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Authors: Alyssa Palombo

The Violinist of Venice

BOOK: The Violinist of Venice
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For my mom, Debbie Palombo,
who crossed an ocean with me so I could tell this story,
and who always, always believed



Flames. That is how I remember Antonio Vivaldi: the flames of his red hair; the flames of the candles that flickered determinedly around him as he composed late at night; the fires he would kindle in the grate in the cold, dark winter, the red-orange glow lighting his bare skin; the passion with which he played the violin, such passion that I would not have been surprised had the strings, the bow, caught fire.

Music is a singular kind of passion; it envelops, surrounds, obsesses. To share that passion with another soul is to amplify it, to create a sort of intimacy unlike anything else.

Vivaldi gave my life fire, passion, heat. There was a time when—without him—I was frozen; when I was like a corpse interred in a tomb of ice.

And now that he is gone, the world is cold once again. Yet he is not gone forever. He lives on in the music he wrote; and in my memories. But with the pleasure of remembering, it seems, always comes pain; and if there is one thing I have learned in my life in Venice—this beautiful, incomparable city of water and music and masks and deception—it is that we must live through both pleasure and pain as best we can.




April–September 1710




The gondola sliced silently through the dark water of the canal. My hired gondolier pressed the craft close against the wall of one of the buildings that lined the waterway, allowing another boat to pass us.

“Ciao, Luca!” he called to the other gondolier, his voice echoing loudly off the stones of the narrow canal, causing me to start.

I drew the hood of my cloak closer about my face, hiding it as we passed the other gondola.

We drew up to a bridge, and I spied a set of stone steps leading up to the street—
street. “Stop,” I said, my voice low from within the hood. “Let me out here,
per favore

The gondolier obliged, bringing the boat close to the steps and stopping so that I could gather my skirts and step out, giving me his hand to assist me. I pressed some coins into his palm, and he nodded to me. “
Grazie, signorina. Buona notte.

I started down the street, peering at the houses, looking for the one where the man I sought was said to reside. I crossed a bridge over another small canal, the water beneath looking deep enough to swallow both my secrets and me and leave no trace of either.

Just beyond the bridge I found it. I took a deep breath, banishing the last of my nervousness, pushed open the door and, without knocking, boldly stepped inside.

The room I entered was not large, and appeared even smaller by its clutter. Sheets of parchment covered the table a few paces in front of me, some written upon, some blank, and many with bars of music scrawled on them. A harpsichord sat against one wall, scarcely recognizable beneath the papers heaped on it. I counted three instrument cases throughout the room that each looked to be the right size to hold a violin, or perhaps a viola d'amore. A lit lamp sat on the table amongst the papers, and another on the desk against the wall to my right. These, plus the slowly dying fire in the grate to my left, were the only sources of light in the dim room.

At the desk, bent over a piece of parchment, quill in hand, sat a man in worn-looking clerical robes. He looked up, startled, and I was able to get my first good look at him. He had hair as red as the embers in the hearth and wide dark eyes that, when they caught sight of me, narrowed on my face in anger, then bewilderment. From what I had heard, he was only in his early thirties, yet the strain of childhood illness and—or so I guessed—the trials that life had seen fit to deliver him had given him the weary demeanor of a still older man. And yet beneath his somewhat haggard appearance there was a spark of liveliness, of fire, that made him appealing all the same.

“Who are you? What do you want?” he demanded, scowling as he rose from his chair.

I took another step forward into the room, pushing my hood back from my face. “I seek Maestro Antonio Vivaldi,” I said. “The man they call
il Prete Rosso.
” The Red Priest.

“Hmph.” He snorted derisively. “You have found him, although I do not know that I rightly deserve the title maestro anymore. After all, I have been sacked.”

“I know,” I said. All of Venice knew that about a year ago, Maestro Vivaldi had been removed, for reasons largely unknown, from his position as violin master and composer at the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà, the foundling home renowned for its superb, solely female orchestra and choir. He had spent the past year since his dismissal traveling throughout Europe—or so the gossip said. Having heard of his return, I took the first opportunity I could to seek him out. “I was thinking that as you are currently out of a job, you might be willing to take on a private student.”

His gaze narrowed on me again. “I might be,” he said.

