3 January 2018

Pietro Metastasio – poet and librettist

From street entertainer to leading libretto writer

Pietro Metastasio became Europe's
most celebrated librettist 
Pietro Metastasio, who became Europe’s most celebrated opera librettist in the 18th century, was born on this day in 1698 in Rome.

He was christened Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, one of four children born to Felice Trapassi, from Assisi and Francesca Galasti from Bologna. His father served in the papal forces before becoming a grocer in Via dei Cappellari.

While still a child, Pietro could attract crowds by reciting impromptu verses. On one occasion, in 1709, Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, director of the Arcadian Academy, stopped to listen. He was so impressed that he made the young boy his protégé and later adopted him, changing his surname to Metastasio.

He provided the young Metastasio with a good education and encouraged him to develop his talent.

When Gravina was on his way to Calabria on a business trip, he exhibited Metastasio in the literary circles of Naples, but after the young boy became ill, he placed him in the care of a relative to help him recuperate.

Gravina decided Metastasio should never improvise again but should concentrate on his education and reserve his talent for nobler efforts.

The title page of Metastasio's libretto Glo orti esperidi
The title page of Metastasio's libretto
Glo orti esperidi
At the age of 12, Metastasio translated the Iliad into octave stanzas and two years later he composed a tragedy based on Gravina’s favourite epic poem.

After Gravina died, Metastasio inherited his fortune. He recited an elegy to his patron at a meeting of the Arcadian Society in Rome.

But within two years he had spent all his money and he decided to become a lawyer in Naples.

While working in a lawyer’s office he composed a poem for Donna Anna Francesca Ravaschieri Pinelli di Sangro on the occasion of her marriage to the Marchese Don Antonio Pignatelli.

In 1722, while Naples was under Austrian rule, he was asked to compose a serenata to mark the birthday of Empress Elisabeth Christine. He wrote Gli orti esperidi, which was set to music by Nicola Porpora and featured Porpora’s pupil, the castrato Farinelli.

Marianna Bulgarelli, who played Venus in the opera, persuaded Metastasio to give up law and promised him fame and financial independence.

In her house he met the great composers of the day, such as Scarlatti and Pergolesi, who later set his plays to music. Bulgarelli adopted him, along with the whole Trapassi family, who came to live with them.

The monument in Metastasio in  Rome's Piazza della Chiesa Nuova
The monument in Metastasio in
Rome's Piazza della Chiesa Nuova

Metastasio wrote a string of dramas, earning a reasonable sum of money for each work, but he always longed for a fixed income.

When he was offered the post of court poet in Vienna he accepted willingly and set off at once, leaving his family in Bulgarelli’s devoted care.

Between the years 1730 and 1740 he wrote some of his finest dramas for the imperial theatre.

The libretto for Adriano in Siria was used by more than 60 composers during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

From about 1745 his output began to decline, although some of the cantatas he wrote at that time were later to become very popular.

His works were translated into French, English, German, Spanish and modern Greek and set to music over and over again by the top composers.

Metastasio died in 1782, while still in Vienna , at the age of 84.

The Palazzo Farnese is now used for the French Embassy
The Palazzo Farnese is now used for the French Embassy
Travel tip:

The Arcadian Society in Rome used to meet at Palazzo Farnese, the home of the former Queen of Sweden. Queen Christina had abdicated from her throne, converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to Rome, where she became a cultural leader and the protector of artists, musicians and writers. She was allowed to lodge in Palazzo Farnese, an important renaissance building, by Pope Alexander VII.  The palace, in Piazza Farnese in the Campo dè Fiori area of Rome is now used as the French Embassy.

The Teatro San Bartolomeo 
Travel tip:

Metastasio’s libretto for the opera Didone abbandonato, with music by the composer Domenico Sarro, was first heard at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples in 1724. Teatro San Bartolomeo closed in 1737 when the newly-built Teatro San Carlo replaced it as the royal opera house in Naples . It was demolished to make way for the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, but remnants of the old theatre’s boxes can still be seen in the church, which is in vico Graziella al Porto, behind the Church of the Pietà dei Turchini, accessible through narrow alleys from Via Medina in the San Giuseppe Carità district. 

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