Thursday, 23 July 2020

VI - Second portrait: Carlo Goldoni

The witty and brilliant creator of the modern comedy; he portrayed life of Venice in the eighteenth century, and died in poor circumstances in Paris.

In 1762 Carlo Goldoni accepted a two-year contract to work with the commedia dell’arte troupe in Paris.  Just before he left, he wrote his final Venetian play, ‘One of the last days of the carnival’, an allegory of his departure.  In it, the character representing Goldoni is told not to forget his homeland.  His reply, written in the soft burr of the Venetian dialect, is uncharacteristically passionate:

Forget this land?  Forget my beloved country?  Forget my supporters and my friends?  This isn’t the first time I’ve left; and always, whenever I’ve gone, I have carried the name of Venice engraved on my heart.  I’ve always remembered the thanks and the benefits which I’ve received; I’ve always wanted to return; it’s always a great consolation to me when I come back.  Every comparison I’ve had occasion to make, has made me realise how much more beautiful, more magnificent, more noble my country is.  Every time I’ve come back, I’ve discovered an even greater beauty.  And so it will be this time, if the heavens grant that I return.

The audience went wild.  “Bon voyage! Come back soon!” they cried.  It was the zenith of Goldoni’s career.  He never saw Venice again.

Instead, he spent the last thirty years of his life in Paris, in increasingly straitened circumstances.  His contract there with the Theatre Italien soon fell through: they were as unwilling to adopt Goldoni’s reforms of the theatre as the troupes in Italy had been half a century before.  Goldoni was too tired to fight those battles again.  Moreover, the French audience had no time for the old-fashioned commedia dell’arte; its enthusiasm was all for the new French plays and the opera buffa.  So Goldoni eked out a living as tutor of the Italian language to some of the myriad princesses of the French court.  He switched from writing in his mother tongue to that of his adopted country in an attempt to win over the French audiences, but gradually he produced less and less.

At the end of his life, he was occupied with a different endeavour.  In 1784, when he was 77, he began writing his Memoirs.  He finished them three years later.  As befitted an exile, they were written not in Italian, but in French - as were those of Casanova, a fellow Venetian who also spent the last years of his life reminiscing about happier times.  They are dedicated to the French king, Louis XVI, who six years later would die on the guillotine.  Goldoni lived through the Terror, but we have none of his thoughts on it.  By then he was a sick and lonely old man, and probably cared little about the downfall of a régime he had described so obsequiously in the last part of his memoirs.  Perhaps he was fortunate not to have lived a few more years to see the destruction of his beloved Venice too, when in 1797 the upstart Napoleon deposed the last Doge and ended one thousand years of independence.

The Memoirs are divided into three parts: the first treats of Goldoni’s youth and the years leading up to the period he became a full-time dramatist; the second concentrates on the works written during his prime; while the third part details his time in Paris.

Or rather Paris itself, since the story of Goldoni’s life at this period is a melancholy one, and not something that he cares to dwell on.  Instead, as his own life dwindles to nothing, he produces what amounts to a visitor’s guide to the city.  His first few months are spent walking around, admiring the grand buildings, visiting the Comédie Française - where, like a typical tourist, he understands little, but enjoys the atmosphere - and attending the Opéra, where he hates the music, and the Concerts Spiritueux, which put him in mind of the ospedali in Venice.

His delight in his surroundings may well have been sharpened by a traumatic event which took place in 1765.  While travelling in his carriage, Goldoni was reading Rousseau’s ‘Lettres de la montagne’.  Suddenly, he went blind.  Not totally: he could still perceive light, and eventually his right eye returned to normal.  But the shock of his narrow escape from the land of darkness must have enhanced his appreciation of the sights around him. From then on, the memoirs have a kind of child-like delight in all experiences, as if Goldoni has ceased to exist as an actor, and become instead an eager spectator.

He describes the gardens at Versailles, the pictures in the Louvre.  He talks of the charlatan Mesmer, of the ascent of Montgolfier in his balloon, and of the man from Lyons who claimed he could walk on water.  There are whole chapters devoted to the newspapers of Paris, to the police, the fire brigade, the postal system and even the institutionalised wet-nursing.  He meets Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, and proudly relates the details of their conversations like any star-struck fan.

He mentions the latest plays, among them Beaumarchais’ ‘Marriage of Figaro’ .  He is unimpressed, and prefers the plays of nonentities now long forgotten.  By his own admission, he goes to the theatre rarely.  It is as if his bad experiences of the last years have soured his first love. Occasionally he writes a new play for Venice, or an opera libretto for London; but he never leaves France, moving with the court between Paris and Versailles and Fontainebleau.

