Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 1 (Fall 2002)

What News on the Rialto?1: How Publicity Created and Destroyed Commercial Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice

By Sandy Thorburn

Commercial enterprise is dependent upon communication, because business needs to attract customers; the customers for commercial opera are its audience, and this audience is attracted by means of publicity. Starting in 1637, the year of the very first commercial opera, information about Venetian opera was energetically sent out to European centres using various means. I will outline some of these means, showing how this publicity succeeded in popularizing opera while simultaneously allowing the reduction of the music and the drama to formulae.

First, allow me to define the word 'commercial', since I do not use it exactly as the Oxford English Dictionary does - "having profit as a primary aim rather than artistic value; philistine" - but in a somewhat more charitable way. For my purposes, the term 'commercial' refers to operas produced with a paying audience in mind, whose design and production are in some way determined by this premise. In other words, they were intended to earn money for those who produced them. Whether they in fact did earn money is not immediately relevant for me.

In 1637, Venice was the centre for European diplomacy and business as well as its first tourist city, attracting thousands of wealthy English, French, German and Dutch visitors every year to Carnevale. It was fertile ground for two musical businesspersons from Rome, Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Manelli, to produce their own opera, Andromeda, at the newly refurbished San Cassiano theatre in Venice. Thanks in part to Venice's thriving business atmosphere, this peculiar musical theatre form succeeded, and for the next century, Venetian commercial opera remained the most popular entertainment in Europe. Venetian opera impresarios started this ball rolling by creating publicity materials with the help of the city's more than one hundred and fifty printing presses; their spin took the form of published librettos and a new sort of publication called a scenario. The Venetian libretto is a substantial publication that includes not only the full text of the opera, but also other information deemed important by the librettist. A scenario, on the other hand is usually one duodecimo fascicle (i.e. twenty-four pages), with a synopsis and some information to tell the reader the location and time of the performance. It is, in short, an advertisement, similar in style to a playbill for a modern opera.

The first time a libretto appeared in print was for the courtly opera productions of Florence and Mantua; these publications were intended as souvenirs for the court's guests. When commercial operas were first produced in Venice, they simply used this concept as a model; both the first and second operas, Andromeda and La maga fulminata published souvenir librettos, but did not provide any printed advance publicity at all. Antonio Bariletti published Andromeda's libretto on May 6, 1637, several months after it had closed, but Benedetto Ferrari, who had written the libretto, recognized that there were profits to be made from libretto sales and took it upon himself to publish his second libretto, La maga fulminata, on February 6, 1638, while the work was still running. It is not difficult to imagine that this libretto earned a substantial profit for Ferrari, since it was sold along with a candle so that it could be read during the performance. In the absence of documentary evidence of the reaction to this innovation, it is unclear whether this publication was the catalyst for the explosion in the number of opera productions in Venice, or if it was a result of their success.

The scenario was first used as a publicity tool by Giulio Strozzi, (father of the famous Barbara Strozzi) for his first operatic production, La Delia. [See Figure 1] Strozzi recognized the importance of providing the public with advance publicity in order to make his work a hit. Using various lures, including the fame of its composer, Francesco Manelli, who had written music for Andromeda, and the fact that it was the inaugural opera for the new theatre SS Giovanni e Paolo, Strozzi published his scenario over a month before the opera opened. This scenario consisted of a synopsis and a running description of the action, a preface by the author, and even an advertisement for the next production, Ferrari's Armida. Like all subsequent scenarios, La Delia's scenario is a brief (thirty-three-page) volume on inexpensive paper, clearly designed as a disposable document.

The next scenario that appeared in Venice was printed only two months later, by Strozzi's competition. Francesco Cavalli's new company at the San Cassiano theatre seems to have imitated Giulio Strozzi's publicity stunt for La Delia, producing a similar, but less effective scenario for their opera, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo by Orazio Persiani and Cavalli. [Figure 2] Although this scenario provides important information such as the name of the venue, the composer, and some information about the performers, it does not boast about the opera's qualities in quite the way Strozzi's scenario does. Nevertheless, both of these operas were successes, and for the next twenty years, the scenario was the major form of publicity for Venetian opera. Other operas that published scenarios include the most performed opera of the century, Strozzi's La finta pazza (1641), [Figure 3] Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643), and Cavalli's Egisto. Most operas produced in the 1640s and 1650s published scenarios as advance publicity.

