Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre

Dramma per musica :
The Question of Genre

"Drama for music": this was the term by which opera librettos were generally known in the seventeenth century. The subtitle under which they were usually published, Dramma per musica , expresses quite effectively, even eloquently, the ambiguous nature of the libretto as a genre. Alone, these little books were but shadows, texts needing music (and staging) to endow them with life. Never intended to stand on their own, they were admittedly, glaringly, and self-consciously incomplete. Evaluation of their quality could not rest on their merits as literature or drama—the elegance of their poetry, the tautness of their plot structure, the verisimilitude of their action. Librettos had to be judged by the efficacy of the musical setting they inspired, the dramatic conviction of the combination: libretto plus music, a combination that, ideally, would exceed by far the simple sum of its parts.

Although every writer of librettos was aware of the extent to which the definition of his work depended on another artist's efforts, that awareness was not always shared by literary critics. Lacking appropriate instruments for evaluation, they often tried to judge librettos by purely literary standards, without considering them in the proper context, that of the opera house.[1] From the beginning of their history, librettos suffered abuse from critics for their failure to measure up as literature. The issue was most urgent for the earliest and most sensitive of these critics, those who had the most to lose—or gain: the librettists themselves, the inventors or creators of the genre. Critical abuse began as critical self-abuse.

[1] Some writers, such as Ludovico Antonio Muratori, displayed an acute ambivalence in their attitude toward opera: as literary critics they condemned it, but as members of the audience they applauded it enthusiastically. See Sergio Durante, "Vizi privati e virtù pubbliche del polemista teatrale da Muratori a Marcello," in Benedetto Marcello: La sua opera e il suo tempo , ed. Claudio Madricardo and Franco Rossi (Florence, 1988), 415-24. These critics lacked appropriate categories for judging theatrical works. See also Lorenzo Bianconi, "Il cinquecento e il seicento," in Teatro, musica, tradizione dei classici , Letteratura italiana 6 (Turin, 1986), 356-63.


It is worth noting that dramma per musica did not suggest itself immediately as a designation for operatic texts. It emerged only after librettists had wrestled for some time with the question of defining just what it was they were producing; and it developed not in the occasional operas produced during the first decades of the century in Florence and Rome, but later, in Venice, where the operatic experience was constant and intense. Ottavio Rinuccini's first two operatic texts, the mythical dramas Dafne and Euridice , bear no generic subtitle at all, while his third libretto, Arianna , is labeled a tragedia ; Striggio's Orfeo is called a favola in musica ; and in Rome librettos were variously referred to as dramma musicale, commedia musicale, opera musicale , or attione in musica .[2] The first Venetian librettos, too, exhibited a striking variety of generic designations, some of them borrowed from the past, others obviously invented ad hoc: favola, opera scenica, festa teatrale, dramma, opera drammatica, favola regia, opera regia, tragedia musicale, opera tragicomica musicale, dramma musicale , and others. One notable feature of this list is that only a few of the terms allude to the absent, yet central, ingredient, the music; the others imply self-sufficiency and could have been—and were—applied to any kind of dramatic work. The familiar and curiously neutral term opera appears in several of these subtitles. Originally applied to every category of written or improvised play, it became associated with a particular kind that was neither tragic nor comic but mixed features of both. Plays set in exotic lands, featuring royal or princely protagonists and eventful plots with happy endings, were called opere regie or opere reali . Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea , for example, was termed an opera regia . Although opera occasionally appeared unmodified in conjunction with some early librettos, it did not assume its modern significance until much later.[3]

It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century, then, after more than a decade of vigorous operatic activity—more than thirty operas by some twenty librettists and ten composers, in five theaters—that Venetian librettists began to designate their works dramma per musica with any consistency, thus signifying

[2] Nino Pirrotta has emphasized the significance of generic distinctions in early opera. He attaches considerable importance to the designation tragedia for Arianna , regarding that opera as the first real attempt to recreate tragedy in music. Its two predecessors, the favole Dafne and Euridice , represented, in contrast, "the brief pastoral phase of opera" ("Mon-teverdi and the Problems of Opera," Essays , 245-46). Barbara Russano Hanning, however, prefers to regard all three of Rinuccini's librettos as manifestations of the same impulse toward tragedy. See her "Apologia pro Ottavio Rinuccini," JAMS 26 (1973): 252; also id. Of Poetry and Music's Power (Ann Arbor, 1980), ch. 1, esp. 18.

[*] The generic subtitles for the early Roman operas occur in the argomenti , which were usually printed. The librettos, which were not printed as a rule, merely use the term dramma . For a list of Roman subtitles, see Margaret Murata, Operas for the Papal Court, 1631-1668 (Ann Arbor, 1981), appendix 2.

[3] On the use of the term opera regia in commedia dell'arte , where it seems to have referred to works exhibiting Spanish influence, see Cesare Molinari, La commedia dell'arte (Milan, 1985), 49. Pirrotta, "Corn-media dell'arte and Opera," Essays , 355 and nn. 33-34, regards this designation as the source for the term opera . An early use of opera , unmodified, appears in the scenario of Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo by Orazio Persiani (1639) in a descriptive passage.


recognition and acceptance of the imperfect state of their creations. Although it may seem like a matter of mere semantics, the terminological consensus thus reflected on the title pages of printed librettos actually represented a significant step in the history of the art. It was one of many indications that opera had aesthetically come of age, that it had achieved the status of a genre in its own right.

Lack of agreement on the question of categorizing subtitles was only one symptom of the malaise that appears to have afflicted most early Venetian librettists. The librettos offer many other indications of their authors' uneasiness with opera as a genre, of their concern with the propriety of mixing music and drama. Early prefaces and notes to the reader are filled with librettists' explanations and excuses, with justifications and defenses of their work. These writings enable us to witness, through their parental eyes, the birth pangs of dramma per musica .

The self-defense erected by the librettists to express their existential discomfort was two-pronged and paradoxical. On the one hand, they energetically justified the new genre; on the other, they repeatedly denied the seriousness of their commitment to it. Neither moral qualms nor aristocratic nonchalance, however, kept them from swelling the torrent of activity. Preoccupied with finding forebears to legitimize their bastard art, librettists turned up ancestors in every period, from classical antiquity to the day before yesterday. Among ancient authors called for the defense, the most frequently cited was, of course, Aristotle, bolstered by various others—including Homer, Virgil, Aristarchus, Lucan, Horace, Plutarch, Diodorus, Cicero, Strabo, Lucretius, Terence, and Seneca. Librettists also evoked the Tuscan classics Dante and Petrarch; masters of the modern Italian tradition such as Ariosto, Tasso, Chiabrera, Guarini, Marino, and Salvadori; and the Spanish dramatists.[4] In most cases, librettists' actual need for such authority—and their use of it—was quite superficial. Often they simply cited authorities rhetorically, as a preemptive strategy, in order to emphasize their purposeful departure from them. But they also invoked precedents from the past to justify various aspects of their works. In their search for precedents and their reinterpretation of the past for their own purposes, our librettists differed little from sixteenth-century authors.[5]

[4] One of the few Spanish dramatists actually cited was Lope de Vega; the significance of Spanish models, however, is often mentioned. On the influence of Spanish drama on members of the intellectual community of seventeenth-century Venice, see Benedetto Croce, "Appunti sui costumi e letteratura spagnuola in Italia," in Nuovi saggi sulla letteratura italiana del seicento (Bari, 1949), 235-39, and Antonio Belloni, Storia letteraria d'Italia: Il seicento (Milan, 1943), 354-61.

[5] For extensive discussion of and quotations from the full range of sixteenth-century critical commentaries on the ancient authors, see Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago, 1961).


The Accademia degli Incogniti

Their shared approach to libretto-writing, in particular their attitude toward authority as a source of justifying precedent, can be traced to a common background. Almost without exception, the librettists of the 1640s traveled in the same intellectual and social circles. They were Venetian aristocrats, and they belonged to the Accademia degli Incogniti, the successor, in a sense, to the large number of Venetian academies that had sponsored theatrical entertainments since the middle of the sixteenth century.[6] Founded in 1630 by the patrician Giovanni Francesco Loredano, the Accademia degli Incogniti included among its members nearly every Venetian intellectual of any importance, many of them future senators or councilors, and also a number of prominent non-Venetians.[7] Indeed, for several decades the academy functioned as an unofficial seat of political power in Venice. Aside from personal contacts, the group wielded its influence through the publications of its members, most of them prodigious writers—of novels, moral essays, and religious tracts, as well as opera librettos. In fact, as we shall see in the next chapters, the Incogniti were much involved in the whole phenomenon of opera in Venice, not only as authors but as founders and managers of the most successful opera theater of the 1640s, the Novissimo, which flourished from 1641 to 1645. The commanding role of these literary patricians guaranteed the close connection between politics and early opera in Venice, a connection fundamental to the establishment and success of the genre on the lagoon.

The basic philosophy of the academy derived from the teachings of the Peripatetic Cesare Cremonini, professor of philosophy at the University of Padua, with whom many of the members had studied. Cremonini was notorious for his strict interpretations of Aristotle and his heterodox religious views—he was brought before the Inquisition several times. He inculcated in his students the necessity of questioning accepted dogma, and he forcefully promoted Aristotelian arguments against belief in God as creator and provider. Skeptical of the immortality of the soul, he preached the importance of the here

[6] The standard sources of information on Venetian academies include Michele Battagia, Delle accademie veneziane (Venice, 1826) and Michele May-lander, Storia delle accademie d'Italia (Bologna, 1926-30); but see also I-Vmc, MSS Cicogna 3010-13, used extensively in Gilmore, "Monteverdi and Dramatic Music in Venice."