He seems hypnotised by the nobility.  He is respectful and fawning throughout, though in part this seems to be a facet of Goldoni’s eternal optimism.  As he stresses throughout the memoirs, his is an easy-going disposition, always seeing the best in people, and tending to look on the bright side.  Sometimes this goes too far, as in his description of the fireworks celebrating the marriage of the dauphin in 1770.  He spends some time praising the pyrotechnics and the skill of the Italian who devised them; what he fails to mention is that the crowd had panicked, and that in the crush 132 were killed and over 500 injured.

Towards the end of the memoirs, the strain begins to tell.  For three years the old man has been sorting among his papers and notes, trying to pull together the threads of his story.  For three years it has obsessed him, occupying his entire life, becoming his life.  “I am near the end of these memoirs” he writes, “and sustain courageously a task which is beginning to exhaust me.”  Gradually the past and the present converge; sometimes the latter breaks through insistently.  In the middle of a description of the famous musical war between the partisans of Gluck and Piccini, he suddenly breaks off: “Ahimè ! a violent palpitation seizes me at this moment...it is a common disturbance for me; I cannot go on....”   Thus life begins to catch up with art, asserting its ultimate dominion.

In the penultimate page of the memoirs, Goldoni writes of how he had recently been sent a book by a friend to help while away his convalescence from an illness, and takes the opportunity to express his thanks.  The past smoothly meets up with the present it has converged with.  The effect is one of a graceful dovetailing, a resignation to all that has happened, and all that will happen.

The closing words relate that “all the effort that I have put into the construction of my works has been not to spoil nature.”  The fruit of that effort is described in the second part of the memoirs, where Goldoni runs through some 93 works produced at the height of his fame and success.  At the same time he explains the real-life incidents which often lay behind them.  This marriage of art and reality is no mere affectation; one of Goldoni’s central achievements was the creation of a theatre based around real-life people in real-life situations.  In this respect, Goldoni is the first modern dramatist.  He was also the first Italian dramatist of international stature.

Before Goldoni, there is little Italian theatre; certainly nothing to match Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Racine, Molière and Corneille, or de Vega and Calderón.  There are the isolated masterpieces like Machiavelli’s ‘La Madragola’, but scant else besides.  Goldoni himself was only too conscious of this lack from his boyhood reading of plays; it was one of his earliest ambitions to create a truly Italian theatre.  But while it may have lacked the formal tradition of its neighbours, Italy did possess something which at its best had probably even more vitality and immediacy: the commedia dell’arte.

It flourished for some two centuries, chiefly in Naples and Venice.  It was largely improvised, played around a rough script which the actors would adapt according to the circumstances.  Such flexibility was possible because the cast was more or less fixed: every play had the same actors playing the same principal roles which were masked.  The play was created by improvising in character.

By Goldoni’s time, there were four masked players: Pantalone, an old Venetian merchant; the Doctor - of law rather than medicine; and Arlecchino and Brighella, two zanni or zanies - a dialect version of the name Giovanni.  Arlecchino wore a servant’s suit of rags and tatters, formalised into the Harlequin diamonds of colour we know today.  All four spoke in Venetian dialect, while other characters spoke in standard Italian.

Over time the original vigour and opportunities for brilliant improvisation had degenerated into bawdy farce and hackneyed exchanges.  From the start of his career as a dramatist Goldoni was determined to change this.  First, the masks had to go.

To persuade the deeply conservative actors, Goldoni adopted a simple stratagem.  At this time, early in his career in 1747, he was writing exclusively for the company of Girolamo Medebac, who played at the Sant’Angelo theatre in Venice from 1742 to 1760.  The company’s Pantalone was Darbes; a man, as Goldoni had noted, who seemed to have two sides to his character: one brilliant and witty, the other an ingenuous simpleton.  Goldoni decided to write a play for both sides of the actor, who would impersonate twins - hence the work’s title: ‘The Venetian twins.’ Naturally, facial expressions were needed to help differentiate the two characters, so they were to be played without masks.  Delighted by the prospect of taking two leading roles, Darbes agreed.  The play - and the ploy - was a brilliant success.

Reading it today, it is hard to see why.  There is little of Goldoni’s later naturalism; the characters are wooden and unconvincing.  The development of the plot is even more unsatisfactory.  In the denouement, the simpleton twin is poisoned and dies; his murderer commits suicide.  The principal female character, courted by the twins, is discovered, in true opera buffa style, to be their long-lost sister, and is promptly married off to a non-entity whose only role up to now has been to furnish a rather weak subplot - and this mostly to enable her deceitful stepfather to keep an inheritance.  She, of course, has no say in the matter.  As this play emphasises, humour does not travel well down the centuries.

