By the time he was in his late twenties, Gioacchino Rossini had left the poverty of his early life behind and had become one of the most famous and wealthiest composers in Europe. By the age of 39, he had almost ceased composing and had largely withdrawn from the world.
In this post I’ll look at his life and visit some of the places in Bologna that hold his memories.
Giuseppe Rossini was born in Lugo, near Bologna (see my post The Lugo Vintage Fair), and played the horn in local orchestras. He got a job as town trumpeter in Pesaro on the Adriatic Coast of Italy where he met Anna Giudarini. They married after Gioacchino was born in 1792. The family was very poor and although they rented two rooms, one had to be sublet to make ends meet.
Giuseppe was a supporter of Napoleon, and his political affiliations lead to his losing his job and spending time in prison. Pesaro was in the Papal States where any liberal movements were quickly suppressed. Anna was a good singer and although lacking formal training, she was able to support Gioacchino’s education by performing in theatres.
The family moved to Giuseppe’s home town of Lugo where Gioacchino’s uncle suggested a career for him as a castrato, as the boy’s singing voice was so good. His mother wasn’t keen on this and according to one author, Rossini went on to have amorous relationships with at least 1,000 women.
Rossini studies in Bologna
By the age of 12, Gioacchino was supporting his parents with his singing and by playing accompaniment on the harpsicord. His earliest compositions also date from this time. The family moved again to Bologna to allow him to have a better musical education.
Rossini entered the Liceo Filarmonico, founded just a few years earlier in 1804 as Italy’s first public music college. He was taught personally by the director Padre Mattei when his phenominal talent was recognised.
The square outside the school was renamed Piazza Rossini in 1864. “Here Gioacchino Rossini entered a student and left prince of the musical sciences”. (Image : P. Granville)
A fellow student was Isabella Colbran. Her father Giuseppe (Juan) had brought her to Italy from Spain to further her musical education. Giuseppe purchased a villa that belonged to Bologna’s College of Spain, a religious institution, at Castenaso near Bologna. He paid a bargain price as Napoleon had forced the sale of church property. This would later be an important location in Rossini’s life.
Gioacchino was nominated as a “Maestro dell’Accademia” at age 18. His teacher Mattei thought that the young Rossini needed two more years of study, but he bristled under the strict school regime and lacked the funds to pay for lessons. An opportunity arose to compose opera in Venice and he was off!
Rossini’s career takes off
Still only 18 years old, it took Rossini just a few days to write a successful short opera “La Cambiale di Matrimonio” or “The Marriage Contract”, for a Venetian theatre. It was a success and his career was launched. His second opera was written for Bologna but was banned after a few productions due to its references to transvestites and more importantly desertion from the army. Soon after, “L’Inganno Felice” or “The Fortunate Deception” was his first international success.
From then, Rossini’s star was on the rise. In 1812, his first opera written for La Scala in Milan had 53 performances, a record held for 30 years until Verdi’s “Nambucco” had a run of 58.
After the fall of Napoleon, Rossini moved to Naples at the request of the King and the impresario Barbaja. Had he stayed in Bologna, he would probably have been arrested for his support of Napoleon’s ideals.
There he was appointed the musical director of the prestigious San Carlo Theatre and wrote some 19 operas over nine years, including the “The Barber of Seville”. Often, he had to start composing with only part of a libretto, without knowing what would come next.
Isabella Colbran was the star of the theatre and also one of Barbaja’s mistresses. Isabella and Gioacchino began a relationship although both continued to live the promiscuous life of theatre people common at that time.
Rossini’s love of food began to show on his waistline. This was considered a good thing as slimness was equated to poverty.
A portrait of Rossini from around this period, held by Bologna’s International Museum and Library of Music. (Wikimedia)
In 1820, Isabella’s father Giuseppe died in Bologna. Rossini purchased a tomb at the Certosa cemetery (see my post La Certosa – Bologna’s Fascinating Monumental Cemetery) where Giuseppe was buried. Rossini’s parents and Isabella herself were also later laid to rest there.
