Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a masterpiece

by Felicity Baker (Author) Magnus Tessing Schneider (Author)
Monographs 218 Pages

Table Of Content


ABSTRACT. For centuries a reviled literary genre, it is only in the last decades that the opera libretto has begun to receive serious scholarly attention. In the case of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos for Mozart, the traditional unwillingness to read them as works of poetry, and thereby to recognise the depth of Da Ponte’s contribution to opera as an art form, can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the rise of German nationalism coincided with a rise in anti-Habsburg and anti-Italian sentiments. The early vilification of Da Ponte thus accompanied the early glorification of Mozart, which inspired the Romantic opera aesthetic that, ultimately, provided the basis for opera studies as an academic field. Therefore, many of the old prejudices have slipped into today’s scholarly discourse on opera. Felicity Baker’s writings on Da Ponte, dating from the 1980s onwards, represent an effort to vindicate not only Da Ponte as a poet but also the opera libretto as a genre. After tracing the beginnings of her interest in Da Ponte, this introduction to her collected essays on the subject expands on three literary contexts that are central to her essays on the Don Giovanni libretto. First, the dramatic context, where she focuses on the traditional Stone Guest plays and the story of Don Juan as a cultural myth subject to a critical rewriting; secondly, the poetic context, where she focuses on Dante Alighieri as an important intertext; and thirdly, the philosophical context, where she focuses on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political thinking as an inspiration for the delineation of the characters. The introduction examines, more broadly, the significance of Dante and Rousseau for Da Ponte as a poet.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, Don Giovanni, librettos, Rousseau, Dante, critical rewriting

1 The libretto as poetry

In 1819, when compelled to defend the librettos he had written for Mozart thirty years earlier, Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) insisted that ‘poetry is the door to music, which can be very handsome and much admired for its exterior, but no body can see its internal beauties, if the door is wanting.’1

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This view has not found many advocates during the following two centuries, which, on the contrary, have seen a persistent unwillingness to read and study Da Ponte’s librettos as works of art. We can trace that tendency back to the last decade of the eighteenth century. Mozart’s premature death in 1791 gave rise to a cult of the composer throughout the German-speaking world that coincided both with a rise in German nationalism, inimical to all things French and Italian, and with a rise in the self-confidence of the bourgeois class, hostile to aristocratic and courtly culture. Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Il dissoluto punito o sia Il Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte o sia La scuola degli amanti (1790) — Mozart’s three operas on librettos by Da Ponte — posed a problem in that polarised atmosphere. On the one hand, they were undisputed masterpieces by one of the greatest German composers. On the other hand, they were Italian operas, set to texts by the imperial theatre poet himself and hence sullied by the cosmopolitanism and supposed moral laxity of the Habsburg court. At the end of the eighteenth century, the widespread solution to this problem was to reimagine these works as German operas, by downplaying or ignoring Da Ponte’s contribution. This was to have a momentous impact on the later reception of Mozart and Da Ponte and their joint operas.

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The earliest monument to this reimagining of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas was the first biography of Mozart, published in 1798 by the Prague grammarschool teacher Franz Xaver Niemetschek. A fierce proponent of Bohemian (that is, at that point, German) nationalism, he never tired of insisting that the Bohemians were the first to recognise the composer’s genius, while the Viennese, corrupted as they were by their Italianate tastes, had shamefully failed to do so. Da Ponte is nowhere mentioned in the book. Niemetschek only alludes to his librettos once, when discussing Così fan tutte, and only in order to point out that people ‘generally wonder how [Mozart] could have stooped to squandering his divine melodies on such a miserable piece of trash.’ The biographer came up with a convenient explanation to this delicate problem, which lacked any basis in historical fact, but which served to absolve the revered master from blame. ‘It was not within his power to refuse the commission,’ Niemetschek maintained, ‘and the text was expressly assigned to him.’2 The ideological framework within which that myth was founded is significant: it was Niemetschek’s Mozart biography that introduced the concept of classical music, by which he understood musical works that, like the immortal works of poetry inherited from classical Antiquity, transcend their immediate context and require continued study in order to reveal their subtle beauties. ‘The masterpieces of the Romans and the Greeks please as one’s reading advances, and more and more so as one’s taste acquires maturity — and the same occurs with connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs as they listen to Mozart’s music, especially to his dramatic works.’3 Right from the start, however, the Italian librettos were denied a share in the operatic work concept; they were not a part of what made operas classical, and they did not require studied reading.

