The Church of San Michele Arcangelo (Saint Michael the Archangel) was and is just a few steps away from Verdi’s birth house.
This plaque recounts the story of how Verdi’s mother hid him in this church, when he was just a baby, to protect him from marauding foreign soldiers during the troubled times after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.
As a small child, Verdi had his first music lessons from the church organist, Pietro Baistrocchi. At age ten he was asked to take over as organist when his teacher died.
Before becoming the church organist he sometimes had to serve as an altar boy, and on one such occasion he was kicked to the floor of the church by a priest, Don Jacopo Masini, because he had been dawdling again, listening to the organ music instead of serving mass.
Young Giuseppe was highly offended by this kick, and he spontaneously cursed the priest in the local dialect: “Ch’at vena na saièta!”
Which means: “May you be struck by lightning!”
The second closest church to Verdi’s birth house is this “Sanctuary of the Holy Virgin,” Madonna dei Prati, 2 km north of Roncole and 3 km east of Busseto. It was built in the 1690s for the purpose of preserving a frescoed image of the Virgin which was considered miraculous.
Verdi as a boy often walked over here from Roncole to visit some relatives on his father’s side. He walked barefoot, supposedly, because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes, though when his musical talent became evident they did scrape up enough money to buy him a used spinet, which was a kind of keyboard instrument like a small harpsichord. Later he also walked over here to play the harmonium (a kind of small organ) during church services.
One evening when he was fourteen years old, on the evening of 14 September 1828 to be exact, he was on his way to the Sanctuary Madonna dei Prati to play the harmonium for Vespers when a huge thunderstorm came up. Verdi took refuge in a nearby house to wait for the storm to pass. While he was waiting a bolt of lightning struck the Sanctuary and killed six people inside, including one of Verdi’s cousins and — Don Jacopo Masini, the same priest he had cursed in Roncole for kicking him to the floor.
As an adult Verdi was neither religious nor superstitious, but as a fourteen-year-old he was horrified and guilt-stricken at the idea that his childish curse (“May you be struck by lightning!“) had come true. In his operas there are several scenes in which people are terrified by curses, for instance when Rigoletto sings to the darkest and most threatening music: Quel vecchio maledivami! = That old man cursed me!
In fact, Verdi’s original working title for Rigoletto was La Maledizione = The Curse.
Madonna dei Prati looks refreshingly unfinished from outside. In some century there were plans to give it a proper façade, but either they lost interest or ran out of money, so the outside walls are still unadorned brick and stone.
Just a couple hundred meters from Madonna dei Prati I came across this derelict house and barn, at the corner of the roads leading south to Roncole and west to Busseto. Maybe this was where Verdi took refuge and waited for the storm to pass?? (Just a guess.)
My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2017.