Whatever our feelings for it today, ‘The Venetian twins’ achieved its aim. Thereafter, Goldoni began to move his troupe further and further from the old commedia dell’arte traditions; first the masks, then the characters themselves disappeared, until Goldoni was able to work with ordinary Venetians, without masks or archaic names, as the raw materials of his comedies.

Thus Goldoni entered the theatrical season of 1751 with these first successes behind him, and with perhaps the most productive and in retrospect most glorious year of his life to follow.  He began with what amounted to a manifesto, a virtuoso construction which was both an example of his new comic theatre, and a prelude to the rest of the season.  Called simply ‘The comic theatre’, it is a play about plays, and it takes the form of a play within a play.  Through the numerous debates among actors, directors and playwrights on what theatre should be like, Goldoni was able to expound his new theories.  The practice followed soon after.  During the actors’ discussions, it is promised that sixteen new comedies would appear that year.

On this occasion, Goldoni was not joking.  For the 1751-52 season, he wrote those sixteen works, perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of a new-found form and confidence.  But such fecundity took its toll, even on a writer with Goldoni’s natural facility - he once wrote a play in three days and nights.  He moved from the Sant’Angelo theatre to the rival one of San Luca where his annual salary was higher and the demand for plays more moderate.  For the next few years the number of new plays fell to a more reasonable six or seven per annum.

Among them was ‘The jealous women’ for the 1752-53 season, and ‘The English philosopher’, a play satirising the current fad for English periodicals, and aptly dedicated to one of Britain’s representatives in Venice, Consul Smith.  Among the characters appearing in the latter are Jacob Mondoille, Mrs Brindes and the splendidly-titled Lord Wamber, which throw an interesting light on Goldoni’s idea of English names.  For the 1755-56 season, he produced perhaps the quintessential Venetian comedy, ‘The courtyard’, which takes place anywhere in Venice, and is simply about everyday life there.  As Goldoni himself says in his memoirs: “everything was drawn from the people, and with such truthfulness that everyone could recognise it.”

At this point, just over halfway through his memoirs, Goldoni is afflicted by a sense of futility.  “Doesn’t it begin to annoy you, dear reader,” he asks, “this interminable collection of extracts, summaries and plots of comedies?  To tell the truth, I myself feel tired and fed up, but I would not being doing the job properly if I did not give an account of all my works....”  Remember he is an old man of nearly eighty, looking back thirty years.  And as he looks back, and recalls all the battles he fought, all the millions of words he set down on paper - which he adds to with his memoirs which go over the same ground again - all the words which ultimately have brought him to his poor life in Paris, far from his beloved Venice, is it any wonder that he begins to feel tired?  But as he himself indicates, he must do his duty, he must continue the journey through his life.

Despite his best intentions, his mind and his memory begin to wander.  In 1756, he finds himself in Rome.  In a prefiguring of the final part of his memoirs, Goldoni starts to write a visitor’s guide; he describes his meeting with the Pope - just as he will his later meetings with the great in Paris.  Equally far from his plan, he even inserts a short disquisition on how to write a Goldoni comedy.

It was almost inevitable that some major change of direction would occur in his life at this time.  Goldoni had carried out his reforms in the theatre; his theatrical output was now born more out of habit than a burning desire to create.  Jealous of his success, the cabals against him were growing more vociferous and more powerful.  Goldoni had never been a political animal, so fighting them was not to his taste.  Perhaps sensing that a chapter was closing in his life, in 1761 he began an edition of his complete works.  Coincidentally, at the same time he received the offer of a contract for two years’ work in Paris.  His prospects in Venice were not good, he was interested in seeing Paris, then the cultural capital of the world, so he accepted, with what consequences we have already seen.

The second part of Goldoni’s memoirs are almost exclusively about his works.  Apart from the names of the cities he visited as he followed the various troupes he worked for, there are few details about his everyday life.  Perhaps this is not surprising given the astonishing quantity of works he produced at this period; he must have had little time for much activity outside writing.  The contrast with the first part of his memoirs, devoted to his early years and packed with incident and adventure, is striking.

