Echoes from the city of lost children

The Venetian writer Tiziano Scarpa can still hear the ghosts of Vivaldi's choir of orphaned girls, he tells Matthew Hoffman

I'm on my way to meet the Venetian writer Tiziano Scarpa at his home in the Santa Croce district of Venice.

After disembarking from the water bus, I walk past a Baroque church facing the Grand Canal, a nobleman's palace converted into a costume museum, another palace, converted into a secondary school, and the usual complement of narrow lanes, small canals and elegant foot bridges.

Scarpa appears at his door, wearing a black T-shirt which admonishes "Listen carefully". He has an impish look, emphasised by his round, bald head and ready smile. He shows me into his book-and-CD lined study, which looks out over a neighbourhood piazza, and offers me the choice of a variety of soft drinks.

Tiziano Scarpa is already known to English-reading audiences for his charming and original guidebook Venice is a Fish, published in the UK three years ago. His new book, the novel Stabat Mater, was first published in Italy in 2009 and won that year's Strega prize (the Italian equivalent of the Booker). It is set in 18th-century Venice at the Ospedale della Pietà. This ancient institution was a convent, an orphanage and a music school. The girls were trained to give concerts of sacred music of such excellence that they drew audiences from all over Europe. Famously, the Pietà employed Antonio Vivaldi as its choirmaster and composer.

The difficulty of writing about Venice, Scarpa tells me, is to avoid the postcard images that fill everyone's head and block off access to the reality of life as it has been, and is still, lived there. "When you are born in Venice, you want to get rid of anything to do with it as soon as possible," he tells me. "In fact, I went away. I went to live in Milan for 12 years." But having returned some years ago, he has found ways to write about his native city.

Although the Pietà ended its formal existence with the destruction of the Republic in 1797, one part was being used as a maternity hospital at the time of Tiziano Scarapa's birth there in 1963. When, as a child, he would walk past the place with his mother, she would remind him that he had been born there – perhaps in the very room where Vivaldi once gave instruction to the young female musicians.

Not having any sisters of his own, Scarpa used to fantasise that one or more of those children might have been "little sisters of mine". And so began an identification that ended with his having found the subject for a novel.

To research the book, he began to listen closely to the music Vivaldi wrote for female voices "as if these sisters of mine could communicate with me across three centuries. Of course, I know perfectly well that this is a fiction, but in my mind, in my soul ... I said to myself that if Vivaldi worked at the Pietà almost all his life, he knew these girls very well, with their own personality, their own character, their dreams. Maybe he poured into his music something of the personalities of these girls."

Scarpa searches for a particular track in his large collection of Vivaldi CDs and puts on "Sit nomen" from Laudate pueri Dominum. Later, he plays me the haunting and beautiful "Cum dederit" from Nisi Dominus, sung by Gemma Bertagnolli.

"If you listen to this," Scarpa says, "it's impossible not to think about the condition of the girls singing. Of course, this is a praise to the name of the Lord, but I can hear inside this prayer the expression of a condition: desperation, but also harmony and therapy. What we call elegy. You sing an elegy in front of a tomb, where you cannot be consoled."

When Scarpa used to think of his little sisters, he did so with sadness. "These girls had nothing. They had no family. They couldn't decide how to spend their time. They had no dresses of their own. They had no names, we can say, because the name that they had was a sort of bureaucratic name given to them by the institution. Some would be given the family name "Dalla Pietà" – "coming from the Pietà". There are still some Dalla Pietàs in Venice."

The desperation of Stabat Mater's protagonist, Cecilia, a 15-year-old violinist who has spent her whole life at the institution, is given expression in the letters she writes to the mother she has never known, whom she addresses, with affecting formality, as Lady Mother. Scarpa has brilliantly imagined how a sensitive child, who knows practically nothing of the world, would fill in the blanks of her experience with powerful inventions. For example, Cecilia has an imaginary friend, a Medusa figure with hair fashioned from snakes who reflects back to Cecilia her obsession with death.

Scarpa uses Cecilia's ignorance of life to let her express herself with unwonted directness. "In this era," he says, "we always put in some irony and humour when we speak about anything. Even if I am desperate, as a contemporary man or woman I always speak with a hint of irony so as not to bury you under all the weight of my problems. In this book, I wanted to cut off the ironic part of our mentality in order to dig deep inside anxiety and desperation; the black parts of the night when you think you are lost."

When Vivaldi arrives at the Pietà as the new choirmaster, he recognises Ceclia's musical ability but also understands her anguished mental state. They enter into a struggle that is characterised by her complete immersion in his music and his desire to make use of her talent for his own fame. The climax of their conflict leads to the novel's unexpected (at least by me) conclusion.

Our interview also concludes on an unexpected note. To my final question about how he finds living in Venice, Scarpa replies: "It is as if Venice were always pointing at me, telling me: 'Look at me. I am impossible but I exist. You should do something impossible too.' For artists and writers, it's an admonition."

Stabat Mater, By Tiziano Scarpa, Serpent's Tail £9.99

'Don Antonio has written a concert in which you can hear our womanly character frothing, in three phases, first gaiety, then languor, then euphoria again. This man draws feminine sounds from our bodies, he gives old men's age-plugged ears the sound version of women, our translation into sounds, as men want to hear it.'

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own