Da Ponte, who emigrated to the United States in 1805, witnessed this tendency from afar and reacted against it. Incensed by a review in the Edinburgh Magazine of the London premiere of Don Giovanni, which failed to mention his name, he published his lengthy response to the editor in 1819, emphasising that it was Mozart himself who had asked him to write the three librettos. ‘Mozart knew very well that the success of an opera depends, first of all on the poet’, he insisted; ‘that without a good poem an entertainment cannot be perfectly dramatic, just as a picture cannot be good without possessing the merit of invention, design, and a just proportion of the parts: that a composer, who is, in regard to a drama, what a painter is in regard to the colours, can never do that with effect, unless excited and animated by the words of a poet’.4 He returned to the topic four years later, in the first volume of his memoirs, complaining that the crucial role he had played in Mozart’s career was being consistently downplayed. ‘The unfairness and envy of journalists, of hacks and especially of Mozart’s biographers did not allow them to bestow such glory on an Italian’.5

It was a losing battle, however. The Romantic opera aesthetic, the principles of which were established by German writers such as Niemetschek, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Richard Wagner, consistently minimised the significance of the librettos in Mozart’s operas; and twentieth-century opera studies, especially as cultivated by German and Anglo-American musicologists, were developed on the basis of that aesthetic. Therefore, we should not be surprised to read, in a book written two hundred years after Mozart’s death, that ‘lyric text in opera arias must be denatured by fragmentation and nonsensical repetition, and it is calculated precisely to bear such distortions, to be expanded or compressed as needed to fill up aria’s musical volume. Few of us care how often the Queen of the Night says, “So sei sie dann auf ewig dein,” or how often she mangles the words and their syntax. As she sings, we are listening for musical sense and structure, and though her avowal is passionate, it enunciates no critical dramatic action, no important clue to understanding.’6 According to Carolyn Abbate, in other words, the libretto merely constitutes the frame of the painting, not its design, as Da Ponte insisted.

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While Abbate’s assertion that operagoers focus entirely on ‘musical sense and structure’ when listening to an aria is indebted, ultimately, to German nineteenthcentury ideas about the word-tone relationship, this conviction received further support in the second half of the twentieth century, with the growing influence of sound recordings on operatic culture. Naturally, for commentators who access the operatic works primarily by listening to recordings and by reading the scores with those recordings in mind, rather than by going to the theatre, the verbal signification tends to recede into the background, as it is detached from its dramatic, gestural and interpersonal context. This development within media history helps explain the momentous impact on late twentieth-century opera studies of Joseph Kerman’s well-known dictum, first formulated in his 1956 book Opera as Drama, that ‘in opera the dramatist is the composer.’7 The historical situatedness of that bold — and questionable — statement still needs to be fully acknowledged. The same is the case with Roland Barthes’s 1972 essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’, which has also influenced conceptions of opera within the academy. Though the essay draws its examples from German and French art song, it verbalised widespread attitudes towards operatic singing in the late twentieth century, which we still encounter today. At the expense of what he calls ‘pheno-song’, which covers ‘everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression’, Barthes favours what he calls ‘geno-song’, which is ‘that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language — not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sounds-signifiers, of its letters — where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work.’8 Just as in Kerman’s and Abbate’s books, verbal signification — and, by implication, the poetic integrity of the libretto — is considered inessential to the aesthetic experience.

