Palazzo Fava 2019 Review: Vivaldi – His Life, His Music

A Musical & Visual Exploration

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Alan Neilson)

Bologna’s Palazzo Fava is running an exhibition entitled, “Vivaldi: My Life, My Music,” which might lead some to conclude that this a presentation by the composer himself, and they would not be entirely wrong.

For sure, Vivaldi, has long since departed this world, but the exhibition has resurrected him as a guide, employed to takes us through the ten rooms devoted to a variety of significant themes that threaded themselves through his life, accompanied by excerpts from his glorious compositions.

A Unique Exhibit

Normally, when entering an art gallery or an exhibition visitors are offered an audio guide, which is ostensibly provided to help them understand the paintings, drawings or items on display, although the more cynical may suppose that it is a means of managing the customer flow, which is certainly necessary at popular events where the queues extend into what seems to be an eternity. Such devices, however, largely detract from the experience by removing the viewers need for imagination and interpretative thought, thereby acting against the benefits received from engaging with any work of art, no matter its form.

Such considerations do not apply in this case, for this is not an exhibition in the traditional sense; there are none of Vivaldi’s personal possessions, no original manuscripts, in fact, no authentic items at all. Instead the visitor is invited to enter into Vivaldi’s world, through the use of film, video-mapping, extracts from his music, his words, pictures (reproductions of course) delivered in a colorful, at times kaleidoscopic, montage, and it is through the audio guide that it all becomes possible.

For it is Vivaldi, who talking to us in an informal, casual manner, acts as our guide; he describes his life, explains his significant ideas and thoughts, shares his reflections, and occasionally offers us a seat to rest. This is a very courteous and affable Vivaldi.

On entering each room the audio calibrates itself to the video or graphical presentation, which are created so that the visitor can enter each room at any point without any loss of continuity. It is also versatile, so that visitors can sit through the audio as many times as they wish or revisit rooms that may have been of particular interest.

Entering the Experience

The tour starts with an introduction by Anna Maria, one of Vivaldi’s pupils from the orphanage of the Ospitale della Pietà. She gives us a little background, briefly outlines the characteristics of his music, with its subtle and expert exploitation of contrasting timbres, and its relationship to nature, to storms, to birds and even ghosts.

Importantly, she poses the questions, which will be covered in the exhibition. Was he a good teacher? As a priest who worked in the theatre, did he experience doubts about his faith? Did he have an affair with Anna Corò? Was he more an impresario or a composer?

It is unlikely anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Vivaldi and his work will discover anything new, however this is a presentation that functions on a number of levels. For those unfamiliar with the maestro, this is an excellent introduction which captures the essential features of his life and introduces examples of his music in contexts which ensures that it never becomes a simple accompaniment to the commentary, or worse background noise, but rather allows his music to shine, at times in isolation or more often, alongside film or a video-mapping collage.

In Room 5, we watch a clever and imaginative video of Vivaldi as a child looking forward over his life, interpreted by a female dancer. Amongst the music used to accompany this video is a delightful and sensitive recording of the soprano Patrizia Ciofi singing “Resplende bella divina stella,” from Vivaldi’s “motets” with the orchestra Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi. The culmination of the exhibition was a video-mapped display of wild, colorful and fast moving, at times surreal, images of Vivaldi’s world, projected against the wall, ceiling and intervening walls reflected onto the floor, to the extended excerpts of “The Four Seasons,” again conducted by Biondi with Europa Galante, as well as music from Vivaldi’s oratorio, “Juditha Triumphans,” his “Gloria” and “Ercole sul Termodonte.”

Artistically, it combined the visual with the musical to create a compelling experience, although one or two images strayed too far into what can only be termed pure kitsch. It was, nevertheless, imaginative and succeeded in keeping visitors of all ages, from young children to those of more advanced years entranced.

A Welcome Aspect

One very welcome aspect of the exhibition was the way it encouraged the listener/viewer to engage with Vivaldi’s music, allowing them to form their own impressions and consider his motivation behind its creation.

In Room 8 which is devoted to his teaching of the girls at the Ospitale della Pietà, we are asked to listen to his music, which included a splendid recording of “Dixit Dominus,” with the angelic voices of sopranos Monique Zanetti and Emanuela Galli, conducted by Francesco Fanna, and to decide whether or not Vivaldi had any doubts as a priest. Whether or not the ability to compose music of such sublime quality actually has a relationship to the strength of a person’s faith is debatable to say the least. Caravaggio, murderer, brawler and pimp, produced paintings of unparalleled religious strength and intensity, but his behavior certainly puts the strength of his own belief into some doubt. Nevertheless, the question itself focus the listener attentions on the music, to think about its intentions, and to explore their own feelings and relationship to it, which is, after all, the point of the exhibition.

Surprisingly for such a relatively small exhibition, there is, for the attentive and careful visitor, far more on display, far more to be learned, than one may first assume.

Room 9 is only small. It contains a single, fairly large cartoon drawing, a caricature of an 18th century theatre, possibly the Teatro Sant’Angelo in Venice, in which Vivaldi was the impresario and where his opera “Orlando Finta Pazza” was premiered in 1714. Vivaldi, our audio guide, points out that the orchestra, seated in a circle in front of the stage so they can see the singers, as at that time in Venice orchestras played without conductors. What he did not do, however, was to draw our attention to the audience standing in the stalls, nor to its wild behavior, with couples dancing, vendors selling food and a chicken running in between the people. Yet this is a picture not so far from the truth as one might expect. Venetian 18th century theatre’s were riotous places, and its audience far removed from the genteel, well-behaved version of today.

The whole event takes approximately 45 minutes, and is a quite brilliant and engaging introduction to the life and music of Vivaldi. Even for connoisseurs, who allow themselves to become immersed, there are things to be taken from the exhibition, not least the presentation of his music in conjunction with modern video-mapping and video, a developing art form in its own right, and certainly not without merit; it may even offer new insights or open up new perspectives. No matter your level of knowledge of Vivaldi’s life and music, this is an exhibition well worth a visit if you happen to find yourself in Bologna.

“Vivaldi: My Life, My Music” was created by Emotional Experiences S.r.l. and Genus Bononiae, and will run until 3rd November.


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