20 April 2013

Casa Verdi in Milan

Giuseppe Verdi born 1813 in Le Roncole near Parma, son of tav­ern-keepers. Then the family moved to Busseto where young Giuseppe had a normal high school education, along side his musical studies. He married Margherita Barez­zi in 1836, daughter of his great patron Antonio Barezzi, and soon bec­ame mun­icipal music master of Busseto. It seems utterly appropriate that the lovely salon in Casa Ba­rezzi was where Busseto Società Filarmonica held its mus­ical gat­h­erings.

When family tragedies struck, Verdi threw himself into work. His first two operas opened at La Scala to favourable reports. They certainly est­ab­­l­ished Verdi as a serious composer. His third opera Nabucco triumphed at La Scala in 1842 with Giusep­pina Strepponi in the starring role. By dressing up the story of his hero’s yearning for his lost homeland in Biblical terms, Verdi bypassed the problem of Austrian censor­ship, either by wit or luck.

Verdi had finally bec­ome famous, and was now commanding a higher fee than his contemporaries. His fame spread; his choruses were sung in the streets by ordinary citizens and become the hymns of Italian patriots and freedom-fighters in 1843, thus forging the composer's reputation as an ideological hero of the Italian people. Only the censors in Vienna disliked and distrusted his work.

With money flowing in, Verdi bought his beloved Sant'Agata property near Busseto and continued working. His creativity knew no limits and the 1850s became his most productive decade. Rigoletto 1851, the first of what is now called the Big Three RigTrovTrav, was a triumph when it opened in Venice. Il Trovatore was a great success in Rome in 1853 and La Traviata eventually triumphed in Venice.

Casa Verdi, opened to residents in 1902
Sculpture of Verdi in the front garden 

The Risorgimento/re-rise was heating up. This was the C19th nat­ion­al­ist mo­ve­ment that sought a] Italy's indep­end­ence from a range of oc­c­upy­ing pow­ers and b] unification into one nation. By March 1848, Italian pa­triots fought for 5 days in Milan, trying to drive the Austr­ian occupying forces out, and failed. None­the­less, grow­ing Italian nationalism was a constant and crit­ic­ally im­por­tant backdrop to Verdi’s life.

In 1860, with Victor Em­man­uel's assistance, Giu­seppe Gar­ibaldi led his vol­unteer red shirts in an amazing victory in Sic­ily & Naples. Victor Emm­an­uel was pro­cl­aimed first king of a newly un­ited (albeit incomplete) Italy in March 1861. Count Camillo Cav­our and Gousei Mazz­ini were the other heroes across Italy.

Verdi’s heroism was more emblematic than instrumental. Yet Verdi had truly become identified with the Risorgim­en­to. His arias serv­ed as virtual national anthems during era when It­al­ian nationalism was a dangerous concept. He even became a politician!

In his old age, Verdi’s political views were becoming less epic and more local. He paid for and established a new hospit­al for local farm workers and their fam­il­ies in Vill­a­nova, near Sant'Agata. He also bought a site in Milan for his pet project, a retirement home for older musicians  Casa di Riposo.

During 1898 Verdi stayed in Mil­an’s Grand Hotel much of the time, supervising the building his project. Verdi was an old man (87) by Jan 1901 when he suffered a major stroke. When he died, Ver­di left all Italy in mourning. A month later his and his wife's coffins were transferred from a temporary burial spot at Milan cemetery to the crypt in Casa di Riposo. At the state ceremony the funeral cort­ege was acc­ompanied by family, friends, Italian Royal family, Italian politicians, foreign diplomats and com­p­osers, including Puc­c­ini.

Casa Verdi concert hall
Verdi’s own piano 

Led by Arturo Toscan­ini, professional singers sang the Va, Pensiero ch­orus from Nabucco, thus repeating the triumph Verdi had enjoyed way back in 1842. In the streets 300,000 ordinary citizens lined the black-draped funeral route and joined in. Everyone was singing for Verdi of course, but also for the cause of Ital­ian sovereignty.

Verdi had requested in his will that all the future royalties from his operas would go to the Verdi Foundation and thence to Casa Verdi. Thus Casa di Riposo per Musicisti became a rest home for retired opera singers and musicians in Milan. Designed by the poet-librettist Arrigo Boito and by his architect brother Camillo, it would be interesting to know why they chose to build in Neo-gothic style, since a sense of Italian nationalism might have produced a very different style. Ample, beautiful 19th-century environment, amid large windows, abundant space and furniture mark it as a house full of memories. Perhaps Verdi had originally thought of instrumentalists and singers specifically from the great opera house La Scala being his guests; in any case, all Italian musicians were soon welcomed.

Casa Verdi is now home to 55 musical students and recent graduates who are studying and working in Milan. Concerts are offered several times a week in the house, and residents are also given free tickets to La Scala. Verdi's own piano stands proudly in the concert hall decorated with wood panelling and painted trompe l'oeil draperies.

Casa Verdi communal dining room 

Does this story sound familiar to people who saw the film The Quartet? If Verdi had met the musicians played by Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins in Beecham House, he would surely have approved.


WeTravel said...

There are plenty of tour companies that take groups to see Casa Verdi and La Scala. We loved the tour but found the 3 hours just a little rushed. Another 30 minutes in a Milan coffee shop would have been perfect.

jeronimus said...

I've often wondered why the majority of famous Italian composers have names ending with an 'i' while most of the famous painters and sculptors have names ending with an "o". There are exceptions of course.
Michelangelo's surname was di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, and Leonardo's was da Vinci, but they are usually referred to by their first names, which means that they follow the rule.
Is it a regional thing perhaps - a region of Italy where names tend to end in "i", and where music is favoured over painting?

Hels said...


Spouse and I used to organise all our own tours but these days, we find group tours to be better organised, cover more ground and use time better than we could ourselves. La Scala and Casa Verdi are not next to each other, and transport/parking would waste too much precious time doing it alone.

Hels said...


There were SOOO many splendid Italian composers, instrumentalists, painters, sculptors, architects, scientists, explorers, goldsmiths and every other creative type. How could one nation be so creative?

Verdi's problems were not his name, nor his place of birth. Rather he had to face unthinkable family tragedies (his daughter, son and wife died inside a couple of years). And the Austrian censors didn't trust his politics and wanted to ban/modify his works.

I would have given up, if it was my life.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is sometimes easy to forget how Italy's rich 19th century music history acted in tandem with its complex political history. Verdi was certainly a musical giant. In the "golden days" of early records (roughly 1900-1920) Verdi's music possibly is represented more often than any other classical composer. It must be inspiring to perform or attend concerts in Casa Verdi.

Hels said...


It is easy to understand that a few, rare people in each century really are musical giants. But it requires more effort to see the connection between an individual Italian composer and the politics/sense of nationalism going on in Italy at that time. The evidence _is_ there, but it requires some effort to separate fact from emotion.

jeronimus said...

I was thinking the same thing - when you wrote that Verdi just got stuck into his work when tragedy struck - I would probably have just crumbled.