Bad luck that my first glimpse of Venice was marred by an insult.
“Capons, worthless twittering trash,” wafted half-whispered toward us from a group of young merchants gathered at the rail of the small ship nearing the Porto di Lido. One pursed his lips in a pout and mimicked the fluttering of a fan while another extended his meaty hand in a limp-wristed gesture. They all laughed dismissingly as they strolled farther up the deck.
Felice and I kept our eyes carefully lowered to the sparkling green water of the lagoon. It was not as though we hadn’t had our share of sneers and remarks since leaving Naples, but they still rankled.
My friend and I were castrato singers. As young boys, we had been gelded for the sake of our beautiful, soprano voices which had then been trained to the pinnacle of technical brilliance by the most exacting voice maestros in Italy. At the Conservatorio San Remo, we had learned that we had the blessed Saint Paul to thank for our condition. “Let your women be silent in the churches,” he had proclaimed. Generations of churchmen had taken that command to heart. Taking a leaf from the Persians’ book, the papal choir directors had created castrati, not to serve as compliant slave boys, but to honor God with the closest approximation of heavenly voices that this earthly realm could produce.
Angelic castrati voices still filled the cathedrals, but every young eunuch at San Remo knew that the popular demand for our unique talents had shifted to the courts and opera houses. A talented castrato soprano was a valuable commodity, especially in mercantile cities like my Venice where every patrician was also a businessman and every citizen so infatuated with the opera that La Serenissima’s theaters were packed to the rafters every night.
Naples had loved us. As students, we sang at festival masses in all the great churches and entertained the wealthy and powerful over banquets and intimate dinners. Neapolitans by the hundreds crowded the conservatorio theater for every concert. As our maestros marched us through the streets of the beautiful city on the bay, two orderly lines of well-scrubbed boys in the yellow-sashed San Remo uniform, we heard whispers of praise, not insults.
“Watch that little dark one there, the voice of a cherub” or “That one is divine. He will be another Farinelli.”
On our own for the first time, Felice and I were just beginning to understand that the same people who applauded our singing from the lofty perspective of their theater boxes were often disgusted and embarrassed when confronted by physical reminders of how we acquired our luscious voices.
The merchants by the rail had started arguing about the price of Turkish tobacco, and I realized they had probably forgotten the two young singers so anxiously peering through the breezy, late autumn sunshine at our long awaited destination. What would Venice make of Tito Amato, her returning son? In this year of our Lord 1731, my musical training was complete, and I was headed home to sing at the Teatro San Stefano. The noble Viviani family had acquired the theater several years before and had spared no effort to make it one of the city’s premier opera houses. The Governors of San Remo had negotiated my new position with theatrical agents scouting the Neapolitan schools for fresh singers to thrill the jaded Venetian audiences. Since I was obligated to repay San Remo for my years of training, I had little say in the matter, but nevertheless, the prospect of returning home had tantalized me in a way I couldn’t ignore.
When the maestros had given us their parting blessings, I had been fresh from a triumph in a student production and overflowing with the confidence that only sheer, untried youth can inspire. Now, as the golden towers and domes of Venice rose like a magic island on the horizon, I wondered what I could have been thinking. Venetian audiences had enjoyed the world’s greatest singers: Farinelli, Caffarelli, Senesino. And Venetians weren’t shy about demonstrating their disapproval if a singer failed to please. We had all heard tales of rotten fruit and tomatoes used as missiles, of shouting so loud a performer couldn’t hope to make himself heard above it. A Venetian mob had once even swarmed over the orchestra, grabbed a foundering castrato, and thrown the unfortunate fellow in the stinking canal. My stomach began rumbling and my chest tightened as I wondered why I hadn’t begged the maestros to let me stay in Naples to teach the younger boys, compose music, anything. Then I caught sight of Felice’s tight expression and felt a pang of guilt. My worries paled in comparison to my friend’s predicament.
Felice Ravello had come home with me on the slender hope of finding work as a chapel singer in one of Venice’s many churches. Already past twenty, Felice had overstayed his training more than most. When I was exiled to San Remo, my friend had been a rosy-cheeked, cheerful scarecrow whose wrists and elbows were always poking out of his sleeves. He delighted in eluding the composition maestro and hiding in the back of the theater to hear the senior students rehearsing for upcoming productions. Felice would cheerfully take a beating if it meant he could lose himself in their ravishing voices for even a few minutes. Singing was Felice’s overriding passion. While the rest of us watched the hourglass, waiting for the signal that would let us run and play ball in the courtyard, Felice begged for extra instruction. No exercise was too tedious or time consuming if my friend thought it would help him perfect his already remarkable soprano.
