Ospedale della Pietà
The charitable institution that is the setting for Vivaldi’s Virgins, the Ospedale della Pietà, was founded sometime between 1336 and 1346 in the Venetian parish where it still stands today, San Giovanni in Bragora, on the Riva degli Schiavoni. just a short walk along the waterfront from the Piazza of San Marco. The Pietà was one of the four grand ospedali (literally, “big hospitals”) of Venice, public residential institutions dedicated to serving the city’s poor, ill, and homeless population. Each of the ospedali specialized in a particular branch of social welfare.
The only requirement for admission to the Ospedale della Pietà was illegitimacy. Unwanted or otherwise inconvenient babies were deposited in the scaffetta, a sort of revolving drawer in the stone wall that could be opened from the outside by whatever despairing mother was placing her infant there. She would ring a bell that hung close-by, and then scurry away before the assistant Prioress gathered up the baby from the opening on the other side of the wall. A detailed intake of the child and its condition was made with the help of a scrivana, one of two functionaries whose job it was to take notes and record them in the Pietà’s closely guarded secret registers, the libri della scaffetta.
Some babies arrived wrapped in nothing but filthy rags. Others were dressed in garments indicating that one or both parents were wealthy and perhaps even members of Venice’s storied nobility. The origins of each foundling were kept secret except for the rare cases in which a parent would come—sometimes years or even decades later—to reclaim her child. The picture on this page shows the elaborate drawing, torn in half, that was left in the scaffetta with a baby in the nineteenth century by a desperate but clearly optimistic mother who hoped—perhaps in happier circumstances—to return.
Both boys and girls were kept and educated at the Pietà until the age of ten, when the boys were apprenticed out to learn a trade. The quality of this education was apparently so high that the Doge had to publish an edict promising excommunication to any parents who left their legitimate offspring in the scaffetta, hoping to have it receive its education and upbringing at the State’s expense.
Beyond the age of ten, girls were taught a trade that could keep them profitably employed. The Pietà was like a small city unto itself, with several flourishing industries; running the institution required a good deal of expertise and labor. Girls were trained as pharmacists, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, lace-makers, sail-makers, and menials, depending on their aptitude. These comprised the so-called figlie di comun. (Figlia—plural figlie—is the Italian word for “daughter”.)
From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, a small proportion of girls who exhibited an unusual degree of talent were chosen for musical training as figlie di coro—literally, “daughters of the choir” (in this case, coro refers to instrumentalists as well as singers). Their concerts were a major tourist attraction in Venice, as well as an important source of income for the Ospedale della Pietà. The figlie di coro, while housed and kept in relative comfort, were indentured servants to the Republic of Venice, charged with keeping the rest of the population in God’s good graces through the surpassing beauty of the sacred music they performed.
The Ospedale della Pietà still functions today—although on a much smaller scale than in centuries past—as a childcare and adoption agency. There is an exquisite little museum behind an inconspicuous doorway on the Calle della Pietà, just down the alleyway from the elegant Hotel Metropôle, called the Piccolo Museo della Pietà. There one can see original instruments played by members of the coro, hand-written musical scores by Vivaldi, and pages from the libri della scaffetta, where each foundling was given a number and her whole life history, reduced to terse pen-and-ink notations, was catalogued and kept under lock and key.