[7] The "forestieri" included such well-known literary figures as Gabriele Chiabrera savonese, G. B. Basile napolitano, Leone Allacci da Sciò; also from outside Venice were Maiolino Bisaccioni da Iesi, Pietro Paolo Bissari vicentino, and Scipione Herrico messinese. These names are given in Le glorie degli Incogniti overo gli huomini illustri dell'Accademia de' Signori Incogniti (Venice: Valvasense, 1647), which contains articles on 106 members of the academy, each of them including a bibliography as well as a portrait. The group was obviously much larger, but Giovanni Battista Fusconi, the secretary of the academy, who signed the dedication of the volume, explained that to include all of the members would be "un voler restringere la grandezza dell'oceano in un sol flume."


and now, and the value of physical pleasure above Christian morality. Such teaching set the intellectual and moral tone for our librettists, who had the opportunity of discussing the implications of their studies with Cremonini as well as many other matters at the meetings of their academy.[8]

Those meetings were usually organized as debates. The topics ranged from philosophical exchanges on such profound issues as the relationship (or not) between body and soul to the (perhaps) somewhat less serious question of the relative power of tears and song in promoting love.[9] Regardless of the significance of the question, all these debates required the same forensic skills, the ability to argue either side of a question with equal conviction. The Incogniti defended, on principle, the validity of multiple points of view, multiple interpretations. Equivocation and ambivalence were fundamental to their stand on all matters; they were taught to question every proposition, to see the other side of every issue.

The motto of the academy symbolized these aims: Ignoto Deo .[10] The political influence of the Incogniti, in keeping with their name, was usually covert and indirect, operating behind the scenes; and they often wrote in a secret, but obviously highly allusive, language. Their operatic involvements were not always overt either. While some of them affixed their own names to their librettos, others hid behind academic aliases or anonymity. Giacomo Badoaro, for example, left unsigned the letter to Monteverdi that prefaces Il ritorno d'Ulisse , and his authorship of the libretto itself is only revealed four years later in the preface to another libretto, Ulisse errante —or half revealed by his academic title "Assicurato Academico Incognito." In another case, the actual author of the libretto Amore innamorato (1642), which is signed by Giovanni Battista Fusconi, seems to have been intentionally obscured.[11]

These attitudes—the heavy emphasis on Aristotle, the training in debate, and the appreciation of equivocation promoted by the academy—strongly conditioned the impact of the Incogniti writers on the development of opera. The

[8] On the Incogniti, see Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: La teoria dell'impostura delle religioni nel seicento italiano (Rome, 1950), 2d ed. (Florence, 1983), 147-99; also Rosand, "Barbara Strozzi," 245-49; id., "Seneca and the Interpretation of L'incoronazione di Poppea," JAMS 38 (1985): 36-47; Bianconi and Walker, "Dalla 'Finta pazza,' "410-24. For Cremonini's actual participation in the theatrical life of Venice, see ch. 5 below.

[9] The Incogniti debates appear in several publications, among them Discorsi academici de' Signori Incogniti havuti in Venetia nell'academia dell'Illustrissimo Signor G. F. Loredano (Venice: Sarzina, 1635); and Giovanni Francesco Loredano, Bizzarrie academiche (Venice: Sarzina, 1638).

[10] It referred to the unknown god worshipped by the Athenians, as reported by St. Paul. For further on the motto, see Lionello Puppi, "Ignoto Deo," Arte veneta 23 (1969): 169-80. This motto was depicted iconographically (in one of the Incognito publications) as a globe on which a river representing the Nile is shown with its source veiled because it was unknown; see Rosand, "Barbara Strozzi," 248 and n. 27.

[11] The real authors were the Incogniti Pietro Michele and Loredan himself; see Rosand, "Barbara Strozzi," n. 22, and Bianconi and Walker, "Dalla 'Finta pazza,' " 421 n. 175.


very ambiguity of sung drama appealed to them. It gave them the opportunity to exercise their forensic skills, as illustrated by the variety of defenses and definitions they erected: classical precedent, the inconsistencies inherent in the ancient rules, their limited applicability to the present—all of these were marshaled in defense of their efforts. They wrote librettos that claimed to be tragedies in order to flaunt both their classical education, their knowledge of "the rules," and their iconoclastic tendencies, their commitment to the moment, their respect for modern taste.

The issue most crucial to them, to which they directed most of their defensive energies, involved the propriety of sung drama. This, of course, had been central to the Florentine theorists of opera half a century earlier, who had sought to defuse it in two somewhat contradictory ways: by the adoption of a musical style that was uninflected enough to pass for speech and by a choice of plots in which musical speech was appropriate. This double strategy is clearly articulated by the anonymous author of a Florentine treatise on opera from about 1630, Il corago :

To begin with characters or interlocutors that musical setting seems to suit best, for secular plots the ancient deities such as Apollo, Thetis, Neptune and other respected gods seem very appropriate, as do demigods and ancient heroes, among whom one might especially list rivers and lakes, and especially those most famous among the Muses, such as Peneus, the Tiber, and the Trasimenus, and above all those personages whom we consider to have been perfect musicians, such as Orpheus, Amphion, and the like. The reason for all this is that since each listener knows all too well that at least in the more familiar parts of the earth ordinary men do not speak in music, but plainly, speaking in music is more consonant with one's conception of superhuman characters than with the notion and experience one has of ordinary men; because, given that musical discourse is more elevated, more authoritative, sweeter, and more noble than ordinary speech, one attributes it to characters who, through a certain innate feeling, have more of a sublime or divine quality. (Appendix II. 1b)

The Florentine solutions, however, did not satisfy the requirements of Venetian librettists. They evidently did not regard the Florentine operas—assuming they even knew them—as sufficiently authoritative to justify their own activities. In any case, it was the Venetians' need to establish a pedigree for sung drama that provoked their interest in ancient theatrical practices. It was an interest that was to be shared by most subsequent theoreticians or critics of opera, including Metastasio.

Their ad hoc investigative procedure involved several steps: first, to establish that music had functioned in various ways in classical drama; then, to demonstrate the relationship of their works to classical drama, by pointing out either similarities or differences. Similarities naturally justified themselves, but differences required further differentiation of the source material. They could


be explained as deriving from inconsistencies or ambiguities in the classical authors themselves or else as reflecting the librettist's desire—condoned by those very same ancient authors—to satisfy modern taste, even if that meant going against tradition.[12]

Music and Drama

In considering the function of music in ancient drama, the Incogniti librettists, very much in the tradition of sixteenth-century literary critics, rehearsed all the possibilities: that ancient drama was sung throughout, that only the choruses were sung, that none of it was sung.[13] In the end, however, it hardly mattered what evidence they adduced. Their conclusion was always the same: regardless of ancient practice, the requirements of modern taste alone were sufficient to justify dramma per musica .

Few librettists were as confident and succinct—and as circuitous—on the matter as Vincenzo Nolfi in the preface to his Bellerofonte (164:2). He readily accepted the classical precedent of sung drama as the least controversial feature of his activity, declaring axiomatically that his was "a kind of poem that has returned to the original nature of drama as far as singing is concerned." But he rejected historical precedents for every other aspect of his libretto, proclaiming it to be entirely modern, geared to a culture "that no longer acknowledges Epicharmus as father, nor Sicily as homeland, nor Aristotle as law-giver" (Appendix I. 19d). But then, in another twist, he went on to defend the idea of novelty and change of taste on the very basis of the precedent he had previously

[12] A rather nice example of their characteristic reasoning is provided by Busenello in connection with his libretto La prosperira infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore (1646). He cites Seneca the dramatist to justify his rejection of modern taste embodied in his choice of five acts rather than three: "If the acts are five and not three, remember that all ancient dramas, and particularly the tragedies of Seneca, are divided into five acts" (Appendix I. 12a). But Seneca the man justifies the opposite attitude toward modern taste— acceptance: "It is necessary to satisfy modern taste to some extent, always keeping in mind the praise that Tacitus bestowed on Seneca, that is, that he had an imagination made to order for the taste of his times" (Appendix I. 12c). See Rosand, "Seneca," 40-41.

[13] All of the interpretations were based on a rather ambiguous passage from Aristotle's Poetics , ch. 1 (1447b): "There are, lastly, certain other arts, which combine all the means enumerated, rhythm, melody, and verse, e.g. dithyrambic and nomic poetry, tragedy and comedy; with this difference, however, that the three kinds of means are in some of them all employed together and in others brought in separately, one after the other" (The Complete Works of Aristotle , Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes [Princeton, 1984], 2:2317). See, for example, Benedetto Varchi, Lezzioni della poetica (1553-54); Giraldi Cintio, Discorso intorno al comporre delle come-die e delle tragedie (1543/54), quoted in Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 433-44; Lodovico Castelvetro, Poetica d'Aristotile vulgarizzata e sposta (Vienna, 1570), 33, 146; and Francesco Patrizi, Della poetica, La deca istoriale (Ferrara, 1586). See also Giorgio Bartoli's letter to Lorenzo Giacomim, summarized in Claude Palisca, "The Alterati of Florence: Pioneers in the Theory of Dramatic Music," in New Looks at Italian Opera: Essays in Honor of Donald J. Grout , ed. William W. Austin (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968), 31-34. The entire issue is discussed most recently and fully in Claude Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought (New Haven, 1985), ch. 14, "Theory of Dramatic Music."


rejected, dropping the names of various authorities in his wake: "All customs change, and even the most depraved novelties can please, as Scaliger said in regard to the Amphytrion of Plautus. If the various Cratinuses, Aristophanes, and Terences were alive today, they too might change their ideas" (Appendix I.19e).

Pietro Paolo Bissari, more specific in his classical citations and more expansive and circumstantial in his discussion (as well as more consistent), prefaced his Torilda (1648) with a lengthy disquisition on classical drama. His aim was to show that every aspect of his libretto—machines, gods, dances, frequent changes of scene, infusion of comic elements, and even the placement of the orchestra in the theater—was based on classical precedent. Musical setting was second on his list, following frequent scene changes: "Nor would it be at variance with that practice for drama to be staged with music, since it is known that Phrynicus was elected Captain for this reason, that he had his tragedies sung with melodies and musical art that were modes appropriate for battle" (Appendix I.25b). Bissari, who was more anxious than most of his colleagues to establish the continuity between ancient drama and his own work, concluded his essay on an unusually positive note by suggesting that "in all of these works the ancient institutions seem revived rather than interrupted" (Appendix I.25e).[14]

Most writers, however, took a more tentative and circumspect stance, clothing their defenses in more theoretical garb. The anonymous (= Incognito) author of Le nozze d'Enea (1640 [1641]), for example, evidently believed that only the choruses of ancient drama were sung; but that hardly prevented him from justifying his own theatrical efforts, though it complicated his argument. He opened his defense by distinguishing between two types of tragedy, "di lieto fine" and "d'esito lugubre" ("called tragichissima by Aristotle"), and then offered the usual explanation, modern taste, for having chosen the former type for his libretto:

In order to accommodate myself to current taste, I have chosen a tragedy with a happy ending, rather than otherwise. Considering in addition that since it is to be sung, and not simply recited, such a tragedy seemed more appropriate: although not because I am certain that in ancient times melancholy tragedies were not also sung, or at least the choral part; but it is certain that such a practice was gradually abandoned, to the point where, even in "happy" tragedies, music had become an external, merely ornamental feature. (Appendix I.9c)[15]

[14] Torilda was one of the few librettos that explicitly offered spoken performance as an option. Another was Giulio Strozzi's La finta savia (1643).