Two years later, Gioacchino and Isabella returned to Bologna, were married at Castenaso, some 12 kilometres from Bologna, and lived in the villa that Isabella had inherited from her father. They had no expectation of having a family as both were chronic sufferers of gonorrhoea.
The couple visited Vienna at the invitation of Prince Metternich. Rossini was widely feted and there was even the sale of themed merchandising such as hats, walking sticks and scarves.
After a number of attempts, Rossini managed to visit an ageing Beethoven who was living in squalid conditions. He admired “The Barber of Seville” and advised Rossini to stick to writing comic opera as it was more suited to his nature, and to that of Italians in general.
Back in Bologna, Rossini wrote a set of 18 “Gorgheggi” or vocal exercises, possibly to assist Isabella whose incredible voice was beginning to falter. She was by this time 37 years old, 7 years Rossini’s senior.
London and Paris
Gioacchino and Isabella travelled to Paris where the restored Bourbon administration wanted him to reform the Théâtre-Italien. They went on to London at the invitation of King George IV. Here Rossini’s bouts of depression that had started a few years earlier became worse, possibly due to the weather and food.
In 1824, after returning to Paris, Rossini was offered a huge amount to stay and run the Théâtre-Italien. He accepted the post. As well as his own operas, he introduced the works of Donizetti, Bellini and Meyerbeer.
In England, Isabella had found that she was no longer able to hit some high notes in her performances. She retired and was spending huge amounts on clothes and furnishings. The couple’s relationship began to sour and Rossini took up with the well known courtesan Olympe Pélissier. His waistline continued to expand with the rich French food he ate with relish.
Olympe had a difficult start to life. Her single mother was very poor and unable to support her. Olympe was given into the care of various “protectors” from age 14 and sold to a rich young duke a year later. With her intelligence and beauty she eventually became a courtesan with her own salon, similar to Verdi’s character Violetta in La Traviata.
Bologna yet again
Rossini’s bouts of depression continued and he went to stay in the French countryside where he completed his massive last opera “Guillaume Tell”, which lasts for over 4 hours in its rarely played entirety. Exhausted, he decided to leave frenetic Paris and return to Bologna.
In 1822, Rossini had purchased a house in Strada Maggiore, Bologna. He now had it refurbished and moved there, leaving Isabella and her boisterous friends at Castenaso. He was in his element, with friends visiting from morning to evening.
Bologna’s civic theatre, the Teatro Comunale, celebrated Rossini’s return with a season of three of his operas. Rossini’s works continue to feature regularly at the theatre.
With his marriage at an end, Rossini was missing the company of Olympe and he returned to Paris for a visit that ended up lasting 4 years. He also needed to secure his French pension, which was at risk due to a change in government following the revolution of 1832.
At one stage he was living up a number of flights of stairs in the attic of the Théâtre-Italien. Visitors including Olympe would shout for him to come down rather than tackle the stairs.
Rossini’s friend Alejandro Aguado convinced him to visit Spain, which he didn’t find to his liking. There he wrote a part of a setting of the medieval religious poem “Stabat Mater” for a friend of Aguado’s and asked a composer acquaintance Giovanni Tadolino to write the remainder. Back in Paris, his depression continued and he rarely left Olympe’s apartment. In 1836, Rossini decided to return to Bologna.
Olympe comes to Bologna
Olympe remained in Paris and wrote to him almost daily whilst he set about obtaining a legal separation from Isabella.
Although the separation had little meaning in the church dominated Papal States, after it had been settled, Olympe moved to Bologna.
By this time, with Rossini’s health problems, the relationship was a platonic one. For a short time, Isabella was friendly with the couple, but this wasn’t to last. She insisted that Gioacchino and Isabella live separately. In Bologna, tongues were wagging.
Gioacchino purchased this house at 83 Via Santo Stefano for Olympe. (Image : P. Granville)
Gioacchino and Olympe spent long periods in both Milan and Naples, but the change of scene did little to improve Gioacchino’s depression. He was also suffering from Reiter’s syndrome, a painful form of arthritis.
