In The Present
State of Music in France and Italy, published
in 1771, Charles
Burney wrote wistfully:
In the afternoon I went back to the Franciscan church in Naples... the whole Conservatorio della Pietà, comprising one hundred and twenty children dressed in turquoise uniforms, was turned out... These musical seminars, which in the past produced so many excellent musicians, seem to have degenerated nowadays; yet such institutions, like everything under the sun in point of fact, are bound to have their ups and downs. The day will surely come when they reawaken after lying dormant, like the neighbouring Vesuvius, and indeed with renewed vigour...
He was, of course, with “Conservatorio della Pietà,” referring to the Conservatorio della Pietà de' Turchini, one of the four original Spanish music conservatories on monastic premises, all of which go back to the mid- and late 1500s. (That church is still in operation, although the adjacent monastery has long since been converted to secular use.) The “day of reawakening” in terms of presenting the city’s rich pre-Scarlatti Baroque musical heritage may have arrived, however, in the form of a recent organization that takes its name from the old conservatory: il Centro di musica antica Pietà de' Turchini (the Pietà de' Turchini Center for Ancient Music).
The Center is located in the church of Santa Caterina da Siena (photo, right), once called the Conservatorio della Solitaria. Here “conservatory” is to be understood in the original non-musical sense of a shelter, in this case a place that “conserved”—provided for—destitute and orphaned daughters of Spanish troops. (Remember that the Naples of that period was the largest and best fortified city in the Spanish empire—this, as a result of the massive construction under viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo. Naples provided many ships in the epochal Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Ottoman fleet—and suffered commensurate casualties.)
The church and monastery were founded in 1589 and eventually came into the hands of the Dominican order, at which point the complex was dedicated to Santa Caterina da Siena. It survived many of the ups and downs (mostly downs) that monasteries were heir to as a result of the Napoleonic suppression of monastic orders in the early 1800s and subsequent re-suppression under united Italy in the 1860s. Today, the entire complex has been given over to secular use (as is the case with most other ex-monasteries in Naples). The ex-church, itself, is the home of the Center for Ancient Music; the adjacent monastery now contains the humanities department of the nearby Suor Orsola university, which offers degree programs in the conservation of cultural artifacts and heritage. (Some sources tell you that the complex is in the “heart of Naples.” Not even close. If you wandered around the heart of Naples forever, looking for the place, you would never find it. It is, in fact, halfway up the hill to San Martino just below what is today the street of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, thus at the top of the “Spanish Quarter.” In the late 1500s, there were no roads at all up there and it was the perfect, bucolic place to put a monastery. (Another such place, nearby, was the Convent of the Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity, which then housed the now ex-Military Hospital.)
What is now the resident choir of the center was founded in 1987; since 1996, the Centro di Musica Antica has sought to resurrect the vast musical heritage of Naples from the 16th-18th centuries, with emphasis on little-known music of the Baroque, much of which has been totally overshadowed by the Scarlatti-and-later school of Neapolitan music. Everyone knows Scarlatti and Pergolesi; almost no one has even heard of their great predecessor, Francesco Provenzale, not to mention Trabaci, Veneziano, Nola, Netti, Caresana and Sabino. (I have just bought a CD of Provenzale’s music, recorded by the musicians of the Pietà de' Turchini Center, one of many recordings they have made since the center opened.) By now, the Ensemble has performed all over Italy and at foreign festivals in Versailles, Lisbon, Marseilles, Utrecht, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Vienna, and Brussels, among others places.
The center studies original source material where possible—i.e., original music and original works on theatrical production. It puts on regular concerts and holds seminars and master classes for young musicians. It also sponsors a program of free musical education for children in the area, one of the results of which has been the creation of a children’s choir called i Figlioli della Pietà de’ Turchini (Children of the Pietà de’ Turchini). As well, the center collaborates with similarly-minded institutions abroad, such as the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, the Fundaciò La Caixa de Barcellona and the Fondation Royaumont de Paris.