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Felicity Baker’s essays on Lorenzo Da Ponte, and above all on his Don Giovanni libretto, offer a thought-provoking and timely antithesis to that still-dominant trend. In fact, coming from the field of French studies, one of her earliest articles on opera, published in 1983, was a response to Barthes’s essay. Here she criticised his ‘theory of singing as non-signification’, arguing that ‘the singing-acting of Maria Callas marked an end of a conventional neglect of discursive signification’ in operatic performance.9 Callas’ singing ‘does not only envelop the listener in sensuous pleasures, but also requires to be attended to as separate, external — as discourse’; hence, whereas Barthes depicts ‘the representational and the erotic’ as ‘violently opposed’, Baker posits that ‘the erotic is the representational’.10 When listening to an opera, in other words, part of our pleasure derives from engaging with the vocal expression, with the poetic meanings, with the characters. Instead of simply denouncing the discursive aspect of singing, we should ask what happens to language when it is sung:

Ambiguity, unreliability, enigma are the inescapable consequence of the tension in language of materiality and reference. So libretto-language accedes, at last, to a perfect equality with poetic or, for that matter, learned discourse. It requires an absolutely serious reading, which makes all the space necessary both for the operatic representation, and for its frank unauthoritativeness. Its sensual and passionate dimension must not be flattened out to make it appear nothing but a system of signs susceptible of semiological classification.11

2 Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni

This brings us finally to the Don Giovanni libretto, since Baker recognised that ‘frank unauthoritativeness’ above all in Da Ponte’s writing as brought to life by another great singer-actor, Ruggero Raimondi. Her two earliest essays on Don Giovanni (not included in this volume) were devoted to Joseph Losey’s famous film version of the opera from 1979, in which she recognised a contrast between Raimondi’s coolly detached screen acting in the title role and the intense passion of his singing. ‘Raimondi’s characterisation of Don Giovanni is new, in that it is positive — human, passionate, highly self-preferring of course, but neither daemonic nor morbid’, she wrote in 1982, arguing that his vocal portrayal disproved current views of the seducer as being inhuman or even characterless: ‘the public’s love of this opera is undeniably a fascination with the character of the hero. Such a fascination cannot be due to a hole in the text, as it were, so large as to require the spectator’s fantasy to do all the work of inventing the hero’s character.’12 Taking Raimondi’s portrayal as her point of departure, Baker took on the two traditional conceptions of Don Giovanni, which have dominated stage productions and the critical literature since the turn of the nineteenth century:13

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Don Giovanni is a hero both loved and hated; a similar ambivalence marks the public’s reaction to Raimondi’s film performance. Interpretations of this hero have traditionally been daemonic; he is either diabolically immoral, in accordance with the seventeenthcentury morality reflected in the Christian symbolism of his final encounter with divine authority (the stone guest) and his punishment; or else a pagan amoral figure unrestrainable by ordinary mortals and finally quelled by another supernatural figure (the stone guest) more powerful than himself. The first of these two versions is closer to the libretto than the second, although it overlooks the fact that da Ponte’s text strips the myth of its religious morality. The second version correctly observes that fact, but what it elaborates instead has precious little to do with the libretto or with the mentality of which the text is a product. In recent years, Don Giovanni’s sexuality has been interpreted in terms of psychopathology (compulsive womaniser, unconscious homosexual): he is sick, perverse. This version also has to overlook as many items in the text as it accentuates. A behaviour pattern formerly seen as evil is now seen as symptomatic of mental disturbance. Both views, in relation to a work of art, are ways of holding the character at a safe distance; that is an essential part of the myth, and it is worthy of reflection, considering how much the public cares about this hero.14

In a follow-up article from 1984, which revolves around Raimondi’s Don Giovanni as an example of ‘the operatic character-effect, the mimesis, which is completed in the spectator’, she discussed the way the singer ‘takes the seducer over into excess in the mode of the passionate singlemindedness of his own way of life. The passion itself is exactly the site of his inner space. That space lies between the extremism of his passion and the extreme transitoriness of his wish for any woman.’15 Passion is at the heart of Don Giovanni’s character, in short; and that is what seduces the operagoer.

