Pietà now as then
PIETA’ is a truly moving institution that has existed ever since it was first established in 1346 to help those children – initially exclusively from poor families – who were abandoned in the streets of Venice, a city that suffered from this phenomenon like many others.
It was created to welcome them then and it is still active today, although it now works differently than in the past (refer to Anna Venier’s post on BVG: “Un orfanotrofio, la musica e la sua chiesa: la Pietà”).
Luckily, children are no longer abandoned in the streets, but there are still frail children and troubled families that Pietà takes care of.
The institution was founded by the Franciscan friar Pietruccio d’Assisi who used to shout “Pietà” (‘pity’) as he wandered around collecting money to feed these children, put a roof over their heads and educate them. Soon, lay people (both aristocrats and normal citizens) started showing their support by giving money and donations of all kinds including real estate, and provided assistance over the centuries up to this day (photo no. 1).
While boys were sent “away” to learn a craft in workshops so they could become independent and self-reliant as soon as possible, girls were kept “in” for protection.
They took care of everything concerning “household” as well as odd jobs such as unsewing dresses – including wedding dresses – donated by wealthy Venetian ladies to make chasubles, tunicles (photo no. 2) and copes (photo no. 3) for priests. They also made precious bobbin, needle and crocheted lace that became part of clerical vestments (photo no. 4).
One of the most fascinating developments, however, concerns music.
Towards the 16th century, those gifted with a good voice started preparing chants for masses and other religious ceremonies. They did so for fun and to entertain themselves when they were not working and indirectly contributed to a significant increase in donations (the happier the worshippers, the more they gave).
Because of this, the Institution started hiring increasingly famous music teachers with the aim of improving the voices of the “putte” (as Pietà girls were called) as well as the way they played music.
Antonio Vivaldi is certainly among the most famous and worked there between 1703 and 1740, as testified by a plaque on the facade on what is now Hotel Metropole (refer to the post by Fiona Giusto: Vivaldi und die virtuosen Waisenmaedchen von la Pietà in Venedig). 1740 is also the year he left Venice for Austria, from where he was never to come back.
The interior and exterior of Hotel Metropole still boasts some architectural elements belonging to the old complex such as the lovely spiral staircase (photo no. 5) and a shrine to collect donations (photo no. 6).
In addition to the work known all over the world, Vivaldi also composed motets, psalms, concerts and more for the girls, according to the specific capabilities of their extraordinary voices. He even chose some musical instruments based on their personal abilities.
A perfect example is Sonata RV779 written for Prudenza dal Violin (the name of the instrument they played became their surname as they did not actually have one), Pellegrina dall’Oboe, Lucietta Organista and Candida Salmoè (the latter – the chalumeau, predecessor of the modern clarinet, is no longer in use nowadays).
The intimate yet extraordinary museum of Chiesa della Pietà “ViVe, Vivaldi Venezia” (photos no. 7 and 8) displays some of the Baroque musical instruments part of the Pietà collection.
In addition to the unmissable violins which include a Guarn(i)eri (photo no. 9), and the horns (photo no. 10), there are some that were considered men’s instruments due to the playing position but which were accepted nonetheless, such as double bass (photo no. 11) and cello (photo no. 12).
They were regularly played by the putte, as can also be gathered in the ceiling fresco painted by Tiepolo (photo no. 13) where they are depicted in the hands of these girls with angel-like voices.
Many concerts are still played in the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà which Vivaldi never saw completed, but which the orphanage already felt the need for at the time. The church is home to a 1759 Nacchini which, although restored, maintains an excellent sound, as can be heard when it is played (video no. 14).
video no. 14 with a glimpse of the Pietà organ and organist Paola Talamini while she plays one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Winter)
The small oratory (photo no. 15), elements of which are still visible in Hotel Metropole, was in fact not big enough to put up all the musicians, artists and intellectuals who undertook the Grand Tour in the 1700s.
These visitors who passed through Venice and attended concerts held in the Venetian “conservatories”, always stopped by at Pietà to hear the famous putte sing and play.
The Istituto Provinciale per l’infanzia Santa Maria della Pietà (as it is called today) continues to support music in general and particularly local Maestros of the past.
Among the concerts I personally attended, I would like to mention a particularly extraordinary one – that of I Virtuosi Italiani (video no. 16). The Vivaldi award was granted to the exceptional contralto Sara Mingardo during the course of the evening and a newly-rediscovered Vivaldi psalm was performed, of which we can hear the finale “in saecula saeculorum” (video no. 17).
video no. 16 with a few notes of the first violin
video no. 17 with the last notes of the “Laetatus sum” psalm
But the Institute also evolved over time for the assistance of children in need and to meet current charitable demands and requirements.
In 2017, in line with the issues addressed by the 57th Biennale d’Arte, Pietà set up an exhibition for the first time ever in history – Exodus, by Bosnian artist Safet Zec. A collection of works linked to topics such as the welcoming of children and adults suffering from hunger, poverty and who are rejected because they are perceived as different and foreign (photos no. 18 and 19).
The Institute also displays work by artists from many other countries such as Charles Bhebe (photo no. 20) and Dana Whabira (photo no. 21), both from Zimbabwe.
Andorra is represented by the original Eve Ariza with her Murmuri (=murmur): almost imperceptible vibrations emitted by colourful funnel-shaped clay bowls created this way to highlight beauty in diversity. The sounds are only audible by getting close to the bowls and shutting out the noise of the “world” (photo no. 22).
It is thus that, in the era of globalisation, an old “small yet big” experience like that of Pietà can not only continue its original functions by updating them, but also act as a beacon that lights the way thanks to music and art, providing support for issues such as the meeting-clashing relationship with others, which the entire world is facing today.