Unlike the libretto, which was usually published by the librettist, the scenario was normally prepared by the theatre manager. Nearly half of them do not even mention the librettist's name on the title page, but feature the theatre or its owner's name prominently. The Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo and the short-lived Teatro Novissimo relied on the scenario as publicity items more than any other theatres. Scenarios from about twenty early operas have survived, as shown in this list compiled by Ellen Rosand2.

Venetian Opera Scenarios as listed in Rosand (title, date, theatre, publisher)

  1. La Delia, November 5, 1638, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Giulio Strozzi
  2. Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, 1639, San Cassiano, ?
  3. Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia, 1640, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Claudio Sartori?
  4. La Didone, 1641, San Cassiano, Miloco
  5. La finta pazza, January 14, 1641, Teatro Novissimo, Surian
  6. Bellerofonte, 1642, Teatro Novissimo, Surian
  7. Narciso et Ecco, after January 1643, San Giovanni e Paolo, ?
  8. Alcate, after February 13, 1642, Teatro Novissimo, ?
  9. La Coronatione di Poppea, 1643?, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Claudio Sartori
  10. Egisto, 1643, San Cassiano, Miloco
  11. Il Prencipe giardiniero, before Dec. 30, 1643?, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Salis
  12. Deidamia, before January 1644, Novissimo, Leni e Vecellio
  13. Ulisse errante, 1644, SS Giovanni e Paolo, Pinelli
  14. Ercole in Lidia, 1645, Teatro Novissimo, Vecellio e Leni
  15. Romolo e Remo, before February 5, 1645, SS Giovanni e Paolo, ?
  16. Gli acidenti del vitorioso Goffredo, 1648, Santi Apostoli, Valvasense
  17. Eritrea, 1652, San Apollinare, ?
  18. Helena rapita da Theseo, 1653, SS Giovanni e Paolo, ? (printed with libretto)
  19. Erismena, 1655, San Apollinare, ?

Because of the disposable nature of the scenario, many more were probably destroyed, making it difficult to be able to say categorically when they went out of fashion. What is known is that operas began to receive a great deal of press coverage in the 1660s and more and more producers began to issue librettos before the opera opened. Since journalists quoted extensively from librettos in their articles, I conclude that the libretto had begun to serve double duty as press release (i.e. the scenario) and programme (i.e. the libretto) for Venetian operas.

On an opera to opera basis, it seems this system of libretto and scenario publicity was very effective, but in terms of creating a climate of wonder about the entire city of Venice and the industry of Venetian opera, news had to travel to the rest of Europe. It is well known that Venice was more successful at creating a mystique about itself than any other city in Europe, or indeed the world. One need only consult the private correspondence of those who visited Venice in these years to realize it held a fascination for Europeans inspired by its association with the mysterious east, with antiquity, with Renaissance masters of the art world, with its romantic canals and its reputation for unbridled sexuality, particularly during Carnevale. French writer Limojon de Saint Didier wrote: "The famous freedom of Venice attracts foreigners in droves, the pleasures make them stop and empties their purses: the great lords, and sovereign princes often pass a great deal of time here: the convenient use of incognito adds to the charms of Venetian freedom, and makes them sacrifice large sums to their pleasures."3

Particularly during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), when large parts of Europe were being laid waste, Venice was a haven for fleeing rulers, and a neutral place for diplomats to conduct business. A large proportion of operatic audiences were foreign, and so it seems clear that the mail was the producer's most useful tool.

Europe's first and most successful private postal service, Thurn & Taxis, established in 1489, boasted that it could deliver a letter from Venice to Augsburg in a mere six days4. Despite this dizzying speed of delivery, the single letter was an inefficient means of publicizing opera, with just a single reader per letter. The possibility of reaching multiple readers began with the invention of the printing press. Invented in the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg, it was in 1620 that Willem Janszoon Blaeu's improvement made the printing press a financially feasible method to make many copies of a document in a short amount of time. This improvement - the addition of a counterweight to automatically raise the heavy metal plate that held the moveable type - suddenly doubled the speed and ease of printing. With this increase in the speed of printing came an increase in printed material, which in turn created an increased number of people who could read. Venice had been the world leader in printing since the beginning of the sixteenth century and was well positioned to take advantage of this increase in the literacy rate.