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Raimondi’s portrayal of Don Giovanni in the Losey film can be said to have opened the door for Baker’s reading of Da Ponte’s libretto as a radical work of the Late Enlightenment. And it is the results of that reading which make up the contents of this book, consisting partly of previously published articles and partly of essays based on conference papers or other unpublished manuscripts, covering a period of thirty years. As her meticulous and wide-ranging close readings show, Da Ponte portrays Don Giovanni as no more and no less than a human being: a modern seducer whose unconventional but essentially nonviolent mode of behaviour challenges some of our culture’s most entrenched notions of sexuality, gender and power. He never takes the time to set forth his principles — or his ‘reasons’, as he calls them, which have given this book its title. But Baker derives a philosophy from the poetic depiction of his life, which centres on the integrity and autonomy of the individual, on the right to selfexpression, on the revolutionary potential of both the aesthetic and the sexual experience, on the defence of liberty and equality.

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Such a radical reassessment of the character of Don Giovanni inevitably entails a reassessment of the poet who created him; and unlike earlier scholars, Baker situates her interpretation of the libretto in the context of other writings by Da Ponte: his autobiography, published in New York in the 1820s, and a libretto he wrote for the Spanish composer Vicente Martín y Soler at the same time as he wrote Don Giovanni for Mozart. In the first essay in the volume, ‘Lorenzo Da Ponte’s witticisms: The implication of Jewish identity in the Memorie’, Baker argues that the poet’s youthful experience of antisemitic and totalitarian persecution in his native Venice fuelled the call for tolerance and equality in his later writings, his commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment. In the second essay, ‘Joseph II as the god of love: L’arbore di Diana’, she shows how Da Ponte’s non-judgmental depiction of the libertine seducer is part of a larger pattern within his oeuvre. While Don Giovanni was premiered at the National Theatre in Prague on 29 October 1787, L’arbore di Diana was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna earlier the same month. Both operas were commissioned to celebrate the future wedding of Archduchess Maria Theresa (princess of Tuscany and niece of Emperor Joseph II) to Prince Anthony of Saxony; hence they were both linked to the representational culture of the imperial court.16 In the Memorie, Da Ponte describes how he wrote L’arbore di Diana as a comic allegory of Joseph II’s recent abolition of the convents in the Hereditary Lands; and Baker shows how that allegory can be interpreted, more broadly, as a rejection of the Catholic cult of chastity and the church’s oppressive attitude towards human sexuality. Don Giovanni, with its non-condemnatory representation of the archetypal seducer of women, inviting the audience to reflect critically on the fairness of his traditional infernal punishment, essentially deals with the same theme. To interpret the opera as a celebration of the sanctity of marriage and Catholic orthodoxy — as some critics have done — is to ignore its immediate political context, in other words. But the opera’s connection to Josephine politics goes beyond that. In the last essay, ‘Don Giovanni and the pre-Revolutionary moment’, Baker argues that it also reflects another of the emperor’s liberalising policies: his ban on the aristocratic practice of duelling, which the Commendatore violates when challenging the seducer to single combat.

The last five essays of the book all deal with different aspects of the Don Giovanni libretto. The first of these, ‘The radical poetry of Don Giovanni’, is the earliest piece included in the collection, first published in 1986, while the remaining four are based on previously unpublished manuscripts written between 2001 and 2014. Together, these essays complement Baker’s ground-breaking essay from 2005, ‘The figures of hell in the Don Giovanni libretto’.

As we read her studies in chronological order, it is possible to distinguish between three distinct literary contexts in relation to which she examines Da Ponte’s libretto: one dramatic, one poetic and one philosophical. In the following, I would like to elaborate on these contexts with reference to the poet’s oeuvre.