It was in our eighth year at the conservatorio that disaster struck. One morning, in the middle of a cadenza he could sing as easily as walking across the floor, Felice’s golden throat failed him. His voice cracked. And kept cracking. Despite enforced rest, therapeutic exercises, and foul-smelling herbal concoctions painted on his tonsils by the school physician, Felice’s vocal apparatus relentlessly coarsened and thickened. Sometimes it happened that way; the cutting we had both endured carried no guarantee.
I had watched helplessly as my friend’s laughter faded and he spent more and more time in our third-floor sleeping room staring out the window or curled up under the bedcovers. The maestros shook their heads discouragingly. To his horror, Felice was advised to take up the harpsichord or the violin. He practiced those instruments under duress, but I knew that he had never stopped cosseting his rebellious throat or burning candles at the shrine of Saint Cecilia, praying for a miracle.
At the ship’s rail, Felice nudged my arm and pointed to the island over the water. “Tito, this city is amazing. It glitters like the bishop’s Easter headdress. What’s that tower? That enormous one?”
I shaded my eyes with a flat hand. Still scarcely believing that I was nearing home, I answered in the bald tones of a travelers’ guidebook. “It’s the Campanile, the bell tower on the Piazza San Marco. The reflection off its gilded roof is visible for miles. The sailors use it to lead them to port.”
“And those columns by the water’s edge?”
“Platforms for Venice’s patron saints. On the left is Saint Theodore with his crocodile. On the right, the golden lion of Saint Mark.”
“I’m afraid I’ll need the intervention of both if I’m to find work,” he whispered, bowing his head slightly.
“Not losing hope, are you?”
Felice gripped the railing with whitened knuckles, then leaned back with an unconvincing laugh. “Not a bit. This northern climate will surely help my throat. Not dry and dusty like Naples, but not too cold. It will limber up my vocal cords and, before long, I’ll have more offers than I can handle.”
I nodded and tried to match my smile to his bravado, but my old friend wasn’t fooled.
“You must have a few worries of your own,” Felice observed. “You spent half the night walking the deck.”
“My family is much on my mind,” I slowly admitted. “Yes?” he prompted, interested in my affairs as always.
“It has been so many years since I’ve seen any of them. What if they are no more overjoyed at having a eunuch in their midst as our friends over there?” I nodded toward the group of merchants.
“You know Annetta will welcome you with open arms. Every time Maestro Norvello huffed and puffed up the stairs to deliver our mail, he complained that her fat letters would be the death of him.”
Felice was speaking of my older sister, Anna-Maria Amato, my dear Annetta. Only eighteen months separated us, but she had become my vigilant caretaker after our mother died when I was five and Annetta barely seven. After we were separated, she wrote every week and I always answered right away. How I had longed to see her and actually talk back and forth without waiting on the post for replies.
Annetta had often written of our younger sister, Grisella. The girl must be half-grown by now, but the Grisella I remembered was a chunky, little redheaded demon given to breath-holding, foot-stomping tantrums. Our mother had died at Grisella’s birth. To care for the baby, Father had hired a bambinaia who declared the nursery off limits to the rest of us and seemed jealous of any attention that anyone else showed the poor little mite. Annetta always said old Berta had kept Grisella a baby far too long.
Our older brother, Alessandro, was away on one of his far-flung trading journeys. He had started out as a young seaman, still in his teens, on a state-sponsored trading galley and had gradually amassed enough capital to begin taking small shares in the various cargoes. Now a merchant in his own right, he was off trading in the Levant, but expected back by Christmas Day.
My father completed our small household. Of him, I refused to think.
We were making slow progress across the lagoon because our three-sailed tartan was hemmed in by a line of larger vessels headed for the quay by the customs house. Restless and excited, Felice and I left the rail and paced a futile, circular path among the crates and barrels stacking the deck. Our activity only served to draw more contemptuous glances from the merchants scrambling to organize their cargo.
Then I noticed a few stout gondolas rowing across the lagoon. On inquiry, I soon learned that they meant to collect passengers who were willing to pay premium price to get into Venice quickly. I slid my hand under my cloak and fingered the slender purse tucked in my waistcoat pocket. Though I’d spent carefully throughout our journey, expenses for the both of us had nearly made me a pauper. No matter, I’d soon be earning enough to refill my little purse. I made hurried arrangements to have our trunks sent on by porter, grabbed our hand luggage, and practically pushed Felice down the ladder that descended to a waiting gondola.
“I suppose you’ve never even seen one of these.” I ducked under the striped canopy and slid onto a leather-cushioned seat as Felice clambered in clumsily behind me. After giving the gondolier directions to the Campo dei Polli, where my father kept a small house, I had to laugh at Felice’s ungainly attempts to settle himself and his bag. “You will soon get used to it. A gondola will take you almost everywhere you go.”
He shook his head uneasily. “I have a feeling that travel by boat is not the only new thing I’ll be getting used to.”
