antonio Vivaldi, Il Prete Rosso, or the Red Priest, called such either because of his red hair or his fiery temperament – or both. His haunting music conjures up images of Venice, transporting listeners into the magical city on the strings of a violin. With his concerto, “The Four Seasons,” arguably the most recorded classical work of all time, it’s hard to believe that soon after his death in 1741 the brilliant Venetian composer had faded into obscurity until a fluke discovery brought him roaring back to the forefront.

In 1926, the Salesian monks in San Martino, a small town north of Genoa, needed a new roof for their monastery. For decades, they’d had a stash of old musical manuscripts, which they decided to sell to finance the repairs. The estate of Count Giacomo Durazza of Genoa, Austrian Ambassador in Venice and one-time director of the Burghtheater in Vienna (and friend to Casanova) had bequeathed the manuscripts years before. The monks sent their booty to specialists at the National Library in Turin to evaluate their inheritance.

Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at Turin University, was astounded when he discovered what appeared to be Antonio Vivaldi’s never-before-published personal musical archives. Working secretly, he managed to find a wealthy patron to buy the 140 instrumental works, 29 cantatas, 12 operas, and other works for Turin, thus preventing the works from being scattered at auction, or seized by the Italian government, who would then have the right to choose the institution where they would be housed. Upon closer examination, Dr. Gentili concluded that part of the archive was missing, and guessed correctly that the original collection had been divided between two heirs.

It’s no secret that the estates of many old noble families house many ancient treasures, and the Durazza family was no exception. The last remaining heir, a gray-haired reclusive bachelor, was found in his palace in Genoa, where he refused to allow anyone to examine his extensive library. Investigators, disguised as workers, searched his rooms and discovered that he did, indeed, have possession of the rest of the archives. The only person the recluse trusted was his priest, who finally convinced him it was his cultural duty to sell the treasures to the state.

Pietà warning sign Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto
Ospedale della Pietà was one of four Venetian homes for orphans that specialized in the musical training of its female wards. The orphanages – the Pietà, the Incurabili, the Mendicanti and the Ospedaletto -- provided an education and a dowry for the girls, and those with musical aptitude were assigned to the choir and orchestra. The quality of the education so extraordinary that a plaque was placed on the south outer wall of the Pietà, threatening excommunication, among other penalties, to any parent who attempted to pass off their legitimate offspring as orphans to gain admission.

Son of a butcher and violinist, Antonio Vivaldi was born on March 4, 1678. Various sources seem unable to agree on how many siblings he had -- he was either the eldest or youngest of 6 or 9 children. At age 25, Vivaldi was ordained a priest; one way to elevate oneself socially and receive an education – by 1766, one out of every 23 Venetian inhabitants was joining the priesthood. He was hired by the Pietà as a violin instructor and purchaser of stringed instruments, and almost immediately gave up celebrating Mass, claiming ill health. After listening to his music, and viewing his career as a whole -- which included frequent travels abroad in the company of an attractive young singer -- one might conclude that he had decided to focus on what interested him most: composing music.

Documentation does exist, however, attesting to his sickliness even as an infant. At the Church of San Giovanni Battista in Bragora, located in Campo Bandiera e Moro in Castello, the parish priest signed a baptismal document stating Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was brought to the church to receive “the exorcisms and holy oils” when he was only two months old.

Venice in the 18th Century was a city famous for its high quality of art, music and other festivities, and people came from all over the world to indulge in its offerings. Carnival lasted up to six months. Masked revelers attended the opera, sometimes on a nightly basis. Far from the heavy hand of Rome, priests enjoyed an amazing amount of freedom, attending parties, appearing on stage as actors or singers – even keeping mistresses.

Vivaldi soon became maestro di concerti at the Pietà, responsible for the composition, rehearsal and performance of the repertoire. He was progressive and daring in his compositions for the girls, as well as in his own violin playing, ensuring fame for both himself and the Pietà. Frankfurt lawyer, Johann von Uffenbach described a performance: "Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment-- splendid-- to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be…” Although Vivaldi maintained a relationship with the Pietà for much of his professional life, he was soon drawn to the more secular world of opera, eventually becoming the manager of the San Angelo Opera House where he wrote at least 46 operas.

When Vivaldi was 48-years-old, he met a 17-year-old singer, Anna Giraud, who soon began playing the lead in his operas. She and her older sister, Paolina, lived at Vivaldi’s house and became his traveling partners, accompanying him on his excursions all over Europe for many years. In 1737, Vivaldi decided to sink his own money into a performance of one of his operas in Ferrara, which, at that time, belonged to the church state. Cardinal Ruffo, a religious zealot, had authority over Vivaldi, not only as a priest, but over the private theater as well. To reprimand Vivaldi for his unorthodox lifestyle, he forbade the performance at Ferrara, causing Vivaldi to lose most of his money.

No longer young and fashionable, Vivaldi sold some concertos to his steadfast employer, the Ospedale della Pietà, then moved to Vienna at the age of 63, where he died, alone and poor, a few months later of “internal burning” – a scorching end to the Flaming Red Priest.

Ciao from Venice,
Cat Bauer


  1. See if you can open this link. My facebook 'work in progress'...pic there of my studio in Beachwood Canyon.

    However, I feel a change coming on..possibly working in a foreign country. Or, at least soon to work with a new community of people.

    Hope you're well there, you beautiful doll.

  2. I wish you would turn in your frequent flier miles and come here, Denn! We need you. Did you read my last blog, Lightning Strikes Venice? Remember when Madonna moved into our 'hood and our houses went up?

    I'll check out your link the next time I check into Facebook.