Already somewhat familiar with the more known of Giuseppe Verdi’s works, it was the monument to the great Italian composer in the Piazza Buonarroti, in Milan that made me want to know more about the man himself.
Official monuments to revered public figures are so often formulaic in their depiction of the character in proud and magisterial poses that they lose the essence of what it their intended purpose, to reveal something of the subject’s character. The monument to Giuseppe Verdi is different, I am deeply attached to the statue, and through its elegant and poignant representation of the great man it portrays an intimate account of his persona, which in turn, informed and enriched my experience of his music.
Verdi is portrayed in a relaxed stance, with his hands behind his back, looking relaxed, casual and meditative. Not the stance of who was regarded as a hero of the Risorgimento and a figure of national unity, but the pose of an introspective artist, and open and thoughtful humanist he dwells in the real of his imagination, from which springs forth the music of his dreams.
Verdi is an institution in Italy, his operas are as familiar to them as their mothers’ lullabies that lulled them to sleep. I am not the person, nor is this the place, to offer an historical bibliography or a chronology of his musical works, there are many websites far better equipped to do so, but as the monument speaks to me about the man, so too does his music and as Verdi and his music are inseparable, it became evident to me too, that the public figure of Verdi and modern Italian identity are forever intertwined.
Born in 1813, in a small village of Roncole in the province of Parma to simple family of small landowners, his musical talent was recognised and encouraged at a young age. By the age of seven he was the assistant to the local church organist and by the age of 12 he had moved to nearby Busseto to continue his musical tutorage until 1832 at the age of twenty, he moved to Milan to pursue his dream of joining the Conservatory. Rejected from the Conservatory because he was two years over the age-limit the young composer took three years of private counterpoint lessons from an ex-La Scala harpsichordist, Vincenzo Lavigna, paid for by his benefactor Antonio Barezzi.
Verdi returned to Busseto and became the towns music maestro and started giving music lessons to Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. The two fell deeply in love and were married in 1836. It was during this period, newly married and with two infant children, that Giuseppe started writing his first opera ‘Oberto’ which was well received and won him a commission for another three. But while writing his next ‘Un Giorno de Regno’ both his children died of an unexplained illness followed shortly by his wife. The Opera was a flop and so Guiseppe Verdi, at the age of 27 found himself at his lowest ebb. His budding family, his wife and his career and been taken from him in the space of a few months and the composer fell into a deep despair vowing never to write again.
For me his grief and loss at his period is fundamental in what makes his future work so special. Verdi’s operas deal with multi-facetted aspects of human experience with tragedy taking centre stage. While his contemporary and the other operatic powerhouse of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner dealt with tragedy on the far more grandiose level of human consciousness inhabiting mythology, Verdi’s currency was human emotion. Always real and recognizable emotion engages the audience and in a way that is quintessentially Italian he played on his audiences heartstrings with pathos and sympathy. It is the work of a man who himself has known real pain and loss, whose life has taken on the aspect of a tragedy of operatic proportions.
He was convinced by the impresario at La Scala to give it one more go with ‘Nabucco’ a libretto following the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The opera was an immediate smash and firmly established Verdi as the rising talent of Italian opera. ‘Nabucco’ also became quickly associated with the nationalist movement as Italy was struggling to assert its independence from Austrian rule. At that time Milan was an important seat of power in the empire and people identified the struggle of the Jews in ‘Nabucco’ as an analogy of the burgeoning desire for independence.
The most famous number is of course the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, (‘Va pensiero, sul’alli dorate’), in which the Jews pine for their homeland. This struck a chord with the audiences in Milan and was greeted by much applause and cheering and the request for an encore, which under Austrian rule was illegal. We must remember that in those days Opera was an art form of the people, not the elite. Compared to the visual arts, Opera was profitable and accessible by the multitudes so it was fitting that it became a forum for political and social issues of the day.
‘Nabucco’ established Verdi’s success, but also his reputation as a patriotic figure. For me the bitter sweet ‘Va pensiero’ is Verdi himself pining for his lost family, his ‘promised land’ and his tentative steps towards redemption through his music. Nonetheless, as the crowds yelled in unison at La Scala ‘Viva Verdi’, a cry that followed onto the streets after his shows, (the hidden meaning was “Viva V.E.R.D.I.”, or “Long live Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy, he was to spend the next decade battling against the heavy censorship of the Austrian authorities.
In 1851 he became romantically involved with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano who had starred in many of his operas and the pair scandalously lived together for seven years before they were married. Verdi was an agnostic, a very common position amongst the intelligencia in the early days of the inception of the Italian Republic and his decision to flaunt the mores of the day by ‘living in sin’ was partly for solidarity, partly perhaps a reluctance to remarry after the death of Margherita. It did nothing to halt his march to position of most famous man in Italy and the writing of the masterpieces ‘Rigoletto’, ‘Il Trovatore’ and ‘La Traviata’, cemented his position as did his final three works ‘Aida’, ‘Otello’ and ‘Falstaff’.
Although worshipped in Italy for his musical output he wrote in later life that his personal favourite was the ‘Casa di Riposo per Musicisti’ or the Ritiremant home for musicians’ at Piazza Buonarroti in Milan.
‘Among my works, the one I like best is the Home that I have had built in Milan for accommodating old singers not favoured by fortune, or who, when they were young, did not possess the virtue of saving. The poor, dear companions of my lifetime! Believe me, my friend, that Home is truly my most beautiful work.”
And it is this piazza that shelters the monument to Verdi that first attracted me to the composer. Set back on his heels a serene and wise Verdi looks towards the interment home, known colloquially as ‘Casa Verdi’ or ‘Verdi’s house’. While still a functioning foundation, which helps retired musicians and music students, it houses also the tomb of Giuseppe Verdi and his wife Giuseppina. When Verdi died in 1901 the nation went into mourning, the monument was commissioned in 1904 and sculpted by Antonio Carminati. However the sculptor died before its completion and it was finished by his master Enrico Butti. It was completed and unveiled in 1913 in time for the centenary of Verdi’s birth.
Revered as one of the greatest Italian composers his music is not his only legacy, but the generations of musicians who became his family, even after his death. A man who had experienced such personal tragedy in losing his family, created a new one through his music. The art, although important, never usurped his humanity and he seemed a man who knew only too well what the really precious things in life were and how easily they can be taken away. That is why all Italy loves Giuseppe Verdi and that is why I love this statue.