Isabella dal Cello doesn’t know her given name. Like many of the other orphan girls at the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th-century Venice, Italy, she draws her identity from the instrument she plays in Don Vivaldi’s famous orchestra. She’s haunted by questions about the mother who gave her up as an infant, and dreams of proving her worth to the world by becoming a virtuoso cellist.
Isabella’s skill has won her the favor of the wealthy Morelli family, who are seeking a match for their handsome son Niccolò. Marriage offers Isabella a wider world outside the Ospedale walls, with the possibility of romance and a family of her own. It also comes with a cost: if she marries Niccolò, she must relinquish her instrument, and vow to never play in public again.
But when Isabella steals away from the orphanage to experience a taste of the fabled Carnivale, she places both of these possible futures in jeopardy. As punishment, headmistress Signora Priora gives Isabella an unusual assignment that ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about the Ospedale…and about herself.
I’ve asked the author of the book, Kim Teter, to share some of her inspiration for Isabella’s Libretto…and a few discoveries she made along the way.
What initially inspired you to write Isabella’s Libretto?
I was astonished to learn in a music appreciation course that the most famous orchestra in Europe in the early 18th century was one made up of all females—most of whom had been orphaned or abandoned as infants. I would have expected that an unwanted child in that era, especially a girl, would have been a throwaway of society. Instead, these little girls were sheltered, protected, and educated in the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, and the ones who showed talent were given the best musical training available. Visitors, including princes and a king, came from all over to see this ensemble! How had I never heard about this before? I went on a quest to learn more…
Tell us more about the Ospedale della Pietà.
The Ospedale della Pietà, sometimes referred to simply as the Pietà, was founded in the 1300’s by a Franciscan priest who wanted to save the many abandoned children he encountered in Venice, Italy. At times, the Pietà housed hundreds (some reports say thousands!) of children–boys as well as girls–and even though the church and state helped support the institution, more funds were always desperately needed. The all-female choir and orchestra, numbering between forty and sixty members, gained acclaim among travelers in Europe, and these visitors would make generous donations that helped take care of all the children in the Pietà.
How was Vivaldi connected to the Ospedale della Pietà?
First, I was very surprised to learn that Antonio Vivaldi was an ordained Catholic priest! There are stories about Vivaldi running off the altar with a coughing fit, and I think these episodes might have been caused by the incense that would have been in use at the time. Vivaldi described himself as having a “tightness in the chest from birth,” and one theory is that he suffered from bronchial asthma.
Vivaldi’s father was a violinist at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and Vivaldi studied violin from a young age. When he was twenty-five, Vivaldi was ordained, but never served as a parish priest. Instead, he began teaching at the Ospedale della Pietà and composing pieces for the girls and women to perform in liturgical celebrations and weekly concerts. He wrote many of his compositions to feature the girl who was playing the best in rehearsal that week! For thirty-seven years, from 1703 until 1740, Vivaldi was associated with the Pietà in some capacity. From what I read about Vivaldi, I gathered that he was a mercurial genius, but one who sincerely desired the best for the girls of the Pietà.
What discoveries did you make in the course of researching your novel?
I was constantly amazed at what I learned about life in the Ospedale della Pietà! The most barbaric detail I encountered was that babies were branded with a “P” to mark them forever as wards of the Pietà. Another practice that seems horrific today is that the musicians were given more food than the other children. On the other hand, I encountered more positive details than negative. For instance, the Pietà was considered to be a good “wife market,” and families came there looking for chaste, educated brides for their sons. Funds were set aside so that a girl had a dowry to offer if she wanted to marry, but if she wanted, she could refuse a marriage offer and live in the Pietà for all her life. I found that very surprising! I had a lot of fun weaving these historical facts into Isabella’s story.
Did any of your characters catch you by surprise?
Yes–Signora Priora, the headmistress, is the character who surprised me the most! She comes across as a cold, mean woman, and I confess that I modeled her somewhat after one of my own elementary teachers, Sister Felicitas. My first detailed outline for Isabella’s Libretto has a completely different ending, and as I was fleshing out the story, I felt as though Signora Priora was revealing something I didn’t know about her. Sure enough, the prioress has a background and a secret that I never conceived of in the story’s original plot, and she does something that makes the book’s ending much more satisfying than the ending I first had in mind.
You’ve made a couple of trips to Venice yourself. Can you share a few of your favorite spots?
Several buildings comprised the Ospedale della Pietà in Isabella’s time, and today one of those buildings is the Metropole Hotel, a five-star establishment that sits right on the water. The music room that is so important to Isabella, Catherine and Monica is now hotel rooms, and I wasn’t able to go in. However, I did get to climb the very same staircase that the girls used, and I did get to go inside a room on the top floor of the hotel. As I looked out the windows to the city’s rooftops, I imagined that Isabella would have seen the very same thing from her room three hundred years ago!
I also took the vaporetto across St. Mark’s Basin to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, just as the girls did, and went to the top of the campanile, or bell tower. The view from there of Venice and the nearby islands is breathtaking, and I would highly recommend this excursion! And last, one of my favorite things to do in Venice is just wander the lanes and get lost. This is how I found the route that Isabella and Catherine took when they snuck out to see the fireworks.
Name a couple of your favorite authors, and what you most love about their stories.
Tracy Chevalier’s story Girl With a Pearl Earring is the historical novel that left me with a yearning to write historical fiction. Chevalier’s brilliant use of details that evoke all the senses totally transported me to a painter’s studio in 17th century Delft, and I was intrigued by how she built a fictional story around a real painting. I certainly did not reach the standard that Chevalier sets in her writing, but I did study Girl With a Pearl Earring as I was working on my manuscript.
Young Adult author Ruta Sepetys is another of my favorites. I love how she took obscure, but important, episodes from history and brought them into the light of day with her fascinating novels Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. Again, Sepetys has the remarkable talent to transport her readers to a totally foreign experience–in these books to the gulags of Siberia and to an overloaded ship sinking in the Baltic Sea.
Do you have any other novels in the works?
I do. My current work-in-progress is set in the Texas Panhandle—a long way from Venice, Italy– but my story does involve Italians, in this case Italian prisoners of war. I learned of a fascinating World War II episode that most people have never heard of, and I want to bring it into the light of day.