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5—All'immortalità del nome di Venetia : The Serenissima on Stage
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All'immortalità del nome di Venetia :
The Serenissima on Stage

The extraordinary success of La finta pazza was in large measure a function of its sheer theatricality, its ability to reach out and engage its audience—by direct address, through topical allusions, by scenographic marvels. One strong component of the bond between the opera and its original public was political, depending upon that special self-awareness of the Venetians. La finta pazza played to their venezianità , to their shared sense of being citizens of a unique state, uniquely situated in time and place.

In this light, Strozzi's choice of subject is of particular relevance, for it affirms one reading of the mythical foundation of Venice. In act 1, scene 4, Venere consoles herself for her future loss of the Trojan War:

I know the Fate of Asia requires that I be conquered in the end, but destiny will make amends for the great sorrow of my losses. Venetian and Roman will not from the Greek Achilles spring, but from good Trojan blood: And thus I have good reason to be proud.[1]

Taking comfort in the knowledge that, despite the fall of Troy, the Trojans will emerge as the progenitors of two future civilizations, she gives voice to the myth of the Trojan origins of the city on the lagoon.

Other librettos of the late 1630s and early 1640s also exploited the events and personages surrounding the Trojan War and its consequence, the subsequent founding of Rome, as the basis of their plots: Didone, Le nozze d'Enea e Lavinia, Il ritorno d'Ulisse, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo , to mention only the most conspicuous. While the connections between these works, their common historical background and shared characters, would have enhanced their combined, cumulative impact on any audience, the choice of the Trojan theme had


special resonance for an audience of Venetians. As Strozzi's Venere declares, the fall of Troy is prelude to the future rise of Venice.

The Myth of Venice

In their misty visions of the origins of their city, Venetian chronicles traced two alternative routes back to Troy. One offered a direct line of descent: just as the Trojan Aeneas had founded Rome, so, in parallel course, Antenor had fled burning Troy for northern Italy, there to found Venice—not, significantly, Padua (which more famously claimed him as progenitor).[2] The second version, less direct, but boasting a more celebrated genealogy, went via Rome. The city established by Aeneas developed into the Roman Republic and matured into the full glory of empire, only to succumb to inevitable decline. Once-mighty Rome fell to the invading barbarian hordes, and from the ruins of one great historical epoch there rose a new, divinely ordained republic founded in Christian liberty. The successor to the pagan state created by Aeneas was the Republic of Saint Mark, which, favored by God, was destined to surpass Rome in power and vastness of dominion, glory and abundance of riches. Either way, then, the myth of Venice was based, ultimately, on the Trojan succession.

Integral to that myth of Venice as the safeguard of liberty and justice and preserver of civilization was the Rome-Venice paragone . Evolving as a response to the need for historical self-definition, an exercise in political etiology, the myth proved extraordinarily successful at home as well as abroad in promoting the image of Venice. It shaped the political imagination of the Serenissima and came to permeate every aspect of Venetian culture as well. Broadcast in a remarkable variety of literary efforts—including religious and political tracts and histories, in addition to encomiastic poetry and occasional scripts—it assumed pictorial form in the decorations of the Ducal Palace and other public buildings. The personification of the state as an armed female warrior, Venetia, was explicitly modeled on the goddess Roma.[3]

Although the myth had slowly evolved in the course of the Middle Ages—crudely asserted in the chronicles, more elegantly and influentially articulated by Petrarch—events in more recent history stimulated important elaborations of the basic material. The most serious threat to the survival of Venice, the


League of Cambrai (1508) and the accompanying papal interdict (1509), forced significant and resonant modifications. That crisis was successfully resolved with the Peace of Bologna (1529-30), but Venice could no longer rely on her military might. With her imperial momentum thwarted, she now emphasized her diplomatic virtues, her role as champion of peace as well as liberty. A new, Renaissance iconography was developed as part of this self-conscious presentation of a new rhetorical image of Venice, one populated by Olympian deities and pagan heroes. It is most publicly announced in the sculptural program of the Loggetta of San Marco designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1537: in niches, bronze figures of Minerva, Apollo, Mercury, and Peace declare the special attributes of the state; in the attic above, a relief representing Venice as Justice is flanked by others of Venus (Cyprus) and Jupiter (Crete), suggesting the expanse of Venice's maritime empire.[4]

In the Ducal Palace, the central architectural monument of Venetian political power and wisdom, this imagery was brought to still more spectacular life in the paintings of Veronese and Tintoretto. Personified in those canvases were the same virtues, attributes, and qualities that were celebrated again and again in the encomiastic poetry in praise of Venice. Venetian poets invoked the same allegorical dramatis personae in giving voice to the myth. Thus, for example, a poem by Domenico Venier, written before the middle of the sixteenth century and set to music by Baldassare Donato, sings of "Gloriosa felice alma Vineggia / Di Giustizia, d'amor, di pace albergo." Another, also set by Donato, celebrates the "Quattro Dee che 'l mondo honora et ama," the four political virtues of Victory, Peace, Wisdom, and Fame. And, combining these several arts, theatrical presentations in the Ducal Palace gave further life to their message in the late cinquecento. In a masque such as the Rappresentatione fatta avanti il Serenissimo Prencipe di Venetia Nicolò da Ponte, il giorno di S. Stefano 1580, the text of which was duly published, the characters include Peace and Victory as well as Wisdom, by now traditional personifications of Venice's political virtù .[5] Venice had quite effectively pressed all the arts into service in presenting


herself to the world, and the Venetians themselves were at once participants in and audience to this spectacle.