A demand for reading material was met using various methods. Gossip proved to be a lucrative commodity in Venice, and the surest source of reliable gossip was the Inquisitori di Stato, the Venetian secret police. The Inquisitori di Stato, employed by the Most Serene Republic of Venice, was regarded as one of the finest spy-agencies in Europe. This vast infrastructure of spies regularly reported on the movements of public officials, local events, punishment, military and diplomatic movements, and entertainment. Every Saturday, each spy filed a report called an avviso with the government. Initially, the avvisi were hand-written documents, but the informants recognised the potential profitability of information and soon took advantage of the many printing presses in Venice to make multiple copies of their reports. As early as 1563, Venetian printers were selling these avvisi on the Rialto Bridge for the low price of one "gazeta", a silver coin worth 2 soldi. The term gazette, used by many modern newspapers is a reference to the coin that purchased an avviso. The Rialto was Europe's most important banking centre and the bankers, like modern day money-market traders, were notoriously edgy when it came to market trends. When news of Vasco da Gama's alternate route to India by sea reached the Rialto in 1499, for example, several Rialto banks failed instantly. Perhaps, if they had had access to accurate information as provided by the avvisi, they might not have reacted so rashly to this Portuguese threat to their monopoly.

Very few avvisi have survived to be studied, because they were intentionally ephemeral documents, but there is one collection dating from 1660 that mentions opera performances. Il Rimino, a compilation of avvisi from Modena, Parma, Florence, Paris and Venice as well as various other centres, often mentions little more than the names and sponsors of operas, but often mentions audience reaction. Nevertheless, almost all avvisi always reported on operas because they were public events that allowed otherwise forbidden interactions between foreign and native officials and rulers. In Paris in 1631, Théophraste Renaudot created a new kind of journal with a slightly more practical tone: the Gazette de France. It began as a four-page publication in the form of a small book with a circulation of less than one thousand, but thanks to a single brilliant idea, his circulation rose to 12,000 by 1672. By inserting paid advertising supplements into the paper, he could lower the purchase price of the Gazette de France, thereby making it affordable to a larger percentage of the overall population. It stayed in business well into the nineteenth century.

In January 1673, a new and extremely influential periodical appeared in Paris. Le Mercure galant, [Figure 4] started by Donneau de Visé, was a periodical that went to great pains to report on the new operas in Venice. From the point of view of operatic history, it is more valuable than any other journal for developing an understanding of Venetian opera in the seventeenth century. In its time, Le Mercure galant was widely read because it was an officially sanctioned publication of the French royal court. In August 1677, Le Mercure galant correspondent Chassebras de Cramailles wrote thirty pages in the form of a letter to an anonymous 'madame' on the subject of the new Venetian operas, including the names of librettists and composers, as well as vivid descriptions of the music and the theatrical machinery. His description in March 1683 of the San Salvatore theatre created a frenzy (the following year) when he reported that the theatre was so popular that it was necessary to reserve your seat even in the parterre two days in advance. In 1687, a journal called Pallade Veneta, modelled on Le Mercure galant appeared in Venice. It was written in its entirety by just one man, Francesco Coli, a book censor for the Inquisitori di Stato from Lucca. This journal appealed to northern Italians from Florence, Padua, Modena and Lucca in its tone and its descriptions of events. The acknowledged superiority of Venetian opera in this publication is interesting to note because this was precisely the time when Naples and Paris challenged Venice operatically for the first time. The tone adopted by Pallade Veneta may well reflect the beginning of the problem with eighteenth century opera; a sense of complacency coupled with an urgent demand for new operas, fuelling the tendency to create operas that seem formulaic.

