memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

The Red Priest

Luigi Mancini was waiting on tables at one the famous out-door cafés in St. Mark’s Square. Although he had only been working at the job for three weeks – he’d got it through the good offices of his uncle Julio – he took to the work naturally and skillfully, deftly fetching and moving extra chairs, alertly attentive to the customers’ orders with his napkin over one arm and pencil poised in his hand, he was every inch the Venetian waiter that the tourists expected. As 4 o’clock approached he glanced across the square, waiting for the odd couple to appear, you could set your watch by them, he thought. They lurked in the shadows, on the far side of the square, next to Floriano’s. The man elderly and burly in his scruffy raincoat and hat, one brim pinned back Australian fashion, was seated on a folding chair beside his Asiatic-looking diminutive companion crouching modestly next to him. Soon the end of my first shift, thought Luigi, and I can take the weight of my feet, drink a fino and discreetly count up my day’s tips. (Something in the romantic air of Venice seemed to make the tourists dig a little deeper into their pockets).

Robert Pennington gazed across the square barely aware of the scene around him. He was constructing a magazine article in his head and the deadline was looming. The article, part of a series entitled Eminent Venetians was the brain-child of a sub-editor of The Daily Post, a newspaper that occupied that mindless but fertile middle-ground between the Tabloids and the Broadsheets. Rob had worked for The Rag, as it had been known in the old days in Fleet Street, for over twenty years. Time was when he had been at the cutting-edge of reporting, dodging bullets in Beirut or delving into Columbian drug Cartels – ace-reporter R.L. Pennington bringing incisive and pithy articles to your breakfast table each morning!

It was during this period, when he had just filed a background piece about life in post-Pol Pot Cambodia and was kicking his heels in a bamboo-built village, skimming pebbles across the brown waters of the Mekong River, that he met his wife, Mi Sung. She’d lost all her family in the Killing-Fields of Cambodia and had escaped here to this Laotian village. She had found a job working behind a bar and living above it. The moment she saw the tall shambling overweight Englishman, with his grizzled head and weary face, she wordlessly latched onto him, taking him upstairs to her room and into her bed and had stubbornly followed him around ever since.

Now however more than fifteen years later and looking more than his sixty years, Robert had been relegated to the Features page and had been allocated an article on the Venetian composer Vivaldi:

–          … and make it sexy, Rob, and not too technical, not too many contrapuntal motets and more naughty little choirboys … remember our brain-dead readership.

Actually Robert would have preferred Marco Polo or one of the Bellini painters or even Casanova.  And so here in Venice, on this draughty square, with his inscrutable wife crouching at his side, Robert began to compose the piece in his mind:

–          Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, where his father was one of the best violinists in the Ducal Chapel at St Mark’s Basilica. From the earliest age he was steeped in the musical tradition, following his father in becoming proficient violinist, but he was marked out for the Church. Ordained priest in 1703 he seemed to settle in this vocation. In eighteenth-century Italy, as elsewhere in Catholic Europe, an ecclesiastical career carried with it considerable prestige …

Robert to his chagrin had been straying back into the stilted style of the school-room; why not just get to point and write that Vivaldi started having asthma attacks which prevented him from celebrating mass. Making the best of a difficult situation the young priest immediately enrolled in the Seminario Musicale, one the most famous conservatories in Venice.

Here, Robert hyped an image of the young Vivaldi, nicknamed The Red Priest,  scurrying wheezing across the square, soutane flapping in the April wind, his mind forming and annotating the notes of an embryonic  concerto …

–          In a few years he became a violin teacher, choirmaster and conductor, an established composer, a virtuoso famed throughout Europe, an opera composer and an impresario. History has been very unkind to such a genius; he died in 1741, utterly destitute. Vivaldi’s output was vast and included 470 concertos, more than two thirds of which are concertos for soloists, a genre which found its true master in Vivaldi. He created the actual principle of the concerto, in which the orchestra accompanies a solo instrument for the duration of a work; he would substitute a human voice for an instrument, for example the baritone was replaced by the oboe, the bass voice by the bassoon and the soprano by the mandolin …

Hang about thought Robert this is putting even me to sleep, never mind the readers. His mind drifted back to his student days when, to alleviate a steady diet of pop/rock and jazz music, he would resort to the classical stuff: only the popular pieces as he was just starting to explore that kind of music – never overlook the obvious was his motto in those days; (it still was, now he came to think of it). So he listened to all the favourites – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Shubert and so on. But even then he was particular fond of an album of Vivaldi’s mandolin concertos, which he played again and again, their calm plangent harmonies providing a soothing antidote to the electrifying frenetic guitar of Jimi Hendrix.

Back to the Padre Rosso; he consulted his notes and remembering his editor’s stricture to spice up the article, he spotted an area which he thought he could develop (translation=invent).

–          Vivaldi, although a frequent traveler abroad as well as to other Italian cities, (he was a kind of eighteen-century version of Robbie Williams), was associated, during most of his working life, with the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian orphanages for girls. There he first met the lovely Lucrezia, a buxom young orphan girl with jet- black hair and languishing eyes who saw possibilities in the young red-haired priest. In the passing of time Mother Nature took her course and the pair settled into a long-standing liason. Well you can’t keep a secret like that for long in such a closed community; (a more enlightened age would have found much to censure in this relationship) to cut a long story short they became an «item».

Let’s wrap this up now and type it into the lap-top back at the Pensione. Even Mi Sung  sitting patiently at his side with such an oriental self-effacement was becoming restless.

–          Although Vivaldi is recognized today primarily on account of his many fine concertos, he was also the composer of some forty five operas and a considerable amount of church music, the best known of which was the Gloria in D major. The Gloria is in twelve effectively contrasted movements. Venetian composers, like those at Bologna, were inspired no doubt by the architecture of their churches, to experiment with musical colours and sonorities

Robert swung his head back to contemplate the famous be-crossed copulas on the multi-domes of the cathedral. Venice had once been a great maritime state trading as far as Syria and Palestine and bringing back the Eastern styles of architecture, which had inspired St. Mark’s, just as at roughly the same period the Portuguese forays as far as India would bear architectural fruit and decorate with their fantastic twisted carvings the great churches of Belem and Batalha in the Manueline style. Here we go again, Rob, drifting off the subject; try to concentrate:

–          But Vivaldi’s most famous work by far was the dramatic and passionate The Four Seasons; far ahead of its time it was a colossal success wherever it was first performed. But fame is transient and fickle and eventually his name was consigned to oblivion for years.

At last, to Mi Sung’s relief, Robert gathered up his scribbled notes and ideas, folded up his chair, handed it to his long-suffering wife and left the square.

Luigi the waiter was stacking up the chairs and folding the umbrellas; the grey sky presaged rain and the taxis and gondolas on the edge of the Grand Canal bobbed uneasily on the oily water. The tourists were departing from the square to their hotels and restaurants, and Luigi after wiping down the tables would then take his evening break; (he was meeting his girl-friend Teresa for a bite to eat at the Burger-King in the mall).


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