It may sound a bit corny, but Antonio Vivaldi changed my life. I can pinpoint the exact moment. I was in my car in Chapel Hill, NC, listening to the local classical radio station, when on came a baroque concerto that so transported me that I drove far past my destination, absolutely swept away by the music. I had loved Bach for decades, and the music was so amazing I just assumed it was him, until the announcer came on and said: “that was Antonio Vivaldi”.
That moment literally changed the direction of my life. I first veered off in a passionate pursuit Vivaldi’s music and life. His music was so different, and even daring, that I found myself wondering what kind of place would allow someone to develop and perform such music in the early 1700s. Answering that question was a pursuit which naturally took me to Venice. So I have Vivaldi to thank for opening my eyes to Venice. However, it was only when I discovered the Figlie di Coro that my amazement and wonder grew into an obsession. Learning about the all-female orchestra of adult orphaned women who studied music all their lives – in very hard and extraordinarily isolated circumstances – an ensemble that in the case of the Pietà Vivaldi taught and led himself, which at the time was among the best orchestras in Europe and which performed much of his non-operatic work (and sacred choral works and oratorios) was a revelation to me, not so much about Vivaldi but about Venice itself. What kind of place had Venice been for such an institution to exist? Then I had to know much more, my connection to Venice grew, and the rest, as they say, is history. So to the Figlie, in fact, I owe a great deal too.
The story of the Figlie di Choro remains largely hidden to this day – and often badly misrepresented in historical fiction. I’ve read as much as I could find about the old church of the Pietà and the Figlie di Choro from Venetian and Italian sources, and I want to share the history I learned about these remarkable women. Their story deserves to be told – they literally helped make Vivaldi who he was – his “house orchestra” and lifetime students, and they weren’t the only group like them either. They were competing with the other three all-female orchestras at the other ospedali grandi in the city, all of whom had much nicer facilities and bigger name (at the moment) composers working with them… Here, then, is the history of the Hidden Heroines of the Baroque: the Figlie di Choro in the time of Vivaldi.
The story begins with the institution of the Pietà in Venice, which was founded in 1336 by a Franciscan monk to care for the many unwanted babies being abandoned in the city. Infants were left at the Pietà just after birth, anonymously, by mothers who were unable to care for them. There was a portal on the exterior of the building where infants could be deposited. If a mother presented the infant in person, a card was cut in two – one half was kept with the child’s records, and the other half was given to the mother. Should the mother return with her half of the card, she could reclaim her child. To this day there is a drawer at the Pietà filled with these half cards.
The children were cared for in the institution for the first year of life, after which they were sent to live with host families on the mainland. The children returned to the institution around the age of 10. Boys were educated in reading, writing and music, and trained in vocational skills. The age of apprenticeship at that time started as young as 12, and the boys were found positions in a trade, after which they left the Pietà. The girls were also educated in reading, writing and music, and trained in vocational skills. However, the only ways in which females could leave the institution were by marrying or by becoming a nun. Those women who did not pursue one of these options lived at the Pietà for their whole lives. Living conditions were strict and isolated. Residents were rarely allowed to leave the compound, and recreation was limited to one beach trip each summer. Men were not allowed amongst the female residents without supervision. Daily life alternated between work and prayer. Most residents slept two to a bed and lived in near total poverty. The institution itself was like a small city, self-contained and managed from within, and staffed mainly by women. Thus the Pietà was an almost totally female space.
In the early 1500s the Pietà was joined by other charitable Ospedali (Hospitals) in Venice. These newer Ospedali were formed in the wake of the Counter Reformation, a time during which a culture of piety and charity grew in importance in Venice. The Republic viewed itself as a having a Divine mission and it was believed that acts of charity and virtue by the ruling class were necessary in order to retain God’s favor. Providing for the welfare of its citizens was seen as bringing glory to the City and thus to God. Confraternities and charitable organizations proliferated in the city, including the establishment of three other Ospedali which were set up to care for the sick and the poor. The Incurabili (founded in 1522) cared for those ill with syphilis and other contagious diseases, the Ospedale dei Derelitti (founded in 1528) cared for sick, poor patients, and the Mendicanti (founded in 1600) cared for beggars and the homeless. All of these institutions took in orphans, generally children over the age of 8. The Ospedali were autonomous, functioning independently of both the Church and the State. Each elected its own Governors, wrote its own rules, and secured its own finances through private means. Though the Ospedali were secular institutions, they were nevertheless known as Pious Places, and the life of the residents revolved around Catholic piety and daily religious services. Each Ospedale thus had its own church, with services open to the public.