[15] The author of this libretto derives his two kinds of tragedy from Renaissance commentaries on Aristotle. Le nozze d'Enea was long assumed to be the work of Giacomo Badoaro, an assumption questioned and tentatively dismissed in Walker, "Errori," 11-12, and Anna Sweykowska, "Le due poetiche venete e le ultime opere di Claudio Monteverdi," Quadrivium 18 (1977): 149.


Somewhat later in the letter, the author returned, again obliquely, to the issue of the function of music in ancient drama. He explained his substitution of ballets for "classical" choruses between the acts of his work on the grounds that sung choruses only had an effect when the rest of the drama was not sung (i.e., he assumed that in ancient drama only the choruses were sung): "Given that the entire tragedy is sung, to sing the choruses as well would become too tiresome; therefore, in order to please the spectators more with variety, ballets have been introduced" (Appendix I.9i).

Even those librettists who were unwilling to admit that music had played any part at all in early classical drama found a way to link their works with the past. Giacomo Badoaro, for example, to judge from his preface to Ulisse errante (1644), considered the complete musical performance of a drama to be very far from ancient practice. But he exploited the lack of consistency among ancient playwrights on other issues, such as the appropriate number of characters in a drama or the necessity of a prologue, to justify a wide variety of modern practices.

The author who perhaps more clearly than any other articulated the Incognito librettists' attitude toward classical sources, and the one who certainly presented them most cynically, was Gian Francesco Busenello, Monteverdi's collaborator in L'incoronazione di Poppea . In a letter to his friend Giovanni Grimani, proprietor/impresario of the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, written upon the presentation of his drama Statira (1655), Busenello aired the entire controversy about the correct performance of ancient tragedy, systematically undermining the relevance of each of the issues in the debate. In general he discouraged the use of ancient precedent as a standard for measuring modern efforts. Since his poetry was designed to be sung, he argued, ancient poetic models should not be applied to it, the assumption being that ancient poetry was not sung (Appendix I.13b). But, he continued, like the skilled polemicist he was, "even if we allow that the poems of the ancient Greeks were sung, as some maintain, and that Homer himself was both the poet and composer of his own songs, that music was different from ours" (Appendix I.13c). Finally he deflated the significance of the whole investigation of ancient practice, refusing "to be the judge of whether it was the ancients or the moderns who brought musical plays into the theater" (Appendix I.13d). His attitude regarding the futility of such investigation is perhaps best captured by the final sentence of the preface to another of his librettos, La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore : "And may those who enjoy enslaving themselves to the ancient rules find their fulfillment in baying at the full moon" (Appendix I.12b).[16]

[16] See also a similar remark in the text of another of Busenello's librettos, Didone (1641), in Gian Francesco Busenello, Delle hore ociose (Venice: Giuliani, 1656), 53: "Non possono i Poeti a questi dì / Rappresentar le favole a lor modo, / Chi ha fisso questo chiodo, / Del vero studio il bel sentier smarì."


These early Venetian librettists' preoccupation with the genre of their works was not unambivalent. For at the same time as they defended their combination of music and drama either on the grounds of classical precedent or as a response to the demands of modern taste, they also blamed a variety of defects in their librettos, such as lapses in decorum, form, or style, on the special exigencies of music. These shortcomings, they claimed, were the inevitable result of combining two incompatible artistic media. The question of how music and drama must modify each other when they are combined is, of course, the central aesthetic issue of opera, and it is to these librettists that we owe the first and most articulate airing of the issue. Their need to justify opera, because it was new, prompted them to expose and attempt to resolve the inconsistencies, imperfections, and compromises inherent in it. Concern with this issue abated after some years of operatic experience, but it never completely disappeared.

Music served as scapegoat for a variety of literary offenses: for inelegant language, mixed meters, varied characters, and so on. One author, Niccolò Enea Bartolini, the librettist of Venere gelosa (1643), proceeded from the defensive premise that because his work was created to be sung, it should nonetheless not fear comparison with those that are merely intended to be recited. The implication, of course, was that it might otherwise be considered thoroughly inferior: "And if its poetry is not filled with aphorisms and witticisms, it cannot on that account be called either cold or lacking in spirit. I have maintained a high style, and with diversity of meters and propriety of language have sought to stimulate the imagination of the composer" (Appendix I.21).

The anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea also cited music as a blanket excuse for all sorts of lapses in his poetry, in particular his use of varied meters to distinguish between high and low characters:

And so to adapt to the characters, and to the emotions that they are to express, I have made use of a number of different meters; that is to say, I have given versi sdruccioli to people of low condition, and versi brevi and tronchi to choleric types, though knowing well that the better Tuscan tragedians used only lines of seven, eleven, and occasionally five syllables. Nevertheless, given that the ancient Greeks and Romans, in addition to the lamb, also used trimeter, tetrameter, and other meters in their tragedies, I do not see why [such variety] is prohibited to us, at least in the case of six- and eight-syllable lines. And besides, musical tragedies are entitled to a freedom not enjoyed by those that are merely spoken. (Appendix I.9f)

The same justification served for his mixture of characters—in particular, his introduction of comic characters within a serious plot:

I have made use of this fellow [Numano, called "the Strong" by Virgil] as a comic character, since I could not find in the author anyone more suitable [for such a role], and because I knew the disposition of many theatergoers, who prefer jokes like this to serious things as we see that Iro of our friend was a marvelous success. But re-


ally I would not have introduced this sort of character in a different kind of [i.e., non-musical] tragedy. (Appendix I.9e)

For Busenello, writing for music required the abandonment of poetic elegance and classical poetic forms. In the preface to Starira , he acknowledged the low style of his poetry; more ambitious literary embellishment, he implied, was not suitable for musical drama:

I would have been more eloquent in writing this play, and would have concentrated my faculties to elevate the style somewhat, if the brevity and conventions required by the [musical] stage had allowed it. It is one thing to compose an ode or a sonnet, in which enthusiasm is permitted to thought, and ecstasy to the imagination in exciting the ears with sweet stimuli and the heart with a sensual sparkle, by contriving a soothing and ingenious conclusion; it is another thing to compose a play, in which the characters are under constraints, and use common speech, and if the tone becomes too elevated it loses its seemliness and decorum. (Appendix I.13a)

And in the letter on Starira already mentioned, he explained that he had tried to follow the style of the best Italian authors instead of ancient writers in his "elocutions." Since he was writing poetry for music, with its "measures and numbers, irregularities and alliterations geared to music, Greek forms, such as strophes and antistrophes, hymns, idylls, and odes, are all irrelevant" (Appendix I.13b).

But the impact of music on drama went far beyond mere inelegance and infelicities imposed on its poetry; it thoroughly undermined its verisimilitude. It was difficult for any audience to believe that singing was speech. What sparked all of these librettists' preoccupation with the genre, their attempts to justify the combination of music and drama, either through classical precedent or modern taste, was their discomfort with the question of verisimilitude. This issue underlies all their defenses, although it is actually mentioned only rarely. One of the few authors to do so was Giacomo Badoaro, in the preface to Ulisse errante (1644). After having characteristically blamed his own specific failure to observe the ancient rules of drama on the special demands made by music, he addressed the question of verisimilitude: "It is normal today for the purpose of pleasing the spectators . . . to introduce improbable situations so long as they do not disturb the main action." Having introduced music into our dramas, he continues,

we cannot avoid the implausible, namely, that men should carry on their most important transactions while singing. Moreover, in order to enjoy variety in the theater, we are used to music for two, three, and more voices, which causes another unlikelihood: that several people conversing together should suddenly find themselves saying the same thing simultaneously. (Appendix I.8j)


The joining of music and drama could simply not be achieved without the loss of verisimilitude. No matter what precedents might be adduced, song could not pass for speech. As all these librettists recognized, and as Badoaro acknowledged, the impact of dramma per musica depended on an audience believing either that the singers were in fact really speaking, or else that they meant to be singing. The complete acceptance of the genre required the acceptance of unverisimilar action—and clearly, this never happened.

Verisimilitude, the eternal operatic embarrassment, continued to cast a shadow over opera well after 1650, but the focus narrowed somewhat from general skepticism of the whole enterprise to specific concern with the nature of the musical language itself. Badoaro's distinction between speech and song was rendered more precise in the by now classic formulation of this dilemma in a libretto of 1651 by Francesco Sbarra, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso :

I know that the ariette sung by Alexander and Aristotle will be judged as contrary to the decorum of such great personages; but I also know that musical recitation is improper altogether, since it does not imitate natural discourse and removes the soul from dramatic compositions, which should be nothing but imitations of human actions, and yet this defect is not only tolerated by the current century but received with applause. This kind of poetry today has no purpose other than to give delight; thus we should adjust to the practice of the times. (Appendix I.29e)

By 1651, through use, musical "speech," that is, recitative, had become thoroughly acceptable. But "song," that is, the arias, still posed a problem. Sbarra's statement is corroborated by the continued reluctance of librettists to introduce arias into their dramas, and their attempts to construct and invent evasions and pretexts for them. The development and persistence well beyond the middle of the century of conventional situations in which singing was either natural or purposely unnatural—songs within the drama, for instance, or scenes of madness and sleep—bear witness to the unresolvable contradiction posed by the mixing of music and drama.

Dramatic Structure: The Unities

In addition to defending their general involvement in opera by such shows of erudition, these early Venetian librettists also cited precedents from the past to justify certain specific features of their works. Their individual decisions regarding observance of the unities, division into acts, and the use of chorus were carefully examined in the light of classical authority. One of the most hotly debated topics concerned the appropriateness of adhering to the so-called Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Originally conceived by sixteenth-century literary theorists and commentators on Aristotle as merely one aspect


of the larger issue of genre—in particular the distinctions between tragedy, comedy, and the epic—the unities had become an increasingly specific focus of discussion.[17] The subject continued to concern seventeenth-century writers.