I chose to investigate methods of publicity because Venetian operas were extremely popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, and it is my contention that they were made popular not by their quality but by the fact that people were told to love them even before they had seen them. There is a tendency to confuse what we know - and even what we think we know - for what we like. Eleanor Selfridge-Field points out that publicity served as a means of control from its earliest days in her book about the journal Pallade Veneta:

[p]ublicity had nothing whatsoever to do with freedom; to the contrary, it could be a tool of subjugation. Contrived . . . as a substitute for conspicuous acts of repression and censorship, the typical seventeenth-century journal projected a worldview that suited the interests of its sponsors. The dominant force behind the largest number of seventeenth century serial publications . . . was the Church . . ..5

Before commercial opera appeared, printed publicity had never been used to attract audiences to musical events before; the commedia dell'arte sold tickets and even produced their own publicity materials, but this was entertainment of a slightly different type, and decidedly low art, as understood by the Early Modern Venetian. Notwithstanding this low art label, many of the methods of attracting audiences were borrowed from the commedia dell'arte, transferred to the media most attractive to the middle and upper classes: journalism. It is therefore much more than simply dumb luck that the newspaper - a commercial form of institutional control - appeared at the same time that commercial opera was trying to exert a similar kind of control over what would come to be known as fashion. These two forms of communication are similar in many ways, and they have a symbiotic relationship as well: newspapers need news and operas were news. On the other hand, operas need an audience, and avvisi, journals, and publications of the accademias attract an audience.

If Venice at Carnevale can be likened to a proto-Disneyland, then commercial opera was the greatest attraction of this Early Modern amusement park. Like all amusement parks though, its existence depended upon a sense of heightened reality: if people do not come and have fun, this mystique disappears. Even in the seventeenth century, it was difficult to remain fashionable, and it took all the power of the greatest propagandists of the day to create the mythology of the most magnificent opera house in history, the San Giovanni Grisostomo. Chassebras de Cramailles, the spin-doctor of Venetian opera for Le Mercure galant described it as

The most beautiful and the most luxurious in the city. Five ranges of opera boxes, one upon the other, thirty-one in each range ring the auditorium. They are decorated with sculpted ornaments in gilded bas-relief, representing different sorts of antique vases, shells, roses, rosettes, flowers, leaves and other enrichments. Under and between each of the opera boxes are various human figures made of white marble, also in relief, and as large as life, holding up the pillars that separate the boxes . . . . . The ceiling is painted depicting a gallery, and at one end is the coat of arms of the Grimani [the theatre's owners], beneath which is Glory surrounded by various divinities and children, and a garland of flowers.
One hour before the show begins, the tableau of Venus on the ceiling retracts, and a chandelier with four fourteen-foot gold and silver branches descends. It contains a great coat of arms of Grimani family with a crown of fleurs-de-lys and pearl encrusted rays beneath. The chandelier boasts four grand candelabras with white wax that light up the room and continue burning until the curtain is raised and when this happens, it all vanishes and returns to its previous state. When the show is over, this machine reappears to illuminate the spectators and to give them means to leave without confusion.6

This obsession with popular success inadvertently caused the attraction, the opera, to become a caricature of its former self by the 1690s. The fluid and dialectical style of the early operatic composers and librettists that had attracted the literati in 1640s was replaced to some extent with a series of more or less related songs strung together with perfunctory recitative, framing a series of trompe l'oeil special effects. It became aesthetically boring. The magic of the theatrical effects, of course, continued to impress audiences, but the literary content became in some cases self-mocking and the musical style became dangerously formulaic. The wages of success caused this hardening of the operatic arteries, and success does not always breed success: both Venice and Venetian opera began to pale in comparison to the new competition from Naples and Paris. The operatic successes of Venice continued to earn money and make composers' and librettists' careers (Vivaldi and Handel both made their reputations as opera composers here in the beginning of the eighteenth century), but the works, for the most part, did not live beyond their initial success. Shylock's question posed in the title to this paper, "what news on the Rialto?" refers to the reputation-destroying gossip that began in the avvisi of the Rialto. In answer to his suggestive question, I am tempted to reveal one of the closest-guarded secrets in Venice: by the 1690s, opera had become, as Dr. Johnson remarked, "an exotic and irrational entertainment."

Sandy Thorburn is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto.