The Stabat Mater
Rossini had lost all interest in composing. To add to his woes, both of his parents had died and the Théâtre-Italien, which he had done so much to revitalise, had burnt down.
He was dragged from his musical lethargy by the publishing in Paris of the Stabat Mater that he had jointly written in Madrid many years earlier. This was well before the time of copyright law, and it was presented as a work completely by Rossini.
In his embarrassment, he wrote the remaining 5 parts to complete the work we know today. The emotions he felt from the loss of his parents no doubt influenced his composition.
The first performance was held in Paris early in 1842. A few months later, three performances were held in Bologna. His friend Gaetano Donizetti came from Milan to conduct and some 600 people crowded into the small auditorium for the first performance, with thousands listening outside.
The ensemble included a chorus of talented local amateurs and Rossini donated the proceeds to charity. During the third performance, Rossini had a severe panic attack and had to leave the room for a period of time.
The Accademia Filarmonica
Bologna’s Accademia Filarmonica was founded in 1666. Rossini and Isabella Colbran both studied there.
In 1826, Gioacchino was made an honorary professor and in 1843 he was active in adjudicating student performances and conducting the orchestra. Two years later, he became president of the Academy.
Numerous chamber music concerts are held here through the year.
The Accademia Filarmonica at 13 Via Guerazzi. ( Image : P. Granville)
In 1848, revolution was in the air around Europe. In April, a mob outside Rossini’s house turned ugly as they thought his contribution to the local revolutionary fund was paltry considering his wealth. Rossini panicked and the couple left for Florence later that night.
In the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the situation was more stable, as some movement towards democracy had been made. Also Florence, a larger city, was much more to Olympe’s liking. Rossini continued to suffer mentally with chronic insomnia. He wanted to return to Bologna but was tormented by visions of the mob.
Gioachino Rossini, c. 1850 (F. Perrin lithograph)
The couple eventually returned. However, following the first Italian War of Independence, Bologna was occupied from 1849 by Austro-Hungary. After the Austrian governor of Bologna was boycotted by other guests at his home, Rossini left the city never to return again. Longing for Bologna had turned to loathing.
The couple returned to Florence and sold the villa at Castenaso. These were dark years for Rossini. He composed little and disliked the direction towards romanticism that music was taking. In 1855, they moved to Paris and Rossini’s health slowly improved.
In Paris, Gioacchino and Olympe maintained a large apartment at 2 Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin in the ninth arrondissement and built “Beau Séjour”, a villa in Passy which was then in the semi-rural outskirts of the city. At Passy, he was able to enjoy his passion for cooking and sharing rich food.
From 1858 until Gioacchino’s death ten years later, the couple’s soirees became famous and an essential part of Paris’ intellectual and musical life. Musical performances were central to these evenings and Rossini composed a number of pieces intended for private performance. An outstanding composition from this time is the “Petite Messe Solennelle” from 1864 which he called the “last of my sins of old age”.
Rossini died at Passy in 1868 at the age of seventy-six after a battle with colorectal cancer. After Olympe’s death in 1878, his estate passed to his home town of Pesaro for the establishment of a music school and also funded a home in Paris for retired opera singers.
- Conservatium of Music 2 Piazza Rossini. Open from time to time for concerts
- International Museum and Library of Music 34 Strada Maggiore.
- Rossini’s house 26 Strada Maggiore. Private dwelling, not open to the public.
- Teatro Communale 1 Largo Respighi. Opera and ballet season every year. Tickets are often still available close to performances.
- Olympe’s house, 83 Via Santo Stefano. Private dwelling, not open to the public.
- Stabat Mater lecture hall. 1 Piazza Galvani. The hall is occasionally open for concerts. However, the rest of the Archiginnasio is open Monday- Saturday.
- Accademia Filarmonica 13 Via Guerrazzi . Concerts are held here regularly.
- Certosa di Bologna. A public cemetery. For more, see my blog post .