The crux of the problem for the sixteenth century was the disagreement as to whether Aristotle had addressed the unities at all in his Poetics . In fact, Aristotle set some store on unity of action in tragedy—as opposed to the epic, which by definition encompassed many actions.[18] And he alluded to the unity of time when he observed that tragedy limited itself to what can occur during a single revolution of the sun—whereas the epic, again by definition, knows no such limits.[19] The third unity, that of place, did not figure at all in the Poetics . A number of the sixteenth-century elaborations and interpretations of the Poetics , however, did concern themselves specifically with the unities. One of these, Castelvetro's Poetica d'Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta (1570), seems to have been the first to articulate unity of place as a rule and to formulate the concept of the three unities as they were subsequently understood—in France as well as Italy.[20]

The "rules" were originally interpreted as being genre-specific, applicable to tragedy only, and not to comedy or the epic; but a number of commentators, including Castelvetro, tried to adapt them to other genres as well. It was this attempt during the sixteenth century to broaden their application that stimulated librettists' concern with the unities. The question was most pressing—and most relevant—in those early Venetian librettos that aspired to the status of tragedy. The anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , for example, whose preface I have already quoted, made a special effort to define his work as a tragedia (though di lieto fine ) and considered the problem of the unities at great length.[21] Significantly, librettists' concern with the unities diminished in proportion to their growing acceptance of the generic legitimacy of dramma per musica .

As for the literary theorists of the sixteenth century, so, too, for their seventeenth-century heirs the unities represented only part of the larger ques-

[17] See the summary in Joel E. Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance , 2d ed. (New York, 1908), 56-63, 84-96; also Weinberg, Literary Criticism , passim.

[18] The relevant passage in the Poetics, ch. 5 (1451a) reads: "Just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole" (Complete Works of Aristotle , ed. Barnes, 2: 2322).

[19] Poetics (1449b): "[Epic poetry] differs from it [tragedy], however, in that it is in one kind of verse and in narrative form; and also by its length—which is due to its action having no fixed limit of time, whereas tragedy endeavours to keep as far as possible within a single circuit of the sun, or something near that" (Complete Works of Aristotle , ed. Barnes, 2: 2320).

[20] See Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 502-17 for Castelvetro; chs. 9-13 treat the various Renaissance interpretations of the Poetics in great detail. See also Piero Weiss, "Neoclassical Criticism and Opera," Studies in the History of Music 2 (1987): 1-30.

[21] Only a few other authors explicitly considered their works to be tragedies. Paolo Vendramin, for example, called his Adone (1640) a tragedia musicale ,and Badoaro's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is labeled a tragedia con lieto fine in one of its manuscript copies (I-Vmc, MS Cicogna 192, no. 3330).


tion of genre. But the topic nevertheless received special emphasis in the apologies of the librettists, perhaps because it came into direct conflict with one of the most essential requirements of the new operatic genre: variety. It was difficult for librettists to reconcile these two principles, the one theoretical, the other practical, but they spilled considerable ink in the attempt. As usual, their explanations took one of two forms: either they demonstrated how their works were unified—interpreting that concept with considerable freedom—or else they justified the fact that they were not.

Some authors minimized the distinctions between their works and classical drama. Fusconi, for example, in his preface to Amore innamorato (1642), states that the work "follows all the good rules taught by the masters: it ends within the span of one day, or little more; it has one plot line, with no extraneous events; and it does not stray at all from established custom" (Appendix I.27a). But no sooner has he affirmed his observation of the unities of time and action than he deftly—and predictably—undermines the significance of that affirmation by invoking modern taste:

But I do not think it makes sense to go to the trouble of defending something even the authors themselves were careless about. Especially given that our present age is made up of private opinions and interests and thus does not believe in any rules except those of whim and of passion. (Appendix I.27b)[22]

Giulio Strozzi, in the preface to his Delia (1639), adopts a similarly casual tone in minimizing the extent of his departure from the unity of time, implying quite effectively that a slight abuse of that unity is his only transgression. After defending his plot and characters by citing classical precedents, he confesses: "I have taken the liberty of a couple of hours: I don't know if Aristotle or Aristarchus will grant them to me" (Appendix I.15g).

But other librettists seem especially bent on preserving the unity of time above the other two. The author of Le nozze d'Enea found it necessary to stretch the boundaries of place, choosing a large geographical region rather than the corner of a city for his action, but he accepted the unity of time without question:

As for the physical setting, whereas for myself I would have chosen a city, or a part of one, as good tragedians, our friends both ancient and modern, do, nevertheless, in order to give the audience pleasure through variety, I have taken a little piece of the small portion of Italy that is Latium, so that the action can be now in court, now in the woods, and elsewhere, as the occasion requires. But as for time, I did

[22] It is perhaps noteworthy here that the libretto in question treats a mythological subject, in which the unities are more easily followed.


not want to diverge from the rule so often laid down by the master of true knowledge, which stipulates for tragedy the span of one day or a little more. (Appendix I.9d)

Unity of time was particularly significant in this instance: it seems to have served an important function with respect to dramatic verisimilitude. In explaining, later in the same essay, why he has chosen to divide his drama into five acts rather than the more modern three, the anonymous author alludes to the relationship between dramatic and real time:

And although the modern practice is to divide even spoken plays into three acts, I have preferred to divide mine into five, so that with more pauses the audience might rest from the mental effort of following a series of depicted events, and to this end I have settled on such a division. And also to adapt, at least in appearance, the timespan of the imitation to the duration of what it imitates. Given therefore that the action of the play covers one day, it would seem indeed that that is how long the play should last; but since this would be too inconvenient and tedious for the audience, the same continuous plot is divided into acts, so that one imagines that between one act and another more time elapses than actually does, and in this way, all told, one attains the span of one day. (Appendix I.9j)

Since the play could not possibly last as long as the time represented on stage, four intermissions—rather than two—made the illusion that much more suggestive.[23] Unity of time as a concept is addressed more explicitly by another librettist we have already heard from, Bissari, in his preface to Toritda (1648): "These operas do not fail those rules of quantity in that they generally represent the events of a single day in the prescribed limit of four hours" (Appendix I.25d).

One of the fullest discussions of the unities, as well as of other aspects of "classical" theory, to be found in these early librettos is Badoaro's preface to Ulisse errante (1644), his "Lettera dell'Assicurato Academico Incognito." Badoaro's generous airing of various possible interpretations of the "rules" was intended to assure the reader that his own decision to treat them in the freest possible manner was an educated, conscious one: "This opera necessarily required some transgression of the rules. I do not consider this a fault, and if others insist that it is, it will be a conscious, and not inadvertent, error" (Appendix I.8e). According to Badoaro, none of the three unities, no matter which interpretation is followed, accords with modern taste. Here is his scholastic defense of his position on the unity of time:

[23] It was important for the author to preserve the illusion that the time represented on stage was equivalent to that actually spent by the audience in the theater. For an analogous interpretation of the function of intermedi to enhance the dramatic verisimilitude of a play by framing it in unreality, see Pirrotta, Music and Theatre , "Temporal Perspective and Music," esp. 127-29.


As for the span of time covered by the plot, some wanted to allow a limit of eight hours, and no more, others one revolution of the sun, some two days, others three; and even these uncertain rules were not always observed by Aeschylus, by Euripides, or by Sophocles, in some of whose plots months go by, and even years. Others said that it was more than sufficient if the story could be grasped without effort in one act of memory, and I myself could accept this opinion. The precepts of poetics after all are not permanent, because the mutations of centuries give rise to diversity in composition. (Appendix I.8g)

Badoaro's apologia here, his justification for the stretching of time to its useful—if not logical—limits, recalls the sixteenth-century literary defenders or modernizers of Aristotle.[24] That justification was to supply the theoretical basis for exploitation on the part of later Venetian librettists to an extent Badoaro himself could hardly have imagined.[25]

As far as unity of place was concerned, the same argument applied. Ancient tragedy was different from modern drama, a difference Badoaro documents by a quick summary of its development adapted from Horace:

In its earliest days, Tragedy was recited by the poet alone, his face tinted with the dregs of crushed grapes. Later characters were introduced, and masks; and then choruses were added, and music, and sound effects, and scene-changes, and dances replaced the choruses; and perhaps in the future, as times change, our descendants will witness the introduction of still other forms. (Appendix I.8h)[26]

Since ancient tragedy was so different from modern drama, it followed that its rules could no longer be strictly applied. But free application of the rules resulted in a breach of verisimilitude—the very sin these rules were created to mitigate:

At one time changes of place were abhorred in these plays, but at present, in order to please the eyes, what was once prohibited seems to be prescribed, so that every day greater numbers of scene-changes are devised; now, in order to increase the delight of the audience, one thinks nothing of introducing some improbabilities, as long as they do not disfigure the plot. (Appendix I.8i-j)

[24] The argument is particularly reminiscent of Francesco Buonamici, Discorsi poetici nella Accademia fiorentina in difesa d'Aristotile (Florence, 1597); see Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 689, 696-97.

[25] The stretching of time to cover many days, even years, was not uncommon in some librettos (see, for example, Didone ). Most relevant for the production of Ulisse errante itself, the temporal elasticity provided the opportunity for a great number of scene changes to accommodate the scenography of Giacomo Torelli, newly moved to the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo from the Teatro Novissimo. See Worsthorne, Venetian Opera , 41.

[26] Badoaro's account of the evolution of classical drama seems to derive from a conflation of Aristotle's Poetics and Horace's Ars poetica —along with Aristotle's text the most important focus for translation and commentary during the sixteenth century. The two works were often conflated or jointly interpreted. See Marvin T. Herrick, The Fusion of Horatian and Aristotelian Literary Criticism, 1531-1555 (Urbana, Ill., 1946), 406.