In the opening years of the seventeenth century, a crisis once again confronted Venice, an open conflict with Rome that led to yet another papal interdict (1606-7). Seizing the occasion, Venetian apologists—led by Paolo Sarpi—reaffirmed the superiority of their city over (now modern) Rome, celebrating it as a haven of religious liberty.[6] And the War of Candia (Crete), beginning in 1645, offered still further occasion for mounting the literary defense of Venice—now as the civilized Christian bulwark against the pagan barbarians of the east.[7]

Among the most prominent of the writers whose pens were in the active service of the Serenissima and who exploited the Rome-Venice paragone toward that end was Giulio Strozzi. His epic poem Venetia edificata (1624), a monumental verse narration of the founding of Venice, epitomizes the mythic vision of Venetian history (figs. 13, 14). Continuing the long tradition of genealogical epics, Strozzi's "poema eroico" aspires to be the Venetian Aeneid —and, by implication, to crown its poet as a Virgil redivivus —although Ariosto is fully acknowledged as a more modern model. The author's ornate dedication of his work to the "immortal" name of Venice establishes its reverential tone and encomiastic intent; filling two pages, it offers an epigraphic summary of the myth of Venice:



Giulio Strozzi, La Venetia edificata  [venice, 1624), title page.


Portrait of Giulio Strozzi, from  La Venetia edificata  
(Venice, 1624).


In twenty-four cantos Venetia edificata recounts the foundation of Venice, combining assumptions of its Trojan origins with a more historical placement of that event in the time of Attila's invasion of Italy. Through the complex narrative—of declining Roman power and virtue, of barbarian destruction and perfidy, of the machinations of an evil sorceress and the prophecies of a good magician (Arthurian Merlin, the essential seer in such historical epics), of love thwarted but eventually rewarded—Venice comes to be founded miraculously on the lagoon for all eternity. Art herself is the agent here. Lamenting the destruction of so many noble cities, she intercedes with God and obtains the divine plans for the new foundation, as well as the holy protection of Saint Mark and the four archangels. Strozzi's verse summary heading canto 11 translates as follows: "Art, in order to 'mend such great destruction of the works of her illustrious and worthy hand, having ascended into Heaven, strives wisely to express her sorrow to the divine ears: God reveals to his beloved the plan of an eternal city, where in a little cove of the Sea will be enclosed all that Genius, Nature, and Heaven can achieve."[9]

In the front matter of Venetia edificata is a prefatory poem in praise of the author by one of Strozzi's future colleagues as Accademico Incognito and librettist, Francesco Busenello. And two of its fourteen stanzas further summarize the basic catechism of the myth:

Queen of the Sea, Goddess of the waves, metropolis of Faith, nest of Peace, who is only like herself, who lights a perpetual torch in Liberty, who in Heaven sees no glory to which she herself is not heir.

Sister of Astraea, immortal maiden, who blesses her vassals with sacred laws; she, who is herself both pole and star, nor fears the rage of evil influence: sing of her, praise her, in a thousand ways you will immortalize yourself by praising her.[10]


Strozzi the dramatist carried the message of his Venetia edificata directly into the theater. La finta pazza was the first of a trilogy of librettos by him that together span the period from the Trojan War to the founding of Rome. The others were La finta savia (1643), dealing with the proto-history of Rome, and Romolo e Remo (1645), which concerns its founding. The author himself outlines the structure of the trilogy in an essay at the end of the second work, La finta savia :

These dramas [La finta pazza and La finta savia ] are imperfect poems: the one contains a Greek story, and the other a Latin one; the one leads toward the destruction of Troy, the other refers to the future founding of Rome, which [poems], in the coming years, God willing, we are preparing to complete. . . . The real name of the finta savia was Anthusa, which we, for greater elegance, have changed to Aretusa: and the name Anthusa was the third name of the city of Rome. . . . The second name of Rome was Amaryllis, drawn from the loves of Ilia and Mars, which will be expounded by me in the future drama of Romolo e Remo . (Appendix 1.18c)[11]

And he explained the relationship of his trilogy to the standard Venetian genealogy in the Argomento e scenario of Romolo e Remo . Here is his description of the prologue: "Aeneas descends on the chariot of his mother, Venus, and seeing Fame drowsy among the clouds, he invites her to broadcast for many centuries the works of his glorious descendants for the future founding of Rome, of whose valor the Most Serene Republic of Venice has remained the eternal heir."[12] The prologue concludes with the following dialogue between Enea and Fama:





You, having wreathed her tresses with immortal laurel, divulge that today both the walls and the great empire of Rome were founded.

Oh happy voyage, oh welcome news.

