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Benedetto Croce’s essay on:

"The Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ and the Legend of Pegolese" *1

            —in Napoli Nobilissima Vol. 5  n. 3 (1896), pp. 33-36.

Modern sources generally confirm the scarcity of knowledge about the private life of composer G.B. Pergolesi (1710-36) and dismiss some of the tales surrounding him as anecdotal. One story in particular—that of a love affair and a possible ulterior explanation for Pergolesi’s untimely death—was first "debunked" (or at least heavily criticized for its lack of verifiable details) by Croce in his essay in Napoli Nobilissima in 1896, “The Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ and the Legend of Pegolese.”


First, Croce recalls the location of the conservatory on via dei Tribunali, across from the church of the Gerolomini, and near n. 103, a building once frequented by Torquato Tasso, and also near n. 112, the home of Giambattista Vico, who lived there with his “illiterate consort,” Teresa Destito. The ex-conservatory is now the Genovese Lyceum and was also formerly a seminary. Croce notes that the conservatory produced the “gloria suprema...Giambattista Pergolese.” *2

The “external” story of the conservatory, says Croce—i.e. the history of the building, itself—is well-known thanks to D’Engenio, Celano, and, a few years earlier than this essay, De Blasiis. Croce sums up the known history: Around 1590, a period when Naples was especially hard-hit by recent famine, Marcello Fossataro, a Franciscan hermit, from Nicotera began providing shelter to homeless children, supporting them and himself with donations. This provoked opposition from those who ran the other two shelters in Naples: S. Maria di Loreto and the Madonna della Pieta dei Turchini, who feared that Fossataro was cutting into their own donations by opening a third conservatory. Fossataro joined his shelter to the conservatory of the Turchini for a while; then, unhappy with that, he appealed to the Pope in 1596 to open his own conservatory. It was approved and the conservatory opened independently in 1596 as the Pauperum Jesu Christi Archiepiscopale Collegium. Children from 7 to 11 years of age were taken in and were given instruction in religion and the “mechanical arts” [Croce’s term], “grammar” (meaning reading and writing) and singing. At first there were two instructors. Musical instruction increased greatly in the course of the 1600s and by the mid-1600s Celano could comment on the excellent results.*3  Croce describes the uniforms the children wore and notes that the conservatory was under the auspices of the archbishop of Naples through an appointed cleric.

In the early 1700s there were the first signs of trouble: discipline was disrupted and a number of students were expelled. For this and a number of other reasons, archbishop Spinelli closed the conservatory in1744. The church had been rebuilt in 1715 and now became an annex of the church of Santa Maria della Colonna.

Then comes the main point of Croce’s essay: though the “external” history of the conservatory is known, the “internal” one of this and the other music conservatories of Naples is obscure and the situation has not at all been helped by Florimo's well-known history of these institutions.*4

Croce complains that there is really very little by Florimo about how music was actually taught and what went on musically within the conservatories. Simply listing which musicians taught at which conservatories, as Florimo does, tells you as little about the music as a list of scientists and the schools where they studied or taught tells you about science. You need an approach that is less superficial and “external,” one that relates the subject matter to the world around it. Thus, from Florimo all we get is an impressive list of all the great names associated with the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Christo, including Pergolesi, Provenzale, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Francesco Durante, Leonardo Vinci, etc. etc.

Even here, when it comes to the simple biographies of musicians, Croce says that Florimo has a tendency simply to repeat what has been handed down orally and present it uncritically as historical fact. In particular, Croce is referring to the episode of Pergolesi and his supposed love affair with Maria Spinelli.

The episode that has passed down can be easily summarized: Pergolesi gives musical instruction to the young Maria Spinelli, daughter of Neapolitan nobility; then, teacher and student fall in love; then, Maria’s brothers show up and tell her they will kill Pergolesi unless she marries someone worthy of her station in life. She, instead, decides to go into a convent, asking only that music for the mass when she takes the vows be directed by Pergolesi. She dies one year later in 1735 in the Santa Chiara convent. Pergolesi directs the funeral mass. One year, later, Pergolese dies of a broken heart.

Croce asks, What is this whole story based on? There is very little documentation on Pergolesi’s short life and career. We know that he was 26 years old when he died of “phthisis” [tuberculosis] in Pozzuoli on 16 March, 1736. And we know that he wasn’t widely recognized until after his death. (There follow some quotes from various sources praising Pergolesi shortly after his death.) But we know nothing about his character or private, intimate life. Only a single biographer early in this century makes reference to an ulterior incident that may have led to Pergolesi’s early demise.*5

The Marchese di Villarosa, who investigated the life of Pergolesi more thoroughly than any other, says Croce, has established the composer’s correct name, origin, age and other particulars; he even printed in 1843 his Lettera biografica intorno alla patria ed alla vita di Giov. Battista Pergolese —and he has never heard of the love affair with Maria Spinelli. Also, twenty years later, Fétis, in his entry on Pergolesi never heard of it, either. *6

Croce admits he doesn’t know anything about the play, Giambattista Pergolese, by Gennaro Bolognese, performed in 1853 or 1854, but says that it must have given some ideas to Saverio Baldacchini, whose 1858 book of verse (printed in Naples), Ripose ed ombre, contains the tale of Rosaura (a thinly disguised Maria Spinelli).*7

Croce says he has not been able to pin down how the story of the love affair started gaining acceptance in literary circles but thinks it must have started in one of the many literary magazines in Naples in the 1830s, the readership of which seemed to enjoy such material.