Badoaro does claim unity of action for his drama, but he does so by vastly stretching the definition of unity through elaborate verbal sophistry:

The plot . . . aims to be una unius [one in unity]. Unified, then, is my plot, because the subject unity is Ulysses; the formal unity is his errancy; nor do many errors constitute many plots, but only many parts of a plot, which constitute a single and great action, such as Aristotle advocates. (Appendix I.8c)

He argues from both sides of the question, proving unity of action at the same time as he defends its absence:

If someone objects that this subject is not appropriate for the stage, I will say that it is, hoping that as soon as he has heard the work, he will change his mind. If he says that it contains multiple plots, I will say that I was the first to point it out, and that can easily be seen from the subdivisions of the action that I send him, here enclosed, for this purpose. As for the adventures that befall Ulysses while traveling, it is true that they are multiple actions, but in respect to the intention of the traveler, which is to get back to his country, they are but a single action. (Appendix I.8b)

And he adds:

If these arguments are convincing, let them be accepted; if not, let it be said that I have wished to depict the greatest misfortunes experienced by Ulysses on his voyage home. Those who create their subjects out of their own imaginations do very well to proceed in strict accordance with the rules; given that the choice is theirs, they are wise to follow common practice; but he who commits himself to the hero of a known tale cannot take him on without the details of the events that necessarily go with the story. (Appendix I.8d)

Badoaro's emphasis on the incompatibility of the unities and modern practice was also expounded by several other spokesmen for the new genre. Busenello touches on the question of the unities in almost all of his writings. Revealing his acute awareness of the distinctions between ancient drama and his own librettos, he draws upon a wide variety of defenses to support his departures from classical precedent; his final defense, however, is always the same: modern taste. In Didone (1641) he excuses his breach of the unity of time by citing the precedent of Spanish drama: "This opera is influenced by modern opinions. It is not constructed according to the ancient rules but, according to Spanish usage, it represents years and not hours" (Appendix I.11a).[27] In Giulio Cesare (1646), however, he simply confesses to abusing the unities of both time and place without presenting a formal defense, citing as justification only his

[27] Busenello was presumably referring here to the dramas of Lope de Vega, whose views on the unities were specifically articulated in a letter to the Florentine playwright Jacopo Cicognini, in which he urgedhim to compose in the new style and not to follow the old rules for the unities; see Belloni, Il seicento , 354.


desire to please the public. Here the poet makes Tempo, one of the allegorical characters featured in the prologue, his mouthpiece:

Here you will see years / Epitomized in hours. / . . . Who could ever object / If one melodious night reveals to you / The happenings and deeds of a thousand days? / . . . And I, in order to delight you, / Disciples, or rather teachers, of Alcydes / With flattering art, / Have enclosed more than a year in an evening: / Without using either couriers or ships, / Without changing your seats, you will discover / Thessaly, Lesbos, the Lighthouse, Egypt, and Rome. (Appendix I.12d)

As far as unity of action is concerned, Busenello calls upon Guarini as a witness for his defense in the preface to Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (1640):

The other things in the present play [aside from the Apollo-Daphne plot] are episodes interwoven in the manner that you will see; and if perchance someone should judge that the unity of the plot is broken by the multiplicity of love stories (that is, of Apollo and Daphne, of Tithonus and Aurora, of Cephalus and Procris), let him be reassured by remembering that these interweavings do not destroy the unity, but rather embellish it; and let him remember that the Cavalier Guarino, in his Pastor Fido, did not intend a multiplicity of loves (that is, between Myrtillus and Amaryllis, and between Sylvius and Dorinda), but rather used the love story of Dorinda and Sylvius to adorn his tale. (Appendix I.10)[28]

Busenello sounds suspiciously like Badoaro when he demonstrates, by means of historical exegesis, the incompatibility of ancient rules and modern taste: neither Greek tragedy (originally performed on a cart with mud on the actors' faces), Homer (whose characters spoke three, four, or even five cantos in a row), nor Seneca (whose acts consist of but a single scene with chorus) would appeal to a modern audience; by extension, neither can the rules that governed them serve modern drama.[29]

It is worth noting the dates of Busenello's statements. Although, with the exception of Statira (1655), his librettos were among the earliest performed on the Venetian stage, neither they nor his prefaces appeared in print before 1656— that is, well after the establishment of dramma per musica in Venice. If he seems somewhat more radical in his pronouncements than his fellow librettists, more responsive to modern taste, it may be because he is observing the scene in retrospect, having been bolstered by their success as well as his own.

[28] Busenello also invoked Guarini in the letter he wrote to Giovanni Grimani in connection with his libretto of Statira (1655 ), when he compared Il pastor fido favorably with Tasso's Aminta ; the letter is excerpted in Arthur Livingston, La vita veneziana nelle opere di Gian Francesco Busenello (Venice, 1913), 369-79. See below, Appendix I.13b-d.

[29] He made these three points in the Starira letter; see Livingston, Vita veneziana .


Division into Acts

The division of their dramas into acts seems to have been a much simpler proposition for the librettists than adherence to the unities. To begin with, they had only two choices: three acts or five. Classical precedent as articulated by Horace was unambiguous: five-act division was the accepted norm for ancient drama.[30] But strong competition was readily available from the living tradition of the cornmedia dell'arte as well as from Spanish drama, with their three-act structures.[31] By its very simplicity, in fact, the choice between five or three acts focused the librettists' dilemma with particular clarity. It demanded a commitment, one that could not be hedged. Whatever the decision, it was an immediate confession that classical precedent either was or was not being followed. Given librettists' alleged discomfort with the necessity of abusing the unities, it is surprising how few of them chose the five-act format.

We have considered the defense by the librettist of Le nozze d'Enea of his five-act format on the basis of verisimilitude: five acts offer twice as many intermissions as three, hence twice as many opportunities for the audience to imagine the passage of time. It is interesting that this author does not even attempt to cite classical authority for his choice, but somewhat sheepishly acknowledges the modern preference for three acts. Busenello, on the other hand, justifies the five acts of his Giutio Cesare (1646) with a perfunctory bow to classical precedent: "If the acts are five and not three, remember that all ancient dramas, and especially the tragedies of Seneca, are divided into five acts" (Appendix I.12a). But Giulio Cesare happens to be Busenello's only five-act libretto.[32] And, as we have seen, he shows no compunction in dismissing classical precedent in the prefaces to his other librettos—and even in the preface to

[30] Horace, Ars poetica (The Complete Works of Horace , ed. Casper J. Kraemer, Jr. [New York, 1936]), 403: "A play which is to be in demand and, after production, to be revived, should consist of five acts—no more, no less."

[31] All of the scenarios in Flaminio Scala's Teatro delle favole rappresentative (Venice, 1611), for example, are in three acts. Significantly, however, most of the literary dramas by the same and other authors, which were designed to be read rather than staged, are in five acts. See, for example, Flaminio Scala, Il finto marito (1618) in Commedie dei comici dell'arte , ed. Laura Falavolti (Turin, 1982), 215-365. A number of early Roman librettos, themselves rather strongly influenced by the Spanish tradition, were also in three acts. These include La rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) and Eumelio (1606), as well as Giulio Rospigliosi's Erminia sul Giordano (1633) and Stefano Landi's Sant'Alessio (1634). The "rules" of Spanish drama in the seventeenth century are articulated in Lope de Vega, Arte nuevo de hater comedias en este tiempo (Madrid, 1609). Lope himself abandoned the "rules" of tragedy, including five-act division and the "unities," in his plays. In the letter to Cicognini mentioned in n. 27 above, for example, he recommended the ordering of "actions . . . to cover the space not just of a day, but of many months, even years."

[32] And despite contrary evidence in the libretto itself (allusions in the preface and prologue), it may also be the only one never set to music. It was certainly not performed in 1646, the season for which it was intended, since all of the Venetian opera houses were closed in that year. See Walker, "Errori," 16.


Giulio Cesare with respect to other issues. Busenello reveals his true nature here, and the true functioning of his education. For him and his fellow academicians, the entire arsenal of precedent existed to be used or discarded as needed. And the needs changed frequently. What passed for legitimate one day failed the next. In any case, five-act librettos were exceedingly rare in Venice, even in the early years of generic insecurity.[33]

Three acts may have been the accepted norm for modern opera librettos (as they were for Spanish drama and cornmedia dell'arte ), but at least one of our early authors was moved to justify his choice. In the preface to his first libretto, Delia (1639), Giulio Strozzi claims three-act division as natural: "I have divided the work quite deliberately into three acts, a division common to all things: beginning, middle, and end"; and he defends it against the silent proponents of the "classical" five acts by distinguishing between ancient drama and his own work: "The ancients made five in theirs, because they interspersed them with singing [i.e., choruses]. This work, being wholly sung, has no need of so many pauses" (Appendix I.15e).[34]

After the early 1640s, the three-act division, a clear bow to modern taste, became completely conventional for dramma per musica ; five acts, however, remained the norm for spoken dramas.[35] The issue did not arise again until the end of the century, when a few of the most radical neoclassicizing librettists, especially Frigimelica Roberti, but also Zeno, used five-act division as an emblem of their orthodoxy.[36]

[33] Among the few were Paolo Vendramin's Adone (1640), the anonymous Le nozze d'Enea (1641), and Badoaro's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'Ulisse errante (1644)—but the score of Ritorno is in three acts and the other operas may also have been altered; we cannot know since their scores are lost. For a brief discussion of the differences between the manuscript librettos of Il ritorno d'Ulisse and the single extant score, see Wolfgang Osthoff, "Zu den Quellen von Monteverdis Ritorno di Ulisse in patria," Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 23 (1956 ): 67-78.

[34] In defending his division into acts, Strozzi implicitly and incidentally acknowledged his belief that ancient drama was only partly sung, and therefore not a model for him. His choice of the term azzione rather than the more common atto , however, smacks of self-conscious classicism that is undermined by the tripartite division. Such classicizing or pseudo-classicizing word choices were typical of Strozzi. In a similarly oblique acknowledgment of classical precedent, he ostentatiously gave the three acts of his next two librettos, La finta pazza (1641) and La finta savia (1643), Greek labels: "Protasi," "Epitasi," and "Catastrofe," thereby implying an awareness of ancient practice that would be belied by the three-act division itself. (These terms appear in Donatus's fourth-century commentary on Terence, i, 22, 27; see W. Beare, The Roman Stage [London, 1964], 217 and ch. 25, "The Roman Origin of the Law of Five Acts.") In another instance, Strozzi dignified the un-unified place of his Proserpina rapira with a Greek term, anatopismo , defined in the libretto as "un error di luoghi havendo qui per vaghezza il Poeta congiunto insieme il Lago di Pergusa, il monte d'Etna, il promontorio Pachino, etc."