Of whose valor may the Venetian lion remain the eternal heir, planting his foot on more blessed shores.[13]

Strozzi reasserted the relationship in his description of the concluding scene of the opera (3.12), in which Numitore, Flora, Remo, and Ilia "settle their affairs, pray to Heaven for their prosperity, and invite their peoples, who were of noble Trojan blood, as the Venetians still are, to applaud their deeds."[14]

While Strozzi was a particularly vocal patriot, whose commitment to polishing Venice's image shines through most of his works, he was not the only librettist to explicate a connection between his themes and the Venetian political myth. Here, for example, is the author of Le nozze d'Enea (1640 [1641]), sounding very much like Strozzi:

Hymen himself takes the opportunity to touch upon the origin and greatness of Rome . . . and then the birth of our Venice, certainly an event, it is safe to say, of no less significance, since this most noble city began at the time when Rome fell under the yoke of the Barbarians, who, by invading Italy, pushed many of her in- habitants, who were not at all ignoble, to take refuge in these lagoons in order to escape their fury; and in this way they founded the city . . . which through the valor of our fathers attained the greatness for which we admire her now. (Appendix 1.9k)

In his description of the closing scene, the author takes a final opportunity to refer to the myth: "Hymen . . . with Venus and Juno . . . unites the happy couple, foretelling from such a marriage the greatness of Rome, and the birth and marvel of the city of Venice. Here the opera ends" (Appendix 1.91).[15]

Perhaps the most explicit statement of the Rome-Venice connection occurs in the preface to another libretto based on Homeric legend, Nolfi's Bellerofonte (1642), the immediate successor to La finta pazza at the Teatro Novissimo.


The special qualities and circumstances of the city of Venice cannot be adequately described, because they exceed any term and epithet with which a worldly thing can be magnified, unless perhaps she be called rival of ancient Rome, or rather, ancient Rome come to life again in our time; in fact, if you consider the majesty of dominion, the dignity of government, the prudence and virtue of the citizens, the magnificence of the public and private buildings, and so many other marks of nobility and excellence, you will find that the expression is well suited to the comparison. In fact, her singular and miraculous site makes Venice superior to Rome, and to every other work of human hands, so that one can only acknowledge her a work of divinity.

Only in entertainments, I still think, and the famous temporary theaters of the Scauti and Curioni, is Venice not equal; but for this it worked in her favor that the Republic of Rome, established at the end of the wars and expansion, and having as a political principle athletic and bloody games, like those to which her citizens were accustomed from their military exploits, and that freed them from certain feelings of pity and tenderness that are almost innate in mankind, engaged herself in these with zeal. But the goals and institutions of this Most Serene Nation are different, and are directed only toward self-preservation, to the public good, and to the security of her subjects, whom she guides and governs with most sacred and truly Christian laws; nor is she, if indeed she takes up the sword of war, in any way ambitious or unjust, but she always either defends her own threatened or besieged states, or else comes to the aid of friends who have been oppressed by the iniquitous appetites of the powerful.

As for scenic spectacles, those instructors of men, which by offering a true model for living set them on the path of virtue, she has in these last years multiplied her power with sets and performances that are indeed regal [affatto reali ], that would make ancient Latium blush; heavenly harmony, wondrous illusions and stage-machines, most magnificent displays of costumes, and all this in multiple theaters, with almost incredible productions. (Appendix 1.20a)

Bellerofonte , especially distinguished by its literal incorporation of Venetian imagery, is the first opera in which the city was actually represented on stage by the scenery. Its prologue concludes with the emergence from the sea, by command of Nettuno, of "a most exquisite and lifelike model of Venice. . . which everyone acclaimed as a tour de force: the eye was deceived by the Piazza, with its public buildings imitated to the life, and it delighted increasingly in the deception, almost forgetting where it actually was, thanks to that fiction"[16] (figs. 15, 16).

After expressing their astonishment at the magical appearance of so beautiful a sight, like an enactment of the paintings celebrating Venice on the ceilings of the Ducal Palace, Innocenza and Astrea, the goddess of Justice, join Nettuno in singing the praises of the Serenissima, concluding the prologue with a (com-


Giacomo Torelli, stage set for  Bellerofonte  (1642), prologue. 
Engraving by Giovanni Giorgi.

petitive) hymn in her honor: "City wise, rich, and noble over any the world admires, Sparta, Athens, and Stagira are but a modest shadow of your greatness. Henceforth the ages to come will see Heaven, swollen with light, rush to your shores as a river to pay you tribute."[17]


Giacomo Torelli, stage set for  Bellerofonte  (1642), prologue. 
Engraving by Giovanni Giorgi.

Venice was depicted onstage in another libretto a few years later, Busenello's La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore .[18] Like Bellerofonte , Busenello's text gives dramatic life to the traditional myth of Venice's origins, making use of the standard iconography. In the final scene of the opera (the epilogue) Libertà and Nettuno play out the myth in detail:



Ill-treated by Rome, I turn toward the lofty peaks of sublime Olympus, because I foresee my losses clearly, nor do I know when fate will allow me to return to live on earth in safety.


Stay, Liberty. Your residence will be a glorious and great city, which, virgin and invincible, will have the waves as its foundation and Heaven as its roof. Here you will see divided among a thousand heads the power of authority. Venice will be the name of this supreme and triumphant city, which will make the Adriatic shores famous; epitome of wonders, portrait of the spheres, summary of the world, rich empyrean of the arts, compendium of nature, and abridgement of the great universe. Powerful, and free, and just, in every season three signs will grow bright in the political Zodiac: Virgo, Libra, and the Lion.


And how you console me, Oh, how you increase my dignity, O Neptune; but if only I could see among the models of eternal ideas the lofty cast and immortal image of the city that is more of Heaven than of earth.


Look there, for Jove, out of his divinity, is showing a small model of happy Venice. And look how, as proof, divine lightning flashes about it, and she, serene in herself, in her radiant circle, renders the sun idle and superfluous.


