Vivaldi's Girls
: Music Therapy in 18th century Venice




    La Chiesa di Vivaldi - The Church of Vivaldi in Venice.  S. Maria della Pietà


    We moderns may take pride in our "enlightened" treatment of the handicapped and unwanted of our society. Yet a phenomenon unequaled in our day occurred in 18th century Italy that may cause to reflect on our progress in this area. I am speaking of the ospedale movement in the therapeutic use of music. Ospedale (literally "hospital") must be taken in a broader sense than we use the word.  It can mean hospital, of course, but it also connotes "sanitarium," "orphanage," or any number of therapeutic institutions of that era.

    Music schools, as such, date back to much earlier times. The schola cantoruum (singers' school) dates from the 6th century (Pope Gregory the Great) and perhaps even further back to the 4 th century (Pope Sylvester).  But these were schools for training clerics for liturgical functions. In 18th century Italy, however, there occurred a veritable explosion of musical activity in these ospedali, orphanages-turned-conservatories.  This was especially true in Venice and  Naples.

    In Naples, for instance, the concern was primarily for the care of young boys.  After the French had laid siege to Naples in 1528 thousands of  children were left homeless and destitute.  Benefactors took them off the streets and put them in different orphanages, each with its own distinctive dress.  The institutes were run along monastic lines and the stipends earned from their musical performances contributed to their support. The orphanage of Santa Maria di Loretto maintained 800 boys and was started by a priest who begged his way around Naples to get his project under way.  Even though schools like this were for the children of parents too poor to support them they developed into first-rate, no-nonsense music schools.  Eight years of strict training turned urchins into finished musicians.

    In Venice as early as the 14th century there were already four functioning ospedali: the Ospedale dei Mendicanti (originally for lepers and later beggars), once visited by Goethe who wrote of it, "I never imagined such voices could exist," the Ospedaletto di SS. Giovanni e Paulo (a poorhouse and orphanage), and the Conservatorio degl' Incurabili as the name implies. Finally there was the extraordinary Ospedale della Pietà- of main interest here.

    This Pietà Hospital had been founded in 1346. It was an institution for orphaned or illegitimate girls, foundlings and the female children of poor families. In fact there remains a plaque on the church threatening with damnation parents who tried to pass off their children as orphans. One can see the beautiful church of the Pietà, Santa Maria della Visitazione on the Grand Canal pictured above.  It is but a short walk from the Saint Mark's Square and the Bridge of Sighs.  Already in the 17 th century day this ospedale had achieved fame for its work with disadvantaged girls, especially for their singing and instrumental musicianship. Composers like Antonio Lotti and Scarlatti had served as musical directors.

    But this church and the ospedale attached to it will forever be associated with the name of the great Italian priest-composer, Antonio Vivaldi  (1675-1741). It was here that Vivaldi composed for the girls such marvelous works for chorus and especially for various combinations of  instruments. No less than the  staunch Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach paid the highest tribute to this "red-headed priest", as Bach called him, and his music. How much Bach revered Vivaldi and was influenced by him is well known. Not only was Vivaldi  progressive in terms of his music education and what we surely might safely  call "music therapy" for these girls. It is also interesting to note that, while it was not until the Romantic era in the 19th century that themes of nature would pervade music literature, including actual attempts to imitate nature, Vivaldi was already writing "weather music" in his Four Seasons  with all its sounds of nature, bird song, storms and the like. Another aspect of his work can be seen on a plaque outside the church that attests to his hand in the design of its marvelous acoustics. Vivaldi`s connection with the Pieta began in 1703 and lasted nearly forty years until 1740. In 1704 he was named Maestro di Violino di Choro. He also was in charge of of purchasing musical instruments-  some of which may still be seen in the little museum of the church. He later became a violin teacher, Master of Concerts and resident composer.  He was required to compose two masses per year (for Easter and the Feast of the Visitation), two Vesper services a year and two new motets each month among other things. Vivaldi worked daily with these disadvantaged girls, writing and performing music for their special needs, choral and instrumental works.

    The young ladies for whom Vivaldi composed and directed music were known as the putte or maidens. By 1738 there were about a hundred  putte in residence at the ospedale. The girls were divided into two categories: the figlie di comun or commoners who received a general education and the figlie di coro or choristers and musicians who received an exacting musical training in solfeggio, singing and instrumental technique.  Vivaldi supervised the teaching and served as concert master and composer-in-residence as mentioned.  The reputation of the Pieta surpassed anything in Europe and drew visitors from all over Europe. Even Pope Pius IV came to hear the girls play and sing.  The putte did not travel and  were not allowed to perform outside the ospedale.

    Descriptions of contemporaries of the day give a nice picture of what a visitor might encounter at the Pietà.

    William Beckford:  "The sight of the orchestra still makes me smile.  You know, I suppose, it is entirely of the feminine gender, and that nothing is more common than to see a delicate white hand journeying across an enormous double bass, or a pair of roseate cheeks puffing, with all their efforts, at a French horn.  Some that are grown old and Amazonian, who have abandoned their fiddles and their lovers, take vigorously to the kettle-drum;  and one poor limping lady, who had been crossed in love, now makes an admirable figure on the bassoon."

    Dr. Charles Burney:  "It is a kind of Foundling Hospital for natural children, under the protection of several noble citizens and merchants who contribute annually to its support."

    Dr. Brasses, president of the Dijon Parliament, France: "They sing like angels, and play violin, flute, organ, hautboy (oboe), violincello, bassoon, in short, there is no instrument so large as to frighten them."

    Ever since the Renaissance,  which began in Italy and eventually later spread beyond the Alps, Italy became a Mecca for students and musicians who would make the long pilgrimage to Italy to absorb the spirit and culture found there. In later centuries the trek continued until modern times. Mozart, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Liszt were but a few of the many great musicians who drew inspiration from all that sunny Italy had to offer. Yet it seems the miracle of the 18th century ospedale and the Pieta was never to flower again. (1)

    Today at the church of the Pietà there remains a vestige of the tradition  with an ensemble of young women, Le Putte Veneziane di Vivaldi, (pictured) professional musicians who perform at the church and wear the original 18th century Venetian costumes. Another instrumental group, Le Venexiane,  composed entirely of female members, is also associated with the church.
    My wife and I were privileged to perform in concert in Vivaldi's church as part of the New York Festival Choir under the direction of J. Scott Marrone. My wife Kathleen had the great thrill of singing the soprano solo in the "Laudate Dominum" of the Mozart Vespers. We were accompanied by  group of  resident musicians at the church, I Virtuosi Dell'Ensemble di Venezia. We experienced the marvelous acoustics envisioned by Antonio Vivaldi.  It is noteworthy that the church is now used exclusively for concerts and, as of this writing,  visiting groups of musicians who wish to perform there must do at least one work by Vivaldi as a prerequisite.

    It would seem that our own age has much to learn from Italy's 18th century's enlightened tradition. The accomplishment of disadvantaged girls and women on the fringes of 18th century Venetian society and the "red-headed priest" who directed and promoted them should be more than a footnote in history.

Richard Cross

(1) The music school at Boys Town I once visited was certainly an exceptional effort in that direction.


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Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà.  Giugno-Luglio, Venice. 1999
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Music Educators Journal. Volume 59, Number 1. September 1972.