[35] All of the plays written by Giacomo Castoreo for the Teatro ai Saloni were in five acts (with musical intermedi). Castoreo's librettos, however, were in three acts.

[36] Most of Frigimelica Roberti's librettos have five acts. They and other five-act librettos by such poets as Zeno and Pariati were a specialty of the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo; see ch. 13 below.



Another apparently clear-cut choice for early librettists involved the use of a chorus. Its presence in ancient tragedy was axiomatic; both Aristotle and Horace were clear about its importance, ascribing to it several different roles within the action.[37] The pastoral, too, made use of choral passages, which, however, were usually more tangential to the plot than those of tragedy. Opera, insofar as it was considered a revival of Greek tragedy, was thus bound to include choruses. And yet modern taste dictated otherwise, at least in Venice. Indeed, one of the conventional distinctions between Venetian opera and its predecessors hinges on the importance of choral episodes. Florentine, Mantuan, and Roman operas of the first half of the century employed them extensively, both within and between acts, where they served musical and dramatic purposes. In some of the earliest of these operas, choral passages provided the primary articulations within an otherwise nearly continuous flow of recitative, and thus contributed importantly to the shape of the works.[38] Venetian operas, on the other hand, are notable for their lack—or paucity—of choruses. They concentrate instead on soloists, using a variety of vocal styles to project the drama.[39]

An illustration of the contrast in the use of chorus between early opera and the Venetian dramma per musica is provided by a comparison of Monteverdi's early and late operas, a comparison already made with respect to their orchestral usage. In the tradition of the pastoral, and following the Florentine precedent, Orfeo contains multiple choruses—of nymphs and shepherds, of infernal spirits—that frame and comment on much of the action. In L'incoronazione di Poppea , however, there are only two choruses: Seneca's followers reacting to his decision to die, which requires only three singers for its performance (it is essentially a chorus of soloists), and Nerone's courtiers celebrating Poppea's coronation. A still more striking contrast is offered by the two versions of

[37] See Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 914-16. Aristotle, Poetics , ch. 18 (1456a): "The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and take a share in the action" (Complete Works of Aristotle , ed. Barnes, 2: 2330). Horace, Ars poetica , ed. Kraemer, 403-4: "The Chorus should discharge the part and duty of an actor with vigor, and chant nothing between the acts that does not forward the action and fit into the plot naturally. The Chorus must back the good and give sage counsel; must control the passionate and cherish those that fear to do evil; it must praise the thrifty meal, the blessings of justice, the laws, and Peace with her unbarred gates. It will respect confidences and implore heaven that prosperity may revisit the miserable and quit the proud." Extensive description of the chorus is absent in Horace's discussion of comedy (p. 406).

[38] In Peri's Euridice and Cavalieri's La rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo , for instance. The chorus certainly played an important role in later Roman operas based on the model of tragedy. See Margaret Murata, "Classical Tragedy in the History of Early Opera in Rome," Early Music History 4 (1984): 101-34.

[39] The absence of choruses is analogous to the reduced importance of the instrumental movements in Venetian, as opposed to early court, opera. See Donald J. Grout, "The Chorus in Early Opera," in Festschrift Friedrich Blume , ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Basel, 1963), 151-61.


Rinuccini's Arianna , the original one for Mantua in 1608 and the revision for Venice in 1640. The libretto printed in 1640, as already observed, differs significantly—though subtly—from the original one. In addition to lacking the generic subtitle tragedia , it places many of the original choruses between virgolette . It would seem, then, that the designation tragedia was associated with extensive choruses. The changes in the 1640 version brought Arianna more closely into line with the increasingly conventionalized Venetian dramma per musica —though it was still far from typical.

Not even the most classicizing of the early Venetian librettists included many choruses in their dramas, and those they did include occurred within, rather than at the ends of, acts. As usual, they felt self-conscious enough to call attention to their lapse. The author of Le nozze d'Enea gives a characteristically thorough, and learned, defense:

The chorus was an integral part of ancient tragedies, entering not only as a character, but singing, mainly between the acts, accompanied by gestures and dancing, and with those characteristic lamentations and outbursts. But in modern plays it is less important, and in some it does little more than separate the acts. Since I have introduced even several choruses within each act, I have not used them at the ends; because given that the entire tragedy is sung, singing the choruses as well would become too monotonous; and thus to give the audience greater satisfaction with variety, ballets have been introduced, derived in some way from the plot, just as the ancient choruses danced to sung tetrameter, a meter very well suited to the movements of the body. (Appendix I.9h-i)

Here the complete musical setting of the drama served as a double excuse, both for not writing choruses between the acts and for including ballets instead, which, in addition to providing that essential commodity, variety, could, by stretching classical theory a little, actually be justified as an extension of the ancient practice of choral dancing.

Bissari, too, in the preface to Torilda , defends his substitution of ballets for choruses between acts with a similar excuse: the choruses danced.

In the divertissements [scherzi ] and dances that are woven into modern performances, ancient practices are revived . . . which made their tragedies less monotonous. . . . Because the new stagings are embellished with these things, it cannot be said that they lack the customary choruses, especially since the choruses appeared mainly in dances: and those dances, to which song will be added, will not be dissimilar to that hyporchema of which Atheneus writes, which was distinguished by being sung and played. (Appendix I.25c)[40]

[40] Most operas of the 1640s contained ballets at the ends of their first and second acts. True to classical precedent, these were usually linked in some way, however loosely, to the dramatic events of the operas. For a summary of the changing function of these ballets in seventeenth-century opera, see Katherine Kuzmick Hansell, "Il ballo teatrale e l'opera italiana," in StOpIt , 5 (Turin, 1988): 177-92.


Modern Taste and Ethics

Behind all of these specific decisions—about the use of chorus, division into acts, and even adherence to the unities—lay a central conflict between traditional rules and modern taste. That conflict touches on an even more fundamental issue, to which these librettists were especially sensitive, one at the very basis of their whole enterprise: the purpose of their works.

The overt commercial values that had shaped opera in Venice from its earliest days gave a new focus to the question, but in addressing it, librettists were following an old tradition, that of the sixteenth-century writers who attempted to understand and communicate the aims of drama in the light of ancient poetic theory.[41] They acknowledged Aristotle's emphasis on emotional catharsis, but generally followed Horace in regarding their purpose as involving both delectation (il diletto ) and edification (l'utile ). The exact definition of these terms, as well as the proportion of the two ingredients in any single work, however, were matters that required considerable discussion. Following Horace, most previous theorists had allowed a mixture of the two aims, the one being a necessary means to the other. So, too, with our librettists, although their generic insecurity led them, at least during the 1640s, defensively to emphasize l'utile above il diletto .

An effort to demonstrate ethical content evidently inspired such elaborate interpretations as the one offered by Giulio Strozzi in the prefatory "Allegoria" of his libretto Delia :

But since . . . I did not work at random in structuring this plot, I shall tell you its allegorical meaning. The sons of the Sun . . . are wretched mortals, subjected to punishment by him for their pride and audacity. The Cyclopes represent the evil vapors. . . . The Sun shoots the Cyclopes, that is, those pernicious fumes, with arrows . . . and overcomes evil. [The Sun pretends to be] the shepherd of Admetus, that is, of the wise prince, who contributes by appropriate means to our salvation. . . . Like the sacred poems, this entire composition can be spiritually applied to the human soul, which seeks to unite with God, by whom it is received in glory. (Appendix I.15b)[42]

Strozzi claims a high moral significance, indeed, for a text that might seem a rather unlikely vehicle.

Moral scruples appear to have been operating once again in the preface to his next libretto, La finta pazza , in which he defends the apparently low tone of the work: "Do not laugh at the humbleness of the name ['The Feigned Madwoman'], nor at the [low] nature of the subject, because I wished to keep

[41] See Spingarn, History , 47; also Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 505-8, on Castelvetro.

[42] Such an allegorical gloss continues the kind of moralizing impulse that had made pagan texts like Ovid safe for centuries of Christian readers.


my claims modest, and my invitation narrow, so that, without high-sounding titles, I could much more easily live up to the low expectations of the work" (Appendix I.16b). Not only is the apparent modesty of the libretto intentional, but so is the seemingly indecorous behavior of one of the principal characters, Deidamia, who feigns madness. Her action, however, offers a moral lesson: as Strozzi reminds his readers, "many great men, through feigned madness, have put into effect their wisest counsel, to the great benefit of the nation" ("molti huomini grandi con simulata pazzia hanno effettuato i lor prudentissimi consigli in gran benefitio della patria").

Didactic value of a more specific kind is ascribed to Deidamia's madness by Bisaccioni. In his commentary on Strozzi's work, he interprets it as a practical lesson in child-rearing, illustrating "how wary fathers should be, in raising their children, to provide for them and foresee the dangers they face" ("quanto debbano i padri star oculati nel provedere e prevedere i pericoli dei figli nell'allevarli"). And this lesson in turn proves that, unlikely as it may seem, "stage works should be heard and considered more for edification than for pleasure" ("l'opere sceniche dovrebbono per utile, più che per diletto udirsi, e considerare"). The message certainly transcends the medium.[43]

Some librettists, however, made a point of denying moral purpose to their works. The oft-quoted anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea asserts that although the Horatian l'utite is in fact the "fin principale" of poetry, his aim is "diletto maggiore" as well as the Aristotelian excitation of the passions:

But although it is true that tragedies with tragic endings are superior to the other kind [i.e., his tragedy "di lieto fine"], even this kind is capable of exciting the passions; and besides it produces greater pleasure, which, even if it is not the principal aim of poetry, as edification is, still must be much sought after by the poet, especially since it is demanded by the temper of the times, to which poets have always adapted themselves in large measure. (Appendix I.9b)

And the librettist of Bellerofonte no longer even felt the pull of l'utile as he boldly rejected Horatian authority and proclaimed it diletto as poetry's chief purpose: "Of the two aims of poetry that Horace taught, only pleasure remains. In this age men have no need to learn the way of the world from the writings of others" (Appendix I.19f).

