I’m a sucker for books about Venice, though I’m not sure why. I’ve never been there, and I’m beginning to worry that, if I did pay the place a visit, I’d be disappointed. How can any real city—even a floating one—live up to how it is imagined?
The Venice featured in Barbara Quick’s Vivaldi’s Virgins is mostly an imaginary one, too—and different from my own in lots of ways—and while that made reading it a bit of a problem, it didn’t prove insurmountable.
The title is something of a come-on. The composer Antonio Vivaldi—nicknamed “the Red Priest” because of the color of his hair—spent a good part of his career in the employ of Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls. Vivaldi taught the girls music, directed their orchestra, and composed much of his work for them. This all-female orchestra—whose members were not visible to the audiences who attended their concerts—was renowned throughout Europe (Rousseau wrote glowingly of them in his “Confessions”). These are the virgins of Quick’s title, and Vivaldi’s relations with them are depicted as they appear to have actually been: strictly musical.
Vivaldi’s favorite among them was a girl named Anna Maria, to whom he dedicated 30 concertos, and who lived her entire life in the convent, dying there at age 86. Quick has chosen Anna Maria—here named Anna Maria dal Violin—as her narrator and protagonist. Anna Maria punctuates her narrative with letters to the mother she has never known, letters she is encouraged to write by a sympathetic nun, Sister Laura.
Into these letters Anna Maria pours all of her longing to know who her mother was—or is. Might she be the offspring of a disgraced noblewoman? Or did some lord sire her with a prostitute? Is her mother alive or not? And if she lives, is there any chance of their meeting?
These plaintive missives form the emotional core of Quick’s novel. In them, Anna Maria not only gives voice to her loneliness, but also comes to understand who she is and wherein lies her salvation:
“I’ve come to believe that music is the one companion, the one teacher, the one parent, the one friend who will never abandon me. Every effort I give to it is rewarded. It never spurns my love, it never leaves my questions unanswered. I give, and it gives back to me. I drink, and—like the fountain in the Persian fairytale—it never runs dry. I play, and it tells me my feelings, and it always speaks the truth.”
Unfortunately, Quick has placed this affecting tale within a context filled with discordant notes. Some are minor and easily overlooked: Champagne as we know it came into being sometime around 1700, so it’s unlikely it was routinely served in Venice—even in palaces—by 1709.
More problematic is the sensibility of the supporting players. It is one thing to give your historical characters a somewhat modern outlook. It is another to make them seem jarringly contemporary. Anna Maria’s friend Marietta, for example—whose mother is a prostitute who has sent her daughter to the convent because Marietta has such a beautiful voice—often employs turns of phrase that make her sound as if she spends her spare moments in a time warp reading fanzines. Likewise, the attitude toward abortion in 17th-century Venice was certainly not as casual as suggested here—as the very existence of the Ospedale indicates.
Then there’s Vivaldi, kept mostly at a distance and serving, from time to time, as a kind of “deus ex musica”—until the very end. We never really get to know him, and his relations with Anna Maria, which—even if chaste—must have been both intimate and intense, are hardly touched upon.
What Quick has produced is an unwieldy mix of romance novel and character study, the latter standing out vividly, like Technicolor footage in a black-and-white film. The result is a diverting and entertaining read that, with some better editorial judgment, could have been made into a thoroughly compelling one.
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