3 Da Ponte and The Stone Guest

The immediate dramatic context is well-known. The Don Giovanni libretto is based on the traditional story of Don Juan and the stone guest, which was known to eighteenth-century theatregoers from hundreds of adaptations that ranged from revered masterpieces of dramatic literature to the lowliest farces. It is clear that Da Ponte was familiar with the classics of the tradition: Tirso de Molina’s play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (1617), Molière’s comedy Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (1665) and Carlo Goldoni’s tragicomedy Don Giovanni Tenorio o sia Il dissoluto (1736). Moreover, it has long been known that he used Giovanni Bertati’s one-act libretto Don Giovanni o sia Il convitato di pietra (1787) as his immediate model. But how are we to understand the relationship between Da Ponte’s libretto and its predecessors?

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I would argue that we can distinguish between two trends in the existing critical literature that might be described as ‘idealistic’ and ‘pragmatic’, respectively. From the idealistic point of view, the story of Don Juan is a ‘legend’ with an immutable inherent meaning that transcends historical contexts as well as its individual artistic treatments: each of the latter must be judged according to how well it gives expression to that meaning. From the pragmatic point of view, on the other hand, the story is simply a ‘plot’ that has been used by different artists to convey a variety of messages linked to different sociohistorical contexts: each treatment must be judged according to the effectiveness of its construction and to the ethos of its message. While we can trace the idealistic approach back to Søren Kierkegaard’s famous essay on the opera, included in his philosophical treatise Either/ Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), the pragmatic approach has gained ground in recent decades, especially due to the growing influence of American academic criticism within opera studies. Baker’s main contribution, in this context, consists in introducing a third viewpoint that can be described as ‘intertextual’. She sees the story of Don Juan as a ‘cultural myth’ that, through its history, has been used to teach specific moral judgments to the audience: hence, each treatment must be judged according to the extent to which it invites the audience to reflect critically and independently on those judgments. More than any previous dramatic adaptation, as Baker shows, the Don Giovanni libretto is a critical rewriting of the story, and it is in this light that we should understand its borrowings from Tirso, Molière, Goldoni and Bertati.

While the third essay in the volume introduces the concept of the libretto as a rewriting of the myth of Don Juan, the fourth essay, ‘Don Giovanni’s bizarre scene’, discusses Don Giovanni more specifically as a rejection of the baroque worldview represented by that myth. Among Enlightenment writers, Spain as a literary topos and as a dramatic setting was connotatively linked to the notion of the ‘baroque’, and to its synonym the ‘bizarre’, as well as with social conservatism and the intolerance traditionally associated with the Spanish Inquisition. In Da Ponte’s libretto, Baker argues, the absence of dramatic verisimilitude proverbially characteristic of Spanish seventeenth-century drama, and exemplified by the talking statue and the seducer’s infernal punishment, serves as a metaphor for popular superstition, religious hypocrisy and obscurantist social attitudes. ‘On the eve of the Revolution,’ as she writes in her 2005 essay, ‘the stone guest does not ring true as a bringer of divine retribution; his supernatural aspect serves rather as a figure of the superior force of the social group over the sum of the individuals who are its members.’17 We might add that Spanishness also serves as a metaphor for a reactionary society in Da Ponte’s two previous librettos set in ‘old Spain’: Le nozze di Figaro and Una cosa rara o sia Bellezza ed onestà (1786), which was written for Martín y Soler on the basis of another seventeenth-century Spanish play, Luis Vélez de Guevara’s La Luna de la Sierra (ca. 1628). Le nozze di Figaro, Una cosa rara and Don Giovanni might be described as Da Ponte’s ‘Spanish trilogy’.18

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4 Da Ponte and Dante

While Da Ponte’s relationship with dramatic traditions is best described in terms of adaptation, rewriting or parody, his relationship with the Italian poetic tradition was one of pure love and appreciation. In a famous passage in the Memorie, he describes how, when he was constrained to write librettos simultaneously for Martín y Soler, Mozart and Antonio Salieri in the summer and fall of 1787, he had Petrarch in mind when writing L’arbore di Diana, Dante’s Inferno in mind when writing Don Giovanni, and Tasso in mind when writing Axur re d’Ormus (a tragicomic libretto based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ French libretto Tarare).19