Denial no less than affirmation of ethical aims calls attention to an issue that obviously concerned these librettists. Such aims might be difficult to discern without the authors' hints, but they were inherent in many of these texts, even the most unlikely of them, those that seem especially hedonistic and amoral. One early librettist, Paolo Vendramin, offers a key to the interpretation of such

[43] Il cannocchiale per la Finta pazza, dilineato da M[aiolino] B[isaccioni] C[onte] di Glenova ] (Venice: Surian, 1641).


texts in ethical terms. In the prologue to his Adone , he comments on the tragic death of the hero, pointing out the moral of the story: "Se stupor, se pietà sia, che v'ingombre / Spettatori a tal fin; fattevi accorti, / Ch'i diletti de l'huom tutti son corti / E le gioie d'Amor tutte son'ombre" ("Spectators, whether it be shock or pity that weighs you down / At such an ending; be aware / That all the pleasures of man are brief/And all the joys of love are shadows").

Vendramin's moral lesson could be applied even under the opposite conditions; a happy ending could be as instructive as a tragic one. This point is crucial to the interpretation of one of the most problematic librettos of the period, Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea —and undoubtedly to that of others as well. Poppea's illicit rise to power, which culminates in her coronation as Nerone's empress, is built on lust and the death and exile of apparently innocent, moral individuals. In the end, however, despite the overwhelming victory of Poppea, the work is less a celebration of the vices of murder and lust than a cautionary tale. The audience, undoubtedly familiar with their Seneca, knew that Poppea's triumph was only momentary and that she would soon be violently killed by her husband. The lesson of her story, then, although only implicit, can be considered no less moral than that of Vendramin's Adone .[44]

After the middle of the century, when their number had increased markedly, most librettists abandoned the theoretical defense of their works; they could now accept as axiomatic the premises argued by their more academically inclined predecessors. Some, however, still felt compelled to account for the gap between the ethical aims of ancient drama and the more hedonistic purposes of their own works. As late as 1667 Nicolò Minato asserted the ethical intentions of his La caduta di Elio Seiano quite explicitly in his preface:

And if you come across some who say [the actions] are not to their liking, look closely and you will see that they are people of low condition who are unable to comprehend the elevated sentiments of a heroic soul. Remember that the performance of these dramas was invented by the ancients to teach perfection in morals, and thus the actions that are represented in them must be modeled after the idea of what should be, if not after what actually is. (Appendix I.43)[45]

And the publisher's preface to the anonymous Achille in Sciro (1664) still concerns itself with the aims of drama: "If this play does not proceed according to the strict rules of Aristotle, [at least] it follows the pleasant custom of the age, being a new kind of composition, which, unlike the ancient ones, has as its aim more to delight than to instruct" (Appendix I.54).[46]

[44] This interpretation is amplified in Rosand, "Seneca," 34-52; see also Pirrotta, "Monteverdi's Poetic Choices," Essays , 316.

[45] On La caduta di Elio Seiano and its twin, La prosperità di Elio Seiano , see Craig Monson, "A Seventeenth-Century Opera Cycle: The Rise and Fall of Aelius Sejanus" (manuscript).

[46] According to Bonlini, Le glorie della poesia e della musica , 66, the author of Achille in Sciro was Ippolito Bentivoglio.


The issue became especially pressing in the case of some of the more lascivious librettos of this later period, although not all librettists attempted to excuse their salaciousness with the same circuitous and pathetic justification as Giacomo Castoreo in the preface to his Pericle effeminato (1653):

If I have not maintained either decorum in the characters or verisimilitude in the incidents, do not find fault with me, since I am following the misguided custom, introduced by many and practiced by all. Those metaphors that go by the name of playful, though they stray rather far from moral propriety, listen to them if you wish, but know that my intention was never to introduce obscenity into them; rather it was to induce you to mourn with me the depraved corruption of the century, in which poetic talent, which in other times was used to intimidate tyrants with civility of conduct, can find no means to delight you except through the effrontery of indecent jokes. (Appendix I.40b)

Much later, in the preface to his Alcibiade (1680), a thin pro forma reference to morality was all that Aurelio Aureli could muster to excuse his thoroughly licentious libretto: "You will enjoy a few lascivious though restrained actions, composed by me with the sole aim that you learn to shun them, and not to imitate them." ("Goderai di qualche scherzo lascivo ma pero moderato, com-posto da me a solo fine, che tu impari a sfuggirlo, e non ad imitarlo.")[47]

For the first generation of librettists—the Incogniti Busenello, Badoaro, Bartolini, Bisaccioni, and Strozzi, who were truly academic in their education and interests—the authority of the ancients was part of their cultural heritage. It loomed in the background, waiting to be applied whenever and however it was needed. The main purpose of all of their citations, as Badoaro neatly put it, was to show that they knew the rules: "In every age the road of invention has been shown to be open, and we have no other obligation in regard to the precepts of the ancients than to know them" (Appendix I.8k). What they did with them after that was a matter of individual choice.

Subject Matter

One area in which the impact of ancient precedent remained evident, at least on the surface, was in the choice of subject matter. The stories were old. A number of the earliest Venetian operas, like those in Florence and Rome, had mythological subjects. Most of them were based on Ovidian tales (probably filtered through modern translation and adaptation, especially that of Anguillara): Andromeda, Adone, Apollo e Dafne, Arianna .[48] Others treated mythological char-

[47] Further on the question of moral decadence in Venetian librettos, see Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 267.

[48] Le metamorfosi di Ovidio ridotte da Gio. Andrea dell'Anguillara in ottava rima (1554). The importance of Anguillara as a source for Ovidian transformations in seventeenth-century opera plots is discussed in Bianconi, Seventeenth Century , 218-19; see also Ellen Rosand, "L'Ovidio trasformato," preface to Aurelio Aureli and Antonio Sartorio, Orfeo , ed.Ellen Rosand, Drammaturgia musicale veneta 6 (1983), X-XI.


acters more freely: Amore innamorato, Venere gelosa, Delia . Still others, borrowing their plots from Homer and Virgil, recounted the exploits of Greek and Trojan heroes: Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse, Didone, Le nozze d'Enea . Another important category of libretto was the romance derived from more recent Italian literature, from Ariosto or Tasso: Bradamante, Armida . In most cases, the librettist relied on an earlier literary or dramatic model; newly invented plots were uncommon during the first decade of opera in Venice. Yet the nature of the source determined the librettist's attitude toward it, the extent to which he followed or elaborated upon it. Mythology, dealing with the exploits of the Olympian deities, allowed relatively free rein to the librettist's imagination. The various events of divine careers were self-sufficient, lending themselves to isolation as well as to combination and permutation. They could also be combined with those of other gods with whom they intersected, linked by their common Olympian citizenship. A divine cast could be expanded or contracted at will, characters could be added for their particular attributes— their comic potential, for example, like Momus or Mercury. Their characterization left more room for invention or imagination, for expansion. Most important, mythology not only permitted the suspension of disbelief, it actually encouraged it. Gods and goddesses were automatically exempted from the rules of human behavior.[49]

History, on the other hand, whatever its mythological dimensions, made greater claims on verisimilitude. The Trojan War had causes and results; it had a beginning and an end. Ulysses and Aeneas, though legendary, were human beings with well-known histories and destinies; their adventures were replete with historical implications and consequences. It is no wonder, therefore, that early librettists felt more strictly bound by human history than by divine myth, and that they felt compelled to justify any liberties they took as far as plot development was concerned.

One of the most notorious revisionists in this sense was, predictably, Busenello. His treatment of the Virgilian episode of Dido and Aeneas bows so deeply to "modern taste" that it verges on the absurd: he supplied that quint-essentially tragic story with a happy ending. And yet he found full academic justification for his departure.

And because according to good doctrine it is permissible for poets not only to alter [fictional] stories but even history, Dido takes Iarbas for her husband. And if it was

[49] Cf. Il corago o vero alcune osservazioni per metter bene in scena le composizioni drammatiche , ed. Paolo Fabbri and Angelo Pompilio (Florence, 1983) (Appendix II.1b). The willingness of audiences to accept gods' and goddesses' singing had important implications for the development of occasions for arias in early opera.


a famous anachronism in Virgil that Dido lost her life not for Sychaeus, her husband, but for Aeneas, great minds should be able to tolerate that here there occurs a marriage that is different both from the stories and the histories. He who writes satisfies his own fancy, and it is in order to avoid the tragic ending of Dido's death that the aforementioned marriage to Iarbas has been introduced. It is not necessary here to remind men of understanding how the best poets represented things in their own way; books are open, and learning is not a stranger in this world. (Appendix I.11b)

The convention of the happy ending in tragedy, of course, was hardly new with opera. Aristotle himself had confronted the issue. Judging the happy ending more proper to comedy, he recognized its use in tragedy as a form of pandering to audience taste.[50] Renaissance authors deliberately exploited the option. Giraldi Cintio, for example, all of whose tragedies end happily, acknowledges their generic impurity by calling them tragedie miste . He, too, admits that his motive was "exclusively to serve the needs of the spectators, and to make them [the tragedies] more pleasing on the stage, and to conform better to the usage of our times."[51] The issue remained problematic into the seventeenth century, and the rationale for the happy ending the same, its appeal to popular taste—as Giulio Strozzi reminds us in defending his tragedy Erotilla , written in honor of the marriage of the prince of Sulmona.

But what have tragedies to do with weddings? In truth the incongruity would be great if mine were not one of those tragedies that are allowed to have a happy ending and to leave a sweet taste in the mouths of the spectators. . . . It is true that, according to the rules of Aristotle, such tragedies seem less perfect, but in accordance with the taste of the day, which is the rule of all rules, they are received with greater enthusiasm, and listened to with greater patience. (Appendix I. 14a,c)[52]

Within this same passage, Strozzi makes a further distinction, one also emphasized by Renaissance writers, between tragedy with a happy ending and tragicomedy:

Nor do I want anyone to baptize it a tragicomedy, because it would show that they do not understand the significance of that term, nor know in what sense the ancients used it. For they called tragicomedies only those comedies in which some more noble and tragic characters were inserted, such as heroes or gods; but they never used that term for tragedies to which they gave happy endings. (Appendix I. 14b)

[50] Aristotle, Poetics , ch. 13 (1453a).

