The Venice Vivialdi heard and loved
Don't just take a water tour of the city. Let venice's many sounds carry you away, too.
VENICE, ITALY — Everyone else comes to Venice for its canals, its architecture, its museums and monuments. I come in search of Antonio Vivaldi, considered by many to be the greatest baroque composer. The first to effectively capture the sound of weather in his great concerto, "The Four Seasons," Vivaldi lived and worked in Venice all his life.
His city vibrates with the melodic tones of the Italian language, the sloshing noises coming from the canals, the eerie grunts and groans of a land slowly sinking, and the everyday noises of living. Vivaldi captured all of this in his music, effectively painting pictures with his notes.
His violin compositions express a wide range of emotions. A music lover who doesn't know the finer points of the score can still identify the time changes in "The Four Seasons": the freezing chill of winter overcome by lighthearted notes of spring; the vibrant rhythm of autumn harvests conquering the sultry tones of summer.
Vivaldi's music envelops the listener in sadness, happiness, or joy - whatever emotion the maestro desired.
As a boy, Vivaldi was taught to play the violin by his father, but eventually he studied to be a priest. Ordained when he was 25 years old, the "Red Priest" (so nicknamed because of his flame-colored hair) gave up saying Mass pretty quickly, claiming the incense aggravated his asthma.
He was also known to leave in the middle of a Mass to scribble down a few musical notes dancing in his head.
A visitor on a budget, I board a vaporetto (water bus) to explore Vivaldi's watery home, because a gondola - while romantic and appealing - is much more expensive. The Grand Canal, the main highway of the city, has a grid of lesser canals that form side "streets." The vaporetto slices through the water creating diamond-tipped waves that first slap against the buildings and then swish back.
A gondolier in a striped black-and-white jersey plays a melancholy "O Sole Mio" on his accordion. From the sleek gondola gliding in the other direction comes the hearty tenor of the man who is poling and singing "Santa Lucia" at the same time. The sweet notes of a contralto accompanied by a piano drift from an upstairs window. A boy sits outside a glass shop, upturned cap at his feet. He plays his violin with great enthusiasm, undeterred by the string quartet entertaining customers at the cafe next door.
Was it like this in Vivaldi's day?
The lilting strains of the local dialect fill the air as a signora argues with a produce vendor; a construction boss yells orders; a child wails about something.
Venice is awash in sound - at every street corner, cafe, hotel lobby, and boat dock. It sounds to me like a glorious symphony carefully nurtured and cultivated. I wonder how much these everyday sounds influenced Vivaldi's music.
As the vaporetto anchors near the Piazza San Marco, the Moors on the clock tower strike the hour, sending the gray-white blanket of pigeons below into a cooing frenzy.
My goal: Santa Maria della Visitazione, known as Vivaldi's church, a short walk from Piazza San Marcos and the Bridge of Sighs.
Tourists are warned about buying tickets for the church concerts from vendors costumed in Venetian garb. But the hawkers are friendly, informative, do their job well, and are hard to resist. Half the people trickling into the church, generally known as La Pietà, probably bought their tickets while wandering in a scenic alley. I know I did.
Tickets to church concerts are the best bargain in Venice, and the programs are well-timed to take place either before or after dinner.
Attached to the church in Vivaldi's day was the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls. More enthusiastic about music than the priesthood, Vivaldi obtained a position as violin master and choirmaster at the ospedale (orphanage, hospital, sanatorium - the institution was a little of all these things).
About 100 girls lived there. They were divided into two groups. One received a general education; the other was trained in music. These girls put on concerts to raise money for the ospedale. From 1693 to 1740, Vivaldi composed, directed the choir, and taught music at the orphanage.
In keeping with that all-girl tradition, Le Putte Veneziani di Vivaldi, an ensemble of young female professional musicians, perform at La Pietà and wear original 18th-century Venetian costumes.
Le Venexiane, an instrumental group, is also associated with the church. Visiting musicians, both male and female, are welcomed and allowed to perform. The only requirement is that they perform at least one work by Vivaldi.
To savor the whole Vivaldi scene, visitors may now stay at the Hotel Locanda Vivaldi (800-742-6081), the composer's former home, which was converted into a hotel in 1999.
Or they may want to stay at the Metropole (800-457-4000), built on the site of the Ospedale della Pieta. A relatively new hotel located in another house where Vivaldi once lived, it's a short distance from the Piazza San Marco, at Riva delgi Schiavoni, facing the Basino di San Marco and the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
To complete the Vivaldi experience, private walking tours offer a Vivaldi jaunt that stops at La Pietà and the Ospedaletto, in whose music room free concerts are often given.
Walking is the best way to see Venice. Getting lost in the maze of narrow alleys, listening to the music in the air, around the corner, and down the way may turn into a memorable experience for a first-time traveler.
Near the end of his life, Vivaldi suffered a reversal of fortunes and died a pauper. He had no inkling of the musical legacy he left behind in his beloved Venice - a legacy just waiting to be discovered by a visitor.