In any event, the whole thing was presented as fact by Florimo in his 1869 work, saying that Pergolese was a victim of an unhappy love and that he [Florimo] was telling the story as he “transcribed it” from “private papers,” to wit, a family chronicle shown him by the prince of Colubrano.

Wait a minute, says Croce—“I catalogued Colubrano’s papers and that chronicle wasn’t there.” Nor has Colubrano’s heir, the duke of Maddaloni, whom Croce interviewed, ever heard of it. Florimo’s citation even starts “In the first half of the last century...,” meaning it was written in the 1800s [referring to the early 1700s] and couldn’t possibly have been a family chronicle from the time of Pergolesi. Croce cites Florimo’s passage from the purported “chronicle” and says that stylistically it is full of anachronisms inconsistent with what it purports to be. Besides, in the first edition of his work, Florimo says it isn’t clear which Maria Spinelli one is talking about—there were two. In the second edition, Florimo says that he did some research and found out which one it was. He neglects to mention what the research consisted of, says Croce.

All of this doesn’t mean that the episode might never have happened, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be cited as historical fact. There is a long list of questions involving names, dates, persons and place for which no answers exist, no shred of documentation to provide a historical basis for the story. Thus, it should be treated as a romantic anecdote. Yet, Florimo’s account breathed new life into the episode, inspiring, for example, Federico Serpico’s Pergolesi, an 1879 verse play broken into scenes of Pegolesi proclaiming his love to Maria, the confrontation with the brothers, Maria joining the convent, Pergolesi composing the Stabat mater, and Pergolesi dying in Pozzuoli. Also at about the same time, the play Pergolese by Michele Cuciniello came out, and Saverio Altamura did a sketch based on the episode, apparently prompted by the Spinelli family who, a century and a half after the fact, seemed charmed by the idea that their Maria had been in love with a poor church musician. Croce cites a few more recent examples that give too much credence to this episode, one that is to him obviously not history, but anecdote.*8

note 1: In referring to composer Giambattista (or Giovanni Battista) Pergolesi, modern references uniformly use the spelling “Pergolesi.” Croce and some earlier sources spell the name “Pergolese.”  Except when quoting directly, I have used the modern spelling. Also, there is a separate entry on Pergolesi here,  a separate entry on Benedetto Croce here, and a separate entry on the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Christo here.       ^return

note 2: The premises now house a shelter run by the Sisters of Calcutta. Also, “Conservatory”—see this entry—meant “shelter” in the 1600s and not “music school.”     ^return

note 3: reference to Carlo Celano (1625-1693), Neapolitan historian and cleric, see this entry. ^return

note 4: reference is to the Neapolitan musicologist, Francesco Florimo (1800-1888), director of the San Pietro a Maiella music conservatory in Naples and his 1869 work Cenno storico sulla Scuola musicale di Napoli (Historical notes on the Music Schools of Naples), published in 2 volumes and then expanded in 1880-1882 into La scuola musicale di Napoli e i suoi conservatori (Music of the ‘Neapolitan School’ and its Conservatories), published in 1880-1882.

note 5: That is footnoted with: A. Mazzarella da Cerreto, in Biografia degli uomini illustri del Regno di Napoli, pub. Gervasi, T. III, 1816. The entry for 'Pergoles' in that cited bibliographic encyclopedia does not mention the Spinelli episode, but it does make reference to a vague rumor that Pergolesi may have been poisoned, a rumor to which the author of the entry, Mazzarella da Cerreto, says he lends no credence. ^return

note 6:  Villarosa is footnoted with "Napoli, Porcelli, 1843." Also, by the same author, footnote reference to Memorie di compositori di musica del regno di Napoli, Nap. stamp. reale, pp. 139-153. Fétis is footnoted as Biogr. universelle, tomo VI, Paris, Didot, 1864. ^return

note 7: Croce footnotes an excerpt from the poem involving the confrontation between the young woman and her brothers. The same volume of verse also contains a poem entitled “To Pergolese.” ^return

note 8: The Cuciniello play opened in 1873 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. The other reference is to the painter Saverio Altamura (1826-1897). ^return

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