[51] Quoted from Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 1: 442.

[52] L'Erotilla: Tragedia di Giulio Strozzi , saggio primo, terza impressione, in I saggi poetici di Giulio Strozzi (Venice: Alberti, 1621). This is the same distinction made by the author of Le nozze d'Enea , between tragedie lugubri and di lieto fine (Appendix 1.9b-c).


That distinction, as we shall see, proved to be of particular relevance in the subsequent development of the Venetian libretto.[53]

In any case, whether in tragedy or tragicomedy, the happy ending already boasted a lengthy operatic pedigree, having been introduced in the first surviving opera from Florence, Peri's Euridice , and used on many subsequent occasions. Busenello nevertheless felt compelled to justify the practice in his Didone , perhaps because the tragic outcome of the story was so well known. Whatever the reason, he seems to have been the first librettist to cite ancient authority—though he is rather vague on exactly which authority he is referring to—to justify the practice in opera.

Other librettists, however, stuck more closely to their sources, at least in the early period. In Il ritorno d'Ulisse , for example, Badoaro follows the Odyssey quite faithfully. But when he treated the same subject in another libretto, Ulisse errante (1644), he took many more liberties with his source. The contrast, as pointed out by Badoaro himself in the preface, was intentional, a response to critics of his earlier work who had apparently judged it lacking in invention.

Many years ago [i.e., four] I produced Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria , a drama wholly derived from Homer and deemed excellent by Aristotle in his Poetics , and even then I heard dogs barking, but I was not slow to respond with stones in my hands. Now I present Ulisse errante , which consists, in substance, of twelve books of Homer's Odyssey . I have partly reduced the episodes, partly built up the subject with inventions as I deemed necessary, without departing from the essence of the story. (Appendix I. 8a)

Although Il ritorno d'Ulisse is indeed close to the Odyssey , it does not follow it exactly. Badoaro's play with dialogue is naturally much shorter and more focused than the Homeric epic, in which the action is described rather than enacted. The generic distinction is one to which Badoaro, predictably, was extremely sensitive. He nimbly explains the difference, though with reference not to Il ritorno d'Ulisse itself but to Ulisse errante :

[53] Originally the term tragicomedy , as coined by Plautus, referred to a play that combined elements of both tragedy and comedy in mixing kings, gods, and servants. The happy ending does not seem to have figured significantly in Plautus's original definition, though Renaissance writers such as Giraldi Cintio used the term for tragedies with happy endings. See Weinberg, Literary Criticism , 210. The most complete discussion of tragicomedy in the Renaissance is by Battista Guarini, Il Verrato (Ferrara: Galdura, 1588), discussed in Weinberg, 658-68. See also his Compendio della poesia tragicomica (Venice: Ciotti, 1601). Guarini defined tragicomedy as a combination of tragedy and comedy that "takes from the one the great personages, but not the action; the verisimilar plot, but which is not true; the passions moved, but blunted; pleasure, not sadness; danger, but not death. From the other, controlled laughter, modest jests, the contrived knot, the happy reversal, and above all the comic order" (Il Verrato , f. 19 , quoted and translated by Weinberg, 659-60). On tragicomedy, see the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics , ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton, 1965), 865-68.


If some wit should assert . . . that it is a subject more suitable for an epic than a tragedy, I will say that whoever wishes to read it in an epic will go to Homer's Odyssey , and whoever wishes to hear it as a tragedy will come to the theater of the Most Illustrious Signor Giovanni Grimani, where, in a short time, and with less effort, he may behold it in greater splendor upon the stage. (Appendix I. 8f)

The characterizations in Il ritorno d'Ulisse are generally based on Homer, but they are developed in various ways. The secondary figures left greater latitude for expansion than the protagonists: less is known about them, their histories are less important. One in particular, the beggar Irus, gains much fuller characterization at Badoaro's hands. Labeled a "parasito" by Badoaro (and in Monteverdi's score, "parte ridicola"), he has a much more prominent role in the opera than in the epic, providing the opportunity for a full range of comic imitations—blustering, stuttering, crying. His effect is hardly comic, however, when, having been roundly beaten by Ulisse, he is not propped passively against the courtyard wall to scare away stray animals, as in the Odyssey , but actively determines to commit suicide.[54]

The abuse of decorum perpetrated on this "tragedia" by the presence of a comic character such as Iro was noted by the anonymous author of Le nozze d'Enea , who modeled an indecorous comic character of his own on him.[55] Once again, the desire to satisfy modern taste inspired breaking the "rules"—in this case, those of genre. But a precise precedent for doing so was easy to find; the anonymous author had a number of models besides Iro to choose from, and even earlier ones. He could have looked to Ermafrodito in Strozzi's Delia of 1639, to whom Strozzi had called particular attention in his preface: "I have introduced here the hilarode of the Greeks in the person of the playful Ermafrodito, a novel character, who, between the severity of the tragic and the facetiousness of the comic, sits very nicely upon our stage" (Appendix I. 15f). Strozzi himself had modeled his character on a still earlier one, who had appeared on stage the year before: Scarabea, from Ferrari's La maga fulminata .[56] And he acknowledged his debt explicitly in Ermafrodito's first speech:

Con lusinghe ladre

Mercurio mio padre

Venere assaggio:

Nacqui di bella Dea;

E la nudrice mia fù Scarabea.

With deceitful sighs

Mercury my father

Tasted Venus.

I was born of a beautiful goddess

And my nurse was Scarabea.

[54] See Ellen Rosand, "Iro and the Interpretation of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria," JM 7 (1989): 141-64.

[55] The relevant passage is quoted on pp. 43-44 above. See also Appendix 1.9e.

[56] The modeling of Ermafrodito on Scarabea was evidently one of the many revisions to the libretto, which Strozzi claimed to have sketched for a different purpose, some ten years earlier (Appendix I. 15h); see also Bianconi and Walker, "Dalla 'Finta pazza,'" 411 and n. 137.


L'han gia molti udita

Vecchia rimbambita

D'amore cantar,

Ma non è maraviglia

D'una Tiorba, e d'un Poeta è figlia.

Latte Scarabeo

Mi fece un Orfeo

Si lungo, e sottil:

Son di Venere figlio,

Ma nel restate à Scarabea simiglio.

Many have already heard her,

The old woman grown childish,

Sing of love.

But it's no wonder,

Since she's the daughter of a theorbo and a poet.

Scarabean milk

Made me an Orpheus

So long and thin.

I am Venus's child,

But in all else I resemble Scarabea.

In all these cases, the comic character provides relief from the serious drama, and in so doing represents a breach of the rules of tragedy. Although the perpetrators were self-conscious about it, at least they felt they were not alone. They could rely, with comforting tautology, on one another's example for justification.

This solidarity, supplying one another with support or precedent, marks an important turning point in the development of Venetian opera. The practice actually began as soon as it could, with the second opera performed in Venice referring to the first, and it grew up alongside and quite soon replaced the function of invoking classical models. Librettists cited one another's works, as they had done and continued to do with all sources, quite intentionally, with full awareness of their twin needs: for specific precedents and for a general history of their own, both of which would support the legitimacy of their activity. Such cross-references were a crucial component of opera's increasingly secure establishment in Venice, at once creating and recording its own history.

The growing number of such cross-references produced a decisive shift in the equilibrium between ancient authority and modern taste. By concretizing the concept of modern taste, these specific examples gave it greater weight, and certainly greater relevance for contemporary efforts. The borrowing of material from one libretto in another over an extended period of time eventually resulted in the establishment of a set of conventions that defined Venetian opera as a genre.

Badoaro's elaboration on Homer in Ulisse errante , like Busenello's alteration of Virgil in Didone , reveals another important trend in the development of the genre—one that, although established in the early 1640s, gained momentum rapidly in the course of the decade. This was the tendency toward increasing freedom in the adaptation of sources, toward increasing inventione . But in this same early period, not all librettists felt obliged to apologize for taking liberties with sources. Giovanni Faustini did just the opposite. In the preface to his


second libretto, Egisto (1643), he admits not to excessive inventione but to a borrowing: "I confess to you that I have taken the episode with Cupid from Ausonius, with the same license that the Latin poets used to take the ideas of the Greeks in order to adorn their own stories and epic compositions" (Appendix I.31b). The essential difference between Faustini's libretto and those we have been discussing, implied here but not stated, is that the remainder of his text is not taken from any obvious source, but is freely invented, suggesting a different model: tragicomedy rather than tragedy.[57]

This contrast between librettists who defended invention and one who defended borrowing stands for a basic dichotomy in the early history of opera in Venice. Badoaro and Busenello, the Incogniti apologists, represented one side; Faustini and others, to be discussed in the following chapters, represented the other. The academic theoreticians and the practical men of the theater: these two currents, epitomizing the struggle between theory and practice, were the main tributaries of the new genre, dramma per musica . From the beginning of its history, opera in Venice was shaped by this dialectic. The professional theater men, like Ferrari and Manelli, brought opera to Venice; the academics, the writers whose views on the nature of tragedy and its relation to their own theatrical efforts we have been considering, helped to provide it with intellectual and historical substance.[58] Although they themselves did not use the term, choosing tragedia or dramma instead, their efforts bear major responsibility for defining dramma per musica for the future. In airing and then dismissing the "rules" as inconsistent or irrelevant, the Incogniti librettists disposed of the issues that troubled them as intellectuals well versed in the classics, helping to clear the ground and set opera on a firm footing for their less intellectual, more pragmatic successors. Their theoretical defenses lent a patina of legitimacy to the bastard genre.

[57] Faustini's librettos, which were the models for most librettos written in the second half of the century, almost seem created to fulfill Guarini's criteria for tragicomedy (see n. 53 above).

[58] For evidence of tension between the two groups, see Ferrari's pointed anti-academic comments in the preface to the Bologna edition of his Pastor regio (1641) (Appendix I.5a). One figure seems to have bridged both worlds: Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, a professional theater man, was reported also to have participated in the "erudita conversatione" with members of the Incogniti, Loredan, Pietro Michele, Herrico, and Strozzi. See Angelo Bon-tempi, Historia musica (Perugia, 1695), 188; quoted in Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 213 n. 11.


2—Dramma per musica : The Question of Genre

Preferred Citation: Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.