O blessed dwelling, earthly heaven for togaed demigods, you will reign over the waters, and of your empire nature will be the boundary, and the sun the sentinel.


Hear, Liberty, listen to what prophetic Neptune foretells: many centuries from now you will sing the praises and I the cheers of immortal VENICE in a joyful style, in the world-famous GRIMANI THEATER.


Long live VENICE, hurrah, let every pen describe the glories of your name, the histories of your exploits, and may destiny bejewel the crowns of her most generous LION. (Appendix I.12e)[19]

The scene between Libertà and Nettuno is an allegorized reenactment of Saint Mark's holy vision, in which it is foretold that he will come to rest in Venice. Caught in a storm upon the lagoon, Mark finds refuge among its islands; in a dream an angel, or Christ himself, declares: "Pax tibi Marce Evangelista Meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum."[20] In enumerating the unique qualities of Libertà's new haven, Nettuno charts the three signs of Venice's political


zodiac. Vergine : founded on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), Venice associated herself with the Virgin Mary ab initio , as well as with the virgin goddess Astraea, and claimed for her unconquered self the epithet "Venetia sempre vergine";[21]Libra : the scales of justice, the chief virtue claimed by the Republic; and Leone : the winged lion of her patron, Saint Mark. One of Busenello's aims in his thumbnail sketch of the mythic origins of Venice was obviously to exalt the city's present glories, in particular the Grimani theater. Involving that theater so directly as the stage from which Venice's glories will be proclaimed, he confirmed the political significance of opera, its importance as a means of enhancing the image of the Serenissima.

Busenello's view of opera as one of the jewels of the city was shared by other authors, among them Giovanni Faustini, whose contemporary Ormindo (1644) is yet another opera that portrays Venice on stage. The setting of the prologue represents Piazza San Marco, "the most conspicuous part of the city of Venice" ("parte più cospicua della Città di Venetia"), and the protagonist is Armonia, who summarizes the familiar genealogical myth in slightly new—operatic—terms.

It has been five years already that I have shone on you from gilded stages and illuminated my glories; your immortal Muses and divine swans adorn my tresses with new garlands. I, who as a child trod the stages of Athens in jeweled buskins, I, who when Greece was conquered and tamed by the victors of Rome saw no splendor or magnificence equal to yours, Most Serene and immortal Virgin.[22]

Harmony, a metaphor for civilization, has passed from Greece to Rome to Venice, whose "pompe e fasti" she deems superior to those of any other place. Here Venice is praised specifically for her hospitality to music, echoing Francesco Sansovino's remark that "music has her own special place in this city." Again, the Rome-Venice paragone is invoked in favor of Venice.[23] The illusion of the stage representing Venice itself is reinforced elsewhere in the opera; for example, when Nerillo remarks, touristlike, on the wonders of the city he is seeing for the first time:


Che città, che città

Che costumi, che gente

Sfacciata, ed insolente.[24]

What a city, what a city,

What customs, what people

Impudent and insolent!

Not all of the librettos based on Trojan or Roman history state the Venetian connection as specifically as La finta pazza, Le nozze d'Enea , or Giulio Cesare . But the mythology was so much a part of the Venetian consciousness that it automatically formed part of the cultural context in which these stories were understood. It most likely underlies operas with Roman plots in which Venice is never even mentioned—such as the best known of Busenello's librettos, L'incoronazione di Poppea , notorious for its portrayal of Roman decadence. There is some indication that the work could have been understood by its contemporaries as a moral lesson implying the superiority of Venice over Rome, and suggesting that such immorality was only possible in a decaying society, not in a civilized nation.[25]

This response is offered in a book by a Venetian cleric, Federico Malipiero, who, like Strozzi and Busenello, was a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti. L'imperatrice ambiziosa (1642) tells the story of Poppaea and Nero, although it is actually more concerned with Nero's mother Agrippina, the empress of the title. And it is her downfall that inspires Malipiero's philosophical conclusion:

This was the greatness of a woman, incomparable in every way. Thus did she fall from supreme eminence to the darkest depths, because the higher mortals rise, the more they are subject to uncertainty. Empires are transformed in a flash, like human happiness, which can collapse and be extinguished in a single moment. Often the tombs of one kingdom have become the cradles of another, and from the ruins of a fallen republic has arisen the magnificence of a new one.[26]


The implications are clear. Malipiero's invocation of the conventional Rome-Venice paragone is only slightly veiled.

Although not always in connection with Rome, Venice as a political or symbolic image figures in one way or another in practically every work produced during the first five or six seasons of operatic activity, whether metaphorically, through choice of plot, or in a more literal way, through direct reference. We have seen her depicted visually. She is personified even earlier in the final scene of Ferrari's Armida (1639), where Venetia herself sings her own praises to an audience of Nereids:

Would I, mother of heroes, support of the glorious Adriatic empire, leave you on a solitary path? Happy is he who rests in this place. My waves are swollen with treasures, and my sands teem with triumphs. When the sea murmurs, it speaks of me, and it says in its language that there is no nation more beautiful outside of Heaven.

