In Venetian history

Music in Venice along the canals

Music on a gondola? You visited Venice and discovered that gondoliers do not sing. Wondering if they ever did, or if it was a movie, or only in Las Vegas, right? Well, music outside theatres or concert halls did exist! Here is the story of a special genre, that of the Venetian ballads, also called boat songs… and where you can hear those notes, still today.

Barcarolle: a musical fever of the 1740s

At the time when Canaletto’s views of Venice started getting very popular among foreign visitors, the celebrated writer Jean Jacques Rousseau related in his Dictionary of Music that Venetian gondoliers sang. And he added the gondoliers’ songs were inspired by the opera. He called them “barcarolle” and he noticed they were simpler, more naive versions of the famous arias you would hear in the Venetian theatres. 

In fact, between 1740 and 1750 the tradition of the diva opera singers was almost at the end, but music continued in the streets, the campos and of course along the canals of Venice. A sort of “fever” everybody suffered from. John Walsh brought these arias to a Europe-wide success publishing in London over 500 pieces of these popular Venetian ballads in the same years. 

Unlike Rousseau however, who suggested the composers were the gondoliers themselves, the English publisher John Walsh stated the arias were written by Johann Adolph Hasse (a German composer called the “Saxon” that had lived a long time in Italy) and “all the celebrated Italian masters” such as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. 

Pop songs or illustrious music?

Walsh today would be accused of misleading advertisement: only few pieces in his collection were written by famous composers. Doing so, though, he got attention from more subscribers that bought his book, which probably would have not become so famous. 

At the same time, Rousseau would promote these songs right because of their innocent, unsophisticated character, part of the oral tradition of a city that had lost its mercantile power and had become a sensual and wealthy mistress.

The curious thing is that every single library in Europe got the book by Walsh, except… Venice. 

Such ambiguity of the “barcarolle” arias would then attract more foreign travellers to Venice. It would fascinate those visitors attracted by the popular nature of these arias en plein air, promising a more veracious experience. It would intrigue those, too, who instead were interested in the supposedly illustrious aura of these songs.

Professional musicians or gondoliers?

Who wrote these songs then? Most of them are anonymous, but many were indeed a sort of a plagiarism of the “serious” love arias. As gondoliers entered theatres for free, it could be it was them who composed some ballads. Written in Venetian, Italian, lyrical French or parodying some foreign language, these arias might as well have been written by illustrious authors, though, of the kind of playwrights like Carlo Goldoni. These were happy to remain anonymous and didn’t want to sound ridiculous in revealing they were writing popular songs.

The handwritten text of a boat song, Venice, 1740s

The handwritten text of a boat song, Venice, 1740s

Why boat songs?

And who they were written for? Many were composed for the official religious or political ceremonies. But the “barcarolle” were also boat songs performed by masked characters during the Carnival with a strong mocking vein. Moreover, ballads were also accompanying the “fresco” boat parades. In the  summer evenings, in the cool (“fresco”) breeze, how about gently rowing back and forth along the Grand Canal or the Canal di Cannaregio, and listening to some music? Two voices, violin, flute, a lute and a cembalo. And Venice by night. Can you feel it? Aren’t you already falling in love?

Here’s a very well-know piece, La Biondina in Gondoeta, interpreted by Vincenzo Capezzuto:

Charles Burney, in his The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771) wrote: 

The people here, at this season seem to begin to live only at midnight. Then the canals are crowded with gondolas, and St. Mark’s square with company; the banks too of the canals are all peopled, and harmony prevails in every part. If two of the common people walk together arm in arm, they seem to converse in song; if there is company on the water, in a gondola, it is the same; a mere melody, unaccompanied with a second part, is not to be heard in this city: all the ballads in the streets are sung in duo.

Luckily for me, this night, a barge, in which there was an excellent band of music, confining of violins, flutes, horns, bases, and a kettle-drum, with a pretty good tenor voice, was on the great canal, and flopped very near the house where I lodged; it was a piece of gallantry, at the expense of an inamorato in order to serenade his mistress.

The serenade

See? Boat songs were amourous serenades, too. Composed to flirt with women but… sung by castratos or women. Even if boat songs were often directed to women, then it was women with a strong capability for improvisation that would be hired to sing these songs. Rosanna Scalfi and Faustina Bordoni (who married Johann Adolph Hasse) were professional opera singers that would often be paid for serenades.

Rosalba Carriera, Faustina Bordoni Hasse, Ca' Rezzonico

Rosalba Carriera, Faustina Bordoni Hasse, Ca’ Rezzonico

Obsession for love

And what do these love songs say? You will read malicious words reflecting an insane love obsession. Needless to say, the main viewpoint is that of the man, both shy and naive as well as explicit and libertine. Flirting to convince a woman to give up or just to listen, the men singing agree that marriage is not the goal which instead all women seem to desire. But they all sound truly in love, asking for mercy or inviting the woman of their heart not to waste youth or beauty, because in the end neither last.

Boat songs music scores, Venice, 1740s

Boat songs music scores, Venice, 1740s

What happened to this tradition?

The musical genre of the boat songs at the end of the 18th century had also not lasted. The city of Venice after the end of the Doge’s Republic became more a touristic attraction and these arias were replaced by musical souvenirs. And while the nobility of the arias sung on the gondolas lowered, important music composers picked up this popular tradition to elevate it to elite’s music to be played in theatres, as in this piece by Felix Mendelssohn in the interpretation by Roberto Giordano:

Today, you may hear a miscellany of arias from different traditions (also recent ones), but if you are looking for those special boat songs of the 18th century, you can enjoy the wonderful work by Rachele Colombo ( Every now and then also, the passionate musicians and singers of the Venice Music Project perform the traditional boat songs, too. Unearthing these handwritten music scores from archives, they do bring them back to life again for the joy of our ears and hearts.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Canzoni da battello, 1740-1750 / edited by Sergio Barcellona e Galliano Titton; introductions by Manlio Cortellazzo and Giovanni Morelli, 1990.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Hans

    Enjoyed the history lesson behind the lost art of gondola balladeers

  • Jane

    Very informative. Love the links to the music!

    • Grazie, Jane! Thank you for leaving a comment! The music is so evocative and the rhythm is that of the gondola’s slow movement, don’t you think?

St. George's Anglican Church in Venice, detail of stained glass window mentioning Sir Henry LayardPhoto by Maurizio Rossi, Bepi Suste