Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Swan of Catania

I've never been a great fan of Bellini. No I don't mean the rather tasty white peach puree and champagne cocktail made famous by Harry's Bar in Venice; I'm speaking of the Sicilian born composer Vincenzo Bellini who along with Rossini and Donizetti make up the big three of 18th century Italian Opera. As a sidebar I note that thought there is a Rossini cocktail (strawberry puree and champagne) I haven't found one named after poor Donizetti - an oversight that really should be corrected.  His death at an early age meant that Bellini's output was small - 10 operas (or eleven if you include one reworking), a scattering of songs, a few neglected symphonies and church pieces.  Of the ten operas only four are performed with any sort of regularity and then only when signers are around who can do them justice - or think they can.

Handsome, elegant, quite the dandy and supremely talented he was the darling of the musical world, the ladies and society in general.  His rather sudden death at the age of 34 made him the perfect "romantic" artist.  That air of "romanticism" and the long lyric lines of his music earned Bellini the title "the Swan of Catania" and there are reminders of and memorials to him throughout his home town.

The Teatro Massimo Bellini was inaugurated on the evening of 31 May 1890 , with Bellini's opera Norma.  The initial design of the theater was by the architect Andrea Scala , with subsequent changes by Carlo Sada who took over from his mentor.  The facade is inspired by the Sansovino Library in Venice.
Right off the mark I have to say that Catania was my least favourite city on our recent trip to Sicilia.  It is a port city and had a certain shabby, seedy melancholy to it that wasn't aided by dull rainy skies during the two days we were there.  It was not the most auspicious weather in which to catch a view of the Teatro Massimo Bellini - which was saluted on its opening in 1890 by Mario Rapidsari with "Questo teatro edificato a spese del Comune e dedicato al nome immortale di Vincenzo Bellini fu solennemente aperto la sera del X Novembre MDCCCLXXXII ad ammaestramento e sollazzo del popolo ea perenne decoro della città. (This theatre was built at the expense of the City and dedicated to the immortal name of Vincenzo Bellini was solemnly opened on the evening of November X MDCCCLXXXII for the instruction and amusement of the people and the dignity of the eternal city." 

Rapidsari would hardly be impressed by the less than "dignified" state that the theatre is in today.  Though still majestic and imposing and used for operas and concerts, like much of the rest of the city, it has seen better days.  The elaborate iron work is rusted, the facade scared by the weather, the salt sea air and graffiti.  Given the scarcity of money these days, unless a generous donor is found, any sort of restoration is a long time, if ever, off.  

A great interpreter of Bellini and often credited with returning him to popularity Maria Callas is remembered - hardly appropriately - in Catania with an alleyway posing as a Via.  What I'm not showing in this shot are the garbage cans and foraging felines under the street alleyway sign. A paltry tribute to a great artist.

Hemmed in as it is by kiosks, bus shelters and political partisans it is difficult to appreciate the full impact of Monteverde's tribute to "the Swan of Catania".
Eight years before the opera house bearing his name was inaugurated a monument was commissioned by the city and unveiled in September of 1882.  Designed by sculptor Giulio Monteverde its location was the cause of infighting amongst members of the Commune.  One group wanted it placed (logically it would seem) in front of the Teatro which was then under construction.  Another group wanted it to replace the iconic Elephant Fountain in the Piazza Duomo.  The third - and ultimately successful group - wanted it raised in Piazza Stesicoro at the junction of Via Etnea and Corso Sicilia.

Monteverde was a leader in the "naturalist" movement and became one of the most sought after sculptors of his time.  Working entirely in white marble he created an allegory to Catania's beloved son.  Seven steps - the musical notes - lead to a column topped by the seated composer.  On the four sides of the column are figures from what were consider, at the time, his four most famous works: Norma, Il pirata, La sonnambula and I puritani.  Though it has been protected from graffiti artists by a wrought iron fence is has become hemmed in by bus and news kiosks and the day we were there a group of Neo-Fascists demanding the expulsion of all "stanieri" from Italy - perhaps not without irony as one of Bellini's first success was a work called La staniera - The Stranger. 


Il Pirata

La sonnambula

I puritani
Surrounded by figures representing four of his most popular works and caught in eternal youth, Bellini sits, perhaps a bit bemused, amidst the hustle and bustle of  Piazza Stesicoro on Via Etnea, Catania's main thoroughfare. 

The Duomo and its Piazza are fascinating examples of Sicilian Baroque in monochrome and despite the attempts to replace him with Bellini, u Liotru the Elephant and beloved symbol of Catania is still holding centre stage as he has since he was assembled in 1736.  That is not to say that the city's musical son has been forgotten - his final resting place is prominent amongst the splendors of the Duomo.

The remains of Bellini are guarded by a life-sized angel and an eternal (electric) flame.
Bellini died suddenly on September 23, 1835 in Puteaux near Paris, the result of a reoccurring intestinal infection.  Like so many other famous residents of the city he was buried in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise and suitably commemorated with a memorial.  However in 1876 his body was exhumed and transported back to his birthplace and a fitting - if slightly sentimental -19th century memorial built to hold his remains.

The tomb was created by Giovanni Battista Tassara, a sculptor, patriot and one of the Garibaldino soldiers in the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860.  I'm not sure if this bronze bas-relief is meant to be a scene from Bellini's most famous opera Norma or is connected to the inscription on the tomb from La Sonnambula.
The tomb bears the first words of one of the more famous arias from La sonnambula:  Ah! non credea mirarti / Sì presto estinto, o fior - Ah I did not think that I would see you wilt so soon, o flower.  An appropriate epitaph for a composer who died at the age of 34 and at the height of his popularity.
The tomb was the work of Giovanni Battista Tassara, a patriot-artist whose family were fisherfolk in Genova.  An ardent Garibaldino and socialist he had fought in some of the more crucial battles for a unified Italy.  Initially he studied under Giovanni Battista Cevasco, when he moved to Firenze he shunned the idea of a teacher to work in a "collective" with other artists in Tuscany.  Though he had done some prior projects the 1876 commission from Catania was to be his first major and best known work.  The tomb was unveiled to general approval in 1878 and Tassara hoped it would lead to other commissions.  Sadly his remaining years were filled with debt and disappointment though he remained an avid socialist and mentor to young artists.  He attempted to enlist at the outbreak of World War I but was considered too old and served as an orderly in the military hospital in his home town.  In 1916 he died while tending to the war wounded.
Two rather pretty angels assist the equally pretty Bellini on his assent into the celestial spheres - a touch of the overly sentimental style of the period.  But an exit befitting the perfect "romantic" artist.
At the age of 18 Bellini left his home town to begin formal studies in Napoli and by 1822 had begun his travels around Europe as the darling of the musical world.  He was to spend much of his time in Milano, Firenze and Paris and there is nothing to suggest that he had any great affection for his birthplace or even returned to it in the remaining 16 years of his life.  None the less Catania is still proud of its musical son and he is still commemorated and celebrated as their "Swan".

28 giugnio - Sant'Ireneo di Lione

Enhanced by Zemanta


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Interesting! But that grotty little tribute to Maria Callas -- how sad!

Oddly enough, my blog post today is about swans too.

David said...

The idea of that 'Ah! Non credea mirarti' quotation on the tomb has always touched me. Great to see a photo of it showing that the music is there, too...