And the Nereids respond with the typical encomium to the city (like the conclusion of Giulio Cesare and Bellerofonte ):

Come, glorious heroes, to celebrate among us, while to the sound of musical harmonies every shore and bank echoes, Long live VENICE![27]

Even Ermiona , the lost "proto-Venetian" opera performed in Padua in 1636, contained a number of topical allusions to Venice. In his account of the performance, Bartolini describes Venus stopping to deliver "the praises of the Serene Republic of Venice" ("le lodi della Serenissima Republica di Venezia"), which, he continues, "is the greatest marvel that has ever been in the universe" ("è la maggior meraviglia che mai sia stata nell'universo").[28]

Aside from the Troy-Rome-Venice succession, other thematic relationships to Venetian imagery are established through ancient mythology. Andromeda ,


for example, involves a rescue at sea. And even Arianna may have been selected for revival in 1640, despite its old-fashioned style, partly for the relevance of its subject matter to Venetian iconography. -Ariadne is the subject of one of four paintings by Tintoretto in the Sala Dorata of the Ducal Palace described by Carlo Ridolfi, the seicento biographer of the Venetian painters, as treating "subjects appropriate to the government of that Republic" ("soggetti adeguati al ministerio di quella Republica"). (The others are Vulcan with the Cyclopes, the Three Graces with Mercury, and Mars being chased away by Minerva while Peace and Abundance celebrate together.) According to Ridolfi's reading, the picture portrays the abandoned Ariadne discovered by Bacchus on the beach and crowned by Venus (with a golden crown) declaring her free and welcoming her among the heavenly bodies, "which is meant to signify Venice born on a shore of the sea, and made abundant not only in every earthly good, through Heavenly grace, but crowned with the crown of liberty by the divine hand, whose power is recorded in eternal characters in Heaven."[29]

By the mid 1640s, plots centering around the Trojan War and the founding of Rome had begun to give way to a greater variety of subject matter; connections between these new works and the myth of Venice continued to be maintained, but in different ways. However, the Rome-Venice paragone was now firmly ensconced in the history of Venetian opera. This is clear from the first attempt to view that history, Ivanovich's "Memorie teatrali." The connection between Rome and Venice was central to an understanding of the development of Venetian opera, a development Ivanovich viewed in political terms.

His essay opens with an unequivocal statement of the standard tenet of the myth: "Never in the world was there a republic that excelled all other republics as did Rome; nor any other that better imitated Rome than the republic of Venice" (Appendix II.6d).[30] His opening four chapters deal specifically with that relationship. The first tells how "the republic of Venice, imitating the Roman republic, created anew the magnificence of theaters," because both republics understood the secret of successful government: "Through material goods and games, used judiciously, the ruler gains the love of his people, who can never more easily forget their yoke than when sated or diverted by plea-


sures" (Appendix II.6d-e). In chapter 4 he compares Venetian theaters to those of Rome, finding many similarities—and incidentally providing important information about the structure of theaters and practice of theatergoing in his own day.

Present-day theaters can hold a small number of people compared with ancient ones; moreover, instead of stands several ranks of boxes are constructed, most of' them for the convenience of the nobility, for the ladies like to stay unmasked there and to feel at liberty. In the middle are benches, rented from night to night with no distinction as to rank, since the use of masks obviates the need for respect that was shown to the Roman senators and matrons, who made a grand appearance; for in this respect too, Venice, born free, wishes to preserve freedom for all. (Appendix II.6h)

Venetian spectacle, Ivanovich admits, cannot match in splendor that of ancient Rome, for the latter, instead of using artifice to portray violence, enacted it literally at whatever human sacrifice (Appendix II.6i). But, whereas the Roman theater, habituating the people to slaughter and horrors, was intended to serve an admonitory function, Venetian theater has a different purpose: "Today, however, musical theater has been introduced, for the lifting of the spirits and as a virtuous diversion, since one can observe the appearance of amusing machines suggested by the drama, which give great delight, along with the spectacle of sets and costumes that satisfy everyone's curiosity to the utmost" (Appendix II.6j).

Although Ivanovich was writing much later, when Venice was clearly at the height of her operatic (though no longer political) power, the importance he ascribes to the Rome-Venice comparison and his emphasis on the political component of opera are, as we have seen, borne out by the earlier sources themselves, from which he clearly derived much of his material.[31] In fact, Ivanovich's patrons, the Grimani family, were quite used to having their theater compared favorably with those of ancient Rome. In the preface to his Scipione affricano , performed at the Grimani theater in 1665, Nicolò Minato had invoked the familiar paragone : "You will see that the most-famous Grimani theater is capable of rivaling the Marcellus and Pompey theaters, and any other of the most famous ones that glorious antiquity might bring to mind."[32] So, too, had Aurelio Aureli in the dedication of his Eliogabalo of 1668 to the brothers Gian Carlo and Vincenzo Grimani, "who no less than the Pompeys and the Trajans


make themselves known in the world as true Maecenases of the muses by the construction of sumptuous theaters and through the patronage of musicians."[33]

The Reality of Venice

During the late 1640s and 1650s, pressed by the success of opera to search for new sources for their plots, librettists moved away from the Trojan-Roman orbit in an eastward direction, and a number of librettos of this period are set in foreign locales like Susa, Assyria, Media, Tauris. These librettos, however, were no less closely connected to Venetian politics than their predecessors. If less concerned with the legendary origins of Venice, they seem to bear an even more specific relationship to current events. References to and personifications of Venice continue to cultivate or expand upon her image as a stronghold of freedom and haven against the barbarians, but the barbarians are now pointedly Turkish, as if in response to Venice's growing preoccupation with the Ottoman threat to her maritime power.[34] During the 1650s and 1660s, when legendary Roman heroes began to be featured with increasing frequency in opera librettos, their exploits invited comparison with those of Venetian military heroes in the War of Candia (the Rome-Venice equation once again).[35]