Although Goldoni was born in Venice, on 25 February 1707, he spent most of his early years away from that city, first in Perugia, and later in Rimini. As a result, apart from some time there as a small child, it was not until he was 15 that he saw Venice.  The impact of that first acquaintance was clearly unforgettable; his description of it some sixty years later retains all the freshness and amazement of that pristine vision:

Venice is such an extraordinary city that it is not possible to form an exact idea of it without having seen it.  The maps, the plans, the models, the descriptions - nothing suffices without seeing it.  All the cities of the world are the same, more or less; but this city is like nothing on earth; every time that I saw it again, after a long absence, was a new surprise to me; hand in hand with my advancing years, and my increasing powers of comparison, I discovered new wonders and new beauties.

On this occasion, I saw it as a boy of 15, incapable of appreciating how much there was so noteworthy, and who could not compare it with the other cities where he had lived.  This is what struck me particularly.  A view which was totally breathtaking, an expanse of islands, drawn together and joined up by means of bridges into what you would have believed to be a lofty range on a plain, lapped on every side by an immense sea which surrounded it,

But it was not the sea, it was a huge lagoon, more or less covered with water, at the mouth of various harbours with deep canals carrying large and small vessels into the city and its surroundings.

If you enter near San Marco, crossing a throng of boats of every sort - warships, merchant vessels, frigates, galleys, ferry boats, dinghies and gondolas - you disembark on an embankment called the Piazzetta, where on one side you see the Ducal Palace and Chapel which proclaim the magnificence of the Republic, and on the other, the Piazza San Marco, surrounded by porticoes built to the design of Palladio and Sansovino.

Following the street called the Merceria you reach the Rialto bridge, walking on square slabs of Istrian marble, chiselled to avoid any slipperiness; you will pass through an area which is an endless fair, and arrive at the bridge which, with a single arch of 90 feet, vaults the Grand Canal, and is of such a height that it allows the passage of ships and vessels even at the highest tide.  It has three distinct pathways for pedestrians, and 24 small shops with lodgings, their roofs covered in lead.

I must confess that I found such a sight quite stupefying; it seems to me that none of the travellers’ books which I have read describes it as it really is,  I beg the reader’s pardon if I seem a little condescending.

Over the next twenty years. Goldoni was constantly on the move, and visited Venice rarely.  Yet as this and other passages show - and indeed, as his life’s work shows - its image stayed with him.

Before he moved to Venice, Goldoni’s theatrical destiny had already asserted itself when he was 14.  Finding the study of philosophy in Pavia tedious, he amused himself by visiting the local playhouse.  It was the first tine he had seen women on the stage, and he was enchanted. Eventually he struck up an acquaintance with the troupe, who turned out to be fellow Venetians.  They were leaving for their home town, passing by way of Chioggia, where Goldoni’s mother was staying.  They suggested he accompany then; he found himself unable to refuse, even though he knew his father would be outraged.

From his loving description of that journey, it is clear that he had found his Eden among the crazy, magical world created and inhabited by the actors, actresses, domestics, serving girls, maids, children, dogs, cats, monkeys, parrots, birds, pigeons and lamb which made up what he describes as Noah’s ark.  He must have felt indeed as if he had been saved, albeit briefly, from the rising tide of the humdrum and mundane which threatened to overwhelm him with its deadly philosophy.  Like the image of Venice, itself a kind of ark of beauty amidst the hostile waves, this dream of the strolling players’ life would remain with him wherever he went.  For a few glorious years he even attained it.

Once home in Chioggia, he awaited with trepidation the return and wrath of his father, a physician who had been away on family business in Modena.  He managed to talk his way out of trouble by skilfully turning the conversation to the players he had stowed away with: it turned out that his father, also a secret theatre-fanatic, had seen some of them before. Goldoni escaped punishment on this occasion; but, like Mozart, Goldoni seems to have lived very much in his father’s shadow, usually obedient if only reluctantly.  It is probably no coincidence that it was only after his father’s death, when Goldoni was 26, that he tried - perhaps dared - to write a full-length play.  It would be another 15 years before he gave himself wholly to a vocation which had been manifest to him since childhood.

Meanwhile, in 1725, he was still attempting to act the dutiful son and qualify as a lawyer.  He began studying at the prestigious school in Pavia.  But as was to happen time and again throughout his life, Goldoni allowed himself to be tricked, just as the characters in his plays would so often be tricked.  At the instigation of some seeming friends, he wrote a play satirising the pompous burghers of Pavia.  When the same friends distributed copies to the play’s victims, the latter demanded retribution.

In the end, Goldoni was simply expelled; not in itself so terrible, but the guilt he felt towards his father was such that he briefly considered becoming a monk.  He was saved for this world by his family’s sly expedient of taking him to the theatre.  There was no more talk of entering a monastery.