The gondolier on the stern joined in with the curiosity of his kind. His rough face could have been fashioned of leather and his voice was a phlegmy rasp. “What brings such fine young gentlemen from Naples, the Carnival? Do you need a place to stay? Amusements? Games of chance? Anything you want, I can show you where to get it.”
Felice and I traded apprehensive glances as I replied, “I’ve come to sing at the opera house, the San Stefano. I’m engaged for the season.”
Still twisted around to face the rear of the boat, I felt my cheeks blushing as his bloodshot eyes made a detailed inspection of my features.
“Ah, castrati! New blood for the San Stefano. About time! Their old eunuch, Crivelli, is a bag of bones with a wheeze like an old consumptive.”
Intrigued, I answered, “You follow the opera then.”
He laughed into the brisk breeze. “If you have the voice, we rowers will be your greatest admirers. The theater managers give us all the tickets that haven’t been sold by curtain time. In return, we bring in the foreigners, the visiting dignitaries, anyone who wants a break from the gaming houses and the balls. We all have our favorite singers to recommend.”
I considered as I watched him sweep the large oar back and forth. I suspected he had known what we were from the moment we had stepped in the boat. Felice particularly was developing the telltale signs of a mature castrato: tall height, dangling arms, and barrel chest. As might be expected, his cheeks were beardless and his ruddy complexion was finely pored. Another benefit of the cutting, besides the all-important voice, was thick, luxuriant hair. Felice’s head was covered with deep black waves that he’d pulled into a solitary bow at the back of his neck, but his other features were not so pleasing. His unfortunate nose, wide and fleshy, tended to overbalance his narrow mouth and black button eyes. Even when his voice had been at its peak, my friend had never been the object of gushing love notes, and overwrought Neapolitan ladies had seldom swooned during his San Remo performances. Still, my friend had a good, honest face which I had cherished ever since he had taken this lonely, confused Venetian under his wing so many years ago.
I turned back to our boatman. “What else can you tell me about the San Stefano?”
Squinting his eyes against the glare of the lowering sun, he scratched the wide belly just covered by a short, black wool jacket. “It’s bringing in a lot of ducats for its patrons, the Viviani. And a good thing, too. The Viviani spend like they have a Spanish galleon with the lost gold of the Americas tied up at their water gate.”
Though we were alone atop the flashing waves, the nearest boat barely within shouting distance, he dropped his voice to a whisper. “The Viviani just finished building a fourth level on their palazzo. Two cupolas sheathed in gold! How can this be? No other family has been able to build so grandly for twenty years or more.”
I held the gondolier’s gaze, but I had no interest in hearing any more about a patrician’s ostentatious display. I had come to Venice purely in the service of music, so I asked the only question that mattered. “The Signor Viviani, is he a great opera lover?” My gondolier snorted and gave me a shrewd grin. “Domenico Viviani loves one thing about the opera…the prima donna, Adelina Belluna. He displays La Belluna on his arm everywhere in the city. You see him toasting her in the cafés, covering her bets at the Ridotto, nuzzling her neck in a box at the theater. Oh, he’s bold all right. They don’t even bother to wear masks although it is Carnival and they could go about unnoticed if they wore the bauta and moretta like almost everyone else.”
“But is that so unusual? Even in Naples, we hear tales of the carousing that goes on. That’s why half of Europe comes to Venice to take part in the carnival festivities.”
“Almost anything goes for the foreigners, especially the ones with heavy purses, but not the heads of noble houses. Venice might be rolling like a barrel hoop down the path to hell, but the Tribunal sets a high standard of conduct for our leaders. And don’t think there still aren’t spies behind every post and pillar. Domenico Viviani’s very public sins have been noted. No doubt about that.”
Our boat slid past the lacy arcades of the Doge’s palace, then the heavier bulk of the Zecca, and we soon entered the Grand Canal. The heavy traffic on the canal claimed our boatman’s attention; the rest of our journey passed in silence. Felice crouched in his seat, marveling wide-eyed as we darted around barges and just missed scraping the pavements that lined Venice’s watery highway, while I fretted over the reception that awaited us. It seemed as if the open-air tunnel of balconied palaces would never end, but then, I wasn’t sure I wanted it to. Finally, with the mellow light of impending dusk softening the marble angles of the great houses, we left the width of the Grand Canal and threaded through progressively narrowing channels. I began to notice refuse gathered in corners and porticoes. Stucco was peeling off damp, dirty walls. This was not how I remembered my city, the jewel of the Adriatic. Times must be even worse than my sister had hinted in her letters.
In a few minutes, the gondola came to rest at the bottom of a familiar calle. I tightened the grip on my bag.
“This is it, Felice,” I said with a gulp. “We’re finally home.” As we mounted the smooth, well-worn stones of the landing, I found my doubts and worries turning to excitement. In a moment I would be hugging Annetta! Last words from our gondolier followed us: “I’ll be watching for you at San Stefano, young castrati. Make Venice proud!”