Despite the similarity of their names (Verdi means greens and Monteverdi means green mountain), the opera composers Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) were not related to each other. Since Monteverdi was born 256 years earlier, he could have been Verdi’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, but he wasn’t.
Geographically, however, they were quite close together. Monteverdi was born and raised in Cremona, on the Po River in northern Italy, which is just twenty-some kilometers by bicycle from Verdi’s home town of Busseto.
(I once took a leisurely bicycle ride from Cremona to Busseto, and back a couple days later, using virtually car-free cycling routes.)
Both Verdi and Monteverdi were prodigies who received musical training starting in early childhood. Verdi had his first music lessons from the church organist, Pietro Baistrocchi, at the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, which faces Verdi’s birth house across a small square. At age ten Verdi was asked to take over as organist when his teacher died.
Monteverdi is thought to have received his first musical training at the Cremona Cathedral from the composer Marc’Antonio Ingegneri (1547-1592), who was famous in his lifetime for the motets, masses and madrigals that he composed.
Both Verdi and Monteverdi remained attached to their home towns, and returned often for visits. Verdi in his mid-thirties bought a farm near Busseto, which he developed into his home “Villa Verdi”. This was his main residence from 1851 until the end of his life nearly half a century later.
Monteverdi made preparations for spending his retirement years in Cremona, but he never quite got around to retiring from his position as music director of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, and he kept on composing operas for the Venetian theaters until shortly before his death at age 76.
Both Verdi and Monteverdi are well-known for their connections to the Italian city of Mantua, some thirty-five km south of Verona.
Monteverdi lived and worked in Mantua for over twenty years, from about 1591 to 1613. He was employed there at the court of Duke Vincenzo I of the Gonzaga dynasty, first as a singer and viola player, later as music director and resident composer. Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (Orpheus) was commissioned by the duke and first performed at the ducal court in Mantua in 1607.
Verdi, on the other hand, probably never even set foot in Mantua, but the censors forced him to set one of his most popular operas there, namely Rigoletto. This opera was based on a play by Victor Hugo and was originally set in Paris, with the French King François the First as an unscrupulous seducer. The censors refused to allow this, and insisted that the King be moved, re-named and demoted to a mere Duke. The reason Mantua was chosen as the new setting for Rigoletto was that the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed and the Gonzaga dynasty had long since died out (since 1708), so the Duke of Mantua had no living descendants who could have objected to the way their illustrious ancestor was portrayed in the opera.
I’ve never been to Mantua, but it sounds like an inventive place. It even has a “Rigoletto House”, where Rigoletto is said to have lived with his daughter Gilda until she was seduced by the Duke. This house has a statue of Rigoletto in the garden and is apparently quite popular with the tourists, even though it has about the same level of authenticity as Juliet’s House in Verona with its 1930s balcony.
My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2013. I wrote the text in 2023.