5 March 2018

Marietta Piccolomini – soprano

Popular star who found fame as Violetta

Marietta Piccolomini had to persuade reluctant parents to let her sing
Marietta Piccolomini had to persuade
reluctant parents to let her sing
The operatic soprano Marietta Piccolomini, who was most famous for her performances as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, was born on this day in 1834 in Siena.

Her career was relatively brief, spanning just 11 years. Yet she managed to achieve unprecedented popularity, to the extent that crowds of fans would gather outside her hotel and men would volunteer to take the place of horses in pulling her carriage through the streets.

Some critics said that the adulation she enjoyed was more to do with her youthful good looks and her acting ability than her voice, who they argued was weak and limited.

Nonetheless, she was seldom short of work and she was the first Violetta to be seen by operagoers in both Paris and London.  She had a particularly enthusiastic following in England, where she undertook several tours of provincial theatres as well as appearing in the capital.

Born Maria Teresa Violante Piccolomini Clementini, she came from a noble Tuscan family. Her musical mother, a talented amateur, would sing duets with her. However, while her family were happy to arrange lessons for her with Pietro Romani, one of Italy’s first professional singing teachers, her father was reluctant to allow her to make opera singing a career.

She made her first stage appearances in 1852, at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and at the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where she performed in two more Donizetti operas, Poliuto and Don Pasquale.

Giuseppe Verdi tried to stop Piccolomini's Paris debut
Giuseppe Verdi tried to stop
Piccolomini's Paris debut
Piccolomini took the role of Gilda in Guiseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto in Pisa in 1853 and appeared as Violetta for the first time in Turin two years later, receiving a rapturous response from the audience. It was there for the first time that she enjoyed the adulation of a star, with fans waiting outside her hotel in the hope of catching a glimpse of her.

In 1856, she was invited to reprise the role in the British premiere of La Traviata at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, where she became a favourite.  She enjoyed popularity in Dublin also.

The following year she was Violetta in the first French production of La Traviata, which was staged at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris despite attempts by Verdi, who did not have copyrights in France, to stop it going ahead.

Returning to England in 1858, she sang in Donizetti’s La figlia del reggimento and Lucia di Lammermoor, and in Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart, before embarking on a long provincial tour. Later in the year, she performed in Holland and Germany.

After another season and another tour of English cities in 1859, in the autumn she made her New York debut at the Academy of Music, as Violetta in La Traviata, after which she took her repertoire of Verdi, Donizetti and Mozart roles on a successful tour of cities across America.

Her marriage in 1860 to the Marquis Francesco Caetani della Fargna effectively ended her career, although she was persuaded out of retirement in 1863 for some benefit concerts in honour of Benjamin Lumley, the former impresario of Her Majesty’s Theatre and the man who had launched her career as an international artist, who had fallen on hard times.

Piccolomini died in 1899 at her villa in Florence, having contracted pneumonia.  She was buried at the Cimitero della Porte Sante at the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte.

The Piccolomini library adjoins Siena's beautiful cathedral
The Piccolomini library adjoins
Siena's beautiful cathedral 
Travel tip:

Adjoining Siena’s beautiful Italian Gothic and Romanesque cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, is the Piccolomini Library, which houses precious illuminated choir books and is decorated with frescoes by Bernardino di Betto, who was better known as Pinturicchio, which were favourites of Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II.

The Basilica di San Miniato at Monte is a Romanesque  church standing at one of the highest points in Florence
The Basilica di San Miniato at Monte is a Romanesque
church standing at one of the highest points in Florence
Travel tip:

The Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, a handsome Romanesque church, stands at one of the highest points in Florence, commanding sweeping views across the city. The cemetery was established there in 1848 within the basilica’s 16th century fortifications.  Among those interred there are the painters Giuseppe Abbati and Pietro Annigoni, the author Carlo Collodi (of Pinocchio fame), the actor Tommaso Salvini and the historian and politician Pasquale Villari.

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