Goldoni eventually qualified as a lawyer in 1731, when he was 24. From this time on he practised law as he travelled around various cities of northern Italy: Venice itself, Milan, Crema, Parma, Verona, Padua, Udine, Florence, Pisa.  In his memoirs, he occasionally gives details of a case he has won, perhaps as a token gesture to the memory of his long-dead father.  But his heart is clearly not in it, neither in the profession nor the retelling of it fifty years later.  Having satisfied his father, it is almost as if he felt free at last to lead his own life.  In the memoirs law appears as a kind of vague backdrop against which other adventures unfold.  These include evading the various marauding armies of those times, acting as Genova’s consul to Venice and - perhaps most importantly - coping with the charms of women.

As might be expected from one who was generally so frank and ingenuous in his dealings with the world, Goldoni proved easy prey for the ladies.  Time and again his memoirs record with disarming honesty how he was deceived by cunning maids, duped by marriage-hungry mothers, and generally led by the nose.  And yet Goldoni never seems to harbour any rancour.  He appears genuinely amused in retrospect at his earlier antics and fiascoes, as if watching a character in one of his plays.  But sometimes this equability can teeter on the brink of a bloodlessness and coldness.

For example, on one occasion he proposed to a young woman - by his own description rather ugly - simply out of pique that the same woman’s aunt, whom he did not really desire either, had switched her own affections elsewhere.  It was only when the bride’s party started reneging on the details of the marriage contract that he finally extricated himself.  The next time he was moved by a rather prettier face.  When it turned out that she was a young courtesan, stolen and prostituted as a child, and her kind old uncle the pimp-kidnapper, Goldoni was just mildly surprised and slightly disappointed.  Rage or pity was there none.  Instead, Goldoni gave her some sensible advice, and then she and her captor disappeared from Goldoni’s canvas as noiselessly as they appeared.  As he rather too cheerfully reminds us at several points in his memoirs, through all these disappointments in love, and however bad things were going for him, he never lost his appetite or his sleep.

His courtship of the woman whom he married, and who was to prove his solace during the lonely last days in Paris, was equally cool and unnervingly business-like.  While in Genova, he noticed an attractive young woman at the window of a house opposite his lodgings.  The next time he saw her, he bowed to her, and she returned his greeting.  He found out who she was, engineered a meeting with her father, and they took a coffee together.  Within a month, Goldoni had asked for his daughter’s hand and received it. They were married in August 1736.  Goldoni’s straight-faced account is saved only by the touch of humour with which he relates the fact that the bridegroom caught smallpox on his wedding night.  “Fortunately,” he says, “the attack was not dangerous, and I did not become any more ugly than I was before.”

It was probably an apt beginning to a life which would be uncertain at best and full of unexpected reverses.  Goldoni’s long-suffering wife proved a tireless supporter of her husband throughout a marriage which must have been very different from that she might have dreamed of that day she returned his greeting in Genova.  When they married, Goldoni was establishing himself as a lawyer, a solid and dependable profession, then as now.  But around this time he was also starting to write more and more plays, at first for his own pleasure, to fill the time between his occasional court cases, and later for the employment of his growing number of theatrical friends.  Soon he would be lost to law entirely, and his wife would find herself sharing the dubious delights of a playwright’s life.

Goldoni had begun writing plays at an early age.  At the age of eight he put together his first comedy, sufficiently impressive that his father refused to believe his son had written it.  At 15 he penned the skit which earned him his expulsion from school.  Thereafter, he had a constant urge to try his hand at theatre.

First he wrote intermezzi, light pieces set to music, and often performed in the intervals of grander operas.  It was therefore a natural progression for him to move on to writing an opera libretto.  He wrote ‘Amalassunta’, a lyric tragedy, shortly after being accepted as a lawyer at Venice in 1732.  Like all young authors, he carried it with him on his travels, reading it to anyone who would listen.  Finally a group of professionals heard it through, not without a few pointed but pertinent comments on its construction: too many characters, not enough showpieces for the main singers, too many for the subsidiaries, the arias insufficiently differentiated, and so on.  Goldoni returned to his lodgings, humiliated. Once more, like all young authors, he responded in the only possible way: he burnt his manuscript.

But at least he seems to have learnt from the experience.  His second opera libretto was more successful.  ‘Belisario’ was performed in 1734, by the troupe of Giuseppe Imer.  After its success, Goldoni soon went on to tackle comedies, his preferred medium, and finally gave up his life as a lawyer to devote himself wholly to his art.  But this was still several years away.  First he tackled a slightly different kind of endeavour, still in the field of opera.