All of the Ospedali trained female residents to sing in their church choirs, and the music attracted attendees to the services. Throughout the 1600s the importance of music at all four of the Ospedali grew rapidly. Music not only brought crowds to the churches, it also won financial support and generous bequests from wealthy citizens. Thus while the Coro’s main function was liturgical, its ability to attract benefactors added another powerful impetus for the performances: raising money. Given the persistent, pressing need for funding from private sources, the Ospedali all aggressively developed their music programs. Competition between the four Ospedali grew steadily. Music teachers and composers were brought in from among the elite musicians of the Doge’s (the Doge was the ruler of the Venetian Republic) Chapel in San Marco. Training on stringed instruments, wind instruments and keyboards was introduced, and these instruments augmented the choral performances in the churches. So it was that the Ospedali of Venice rapidly evolved into organized music schools that produced highly skilled choirs and orchestras.
Membership in the Figlie di Choro was both very selective and very attractive. Girls who showed promise in their early musical training could audition for the Choro at age 18. Members of the Choro were eligible to become Maestra (Teacher) at age 40. These teachers instructed the younger members of the Choro, who in turn taught the children. The most skilled musicians received privileges, such as private quarters and extra food. Some were allowed to take paying students from outside the institution. Members of the nobility would often form attachments with these talented players, and members of the Choro might receive gifts or bequests from these benefactors. Some Figlie developed close relationships with their (mainly female) wealthy sponsors, giving rise to a unique intersection between the very lowest and the highest echelons of society. Membership in the Choro, then, provided significant opportunities for personal advancement. Such opportunities, it is worth noting, were out of reach not just for the other residents of the Ospedali, but for most women of that time period.
Music was a full time job for the Figlie di Choro, and the level of performance at the Ospedali rose to a very high level. By the late 1600s the Cori were among the most prestigious orchestras in Venice. Increasingly large crowds filled the churches for performances of sacred vocal music and concerti. At that time in Venice the opportunities for such performances were quite numerous. Music was an important feature of Sunday services, feasts, celebrations and many other events. Performances at the Ospedali became important social events, and some of the musicians became well known by name. Due to their unique performance space, though, members of the Figlie di Choro were rarely if ever seen. The Cori performed from specially built choir lofts in the churches, situated above the church pews. Each loft was fronted with a metal grate, making the individual performers difficult if not impossible to see. Thus the fame of the Figlie rested solely on their extraordinary musical ability, and this fame grew, despite their near invisibility. Perhaps due to this invisibility, members of the Figlie di Choro were commonly referred to and thought of as young girls, though this was far from true. The Figlie di Choro were in fact adult professionals who ran some of the world’s first Conservatories and who possessed musical skills on a par with other great European orchestras.
Antonio Vivaldi enters the story in 1703. At that time Francesco Gasparini was Maestro di Choro (Choir Master) at the Pietà. The Maestro di Choro oversaw the music program, and was responsible for providing new sacred choral compositions. When the Maestro di Violino (violin teacher), Bonaventura Spada, retired, his position (as often happened at the Ospedali) was given to a friend, in this case GianBattista Vivaldi’s son, Antonio (G.B. Vivaldi was himself a renowned violinist who performed at St. Mark’s, and who had served as Maestro di Violino at the Mendicanti). In 1703 Antonio Vivaldi was 25 years old, and had been ordained as a Priest in the Venetian church just before taking his new post at the Pietà. The following year Antonio Vivaldi was also given the job of teaching viola d’amore (a six stringed type of violin), as well as the role of Maestro di Strumenti (Instrument Master), making him responsible for the maintenance and acquisition of stringed instruments. Under Gasparini’s leadership and Vivaldi’s training, the Figlie di Choro at the Pietà rose even further in stature and skill. During this time the Pietà built an extensive inventory of musical instruments, some of which were rarely found or used elsewhere. While other Ospedali owned similar instrument collections, the Choro at the Pietà claimed fame for actually performing on their rare and unusual instruments.
