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Authors: Barbara Quick

Vivaldi's Virgins

BOOK: Vivaldi's Virgins
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For my father, Hal Tritel

[D]uring the renovation of the Pietà as part of the observances of the tercentenary of the birth of Antonio Vivaldi, the Venice Committee of the International Fund for Monuments discovered a massive collection of documents relating to wards of the Pietà. The archive, in a chaotic state, was long believed to have been destroyed at the time of Napoleon’s invasion in 1797.

—J
ANE L. BALDAUF-BERDES
,
“Anna Maria della Pietà: The Woman Musician of Venice Personified”

CHAPTER
1

ANNO DOMINI
1709

Dearest Mother,

Since I was first taught to dip a quill and pen my ABCs, I have imagined writing to you. I have written many such letters in my mind, and you have read them. They made you weep. With the power of exquisite music exquisitely performed, they called you back to this place to claim me.

Have I ever been in your thoughts, as you have been in mine? Would my eyes remind you of the infant I was when last you saw me?

When I happen on my reflection in a dark window, I am sometimes startled to see a young woman’s face looking back at me. How much more surprised would you be to see the transformation wrought by Time?

Here, within these stone walls where you left me, I have grown like those plants that are cultivated indoors, with shallow roots and always turning toward whatever sunshine can be stolen from the day outside.

I have heard that children often resemble their parents. I have looked at my long-fingered hands and wondered, are they like your hands? Is my profile like yours? Do you have fair hair that seems not to belong with your dark eyes? Is there also a hunger inside them?

Until this morning, I had no hope that any letter of mine could
ever reach you—nor any assurance beyond the promptings of my own imagination that you even lived.

Today all of that has changed.

Who you are, where you are—both are as much matters of darkness to me as before. But I pray to the Holy Virgin, even though I have never seen her. I play my violin for God, even though I cannot know if He has ever listened. Why can I not then write to you? Sister Laura has never, as far as I know, lied to me before. And today Sister Laura told me to write to you.

But I must explain.

On this one day a year, the
figlie di coro
—the daughters of the choir, as both the singers and instrumentalists are called—are allowed to visit whatever blood relations on the outside are willing to welcome them. Girls look forward to it, plan for it, dream about it, and then spend the rest of the year hoarding every detail of it, like squirrels with their treasure of nuts, until the next year’s visit comes around.

Last year on this day, while servants beat rugs and shook out draperies, I sat beneath the arch of my favorite window, near the rooms occupied by the
privilegiate
of the
coro.
The window affords a splendid view, through the iron grating, of all the life that moves upon the water below. I sat on the little bench there, in the silvery storm of dust that danced in the light, my arms wrapped around my violin. I heard and then watched Maestro Vivaldi climb the stairs.

He has been my teacher—and one of the very few men who has ever seen my face or spoken to me—for nearly half my lifetime. I was only a girl of eight when, newly ordained as a priest, Antonio Vivaldi, native son of Venezia, was hired by the governors of the Pietà to be our master of the violin.

I can remember the day when Sister Laura brought me before him. Don Antonio sat in the sacristy unwigged, his hair as red as the branding irons they would use to mark the infants when
they were left here—just like the one that marks me on my foot, a small, ornate letter
P
to designate a foundling enrolled at the Pietà.

“What’s this?” Don Antonio asked. Looking up from the papers and quills that lay in disorder on his writing desk, he protested that he was hired to teach the advanced students, not the
piccoli.

Sister Laura pushed me forward, even though, with all my heart, I longed to turn away and run. The color of his hair frightened me—it put me in mind of the flames of Hell. And the impatience in his voice bespoke a man who had no love of children.

But Sister Laura urged him to hear me play.

When I was done, he took the instrument from me and examined my hands, turning them over in his. He tipped my face up so that he could peer into my eyes, and it was then that I could see the happiness my playing had given him. He asked me my name.

“They call me Anna Maria dal Violin,” I told him.