‘Belisario’ was first performed in the theatre of San Samuele, owned by the Grimani family.  Shortly before the first performance, Imer took Goldoni along to meet the nobleman Michele Grimani, presumably at the Grimani Palace near Santa Maria Formosa - Goldoni refers earlier in his memoirs to the maiolica collection he saw there.  Grimani promised to find him some work on one of the operas he would be presenting at his theatre later that year.

Although the music was completely new, an old libretto was to be used. Goldoni’s job was to adapt and add to the text according to the demands of the singers and needs of the composer - Antonio Vivaldi. The contrast between the two men could hardly be greater.  Vivaldi was nearing the end of his creative life.  He would publish no more works: his opus 13, which appeared in 1737, is in fact a pastiche by an unknown composer.  Goldoni was fresh from the triumphant production of his first full-length play.  Vivaldi was clearly dubious about collaborating with the young dramatist, as Goldoni’s full if free account of their first meeting makes clear:

After the Carnival season, the Venetian theatres do not open again until October; but during the fortnight of the Ascensiontide fair, a grand opera is put on - sometimes two, receiving up to twenty performances.

His Excellency Grimani, proprietor of the San Samuele theatre, put on there an opera at his own cost and having promised me some work from it, kept his word.

This year there would be no new libretto; instead the ‘Griselda’ story was chosen, a work by Apostolo Zeno and Pariati.  They worked together until Zeno left for Vienna and entered the service of the Emperor.  The composer who would set it to music was the Abbé Vivaldi, known as the Red Priest on account of his hair - he was better-known by his nickname than by his surname.

This priest, a brilliant violinist but mediocre composer, had brought up and trained as a vocalist Maddalena Giro, a young singer born in Venice but the daughter of French barber. Although not beautiful, she had much grace, was cultivated, and had attractive eyes and hair, together with a sweet mouth, a small voice and plenty of vivaciousness.  It was her who would take the part of Griselda.

Signor Grimani sent me to the musicians to make the necessary changes in the opera, be it shortening or altering the position and the character of the arias according to the needs of the actors and composer.  I went, therefore, to the Abbé Vivaldi, and announced myself as sent from His Excellency Grimaldi; I found the former surrounded by music and with a breviary in his hand.  He rose, made a huge sign of the cross, put away the breviary and returned the conventional greetings.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Signore?”

“His Excellency Grimani has charged me with the changes which you require in the opera for the next feast-day.  I have come, Signore, to learn your desires.”

“Ah, so you are charged with making the changes in Griselda? But is Signor Lalli no longer involved in Signor Grimani’s performances?”

“Signor Lalli, who is rather advanced in years, will still enjoy the income from the dedicatory epistle and the sale of the libretto, neither of which concerns me,  It is enough for me to be pleasantly occupied with a diverting task, and I will have the honour of working with Signor Vivaldi.”

The Abbé took up his breviary again, made another sign of the cross, but did not reply.

“Signore,” I said, “I do not wish to distract you from your religious observances; I will return some other time.”

“I know well enough, my dear Signore, that you have some poetic talent; I have seen your ‘Belisario’, which pleased me greatly but that is another matter.  One can be quite capable of composing a tragedy, an epic poem if you will, and yet not know how to put together even a stanza suitable for music.”

“Allow me the pleasure of being shown your libretto.”

“Yes, yes, of course... But where on earth has that Griselda gone and buried itself?  It was just here... Deus in auditorium meum intende.  Domine...Domine...Domine...it was here a moment ago.  Domine ad adiuvandum...  Ah!. here it is,  Have a look for a moment at this scene between Gualteri and Griselda; it is a most interesting and moving scene.  The author has produced basically an aria full of pathos, but the Signora Giro does not like slow singing; she would rather have an expressive piece, agitated, an aria which expresses passion by other means, for example by broken phrases, sudden sighs, action, movement - I don’t know if I make myself clear.

“Yes, Signore, I understand perfectly.  Besides, I have had the honour of hearing Signora Giro, so I know that she does not have a strong voice...

“What, Signore?  Do you insult my pupil?  She is capable of anything, she can sing anything.”

“Of course, Signore, you are absolutely right.  Please give me the book and allow me to get on with the task.”

“I’m sorry, Signore.  I cannot give it to you, I need it, the matter is urgent.”

“Very well, then, Signore, if you could quickly let me have it just for a moment, I will satisfy you on the spot.”

“On the spot?”

“Yes Signore, on the spot.”

