December 4, 2009

Composer Warbucks: Vivaldi and the Ospedale della Pietà

Pio Ospedale della Pietà? Again and again the name of this Italian girls' orphanage and school comes up when reading about the composer Antonio Vivaldi, why? The obvious reason is because Vivaldi worked there for over two decades! Another reason is because the Piéta had one of the finest orchestras in Europe and Vivaldi wrote much of his music for the orphans. David Wilson tells us more:

The Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (image below), usually described as an orphanage and music school, was extremely important in Antonio Vivaldi’s life. At the age of 25, Vivaldi was hired by the Pietà as a violin teacher. It was his first “real” job, and his association with the Pietà continued in one form or another for the rest of his life. A great deal of Vivaldi’s music was written for concerts and religious services at the Pietà.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III decreed that homes should be established which would care for orphans and children who had been abandoned. These homes were generally associated with churches and convents. By means of a “baby hatch” or “foundling wheel” (image below), a mother could anonymously deliver a baby, usually a newborn, into the care of the church. The mother would place the baby in a sort of revolving door, rotate the device so that the baby was inside, and then ring a bell to alert those inside that a baby had been delivered. Sometimes babies were abandoned because of a deformity, but more often it was because they had been born out of wedlock.

The Ospedale della Pietà was one of four such homes in the city of Venice. The Pietà took in mostly girls, and by Vivaldi’s time had become well known for the quality of the musical education provided to its residents. The girls of the Pietà became such accomplished musicians that by Vivaldi’s time the institution had developed a reputation as a first-rate music school. In fact, noble families with musically talented daughters would often try to pretend that the girls were orphans in order to enroll them at the Pietà, a practice that was sternly disapproved of by the institution as it was intended to be a charitable organization.

In fact, as Robert Mealy wrote in last season’s program notes for March 2009’s “Winds and Waves” concerts: the young women had to renounce any professional career once they left the institution.

“These terms meant that there were a good number of women who stayed on in the Pietà, becoming teachers. This all-woman orchestra was enough of a novelty (and their playing was of such exceptional ability) that their performances became one of the attractions of Venice, a standard stop on the Grand Tour of young, well-to-do gentlemen, who delighted in the mystery of hearing these women play behind a “grille” or screen.”


  1. Chiunque fosse interessato ad avere maggiori informazioni sul fondo musicale contenente i manoscritti con le musiche scritte per le “putte” dell’Ospedale della Pietà di Venezia può cliccare al seguente indirizzo:
    cordiali saluti

  2. If you can't read Italian but know of a good translation software (we suggest Google), the comment above links you to a page about the "Correr Music Fund," a project dedicated to archiving and studying the musical manuscripts written for Ospedale della Pietà's orchestra between 1732 and 1851. We recommend the "Gallery" and "Video" sections!