Sister Laura explained to Don Vivaldi that none of the foundlings is allowed to know her surname, if she has one. Many of the babies brought to the Pietà are sent out to the country after they are enrolled, to be nursed and raised by a foster mother until they return, at the age of ten, to complete their education. But I was one of those suckled by a wet nurse here (we still had wet nurses,
nenne,
then, who lived on the premises). My musical training was begun as soon as I was able to hold a violin.

I hoped she’d explain further, for my benefit as well as his. But she only stood there beside me, with one of her hands resting on my shoulder. That hand was trembling. Sister Laura was my teacher until Maestro Vivaldi came to the Pietà.

“Anna Maria dal Violin,” said this red-headed priest. “You will be one of our fourteen
iniziate,
an apprentice musician in the
coro.
Work hard!” He turned back to his papers then, dismissing
us with a wave of his hand.

I felt myself fill with happiness like the water that fills the empty bucket when it is dropped into the well. Sister Laura told me that she had never heard of an eight-year-old being made an
iniziata.
It would mean classes and rehearsals with the girls and women of the
coro,
under the direction of Maestro Vivaldi.

Imagine now, if you will, dear Mother, the passage of five years. A girl, unusually short of stature, is pulled and pinched like bread dough into a new shape and size. Thirteen years old, her eyes filled with tears, her heart filled with bitterness, she looks down from her solitary perch beneath the window at the unfamiliar sight of a priest climbing the forbidden stairs to the third floor.

I wondered if someone was dying. No men, not even the priests, are allowed on the third floor unless a girl requires Last Rites—and even then he must be accompanied by two of the governors. But I was the only one left here that day. Every other member of the
coro
had somewhere else to go. I had the distinction of having no one on the outside willing to claim me.

When he got closer, I saw that it was the maestro. It is not unusual for him to ignore the rules. But he had never broken this particular rule before. He walked toward me, searching through a sheaf of papers he had tucked in his robes.
“Ecco!”
he said, handing a page of music to me. He was breathing hard from his climb, and there were beads of sweat on his brow.

It was the solo part for a new sonata. The ink was smeared in places where his fingers had touched it before it had dried. There was a dedication inscribed across the top of the page:
“Per Sig.ra: Anna Maria.”

Before I could give voice to either my pleasure or surprise, Maestro Vivaldi had already turned and started back down the stairway. He paused at the first landing, looked up, and waved to me.
I waved back at him. And then he crossed himself and continued climbing down, jabbering to himself all the while and humming beneath his breath as he does sometimes, sounding as mad as one of the inmates of the Incurabili.

I sat and studied the music, hearing the notes, as I read them, on the violin God put inside me.

Of course, I wondered if the maestro had actually composed this sonata with me in mind. Or whether, as an afterthought—perhaps at a whispered word from Sister Laura or one of the other teachers—he’d hastily written my name across the top of the page.

I decided that it didn’t really matter. I practiced my part over and over again until I’d committed it to memory. Staring out through the grille at the gondolas going by, I played with all the feelings I found inside the music—feelings I hadn’t been able to feel before when I sat there in silence, watching the people carried along to all the places people go when they live on the outside.

This year there was no new sonata to take my thoughts away from the other girls and all the delights awaiting them. The embraces of cousins, the special dishes cooked for them by aunts and grandmothers, the whispered secrets and shared tears. The person who would notice and remark, “How you’ve grown since last I saw you!”

I sat, as I always do, by my window. But I wasn’t playing. I sat and stared down at the canal, and I felt wretched to be, once again, the only
figlia di coro
with no one to visit.

The other girls had no call to pass by my little bench at the window. But I could watch them as they twittered out from the dormitory and down the staircase in chattering groups of twos and threes, dressed in the red robes we wear whenever we perform or otherwise venture outside these walls—red for compassion, which is what the governors hope the sight of us will inspire in all who
behold the foundling musicians of the Pietà.