Laughing at me, the Abbé handed over the libretto, gave me paper and a writing desk, took up his breviary once more and began reciting psalms and hymns as he paced around the room.  I reread the scene which I already knew; I thought about what the composer wanted, and in less than a quarter of an hour had set down an aria in eight verses divided in two parts; I called over the Abbé, and showed him.  Vivaldi read it, rubbed his forehead, reread it, shouted for joy, threw his breviary to the ground, and called Signorina Giro, who came.

“Ah!” he said, “behold a rare man, an excellent poet; read this aria: this gentleman wrote it here, without leaving the room, in less than a quarter of an hour.”

Turning to me, he said:

“Ah? Signore, I beg your pardon,” and embraced me, swearing that he would never use any other poet but myself.

He gave me the libretto, indicating some other changes.  These he was delighted with, and the opera was a brilliant success.  And thus it was that I was introduced to writing operas, comedies and intermezzi which were the precursors of the Italian opera buffa.”

It is the longest and most thoroughly worked out anecdote in the whole of the memoirs.  Neither the Pope nor Louis XVI are allotted so much space. And yet just why the Red Priest, who was after all only a ‘mediocre composer’ according to Goldoni, should have made such an impression on the young man remains a mystery.  They worked together once, possibly twice more, but there is no evidence to suggest that they ever met outside these occasions.  A few years later, Vivaldi was dead and soon forgotten.

Another mystery, as with many memoirs, is how Goldoni remembered so much about events decades before.  We know that his nephew, who accompanied him to Paris, kept a diary.  And at one point, Goldoni refers to his collection of old notebooks and odd scraps of writing he has stored up through the years; this was obviously an invaluable source.  For the rest he drew on a memory which had spent a lifetime storing away incidents for possible later use in his comedies; and doubtless he used that same theatrical skill to create a few of the scenes from his life which he later recorded.

The distinction is remarkably fine at times.  As Goldoni says, the second part of his memoirs was made up of the plots “and the secrets of the circumstances which gave me the idea for them.”  Much of the time he was transmuting life into art, either directly or more obliquely.  Two examples from opposite ends of his creative life are representative.

Shortly after the premiere of ‘Belisario’, one of the troupe which performed it left.  She was Zanetta Casanova, mother of the more famous Giacomo.  Her place was taken by a young actress called Passalacqua. Goldoni, with his soft spot for a pretty face, was soon in her thrall.  A proud and jealous temperament would not allow her to be outshone by anyone, so when Goldoni started to show more interest in one of the other female singers, she soon found an occasion to trick and humiliate him.  But Goldoni retaliated.  He reworked the old story of Don Giovanni for the company, and included a part for Passalacqua in which she found herself re-enacting her own perfidy towards him.  In turning this pot-boiler to good account, Goldoni was adding to a long and honourable tradition of using art for the purpose of revenge.

Similarly, one of his last Venetian plays, ‘The new lodgings’, was written shortly after Goldoni himself had moved from his first accommodation in Venice when he returned there in 1748.  It has less to do with the traumas of moving than with the everyday problem of meeting and coping with new neighbours.  Goldoni’s play is notable for the naturalism of both the plot, which is slight, and especially of the dialogue.  Indeed, the style could hardly be further removed from the old commedia dell’arte, with its crude jokes and puppet-like characters.

This just and sympathetic portrait of ordinary people is probably Goldoni’s central achievement in the theatre.  He managed to make the everyday life of Venice an accepted subject for drama.  Both ‘The new lodgings’ and ‘The courtyard’ - another play built around ordinary events - go beyond even Molière, Goldoni’s idol, in their location of drama in the quotidian.  In this Goldoni was ahead of his time; it was not until the realistic plays of Chekhov that unimportant lives where nothing exceptional ever happened became accepted as worthy of representation and examination by ‘serious’ theatre.  Moreover, it is only a small step from Goldoni’s naturalistic style and up-to-the-minute concerns to the genre of our television serials, where edited highlights of our own lives are presented to us as entertainment.

Against this achievement must be set the fact that the vast body of Goldoni’s work is uninspired and frankly rather boring.  Goldoni wrote quickly, and without too much concern for the finer points.  After all, his works would only be played a few times even if they were successful.  Essentially his art is disposable comedy.  Nor should we bemoan the harsh realities of Italian theatre at this time.  Even with all the time in the world, it is unlikely that Goldoni would have created a finely-honed and towering masterpiece; he was a second-rate mind who created first-class second-rate plays.