In 1713 Gasparini left the Pietà to return to Rome on a leave of absence. The Pietà, expecting Gasparini to return, did not name another Maestro di Choro. Gasparini, however, never did return, and music history was made as the job of running the Pietà’s music program and providing new sacred vocal compositions fell ‘unofficially’ to Antonio Vivaldi (who was never given the title of Maestro di Choro). Sacred vocal music was considered the highest form of music at that time. Composing such music for the Pietà carried great prestige, and Vivaldi took full advantage of the opportunity. The following year saw an outpouring of sacred vocal works by Vivaldi, including what is perhaps his best-known choral work, the Gloria.
Meanwhile, war was troubling the Venetian Republic. The Ottoman Turks attacked the Venetian fleet in 1714, reopening what had been a century of hostilities. The once mighty Venetians, whose military strength had waned over time, were sorely tested by this conflict. In late 1715 Vivaldi was commissioned to create a work to raise the spirits of war-weary Venice. This important role gave the Pietà and Vivaldi a chance to show their best. The result was an extraordinary work, first performed in early 1716: Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio, Juditha Triumphans, which has been called “a masterpiece” by Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot, and Vivaldi’s “greatest legacy” by Eleanor Selfridge-Field.
Oratorio, one of the most important forms of musical presentation in Venice at that time, was a large musical work featuring characters and a story, built around an orchestra, choir and soloists. Oratorio was somewhat like opera, but without costumes, acting or dancing. The subject matter of Oratorio was also more serious or religious than Opera. In the case of Juditha Triumphans, the subject was a reworking of the scriptural Book of Judith. The story of Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow who outsmarts and kills the brutal Assyrian General Holofernes, thus saving her besieged city, had long been seen by Venetians as an allegory for their fight against the Ottomans. The libretto of Juditha, then, was deeply rooted in Venetian tradition that portrayed Venice as the righteous Judith and the leader of the Ottomans as the savage Holofernes.
The music of Juditha expanded on the Pieta’s reputation for performing on diverse and rare instruments. Juditha Triumphans called for the use of virtually every instrument in the Pietà’s inventory, including horns, drums, strings, organs, harpsichords and a variety of plucked stringed instruments. Many of these instruments were featured either as solo instruments or in small groupings that allowed them to stand out in ways not typically heard in other formats. Juditha also provided a showcase for the Pieta’s considerable choral abilities, employing five vocal soloists as the main characters, as well as a full chorus. Juditha, then, was more than just an allegory for Venice’s fight against the Turks, designed to lift Venetian spirits in a time of war and trial; it was a tour de force that showcased the full range of the Figlie di Choro’s remarkable abilities.
The music of Juditha includes some of the most beautiful, delicate moments heard in any of Vivaldi’s music, as well as moments of passionate power. While no written testimony about the Figlie di Choro and their relationship with Antonio Vivaldi survives, I believe that the music they made together provides some clue to the kind of relationship that over a decade’s work together must have forged between them. Such music, written specifically to bring forth the talents of these women, in my opinion can only have come from a place of deep personal feeling.
Juditha was indeed a triumph for both the Figlie and their Maestro, but only for a short time. Antonio Vivaldi was finally awarded the coveted title of Maestro di Concerti (Concert Master) at the Pietà in May of 1716, and the war with the Turks was won later that year. However, the financial burden of the war caused a crisis throughout the city. By 1717 the Pietà had no funds available to pay for new compositions, and at the beginning of 1718 Vivaldi left Venice and the Pietà for a position in the court at Mantua. Though Vivaldi would later resume supplying compositions to the Pietà, and did return there to teach from time to time, he would not work there again as a Maestro until 1735. The Figlie di Choro, on the other hand, remained at the Pietà, working with new Maestros, and keeping up their competition with the other Ospedali.
The Figlie di Choro, as we have seen, earned their place in music history, yet very little information about the women of the Figlie di Choro has come down to us across the centuries. We do, however, know the names, ages, and the main instruments of many of the Figlie di Choro at the Pietà. I would like to end this story, then, with a tribute to these women. Presented below is a list of the Figlie di Choro at the Pietà in 1716. It comprises some 61 individuals, women who lived, worked and performed together for most of their lives. Here are the hidden heroines of the Baroque, the extraordinary musicians who gave voice to the music of their most famous Maestro, Antonio Vivaldi.
The Figlie di Choro of the Pietà, 1716
Priora: Menghina, Violin, age 58.
