• Sheryl Gwyther

#21 Venice ... things don't always work out

Researching in a foreign country takes some planning, but things don't always go to plan ... like my morning at the Santa Maria della Pietà church and the Ospedale della Pietà.

This was where I expected to collect data about the girls who lived in this place, as well as the Ospedale's connection to famous composer and violinist, Antonio Vivaldi. The woman I'd organised a tour with wasn't there, so the attendant showed us around. Showed as in 'rushed us through' a mini-tour of the stunted display of the Ospedale papers and objects, and some historical instruments.

I said to him, in my limited Italian, 'Sono scittore. Bisogno di informazioni per scrivere libre' - roughly translated, 'I am writer. I need information for writing book'... sort of thing, so he left us to wander a bit.

I did get some photos - the Italian-written information I could work out slowly even though I didn't know all the words. But only a tiny selection of the archival notes and objects were from the 1700s - the time when my novel is set. (More on this next time - when I meet with Micky White, probably the most ardent researcher of Vivaldi's private and professional life.)

The best thing was looking down through the metal grilles into the Church of the Pietà - just like the girls in my story would've done. Just like my Caterina ... as she prepares for the performance of her life.

You probably need to know a little about the Ospedale della Pietà for this post to make sense. This institution has been operating since the 1300s, taking care of abandoned and unwanted children of Venice.

The baby would've been pushed into a hole in the wall, the scaffetta (see the second image above - the hole's been filled in), and she would be taken care of until taken back by the unknown mother, or old enough to choose a life outside. Or remain in the Ospedale all her life.

When a baby was found in the hole, its information was recorded - and maybe, a small medal or holy card was left too - cut in half. The mother took one half, the other left with the unknown baby. Many times the mother came back when she was able to care for the child. Sometimes, half of an intricate drawing was left as proof. (See top image).

The Pietà Church was being rebuilt in the last few years of Vivaldi's life. He didn't live to see this new one, but it is thought that the architect, Giorgio Massari, consulted the composer about the space's acoustics before Vivaldi died - they are perfect. He was also friends with the mural's artist, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

I know a secret about the mural ceiling high above the Pietà Church. I search until I find him, the man peering over an angel's shoulder. A man with red hair. A man with the likeness of Antonio Vivaldi. Can you see him?

Perhaps, Tiepolo wanted to honour his friend?

In the end, an uplifting finale to our visit.