Venice's preoccupation with Ottoman power reached its first crisis in 1645 with the outbreak of the war, which drained Venetian manpower and resources for nearly a quarter of a century (1645-69). Its onset inspired an outpouring of patriotic zeal among the Venetian nobility, who were called upon for financial support as well as personal participation.[36] In part because this same nobility was among its chief patrons and enthusiasts, opera could not help but be affected by the crisis. Along with the prohibition of all other public spectacles, opera theaters were closed for the 1646 season, and it was not until several years


later, when the immediate crisis had passed, that Venice's operatic life returned to full strength—except, as we have seen, for the Teatro Novissimo, which never reopened.[37]

Other critical moments in the War of Candia occurred in 1651, with the Venetian victory at Paros, and again in 1656, with the successful battle of the Dardanelles. Although the outcome for the Venetians was positive—at least in the short run—these military efforts proved costly, drawing heavily upon resources and morale. They also appear to have affected operatic life: several theaters were closed for the 1651 season, and a few remained inoperative for several subsequent years as well.[38] Librettists were among those involved in the events of 1651. A volume commemorating the victory at Paros published in that year contained poetry by Busenello, Aureli, Minato, and Giacomo dall'Angelo, among others.[39]

During this period, references to Venice are usually both more explicit and extrinsic to the actual plots of librettos: they appear either in prefaces or else in prologues (or epilogues), those framing elements marginal to the drama that were traditionally reserved for occasional references to patrons or for other kinds of special communications from poet to audience. Because of their occasional nature, such prologues were rarely repeated when their accompanying operas were performed outside Venice.[40] But for Venetian purposes, practically every libretto prologue of the late 1640s and early 1650s refers to war, to the Turk, and to Venice as the bastion of peace, the most peace-loving nation on earth. In the prologue of Ersilla (1648) by Giovanni Faustini, for example, Venere (Ciprigna), goddess of Cyprus,[41] praises the "heroic guests" (presum-


ably the Venetians anchored near Candia) for taking a stand as sole defenders of the world against the Turkish barbarians:

Heroic guests, who sit on my Cythera laden down with steel, warriors witnessing the errors of Ersilla, may Glory crown your locks with laurels, and with a golden trumpet sing your fame in resonant sound. You alone restrain the unleashed fury of the barbarian world. . . . I will terrify the tyrant on the throne of Byzantium with great-hearted pride, invincible and holy, from a floating and shining city. At the Lion's roars, the grave of Leander conquered by Xerxes [i.e., the waters of the Hellespont] turned back, frightened, toward the Black Sea. It feared, it trembled, that the magnanimous beast might drink Ottoman treachery at the spring of the Tartarean lair.[42]

And the prologue of Fusconi's Argiope (1649), written later than the rest of the libretto (which dates from 1645), represents an allegorical conflict between Guerra and Pace that concludes with Pace hailing Venice as her ideal resting place:

On my flying chariot, I made my Halcyons swiftly direct their steps here, only to rest until the Kingdom of the Waters was born. Clear city, chosen by the wisdom of Jove as a second heaven, and built for noble souls! O Fates, ignore your custom and spin fast the years, so that others need not have to suffer, waiting, and with a propitious star let fair Venice be born in the bosom of Neptune, she who with wisdom and valor will be the Lady of the Sea, the glory of the world.[43]

Several prologues by Giacomo Castoreo written during the 1650s find ways of praising Venice's peacekeeping efforts through the mouths of a variety of


divinities.[44] In that to Eurimene (1643), an allegory of war between Venere in a flying chariot and Matte on the ground, Venere tells Matte of Giove's decision that the Turk should be made to suffer defeat at the hands of the Venetians and urges him to stop the fighting.[45] Apollo sings a hymn of praise to Venice, haven of peace, in the prologue to Arsinoe (1655-56).[46] And the prologue to Oronte (1656) concludes with the goddess Iride exhorting members of the audience, in their capacity as defenders against the Orient, to attend to the drama.[47]

Toward the end of the 1650s, these references become even more pointed; they mention not only Venice's general attributes as bastion of peace and defender against the Turk, but specific geographical locations related to the battle for Crete and particular events. The prologue of Tolomeo , an anonymous text for a play with musical intermedi (1658-59), features a large number of deities associated with war: Vittoria, Vulcano, Venere, Pallade, and Matte. After a succession of specific references to Mongibello and Crete, Vittoria ends the prologue with her promise to serve the Venetian forces.[48]

The prologue of a libretto of the same year (1659), Elena , performed at S. Cassiano, concludes with a dialogue between Verità and Pace, which alludes to the extraordinary length of the war that has occupied Venice. (Byron referred to the War of Candia as the Iliad of Venice.)


Let the glorious Adriatic heroes hear. The time will come when the afflicted and weary Thracian, repentant in the end for his foolish pride, will beg for peace from the Great Lion.