To understand what that statement implies, we must consider the extent to which Da Ponte had made these poets a part of himself. In the Memorie, he states that Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto and Tasso ‘were my first teachers’; that he learned almost all of the Inferno by heart as a teenager; and that the only books he took with him when he was banished from Venice in 1779 were the works of Horace and Petrarch and ‘a copy of Dante with notes made by myself ’.20 We get a further impression of Da Ponte’s intimate knowledge of both the Divine Comedy and its classical commentaries from his ‘Critique on Certain Passages in Dante’: an essay in learned textual criticism, which appeared in article form in the New York Review and Athenæum Magazine in 1825.21 Dante also figured prominently in Da Ponte’s work as an Italian teacher in the United States. After introducing his students to the best Tuscan prose writers, he would turn to the poets, always starting with Pietro Metastasio and ending with Petrarch’s Rime and Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he would then explain to the class.22

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Dante was not only the father of Italian poetry and the greatest poet from the Middle Ages onwards, Da Ponte argued; he was a major influence on world literature, too, and Da Ponte rejoiced when he saw English poets acknowledging their debt to him. In 1821 he translated Lord Byron’s The Prophecy of Dante (1819) into terza rima, Dante’s metre; in 1823 he published the pamphlet Dante Alighieri, in which he extolled the Florentine poet as ‘a perennial fountain of doctrines, of images, of poetic beauties’ for multiple later poets, including John Milton and Vittorio Alfieri.23 And in 1833, in his two-volume account of the history of the Florentine Republic, he specified that ‘the writings of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, had secured to the Italian language a pre-eminence to which the imitations of the fathers of English, French, and Spanish literature bear witness, and which has coloured the productions of the proudest era of English poetry with the characteristics of Italian manners and Italian feeling.’24

But Da Ponte also saw a figure of identification in Dante. In the dedicatory preface to his Byron translation, he admitted that he had felt partly spurred to undertake that task due to ‘a certain analogy that (apart from the due proportions) I seemed to find between the events of Dante’s life and those of my own’.25 We get a clearer idea of that analogy from his history of the Florentine Republic where he says that ‘the world acknowledges the immortal debt of the Divina Commedia’ to Dante’s ‘exile’ and ‘sufferings’.26 And a few pages later we find the following passage:

Unfortunately the Florentines had been too rigid in the infliction of political punishment upon those who had belonged to the weaker party in individual or local differences [i.e. the Ghibellines]; and multitudes of exiles were driven to invoke the aid of foreign arms to restore them to that country, which, had she been kinder to them, they would have died to preserve from the profanation of a foreign sword. The severity of popular hate and the infliction of popular revenge had disgusted them with popular rule, and caused them to look to monarchical government as a refuge from persecution. Among these was the author of the Divina Commedia; and we cannot but regret the severity which drove from the loved city of his birth a soul like his, to languish in the vain hope, and perish in the despair, of returning to lie within its walls.27

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Dante had been forced to leave his native Florentine Republic forever due to political persecution. As a result, he became a supporter of Emperor Henry VII, and it was in the years of his exile, between 1308 and 1320, that he wrote his masterpiece. Also due to political persecution, Da Ponte had been forced to leave his native Venetian Republic forever; and it was due to the patronage of Emperor Joseph II that he became a dramatic poet, the reading of Dante’s Inferno informing his own masterpiece, the Don Giovanni libretto. For both poets, the abandonment of democratic society — which Da Ponte found again in America later in his life — was forced upon them; and for both men, the traumatic experience of political exile, of social injustice, of being lost in the world, triggered their poetic imagination.

