The Red-Haired Priest: Antonio Vivaldi

Musician Antonio Vivaldi


Antonio Vivaldi

The composer and musician, Antonio Vivaldi, is mostly famous for his beautiful Four Seasons inspired for the scenery around Mantua. However, he was an extremely prolific composer and he led such an intriguing life that a movie starring the very handsome Joseph Fiennes is being made about it.


Born on March 4, 1678, in the very cultured and musical city of Venice, young Antonio was quickly baptized by the midwife who was afraid that he might die. She was probably right to fear for his health because Vivaldi suffered from respiratory problems which may have been asthma.


Vivaldi's father, Gianbattisto, was one of the best violinists in the city and a popular performer at the concerts at San Marco. He taught his young son the violin and Vivaldi probably absorbed the very musical atmosphere of the city. However, sons of upper-class Venetian families were often sent into the priesthood and Vivaldi was no exception.

He became an acolyte in 1696 and became a priest in 1703 nine and a half years after he began. The 'red-haired priest' as he was nicknamed because of his startling red hair gave up saying Holy Mass fairly quickly after that. His health may have been a problem - he only went out in a gondola or a carriage because of his chest condition. Although Vivaldi was a devout Catholic who kept a rosary with him while he composed the young musician's heart was really in his music, which he much preferred to a career in the Church.

In the same year, Vivaldi began to teach violin at the orphanage of Ospedale della Pieta which was one of four orphanages for abandoned girls or girls whose parents had died. This one was especially famous for its music and their concerts were very popular. Here he composed concertos and cantatas for the girls. All of them could sing and most played a musical instrument. The young composer gained a high reputation but fell out with the Board who governed the orphanage and he lost his position in 1709. However, he was recalled by unanimous vote in 1711.

He became the maestro de 'concerti of the orphanage in 1716 but Vivaldi wanted to travel and write operas. He began to work for the San Angelo theater in Venice as its manager. His first break came here with his L'estro Armonico (Opus 3) which means The Musical Inspiration, and consisted of twelve lovely concertos for the violin. He wrote several operas for the theater, the first of which was Ottone in Villa. This has an extremely complicated plot which Chia Han-Leon wrote in a review at the Internet magazine, The Flying Inkpot: 'makes Melrose Place, Dynasty and presidential internship mishaps look like elementary maths.'

Vivaldi traveled for fourteen years, and worked for such distinguished people as the governor of Mantua and even the Pope who invited the composer to play for him twice! The composer was also given many honorary titles. He was accompanied in his travels by a singer from the orphanage called Anna Giraud, who reputedly was a better actress than a singer. As the composer was a priest this caused a great scandal. Cardinal Ruffo was especially upset by the gossip and forbade the musician to be 'artistically active' in Ferrara. Vivaldi was also suspected of having an affair with Anna's sister, Paulina, who moved in with him and Anna.

Unfortunately the great composer died poor - his fame had waned in Italy and he led a profligate lifestyle. Like many artists, his wonderful music was rediscovered after his death.

By Lisa-Anne Sanderson