Antonio Vivaldi

When I made this page in May 2008 I'd just read my third novel in a little over six months conjecting on the life of Antonio Vivaldi. I've also listened to a BBC radio play and watched a DVD of a more substantial play put on in San Francisco. In addition there were two films of the composer's life  in production.

Things have since calmed down, but I thought that that surge of interest and ideas deserved a special page to bring together the strands of these conjectures and relate them to reality. Vivaldi's life is so open to imaginative theories because not much is known about his life beyond the details of what he composed and who he composed for. Doubts have even been cast as to whether some of the accepted portraits of him, including the one to the right, are actually of him.

Vivaldi was born in Venice on the 4th of March 1678 and baptised at the church of San Giovanni Battista in Bragora (see below right). He was later ordained as a priest but an illness (probably asthma) provided an excuse for him to be excused celebrating mass, leaving him free to devote his time to music. He taught at, and composed for, the Ospedale della Pieta, where the orphaned females who trained as musicians performed his music and lived lives that have been much researched in recent years. Later, having been sacked by the Pieta to save money, he moved to Mantua to take up the post of Maestro di Cappella at the court of Prince Phillip and stayed for seven years. Whilst living here he became attached to Paolina Trevisana and her younger half-sister, Anna Giro. They travelled back with him when he left Mantua to return to Venice. The Pieta hired him again, and he also became an opera impresario. Paolina became his personal assistant, and Anna Giro developed into his protégée. Later in his life he moved to Vienna, for reasons uncertain. It was planned that he become court composer to Charles VI, but the sudden death of the king soon after his arrival  left him high and dry. He died soon after. His reputation did not long survive his death and it's only in recent decades that he has been properly appreciated. I have a guide book to Venice written in the 1920s that despite having entries for the church of the Pieta and San Giovanni in Bragora does not mention Vivaldi at all.
(For fuller biographical details there's a site where you can download pdf files of a couple of good biographies for free.

The elements of this sparse personal biography most fruitful for novelists are, unsurprisingly, the bits that involve the famous composer and priest's enigmatic relationships with hid female pupils. This tack also allows the inclusion of juicy titbits and biographies from that recent research into the lives of the Pieta girls.



The links are to the full reviews on my Venice page.

First off the blocks last October 2007, was
Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick which firmly foregrounded the lives of the orphans, in particular violinist Anna Maria.  It was basically the story of a girl growing up but with much fun had with the spicy 18th century Venetian background. The lure of the sparkling life of palazzo parties and the mystery of the lost mother were other non-musical themes explored.

November 2008 sees the publication of The Four Seasons by Laurel Corona, which again uses Vivaldi as something of a secondary, though charismatic, character whilst exploring the lives of two sisters left at the Pieta. One of the sisters becomes Vivaldi's violin protégée and there's a good deal of smothered passion too. The character is called Maddalena but the strong echoes of the Anna Giro mystery are there.  The real Anna and Paolina appear too, with Anna particularly presented as something of a demanding tart.  The radio play Daughters of Venice by Don Taylor also deals (in a lighter-hearted way this time) with the facts of life for the girls in the Pieta, with Vivaldi the late-appearing star turn.

In Hidden harmonies: the Secret Life of Antonio Vivaldi André Romijn concentrates on the composer and makes some more wild guesses at the nature of his relationship with Anna Giro, but also deals deeply and revels in the music, as a novel about Vivaldi should, you'd think. The theory put forward here (spoiler alert!) is that Anna is the fruit of a drunken 'encounter' at a party between Vivaldi and Paolina. The memory of the encounter haunts Vivaldi and so when he finds her he rescues her from her violent child-molesting father, she becomes his (chastely loved) lifetime companion and secretary and together they bring up Anna in Vivaldi's family home. Paolina doesn't tell Vivaldi that Anna is his daughter, but he suspects.

In her play The Red Priest of Venice Lisa Jean Murphy deals with the developing relationship between the composer and Paolina in a much less liberty-taking way, but she also doesn't go so far as to expect them to deny their feelings or growing attachment.

In April 2009 Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice by Pat Lowery Collins, another novel about Vivaldi's Pieta girls, was published. Then Tiziano Scarpa's
Stabat mater, the winner of the Premio Strega, the Italian Booker, in 2009 came out in English translation at last in August 2011. I found it disappointingly thin and uninvolving after the wait and anticipation. Big on the power of music, but not on detail and description.

2012 saw
Vivaldi's Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly, another take on the composer's relationship with Anna Giro. Anna's confused and evolving feelings for Vivaldi, and her similar excitement with his music, are the focus, with Paolina something of a background figure this time.

A slew of films were announced following the noughties novel glut. A couple even got made, although they're rarely seen.

One of these was originally set to star Ralph Fiennes as the composer, and Gerard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset. It has a website which has a trailer. But said trailer is bizarrely made up of clips from other Venice-set films and scenes featuring the actors in other period films - wearing facial hair and floppy white shirts without buttons, basically - except for Malcolm McDowell, who's in a modern suit. The names of the characters do not match with any of real people in the composer's life, so presumably this is going to be a totally fictional affair. The stars and the dates change (we now have Max Irons and Elle Fanning 'signed up') but this still looks like it's unlikely ever to get made.

The other film is rumoured to deal with Vivaldi's relationship with Anna Giro and the 'fact' of her being the muse that inspired The Four Seasons, despite the age difference. This one has also taken many years not getting made and the fact that the writers seem to have been actors and stunt men in various unspecial US TV series is another cause for pessimism.

There was a French film that actually did get made, called Antonio Vivaldi, un prince à Venise. This one was written and directed by someone whose previous work includes a bio-pic of J.S. Bach. It does feature Anna Giro and judging by the pics on the (now lost) website it looks like a bit of a flouncy lace-fest. It hasn't seen a release outside France except, it seems, in South Korea. There is a trailer on YouTube.

Later came the announcement of Vivaldi, the Red Priest, a UK/Italian TV production starring all sorts of Brit actors with little or no previous, including Mick Jagger's son James as a pupil of Vivaldi and someone called Steven Cree as the man himself, who later described this as the worst film he had ever seen. A story featuring a male pupil of Vivaldi is something new, to be sure, and all the other names of characters seem invented, so I'd anticipate the old poetic licence getting something of a thrashing here. This one seemed to have appeared, as two 90-minute episodes, and to have been shown only on Italian TV in 2009. It appears to stress Vivaldi's reputation as a red-headed babe-magnet and to start with the shipwreck of his lover and their daughter on a boat from England. There was a trailer here, but no more. It looked truly awful and loaded with cliché.



The current Pieta church is on a site next to that of
the original complex.


One of the houses Vivaldi lived in, now the Hotel Rio.


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