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Baker may well be the first scholar to take literally Da Ponte’s statement that he read Dante’s Inferno when writing the Don Giovanni libretto. In ‘Don Giovanni’s bizarre scene’ (and, in greater detail, in ‘The figures of hell in the Don Giovanni libretto’) she shows how Da Ponte employs Dante’s concept of poetic justice, known as the contrapasso, which has the punishment of each sinner in hell correspond to his transgression in life. In the libretto, however, each contrapasso that we find, always on the level of the poetic imagery, in Don Giovanni’s encounter with the statue of the Commendatore, refers to the manner of his death rather than to his afterlife, and it is always disproportionately harsher than the transgression that causes it. An important motive for making use of Dante’s poetic figure in this way, Baker proposes, was ‘the need to avoid the sacred dimension in a secular entertainment containing a clear religious reference; Da Ponte’s hell could not be that of Holy Scripture, but it could be that of Dante’s invention.’28 However, the librettist not only avoided the explicitly religious reference in order to bypass censorship, but also because Don Giovanni’s punishment is ultimately social rather than divine. He ‘meets his punishment, his countersuffering, in this life, in the vindictiveness of the social group towards the overtly and transgressively sexual man.’29 And the point is ‘that the outraged group and the outrageous individual are not polar opposites at all, and that this illusion is generated by the other characters’ projections on to the seducer of characteristics shared by many or all of them.’30 In this way, Dante’s poem provides a forum for a critical engagement with conflicting notions of justice. While the Florentine poet used his Inferno to avenge himself on his enemies, Don Giovanni’s enemies use their Inferno to avenge themselves on the seducer. And yet, Da Ponte himself suggested a contrast between the harshness and hypocrisy of Catholic orthodoxy and Dante’s more tolerant Christianity. In the twelfth of the sonnets he published in commemoration of his late wife in 1832, he has a cherub lead his beloved Nancy to the gate of paradise where St. Peter first refuses to let her enter because she was a member of the Anglican Church. But when God sees that the personifications of Justice, Charity, Hope and Faith accompany her with ‘canticles of love’, he nonetheless allows her a place among the angels. Da Ponte explains in a commentary:

Of course, the doctrine of this sonnet does not agree with the fundamental principles of the Catholic religion. But can I believe that a woman eminently adorned with all the Christian perfections is condemned by God to everlasting punishment? I prefer to believe that he who ‘Tutto puote quello che vuole’ [‘has the power to do all that which he wills’] awarded her rare virtues with the privilege of salvation. The same example is found in Dante.31

Significantly, the Italian expression used by Da Ponte is a paraphrase of the words with which Virgil twice persuades the infernal monsters to allow Dante to walk through hell, towards paradise.32 Da Ponte derived his humanistic theology from Italian poetry, not from Catholic dogma. Similarly, in Don Giovanni, he asks us to consider carefully the actions of the title hero rather than simply regard the dogmatic condemnation and punishment to which his enemies subject him as being divinely ordained.

5 Da Ponte and Rousseau

That critical perspective on religious and moral orthodoxy places Da Ponte firmly in the context of Enlightenment thinking, which is one of the more neglected aspects of his writing. Herself a distinguished scholar of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see the bibliography at the end of the book for a complete list of her publications), Baker shows how Da Ponte’s reading of one of the most politically radical among eighteenth-century philosophers informed his writing. Rousseau can be said to have done so in three different ways, within the areas of aesthetics, politics and psychology.

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Da Ponte occasionally cites Rousseau’s aesthetic writings when defending Italian literature against its detractors, pointing out how highly the philosopher thought of Italian poetry, and especially of Metastasio. Hence, in the Compendium of the Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte from 1807, which features a selection of poems and poetic translations recited by his students at a recent ‘Literary Conversazione’ in his New York home, Da Ponte includes Rousseau’s ‘Imitation libre d’une chanson italienne de Métastase’, adding in a footnote that ‘Rousseau was one among the few Frenchmen who rendered justice to the Italian Poetry [sic], as is proved [sic] by this imitation.’33 He returned to the topic in the Memorie, citing Rousseau and two Spanish critics active in Italy, Esteban de Arteaga and Juan Andrés, as examples of non-Italian admirers of Metastasio’s poetry.34 Most likely, Da Ponte had Rousseau’s references to Metastasio in the Letter on French Music (1753) and in the Dictionary of Music (1767) in mind.35