By now, in spite of Discord, my peaceful hand is dispensing olives in Adria. Indeed, it seems to me that the great Lion has arrived with his roars to frighten the moon [i.e., the crescent moon of the Turkish flag].[49]


Sometimes these allusions are embedded in cleverly operatic contexts. The prologue of dall'Angelo's Cleopatra (1662), performed at the Teatro S. Salvatore, mixes specific political references with self-conscious comments about opera.[50] Except for Glove, all the characters are personifications of operatic elements: Poesia, Inventione, Pittura, and Musica. Glove remarks on the fact that war seems to be a constant state of affairs (it has, after all, been raging for more than a decade):

What's this? Will the furor of haughty, tempestuous Mars always triumph? And will the happy torch of peace never shine in the bosom of fair Adria? But what peace? What peace? To arms, rage on, Venetian heroes, against the wicked Ottoman. See, I unfold my wings to join you, and bring my indignation to check this audacity. Crete is mine, let that be enough. I have come down only to lend you my thunderbolts, and just as I struck the wicked giants with them, so do I mean to reduce the Thracians to ashes.[51]

Poesia attempts to dissuade Glove from his warlike designs:

Supreme mover, check your fury. Do not, no, do not disturb the serenity of the tranquil Venetian breast. Pray, no, do not, even for a few moments, infuse those proud hearts with bellicose spirits. . . . Behold the Venetian heroes collected in the fair circle of this new theater, who await from our music [plettro sonoro ] sweet solace for their heavy thoughts.[52]

Poesia apparently convinces Glove to desist, at least temporarily, and to awaken Fortune in support of Cleopatra , opera and heroine.

A similar mixture characterizes another prologue from this same general period, that to Aureli's Antigona (1660). Set in the Kingdom of Music, it features


Pace, Poesia, Musica, Furore Tacito, and Allegrezza. Pace explains her presence in this realm. The war having abated, she can turn to other duties and is bringing singers to the Kingdom of Music:

Now that fury, drunk with human blood lies buried in the lap of sweet oblivion, I bring to your soil singing goddesses. With the audacious one chained at my feet, I passed triumphant under the Gallic sky from the Spanish kingdom, and here have folded my wings. And while I distribute olive branches, prepare immortal garlands for my tresses.[53]

In the 1670 revival the prologue had a different text, reflecting the changed political situation. The War of Candia had ended with the signing of a treaty in 1669; hence the final lines of the text were altered to read as follows:

Janus has closed the doors, and the lethal rage of Mars rests weary in his breast. Now that Adria enjoys my longed-for olives, prepare immortal garlands for my hair.[54]

Then Musica, Poesia, and Apollo sing the praises of Pace, who responds to them.


This lyre, which sweetly lends its harmonious sound to the song, will expound your glories on golden strings; Pindus will bring forth laurels for your hair.


Bind, then, the violent angry right hand of the god of arms, and I shall compose eternal hymns in your praise, and add new ornaments to your virtues.


I shall sing with harmonious breaths as many hymns as Poesia weaves to your fair name; and I shall spread your glories through the air.


With the major tumults of Italy calmed, and the Hispanic laurels grafted onto the fleur-de-lis through the royal wedding, you will see me cast lightning flashes of peace on the Venetian sands, to make fruitful that green and fertile soil.[55]


Several years earlier, Ivanovich made his debut as a librettist with Amor guerriero , performed at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1663. The prologue, although filled with allusion, is not concerned with the details of war but, like so many earlier ones, rehearses the typical Venetian litany, as if a general reminder of Venetian superiority were needed in the face of hard times. Ivanovich's prologue is also somewhat old-fashioned in that, like some earlier ones, it takes place in a Venetian—or pre-Venetian—setting: "The scene represents a sea beach near the Adriatic lagoons, with an island in the middle, at the edge of which is seen a shell driven by two sea horses."[56] Questioned by a very skeptical Aurora, Amore foretells the story of the founding of Venice on the lagoon (an old topic, not aired in opera since the 1640s, but given a new, theatrical twist here). Ivanovich, the enthusiastic immigrant, makes use of the standard iconography.


But tell me, why today did you exchange the shores of Amanthus for such deserted sands?


In this marshy seaweed you will see a city that with regal foot will tame the haughty sea and extend her dominion to where you rise; and these Adriatic shores you now perceive as so forlorn will be the nest of mercy, the seat of Astraea, who will balance kingdoms on her scales; and for her wise genius [this city] will be always feared in war, and peace.


Amore, what are you saying?


The miracle will be worthy of eternal wonder.


Who told you this?


So Proteus foretold one day, singing on the sandy shores.


I am amazed: and I foresee the Aeolian kingdoms as tributaries of the heroes to come. Let Fate, fortunate and happy indeed, write this day the victories of Adria.[57]


Generation after generation, Venetians never seem to have tired of hearing the mythology of their origins repeated on stage.

Despite all the allegorical representations in prologues and the selection of relevant historical or pseudo-historical themes for plot material, the connection between opera and politics may still strike us as somewhat oblique. Exotic and historically remote plots, after all, responded most immediately to a standard need for variety and spectacle in the theater; and prologues and epilogues stand by definition outside the drama proper.[58] Parallels between current events and staged action, between the exploits of actual and of operatic heroes, are not always so clear or precise.[59] Generally, Venetian opera conveyed its political message by suggestion, by implicating the knowing audience in its world of allusion as well as illusion. Its political message, the shared celebration of Venice, was imparted with the willing collusion of the spectators.

