The Red Priest of Venice: did Vivaldi suffer from a primary muscular disorder ?


Department of Neurology, University of South Alabama, College of Medicine, 2451 Fillingim Street, Mobile, Alabama 33617, USA
Fax. 334-4717837


Objective : To propose a hypothesis for Antonio Vivaldi's lifelong debilitating illness and death.

Background : Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) is perhaps the most important composer of the Italian Baroque. Also known as Il Prette Rosso (the red-haired priest), Vivaldi authored an excess of 770 magnificent works for orchestra, choir and musica sacra. His life was plagued not only by controversy but also by a mysterious ailment, which interfered with his religious duties and his ability to play the violin. Little is known about the actual nature of Vivaldi's lifelong illness and eventual demise. Based on his baptismal register and his own accounts, it is known that he was at "danger of death" (pericolo di morte) soon after birth and that he suffered from easy fatigability and exertional dyspnea. These have been traditionally interpreted as signs of asthma or angina.

Design/methods : Review of published biographies of the composer and study of the available portraits of his facial features.

Results : In his dual role as a traveling musician and catholic priest, Vivaldi's lifestyle was at that time a subject of controversy. He also received various sanctions from his superiors given his refusal to say Mass. After the papal nuncio forbade his admittance into the city of Ferrara in 1737, Vivaldi wrote a letter to the Marquis Guido Bentivoglio, asking for his help : "...It was twenty-five years ago that I said Mass for what will be the last time...on account of an ailment that has burdened me since birth. When I had barely been ordered a priest I said mass for a year...Then I discontinued saying it...(and) in three occasions had to leave the altar without completing it because of this ailment..." Vivaldi describes his illness as causing him stretezza di petto (dyspnea) and he concludes : "...I nearly always live at home, and I only go out in a gondola or coach, because I can no longer walk..." His illness was known to the noblemen and he was rarely invited for social gatherings. A caricaturesque profile portrait of Vivaldi by Pier Leone Ghezzi (1723) is believed to convey the most vivid impression of his physical appearance. This sketch is remarkable for it shows signs of frontal balding, ptosis and depression of the labial comisures. The cause of Vivaldi's death in Vienna was listed at the time as Innerlicher Brand (internal inflammation). This raises the possibility of death secondary to respiratory failure or pneumonia.

Conclusions : Evidence about the true nature of Vivaldi's disability is scarce. Nevertheless, his symptoms, signs and cause of death raise the possibility of a primary muscular disorder contrary to the traditional views of a chronic respiratory illness.


Poster Session
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999