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

13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition

In Defense of Decorum

The professed aim of Ivanovich's book, as we learn from the dedication, was to glorify his aristocratic patrons, the Grimani brothers, "whose theaters are admired by the whole world" (Appendix II. 6a). With their magnificent theaters and generous profusion of gold, these "true Apollos . . . allow the most elevated meters and the most exquisite voices to be heard" (Appendix II. 6b). They will prevent any further erosion of decorum. Their theatrical abilities are all the more powerful for being inherited, as Ivanovich recognized in ascribing to their "great progenitors" the responsibility for having resurrected theaters equal in

[14] Aureli actually apologized for showing Achilles i and Hercules together even though they lived at different times, hardly the most striking anachronism in this particular libretto; see Rosand, "L'Ovidio trasformato," XXVII.


splendor to those of ancient Rome (Appendix II.6c). The Grimani, of course, in the person of their illustrious uncle, Giovanni, had been responsible for the founding of the theater at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1639, one of the earliest and grandest opera houses in Venice. And the family had been active in the affairs of a number of other theaters as well, most recently, as Ivanovich emphasized, with the erection of the magnificent new Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo, which merits a special celebratory sonnet just after the dedicatory message.[15]

After the dedication and sonnet, Ivanovich continued to compliment his patrons during the course of the volume, although somewhat more obliquely. His concern with decorum and ticket prices, for example, turns into an implicit tribute to their high standards and lofty aims. They alone refused to descend to the level of cheap competition by lowering prices (Appendix II. 6y). And in the chapter entitled "The Number of Theaters There Were and Are at Present in Venice and the Date of Their Founding" (Appendix II.60), his description of S. Giovanni Grisostomo is more elaborate than that of the other theaters, containing a number of flattering, if gratuitous, details: "The eleventh [theater], at San Giovanni Grisostomo, [was] erected with admirable speed in the year 1678 by Giovanni Carlo and the Abbot Vincenzo, the Grimani brothers, Antonio's sons, nephews and heirs of the abovementioned Giovanni, who thus showed that they had inherited his magnificence as well as his virtuosic genius, making the nobility of lineage and spirit all the more conspicuous" (Appendix II.6r).[16]

Ivanovich's special appreciation of the Grimani brothers and of their new theater for maintaining aesthetic standards may have been the obligatory response of a courtier to his patrons and therefore rather rhetorical. His relationship with the family, after all, had been a long one; it went back at least to 1663, when he wrote the libretto of Amor guerriero for SS. Giovanni e Paolo, which was then under the direction of the brothers' uncle, Giovanni (d. 1663). But his respect for them and their new theater was not misplaced. For the Grimani brothers, at S. Giovanni Grisostomo, were eventually instrumental in promoting the "reform" that Ivanovich's criticism of "abusi correnti" implicitly called for. The older of the two brothers, Giovanni Carlo, was a statesman and diplomat with many connections in Rome. His interests were strongly academic, and he was an important patron of the arts and of men of letters. In 1691, at his home in Venice, aided by the family's young secretary, Apostolo Zeno, Gio-

[15] The sonnet is entitled: "Nella maravigliosa nuova erezione del Teatro Grimano a San Giovanni Grisostomo." For a discussion of the importance of the Grimani family as patrons of opera, see Saunders, "Repertoire," ch. 1: "The Grimani Brothers as Theatrical Entrepreneurs." The Grimani also took over the lease of Teatro S. Salvatore for ten years, beginning in 1687, but the arrangement lasted for only two years. See ibid., 26 and n. 1.96, and Mangini, I teatri di Venezia , 54.

[16] Rather than emphasizing the Grimani's earlier theaters, Ivanovich merely quoted Martinioni on the erection of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and S. Samuele by Giovanni Grimani (Appendix II.6n).


vanni Carlo founded the Accademia degli Animosi, which became incorporated as a colony of the Roman Arcadian academy in 1698.[17]

The relationship of Arcadian literary theory to the reform of opera at the end of the seventeenth century has been the subject of much scholarly attention. The Arcadians themselves were to spill considerable ink over the topic of opera, as the most visible and popular manifestation of the general decadence in Italian literature that they wished to reform. Their widely publicized views on the reasons for the decline and the sources of salvation, exemplified by the remarks of Crescimbeni quoted earlier, and by those of other writers, eventually succeeded in promoting a restoration of literary standards to the "decadent" genre.[18]

Giovanni Carlo Grimani, then, represented a direct link between opera in Venice and the impending Arcadian reform. Indeed, so-called reform librettos made their first Venetian appearance on the stage of S. Giovanni Grisostomo shortly after 1690.[19] But even before 1691, when the Accademia degli Animosi began to exercise a classicizing effect on the repertory of S. Giovanni Griso-stomo, the predilection of the Grimani brothers for a stricter sense of decorum was manifested at that theater in various ways: in its high entrance fee, and consequent cultivation of a particularly aristocratic audience, and in productions that were not only consistently more elaborately staged but generally more elevated in tone than those of other theaters, eschewing the sexual explicitness that characterized many operas of the 1680s.[20] The contrast is particularly vivid between the two Grimani theaters. The older SS. Giovanni e Paolo, with reduced prices, continued to employ professional librettists like Aureli, and to perform such patently decadent works as Alcibiade (1680) and Dionisio ovvero la virtò trionfante del vizio (1681). In the newer theater, on the other hand, ancient Roman themes predominated, and librettists were increasingly drawn from the higher reaches of society. Conceivably the Grimani brothers were intentionally exploiting both ends of the market, depending on

[17] On the Animosi and its relationship to the Roman Arcadians, including relevant bibliography, see Saunders, "Repertoire," ch. 2, nn. 6, 7.