In several publications of the 1660s and later, however, the message was asserted more openly. Perhaps the most unequivocal statement of the political significance of opera occurs in the preface to a libretto by Francesco Sbarra, L'amor della patria superiore ad ogn'altro (1668), a bluntly didactic title reminiscent of Viennese oratorios of this period, but highly unusual for a Venetian opera.[60] The preface, signed by the Venetian printer Nicolò Pezzana and offered in praise of the author, describes Sbarra's librettistic activities and the plot of this drama in unabashedly patriotic terms. The work's aim is to instruct the audience (readers?) in the proper service of their country:

In order to recognize the extraordinary talent and most fertile intellect of Sig. Francesco Sbarra, it is enough to glance at his works, among which the subject that he examines with the most heartfelt intensity is the greater good of the Most Serene Republic. As a most loyal subject, he has chosen the work called L'amor della patria . . . because he knows how to adapt himself to contemporary public concerns, con-


cerns already so treacherously upset by the Ottoman ferocity. He has deemed it appropriate that I (as I had already done for the Erudite tirannide dell'interesse of the same author) should, by means of my press, publish this one also, expanded by Signor Sbarra himself, so that, just as the most fervent zeal is passionately applied to public relief, so to the same degree everyone might understand, if they respond properly, what his own responsibilities are, and the obligation of each person to contribute with his love and actions to the breath and prosperity of his beloved homeland.

Responding to that noble stimulus propounded by this work, of the most memorable example of a complete Republic, with deeds so glorious that they are worthy of being carved in adamant in the hearts of true lovers of the revered and beloved homeland, to preserve the most precious treasure, the priceless jewel of secure liberty. The sole purpose of expressing this most devoted homage is the burning desire that it become universally impressed, sustained, and with work confirmed in all hearts, that, indeed, THE LOVE OF ONE'S COUNTRY IS SUPERIOR TO ANY OTHER . (Appendix I.30)

This rousing salute to the Serenissima only makes explicit what had been implicit in its predecessors. For all its delights, opera still had a responsibility to instruct its audience; and, being Venetian, that audience was to be made to recognize its privileged status and its obligations to the prosperous and beloved Republic.

Topical allusions and references to Venice, including such overt calls to patriotism, tended to occur within prologues during the 1660s. In the following decade, however, this was no longer the case. By 1670 the prologue had been virtually abandoned, and with it the Venetian topicality it had once contained.[61] Confirmation of this trend is provided by Camillo Contarini in his preface to Arbace (1667), where he criticizes the elimination of the prologue by other librettists: "They do not know how to resolve their plots except through the marriage of the characters they present, and they give birth to monstrous creatures without a head (which is the prologue, a principal part of dramas) like those Indian monsters, abridgements of nature."[62] The abandonment of the prologue signaled opera's transcendence of its earlier Venetian parochialism; it was one sure sign of the Europeanization of the genre by 1670, which was manifested, as we shall see, in other ways as well.

In his chronicle Ivanovich gave ample weight to the political function of opera. In his view, both the Bacchanalia of ancient Rome and the "trattenimenti carnovaleschi di Venezia" (i.e., opera)


are objects of extremely subtle politics, on which depend the success and abundance of the government, and through these amusements, used according to the standards of decency, the Prince gains the love of his people, who can never more easily forget their yoke than when sated or diverted by pleasures.

When the people have nothing to gnaw on, they gnaw on the reputation of the Prince, and when they have no entertainments, they can easily degenerate through idleness into schemes with very bad consequences. (Appendix II.6e)

Like the circuses of ancient Rome and the entertainments of modern courts, opera in Venice provided a diversion for the masses, a safety valve.[63] In this it was an extension of traditional Venetian social organization; like the scuole and the guilds, through which large segments of the disenfranchised plebeian population of Venice participated in the social and political as well as economic life of the city, the public spectacle of opera provided the disparate populace with a certain common bond. In the experience of the theater, the citizens of the Republic affirmed their allegiance to the idea of Venice.

On the more quotidian level of political fortune, opera could offer respite in times of crisis.[64] Aside from the official closing of the theaters during 1646, owing to the outbreak of the War of Candia, opera generally retained its seasonal rhythm in Venice.[65] For the duration of that lengthy conflict and during the other costly conflicts with the Ottomans that succeeded it, opera continued to offer an escape from thoughts of war. By its very existence, it represented Venice at her best. In the face of external threat, it maintained the peaceful spectacle of the Serenissima. In the face of the waning international fortunes of the Republic, opera affirmed the vitality of Venice, an ironic contrast that had been noted earlier by Francesco Pannocchieschi (nephew and coadjutor of the papal nuncio) in a "relazione sulle cose della Repubblica" (1647-52):

What astonished me was to see how people were living at that time in Venice; how that city, always full of riches and luxuries, kept itself absorbed in continual festivities, both public and private, which not only seemed inappropriate for a country


that was at war at the time, but that would have seemed excessive even in another country that was calmer and more peaceful.[66]

All of the manifestations of venezianità —the evocations of the Serenissima, the actual appearance of images of Venice on the stage, the personifications of her virtues, the references to her grandeur and history in prologues and epilogues, and even the quick local allusions in the dialogue—rendered opera a very Venetian art indeed. Like the public arts of the previous century—painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theater—opera, too, sang the litany of the myth of Venice. And like them, it in turn contributed to that myth. However crude Ivanovich's account may be, however filled with hyperbole, it is nonetheless clear that opera in Venice existed, in a fundamental way, in the service of the state. Indeed, the establishment and development of opera on the lagoon provide yet another chapter in the myth of Venice, one more manifestation of Venetian liberty and superiority—not to mention Venetian hospitality.


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