The Orphans and the Red Priest

Have you ever wondered why we use the term “conservatory” to refer to a music school? The word conjures up images of greenhouses and environmentalist GoFundMe pages, but what exactly is being “conserved” at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, or the Paris Conservatoire?

In fact, the Italian word conservatorio means “orphanage”, and in its day the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice was one of the most famous, largely due to the presence there of the Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi, who joined the staff in 1703. The Ospedale took in orphaned girls and trained them to sing and play instruments. Under Vivaldi the music program there became one of Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. The well-bred and the well-heeled flocked to concerts at which a nun, dressed all in white with a scarlet pomegranate blossom behind her ear, would conduct performances, often of music written by the flamboyant master himself, while the musicians and choir remained demurely hidden behind a screen that allowed the sound to reach the audience but kept the girls out of view.

Orphans who graduated from the program could expect to find comfortable places as governesses or musicians – or even brides – in wealthy households, for whom the presence of one or more of the Ospedale’s girls was a symbol of status and cultural attainment. Working-class parents anxious to provide a good future for their daughters would go so far as to arrange false identities for their children, complete with the tragic deaths of fictional parents, so that they could be handed over to the Ospedale to be raised.

The success of the Ospedale orphanage inspired imitators in Rome, Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg, and eventually even in the US, but in spite of the name, these were conservatorios in name only. Orphans went to factory orphanages or workhouses. At the new music schools only the very talented or the very wealthy need apply.

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