Despite my growing unease, let us tarry a little while longer in Venice ….

Winner of the Strega Prize 2009

Published by Serpent’s Tail

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Everyone, but everyone has heard parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (even if only while holding on the phone).  What they may not know – like me –  is the context in which they were written.

Stabat Mater offers insights into the life of the orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of whom were skilled musicians kept segregated from the world.  When giving concerts in church, they were hidden behind metals grills. When travelling through the city to play for their benefactors, they remained veiled.  This was dictated by the shame of their births.  (Many were the unwanted children of the city’s prostitutes)  Their education contained similar contradictions:  progressive in regard to their musical education, yet rooted in the dark ages in other respects.

The narrator, Cecilia, 16, fantasises of escape through marriage or of her mother coming to reclaim her.  She is given to nocturnal wanderings,  always accompanied by a nightmarish Medusa-like figure of death.  During one of her nocturnal walks she witnesses a secret birth in the toilets in the basement of the orphanage.  This is her initiation into the origins of  life and it sows her jaundiced view of mother-child relationships.  The epistolary form  – this is the letter which Cecilia writes to her unknown mother – allows for full and honest expression of her emotions, which like the notes from her violin soar from the ecstatic to the depths of her jaundiced and claustrophobic existence.

Children spring from their mothers’ bellies and burst out crying, still terrifed by what they’ve abandoned, the death they’ve escaped.  They’re body-parts of the mother who flees from them. 

Mothers try to keep them bound to themselves, they hold them back when they are born, but the babies escape anyway, so the disappointed mothers take their revenge, they incite death against them, the rope that holds them back becomes the snake that bites their little belly and injects it with deadly poison.  They too are marked, they were innoculated with their fate in the womb.  The snake is pulled away, but in the middle of their bodies children bear a mother-scar, a death-scar, forever.

When Vivaldi replaces the worn-out composer-priest of the first half of the novel, Cecilia’s mood – and that of the novel – lightens.  Vivaldi’s refreshing compositions break boundaries and open up new musical horizons.  Vivaldi recognises Cecilia’s musical talent and becomes a personal mentor, relieving some of her solitude.  Yet in a dark incident (darkness is never far away in this pages) he also teaches her the importance of personal experience for musical interpretation.   He also promises her that

I will make you play the most intoxicating pieces, you will shake people’s souls in their foundations, that point at which our self dissolves into something coinciding with the vibrations of the cosmos.  

Cecilia’s part of the bargain is to remain in the convent, anonymous yet world-famous behind the metal grilles. Is Vivaldi’s promise sufficiently enticing for one already aware that she is buried alive in a delicate coffin of music?