[18] On Arcadian opera criticism, see ibid., ch. 4; also Freeman, Opera without Drama , ch. 1. Although Freeman includes extensive translations of Arcadian writings, their usefulness is limited by their inaccuracy and the absence of the original texts.

[19] These include such works as Adriano Morselli's L'incoronazione di Serse (1691) and Ibraim sultano (1692), both based on French models (by Corneille and Racine, respectively), as well as Domenico David's notorious La forza della virtò (1693), which inspired a spirited defense from members of the Accademia degli Animosi and which was once, prematurely, dubbed "the first reform libretto" (by Nathaniel Burt, "Opera in Arcadia," MQ 41 [1955]: 145-70). For a comprehensive recent view of the position of the Arcadians on opera reform, see Renato di Benedetto, "Poetiche e polemiche," StOpIt, 6 (Turin, 1988): 3-76, esp. 16-30.

[20] This sexual explicitness was a manifestation of the "vizio di Venere" attributed to Venetian society by one commentator of this period. See Bianconi and Walker, "Production," 267.


large lower-class audiences in one theater to support their extravagances in the other.[21]

The exalted image of the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo persisted well into the eighteenth century. It was apparently the only opera house in Venice to resist the general invasion of comic intermezzi that began early in the century, a resistance that inspired the second historian of opera, Carlo Bonlini, to praise its uncompromisingly high standards: "At S. Giovanni Grisostomo [comic intermezzi] were never allowed, that majestic theater having always tried to maintain decorous restraint in all things."[22] And it was the site of a regular series of important opere serie —with librettos by such well-known reformers as Zeno, Domenico David, Girolamo Frigimelica Roberti, and Francesco Silvani—from the end of the seventeenth century until 1747, when it ceased to function as an opera house.[23]

In identifying with the accomplishments of the Accademia degli Animosi and in bringing their ideals into the opera house for the purpose of promoting operatic reform, Giovanni Carlo Grimani was reviving an old relationship between opera and the academy. Half a century earlier, we recall, another academy, the Incogniti, had exercised comparable influence on the genre. Its voluminous aesthetic discussions in opera librettos and elsewhere had established the premises for the development of the genre. They had aired the fundamental questions of verisimilitude, linguistic decorum, and adherence to Aristotelian principles, justifying all sorts of evasions and improprieties on the basis of modern taste; and they had invoked precedents drawn from a wide range of historical sources. It was the very improprieties they so avidly defended that, when naturally extended, became the abuses that the Arcadians, invoking their own precedents drawn from the tradition of French classicism, were to condemn and seek to correct. Seicento opera in Venice, then, was bracketed by the activities of two academies, both claiming special influence by virtue of their elaborate propaganda networks.[24]

[21] Several S. Giovanni Grisostomo librettos were published anonymously, suggesting a parallel to the situation in the 1640s when various aristocratic Incogniti withheld their names from libretto publications. These included a few probably by Grimani himself, such as Elmiro re di Corinto (1687), set by Pallavicino, Orazio (1688), set by Tosi, and Agrippina (1710), set by Handel; see Saunders, "Repertoire," 29.

[22] "A S. Gio Grisostomo [gl'intermedi comici] non sono mai stati ammessi, avendo sempre quel Maestoso Teatro cercato in tutto di mantenere un decoroso contegno" ([Bonlini], Le glorie della poesia e della musica , 149-50).

[23] On the closing of the theater, see Saunders, "Repertoire," 26 n. 1.95. Frigimelica Roberti, one of the most important and austere of the neoclassicizing librettists, composed all eleven of his librettos for S. Giovanni Grisostomo (ibid., 78-79; Frigimelica Roberti's librettos are listed on 88). See also Karl Leich, Girolamo Frigimelica Robertis Libretti (1694-1708): Ein Beitrag insbesondere zur Geschichte des Opernlibrettos in Venedig , Schriften zur Musik 26 (Mutach, 1972).

[24] Saunders ("Repertoire," 79) has argued quite convincingly that it was the academy's active propaganda apparatus that was responsible for the inordinate influence of Zeno and the Arcadians, as opposed to that of other writers such as Frigimelica Roberti, on the reform of opera.


13—Il ritorno d'Orfeo : The Decline of a Tradition

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