Only Marietta bothered to seek me out and say goodbye—Marietta, who has, since last Easter and rather to my surprise, declared me to be her best friend.
“Poverina!”
she said in her sweetest voice, bending to kiss me. “Imagine, having no family at all!” Her pitying looks couldn’t hide the satisfaction she feels in at least having a mother, no matter that Marietta returned with bruises up and down her arms after her visit last year. Some of the girls here have a mother or a father, but none that has the means or moral rectitude to raise them. Or, if they have the means, they still do not dare compromise their social position by claiming an illegitimate child.

I made myself smile until after Marietta had turned on the landing and waved goodbye to me.

When I found myself alone, the tears raced past my resolution.

And then I heard the rustling robes of Sister Laura. Although outwardly the same as those of the other teachers, her garments make a particular sound as she walks. I am convinced she wears a silken petticoat beneath them. I tried to wipe the tears away, even though I knew it was impossible that she had not already noted them.

Sister Laura looked straight into my eyes, as if measuring something she saw there. Then she told me to follow her.

I have followed Sister Laura up and down these stairs since the days when I was so small that I needed to use my hands to help me scale them. I walked behind her in the central pathway where the stones have been polished smooth, where the steps dip slightly, worn away by the footfalls of all those who have lived and died inside these walls.

We walked in the pale light of early morning, along the hallway that looks down upon the
bacino,
to the hidden hive of rooms
where the teachers take their rest at night, locked behind a carved wooden door. In one of these she sat me down at a little writing desk, a pretty piece of furniture that looked out of place among the austere furnishings of the room—the small bed in its white clothes, a plain wooden washstand, and the walls unadorned except by a wooden crucifix at one end and an ancient-looking icon of the Holy Virgin at the other.

Sister Laura opened the desk and brought out an inkwell, a bottle of sand, a quill, and some paper. “Here,” she said, smoothing the paper on the desk and placing the quill in my hand. “Write to your mother, Annina. Tell her of your life here and everything that is in your heart.”

At the sound of her words, my heart raced like one of the maestro’s most difficult passages. I asked her if she knew where you were—or who you were.

Sister Laura touched my cheek with her dry warm fingers, calloused from playing the violin for all the years she, too, has lived here. “God knows everything,” she told me. “And He will make sure your letter finds its way to your mother’s heart.”

In truth, I didn’t believe her. The Prioress reads every letter that leaves this place, unless it leaves by secret means. I’ve heard that the six months of revelry during Carnival are the best season for finding a visitor, safely masked in anonymity and willing to serve as courier for an uncensored letter passed from sleeve to sleeve through the grille of the
parlatorio.
But who knows how many of these letters reach the person to whom they are written? The intimate thoughts of cloistered virgins are said to be so prized by
monachini,
the men who find pleasure in courting nuns, that such letters are sometimes bought and sold. Well, we are not nuns, but we are kept from the rest of the world in exactly the same way.

Every letter vetted by the Prioress has passages blacked out that
might prove an embarrassment to the Pietà. Many letters written by the inmates here make a short passage from words to smoke in the hungry fire that burns most nights in the Prioress’s office.

No, such a letter as this one would never be sent. I looked at Sister Laura with new eyes, wondering if I had misjudged her all these years, taking her for one of those exemplary members of the
coro
whose gravest infraction of the rules is the secret wearing of a silken petticoat.

She simply looked at me, an unaccustomed fierceness in her eyes, and said, “Don’t ask!”

And so I write to you, although I cannot know if or when or how this letter will ever reach you. When I try to imagine you reading my words, I see only darkness where your face should be.

There is a particular window on the second floor, at the turn of the grand stairway, where one can look out and see the
scaffetta,
the niche in the church wall where people leave their babies. Everyone always looks down when they pass, just to make sure the niche is empty.

Maestra Bianca—she is singing in God’s choir now, but she was the one who looked down from the window on an autumn night some fourteen years ago, just after she’d said her prayers. As Sister Laura tells the story, the clouds parted long enough for moonlight to spill over their edges onto the canal and up onto the church wall. Maestra Bianca saw that the niche had something inside it. And just as she looked, the bell started ringing, the bell that people ring when they abandon infants there.

BOOK: Vivaldi's Virgins
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