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