-Agostina, Soprano, age unknown
-Anastasia, Soprano, age unknown
-Andriana, Theorbo, Maestra, age 53
-Angelica, Violin, maestra, age 60
-Angelicata, Singer, age unknown
-Angletta, Violin and singer, Maestra, age 73
-Anna II (Anneta) Singer, age unknown
-Anna III (also Anneta), Bass Singer, age 31
-Anna, Violin, age unknown
-Anna Maria I, Violin, age 20
-Antonia, Tenor, Maestra, age 42
-Anzoleta, Violin, Maestra, age unknown
-Apollonia (La Polonia) Soprano, age 24: JT Soloist
-Barbara (Barbaretta), Soprano, age 47: JT Soloist
-Barabara II (La Jamosa), Lute and Theorbo, age 40
-Bastiana, Violin, Maestra, age 64
-Bernardina, Violin, age 20
-Candida, Singer, Chalumeau and viola, age 41
-Caterina (Cattarina), Violone, Coronet, Contralto, age 44: JT Soloist
-Catina, Viola, age 29
-Cecelia, Contralto, Maestra, age 37
-Clemenza I (Clementia, Clementina), Violin, age unknown.
-Clemenza II, Viola, age unknown
-Francesca, Organ, Maestra, age unknown
-Geltruda, Contralto, Theorbo and Viola, age 42
-Giulia, Organ and Singer, age 31: JT Soloist
-Lucieta II, Organ and Viola, Maestra, Scrivana, age 39
-Lorenza, Viola, age 17
-Lucieta I, Singer, age 66
-Lugrezia, Contralto/Tenor, Maestra, Scrivana, age 72
-Madalena, Soprano, age 39
-Madalena (Madalanetta), Violin, age 38
-Madalena IV, Contralto, age 54
-Marcolina, Violin, Maestra, age 67
-Margherita, Soprano, Maestra, age unknown
-Maria I, Instrument unknown, Maestra, age unknown
-Maria II, Viola, age 35
-Marina, Singer, age unknown
-Marta, Viola, Maestra, age 59
-Meneghina II, Viola and singer, age 27
-Michielina, Organ, age unknown
-Michielina I, Violin, Maestra, age 42
-Michielina III, Contralto, age 31
-Olivia, Soprano, age unknown
-Ortensia, Viola, Maestra, age 60
-Paolina I, Cello, Maestra, Sagrestana, age 61
-Paolina II, Tenor, age 44
-Pasqueta, Soprano, age 27
-Pastina, Soprano, Maestra, age unknown
-Pelegrina, Oboe and Violone, age 38
-Rosa, Maestra, age unknown
-Rosana I, Violin, Maestra, age 50
-Rosana II, Organ, age 31
-Silvia (Grande), Violin, age 38
-Silvia (Piccolo), Soprano, Maestra, Sagrestana, age unknown: JT Soloist
-Soprana, Contralto, age 44
-Stella I, Theorbo, Maestra, age 39
-Stella II, Organ, Maestra, Age 67
-Susanna, Violin and Oboe, age 28
-Vittoria, Tenor, age 54.
-Zanetta, Singer, Maestra, age 50
NOTES: Many of the women had the same names, so I, II, etc. are used to further identify them. Some had nicknames (such as Piccola or La Polonia), which if known are indicated.
Most, if not all of the women had other responsibilities at the Pietà, and in the few cases where these are known they are indicated. The Priora was the woman in charge of the Figlie. Scrivana means Copyist, and Sagrestana means keeper of the Sacristy in the church.
“JT Soloist” indicates one of the five vocal soloists in Juditha Triumphans.
ACKNOWLEGEMENTS: The author is wholly indebted to the research and scholarship of the following authors, without which this essay would not have been possible: Pier Giuseppe Gillio, Caroline Giron-Panel, Laura Moretti, Giancarlo Rostirolla, Frederico Maria Sardelli, Elizabeth Selfridge-Field, Michael Talbot, Gastone Vio and Micky White. The list of the Figlie presented above was derived from Micky White’s article “Biographical Notes on the ‘Figlie di Coro’ of the Pietà contemporary with Vivaldi” (Informazioni e studi vivaldiani, XXI, 2000). I would also like to thank Deborah Pase of the Istituto Provinciale per l’infanzia “Santa Maria della Pietà” in Venice for pointing me in the right direction in my initial reading about the Figlie.