Clearly he was expecting me to bargain. The corners of my mouth curled up slightly into a smile as I reached beneath my cloak and extracted a cloth purse that was heavy with coins. I closed the remaining distance between us and handed it to the maestro. His eyes widened as he felt its weight, and grew round with disbelief as he opened it and saw how much gold was within.

“I trust that will be sufficient for my first month of lessons,” I said, “as well as your discretion.”

He looked back up at me. “Who are you?” he asked again. When I failed to answer immediately, he went on. “If you can afford to pay me so much, then surely you can afford to have some perfumed, mincing fop or other come to you in the comfort of your own palazzo and teach you. Why come here—in the middle of the night, no less—to seek me out?”

“That is quite a lengthy tale, padre,” I answered. “Suffice it to say that I have heard that there is no better violinist in all of Venice than yourself, and that is why I have gone to such lengths to find you.”

He frowned, not satisfied with so vague an explanation, but he let the matter rest. “You wish to learn the violin, then?” he asked.

I nodded. “I used to play, years ago…” I shook my head. “It has been a very long time.” Five years, to be exact; five years since my mother had died and taken all the music in our house with her.

Vivaldi nodded absently, then turned to remove a violin and bow—which I took to be his own—from a case that sat open on the floor next to the desk. He handed them to me. “Show me what you know,” he said.

Oh, it had been so long since I'd held a violin in my hands, had felt the smoothness of the wood beneath my fingers, had smelled the faint, spicy scent of the varnish. I had not practiced before coming to see the maestro, thinking it best not to tempt fate before I could secure his help. I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling of being reunited with an old friend I had believed I might never see again. Then I began.

I started with the simplest scales: C major and A minor. My fingers were stiff and clumsy on the strings, but after playing each scale twice, the old patterns and habits began to return. When I felt more comfortable, I began to play a simple but pretty melody I remembered playing when I was younger. My memory was imperfect; there were several points where I forgot what note came next and simply skipped ahead to the next one that I could recall. It was rather unimpressive, but it was all I could think of to play. When I came to the end, I began again, this time improvising to repair the sections I'd forgotten. So intoxicated was I with simply playing a violin again that I forgot Vivaldi's presence altogether, until he lightly placed a hand on my shoulder to stop me.

“Good,” he said, more to himself than to me. “Good; not bad at all. I can tell that you have a natural talent. And you certainly play with passion.” He smiled, and the expression transformed his face. “I shall teach you. I assume you have an instrument of your own?”

I nodded, thinking of the untouched violin I had stolen from my brother Claudio's room. It had been given to him as a gift and was of the finest craftsmanship, though he had never played or shown any interest in learning. “Yes, I do,” I answered. “Though it will be … difficult for me to bring it here with me.”

The maestro waved this aside. “I have one that you may use. You wish to come here for your lessons, then?”

“Yes,” I replied quickly. “Yes, if that suits.”

“Very well,” he said, his eyes bright with curiosity. “Shall we say two days hence, around midday? If that is agreeable to you?”

I thought for a moment. I could perhaps get away unnoticed for a time then. “Yes, that is agreeable.”

“Though I do not suppose you will tell me the reasons behind such need for discretion?” he asked.

I smiled. “As I said, that is quite the long story, padre, and one that would be better saved for another time.”
Or never.

“I see,” he said.

“Two days hence, then,” I said, moving toward the door.

“Wait,” he said, and I stopped. “May I at least learn your name, signorina?”

I glanced at him over my shoulder. “Adriana,” I said. I could not risk him recognizing my surname; so, before he could press me further, I pulled my hood over my face again and stepped outside into the late April rain, leaving him to think what he would.




In the two days before I was to return to Maestro Vivaldi's house for my first lesson, I tried to practice as much as I was able, which was unfortunately not a great deal. The morning after my visit to the maestro, I ordered all of the servants to keep away from my rooms and not disturb me, claiming I had a pounding pain in my head and must rest in absolute silence. It was a display worthy of an opera house diva, and I was obeyed, which was all that mattered. When I was certain no one would hear, I took my brother's violin from its hiding place beneath my bed—which I acknowledge as being less than creative—and played all the scales and arpeggios I knew. I forced myself to play them until they were technically smooth and pitch-perfect before allowing myself to move on to the melody I had played for Maestro Vivaldi.

BOOK: The Violinist of Venice
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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