The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice
The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice  /  Canaletto

Vivaldi, Hasse, Farinelli... The dazzling Venice of the 18th century!

It's all about music and pleasure in 18th-century Venice!.

The story of Venice and music is also one of masks and orphans. Masks because the Venetian opera only opened its doors during the famous carnival, turning the annual event into the high-point of Venetian musical culture. As for the orphans, this was a particular characteristic of the Doge's Palace: four "pious hospices" (Pio Ospedale) welcomed young girls into the convent, orphanage, and music school, training them to later become musicians, offering a wonderful field of possibilities for Venetian composers...

Carnival, masks and opera

Though music was always present throughout Venice, it made itself particularly heard during the carnival period. A unique time in the Doge's Palace since this lasted from the month of October to Advent, then from 26 December to Shrove Tuesday, and two additional weeks during the Ascension. Venetian opera houses abounded, notably the Teatro San Benedetto (the most famous of the second half of the 18th century), the Teatro San Moisé, the Teatro Sant’Angelo (of which Vivaldi was the impresario), and the Teatro San Samuele, where Vivaldi's Griselda was first performed.  

Francesco Guardi : Le Ridotto du Palazzo Dandolo à San Moisè, vers 1746
Francesco Guardi : Le Ridotto du Palazzo Dandolo à San Moisè, vers 1746  /  © Archivio Fotografico - Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Venice attracted much of the European aristocracy. Behind the iconic Venetian masks, kings and queens, princes and dukes were able to visit the Ridotto, a theatre and opera foyer offering refreshments, without being noticed and with full anonymity. The aristocracy wished to acclaim the great artists, notably Farinelli, in demand by all the Venetian theatres, as explained by Catherine Loisel (curator of the 2018 exhibition Éblouissante Venise ! at the Grand Palais in Paris): 

Farinelli experienced a great success in Venice, to the point of being followed through the Piazza San Marco whenever he went out. Since Farinelli brought in the largest audience, there was often a frantic imitation between the theatres, staging increasingly magnificent performances, in order to bring in an equally large audience.    

This same aristocracy would then, having returned to their native country, wish to rediscover the same charms of their recent Venetian voyage. The great singer Faustina Bordoni, born and musically trained in Venice, garnered such a great success that her career led her far beyond the Italian borders, to London where she premiered countless operatic roles by Handel, and to Dresden where she eventually married the composer Johann Adolf Hasse. 

For composers, exporting Venice and its charms required the performance and publication of their works in many of Europe's largest cities. The famous Four Saisons by Vivaldi were published first in Amsterdam in 1725, and later performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. The work, however, remains entirely a Venetian one, intimately linked to the bustling pool of young musicians available to the "Red Priest" at the Ospedale della Pietá...

The music of orphans

One particular feature of Venetian musical life in the 18th century was the presence of renowned artists and composers employed as musical directors by the four famous Venetian hospices. The most famous of these hospices, the Ospedale della Pietá, boasted Vivaldi as their first violin teacher (from 1704), and then principal composer (from 1713 to 1740).

These four Venetian hospices, collect both female orphans and girls from illegitimate unions. Almost entirely cut off from the outside world, these girls were, according to their abilities, either devoted to the maintenance of the institution or became instrumentalists or singers, staging regular concerts much appreciated by the public, as noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, secretary at the French Embassy in Venice from 1743 to 1744: 

Every Sunday at the church of each of the four ‘scuole’, during vespers, motettos or anthems with full choruses, accompanied by a great orchestra, and composed and directed by the best masters in Italy, are sung in the galleries by girls only; not one of whom is more than twenty years of age. I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music; the richness of the art, the exquisite taste of the vocal part, the excellence of the voices, the justness of the execution, everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure.

Vivaldi, much like Hasse, Lotti, Tartini, and many other teacher composers of these hospices, benefitted from highly talented female musicians to perform their compositions. A particularity that made Venice an important city in European musical life. However, as music historian Patrick Barbier points out, "none of these musicians were able to "earn a living". A limitation that deeply damaged the image of Venice the "Serenissima" during the 18th century, and which explains how the city was quickly dethroned by Naples: the parthenopean city dispatched without any qualms its young adult conservatoire graduates (all men) to practice their art throughout Europe, spreading the idea of a "Neapolitan school" and its prestigious aura!". As dazzling as it was, Venice would have dazzled even more had it favoured the careers of its musicians...