Orphans and music education in Italy

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Vivaldi taught here

Probably everyone who listens to classical music radio knows that Antonio Vivaldi wrote a lot of music as part of his duties at an orphanage for girls in Venice. What might not be quite as well known is similar institutions had trained Italian musicians for about a century before Vivaldi was born.


The earliest I know of started in Florence. A wind player at the Tuscan court named Bernardo Pagani began to teach orphans at the Spedale degli Innocenti (the orphanage of the SS. Annunziata). They became known as the Franciosini. Spedale, by the way, is Italian for “hospital.”

I have no notes on when the group started, but it was before 1586. In that year some of them took part in the wedding of Virginia de’ Medici, a member of the ruling family.

The Franciosini didn’t get paid for their services, but Pagani got paid for teaching them. Eventually, most of them wound up with their own court appointments. Later on, “Franciosini” became the name of any apprentice wind player, whether they had any connection with Pagani’s students or not.
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Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini, the only historic conservatory site in Naples still easy to find

The orphanage music schools in Naples were called conservatories, a name still used for music schools to this day. (In Naples, it simply meant a place where something, in this case orphans, was conserved. But since they became well known for teaching music, the word’s meaning changed.)

Naples’ orphanages were established between 1537 and 1590. I’m not sure exactly when they started teaching music. I have seen references musical training to both boys and girls by 1615. They may have began about the same time Pagani started teaching the Franciosini. The Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristò must have been especially busy; it had four music teachers by 1633.

In all, four orphanages in Naples established music schools. After some experimentation, they established a structure by about 1650 that remained essentially without further change until the end of the eighteenth century.

These schools of music were great sources of income for the orphanages. Students from the Poveri provided music around the city on more than 100 occasions in 1680 alone. Of course, the orphans themselves did not see any of that money. But when they grew to adulthood, they had the skills and background to get stable and reasonably well-paying jobs.



Venice likewise had four orphanages that offered musical instruction some time in the late sixteenth century. As in Florence, they were called ospedali. With the required definite article, the Florentine orphanage was Lo Spedale degli Innocenti. The Venitian orphanage where Vivaldi eventually taught was L’Ospedali della Pietà. There was some fluidity about where the article ended and the word began.

There was one very important difference between the conservatories in Naples and the “hospitals” in Venice. In Venice, the orphans did not get sent out to various gigs around town. Audiences came to hear them. There was no need, therefore, for Venetian orphans to play wind instruments suitable for outdoor performance. Besides singing, they learned only orchestral instruments. These included oboe and bassoon, but not cornett, trumpet, or trombone.
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Photo credits:
Ospedale della Pietà. Public domain, from Wikimedia
Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini. Photo by Jeff Matthews

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