In many ways his memoirs remain as his most enduring achievement.  They do not aspire to much, simply to tell Goldoni’s story, and to note the plays he had written.  Aside from the financial aspect - the memoirs were published by subscription - he probably found those three years of toil deeply cathartic.  As a tired and lonely old man in a land far from home, with only his wife and his nephew by him, writing his memoirs was a way of reclaiming the achievements of his life.  He knew that he had accomplished something in the reform of the Italian theatre, even if no one around cared any more.  If the last twenty years of his life had been a waste, he could at least take refuge in memories of the first thirty, when every day seemed to be like something out of one of his plays, full of larger-than-life characters, surprise developments, mistaken identities, madcap schemes and miraculous escapes.  Looking back, he could revel in the sense of having lived life to the full in those carefree years of wandering, when the world seemed at his feet, and his burgeoning theatrical successes promised so much.

All this comes through in his writing.  The last part of the memoirs may be rather hollow in its enthusiasm for the land of his self-imposed exile, and the unctuous flattery of the French court rather disfiguring, but the second part is full of a sense of achievement, of jobs well done, of memories of the echoing applause his works had earned.  And the first part is simply joyous in its evocation of childhood, youth and early maturity, the encounters with actors, the tentative efforts at writing, the adventures and characters he encountered.

Practically the last words of Goldoni’s autobiography are “all the endeavours which I have made in my memoirs have been to tell nothing but the truth.”  We know from historical research that his facts were not always correct.  Some, like the dates of the first performance of his comedies, are readily explicable as lapses of an old man: juggling nearly 150 titles and dates would tax the best of memories.  Less excusable are the doctorings of reality which creep in.

For example, early on he relates vividly how, inspired by rage and pride, he passed from being the class dunce in Perugia to top in the final exams. Alas for the young genius Goldoni, the school records have survived: they show that he actually failed the exam and had to repeat the year.  The two results are not easy to confuse; surely a clear case of wishful thinking.

We also have an alternative version of Goldoni’s initial encounter with Vivaldi.  The memoirs begun in 1784 were not Goldoni’s first: as part of an edition of his works published in the 1760s after he left for France, he wrote a preface to each of the 16 volumes which detailed successive parts of his life.  The meeting with Vivaldi figures once more, but it is altogether more muted and matter-of-fact.  The histrionics of the sign of the cross, the breviary, the mumbled prayer, and Vivaldi’s superciliousness, are all downplayed.  It is hard not to see the earlier account as nearer to the truth, and the later one as an embroidery born of Goldoni’s desire to embellish the events of his past.

Beyond such accidental checks, it is impossible to know to what extent Goldoni re-shaped and sanitised the story of his life.  It is, after all, the prerogative of memoirists to display the facts to their best advantage.  Through his memoirs he could prove to himself, and perhaps posterity, how once he had set the world of Italian theatre by its ears, how Venice had once hung on his every word.  In such an endeavour, truth might well be sacrificed for the sake of effect.

Against this cynical view there is the overriding impression that Goldoni was essentially as he portrayed himself.  The aspects of his character which emerge from the three parts of the memoirs are so much of a piece that unless he practised deceit and hypocrisy on a massive scale his continual professions of concern for the truth may be taken more or less at face value.  After all, the picture he paints is hardly the most flattering: it is that of a diffident and easy-going man who felt strongly neither love nor hate, and acted rashly for neither good nor evil.

As a result, it is difficult not to like Goldoni.  Without being a theatrical genius, he was a skilled and conscientious professional who took great delight in his work and in the people he collaborated with.  Sociable and easy to get on with, he would have been a good and true friend, though never a deep or special one.  If he had a flaw, it was that coldness, the inability to think badly of people, which made him unduly uncritical and reluctant to condemn or fight back.  He emerges as a natural spectator, the ultimate audience of one.

Goldoni knew himself well enough to recognise his limitations.  He was also suitably modest in his hopes for the story of his life he was composing. In the preface to his memoirs he writes:

My life is not interesting; but it could happen that, some day, somebody will come cross a collection of my works in a dusty corner of an old book shop.  They might perhaps be curious to know who was this singular man who set himself up to reform the theatre in his land, who put on the stage some 150 comedies, both in verse and prose, and who lived to see 18 editions of his works.

It is a moving image: Carlo Goldoni in his eightieth year, having written the story of his life from his birth to that moment, puts the finishing touches to his memoirs, and looks forward to a future time when he would be dead but his books and his name would live on; he looks forward with hope to our discovery of those memories he had carefully and with such great effort drawn together, and through them that same Carlo Goldoni.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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