Works Cited

De Cramailles, Chassebras, in Le Mercure Galant, 1683

Limojon de Saint Didier, Alexandre-Toussaint. La ville et la république de Venise. Paris: Guillaume de Luyne, 1680. [Translated as The City and the Republic of Venice. London: C. Broome, 1699]

Murialdi, Paolo. Storia del giornalismo italiano dalle prime gazette ai telegiornali. Torino: Gutenberg 2000, 1986

Pirrotta, Nino. "Commedia dell'Arte and Opera" Musical Quarterly (41), 1955 pp. 305-24

Rigo, Franco, "Appunti per uno studio su 'La Posta di Fiandra' (La Via d'Augusta)" (Chapter 2) in Venezia Le Vie della Poste. Edizione Grafiche "La Press": Venezia, 1985

Rosand, Ellen, "The Opera Scenario, 1638-1655: A Preliminary Survey", in In cantu et in sermone : for Nino Pirrotta on his 80th birthday edited by Fabrizio Della Seta, Franco Piperno. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1989 pp. 335-346

--, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

Saunders, Harris Sheridan. The Repertoire of a Venetian Opera House (1678-1714): The Teatro Grimani di San Giovanni Grisostomo. Harvard University PhD dissertation, May 24, 1985.

Selfridge-Taylor, Eleanor, Pallade Veneta

Smith, Anthony. The Newspaper: An International History. London: Thames and Hudson: 1979

Worsthorne, Simon Towneley. Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954


1. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Shylock) I, iii.

2. In Ellen Rosand, "The Opera Scenario, 1638-1655: A Preliminary Survey", 1989

3. "La fameuse liberté de Venise y attire étrangers en foule, les divertissemens, les plaisirs les y arrêtent, & épuisent leur bourse: Les grands seigneurs, et les Princes souverains y vont souvent passer quelque temps: l'usage commode de l'incognito joint aux charmes de la liberté Venitienne, leur font sacrifier de grandes sommes à Leurs plaisirs." - Limojon de Saint Didier (La ville et la république de Venise, Paris, 1680, p. 395)

4. Even in 1643, the post often took up to 19 days to travel from Venice to Amsterdam, so to boast that one could travel from Venice to Augsburg in 6 days is remarkably quick. See Rigo, Franco, "Appunti per uno studio su 'La Posta di Fiandra' (La Via d'Augusta)" (Chapter 2) in Venezia Le Vie della Poste. Edizione Grafiche "La Press": Venezia, 1985, p. 35 "La corrispondenza ha seguito la via di Francoforte - Augusta - Trento - Mantova. La carrozza di Augusta aveva due percorsi stradali da effettuare: uno (quello preferito per i passaggeri) andava da Venezia - Padova - Vicenza - Verona - Trento - Bolzano - Innsbruck, l'altro (era scelto quando il viaggio riguardava le merci) andava da Venezia - Treviso - Castelfranco Veneto - Bassano - Borgo (qui si univa alla strada per Trento ed il viaggio riprendeva la via originaria).
La carrozza Postale parte da Venezia il martedi sera, da Innsbruck la domenica mattina, da Augusta il mercoledi mattina (il martedi riposo), da Colonia il venerdi mattina, arrivo ad Amsterdam Domenica mattina. In totale sono 19 giorni." (Archivio di Stato - Venezia, C.d.C., 64)
["Correspondence followed the road from Frankfurt (am Main) - Augsburg (Schwabia) - Trento - Mantua. The coach from Augsburg had two courses to choose from: one (the one preferred by passengers) went from Venice - Padua - Vicenza - Verona - Trento - Bolzano - Innsbruck, the other (was chosen when the voyage concerned goods) went from Venice - Treviso - Castelfranco Veneto - Bassano - Borgo (which joined with the road to Trento and the trip rejoined the first route).
The postal carriage left Venice on Tuesday evening, from Innsbruck on Sunday morning, from Augsburg on Wednesday morning (on Tuesday they rested), from Cologne the following Friday morning, arriving Amsterdam on Sunday morning. It took a total of 19 days."]

5. Eleanor Selfridge-Field, Pallade Veneta, p. 31

6. Chassebras de Cramailles, in Le Mercure Galant, March 1683.