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As in the case of Dante, we can see how, for Da Ponte, an ardent, appreciative engagement with Italian poetry and a critical, philosophical mindset were closely linked — a sensibility he shared with Rousseau. As Baker states in a recent essay on La clemenza di Tito, referring to Rousseau’s admiration for Metastasio’s political insight, ‘no one attends more critically to the political dimension’s affective reverberations than Rousseau.’36 Baker identifies a similar integration of the political and the affective in Da Ponte’s writing, which is perhaps not surprising: the biographical circumstances that made Da Ponte identify with Dante might also have led him to identify with Rousseau. Like the two Italians, the Genevan philosopher was born in a republic but lived most of his life in exile, and his writings are similarly permeated with the painful experience of political injustice and persecution. It is only natural, therefore, that it was Rousseau’s political writings, with their passionate call for tolerance, liberty and equality, that exerted the greatest influence on Da Ponte: in particular, his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755), as Baker shows. Although Da Ponte nowhere mentions the fact, it is known that this book inspired the socalled ‘Accademia poetica’, a cycle of fourteen poems he wrote for the concluding ceremony of the 1775–76 schoolyear at the Treviso Seminary where he served as a teacher of rhetoric. Both the choice of topic and its sympathetic treatment by the young poet scandalised conservative authority figures, and as a consequence Da Ponte lost the right to work as a teacher throughout the Venetian Republic. Though he does not highlight the political provocation of his poems, a comment in the Memorie on the incarceration of Giacomo Casanova — whom he met and befriended in Venice the year after the incident at the Treviso Seminary — shows that he was perfectly sensitive to the political implications of the topic. According to Da Ponte, Casanova had once been put in the Piombi, the infamous state prison in the Doge’s Palace, ‘because a certain lady complained to one of [the State Inquisitors], who served as her cicisbeo, that [he] read Voltaire and Rousseau with her sons.’37 In fact, Casanova had been arrested in Venice on 26 July 1755, just six days after the Discourse of Inequality — the first of Rousseau’s political writings — appeared in print in Amsterdam; and he himself refers neither to Voltaire nor to Rousseau at this point in his memoirs, simply stating that Lucia Memmo — in the house of whose son, Bernardo Memmo, Da Ponte later met him — accused him of ‘leading her sons toward atheism’.38 Here, in other words, Da Ponte seems to confuse the persecution of his older friend with the persecution to which he himself was subjected over twenty years later: it was Da Ponte, not Casanova, who was condemned for teaching Rousseau to the young. In fact, the Rousseauesque attitude of the poems caused Da Ponte to be kept under surveillance by the authorities; and Baker shows that his expulsion from Venice three years later by the Executors for Blasphemy was politically motivated: a fact that has escaped the attention of most of his biographers who have taken the trumped-up charges of a dissolute lifestyle at face value. Like Dante and like Rousseau himself, Da Ponte was a political refugee, in other words, when he came to Vienna to serve as the court librettist of Joseph II, and the experience of oppression informs his writing as a poet. In ‘Don Giovanni’s good nature’ Baker shows how the critical perspective of the Discourse of Inequality emerges once more in his libretto for Mozart’s opera: this time, the poet specifically makes use of Rousseau’s theory of pity, a central concept of his anthropological thinking.

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In addition to Rousseau the critic and Rousseau the political theorist, Rousseau the memoirist must also be acknowledged as an important influence on Da Ponte. The Confessions of the Genevan philosopher, published posthumously in 1782, provided a model for the Venetian poet when he set down to write his own Memorie forty years later. Rousseau introduced Da Ponte to a mode of autobiographical writing that allowed for a new type of honesty and analytical self-scrutiny and which, as Baker points out, rejected inherited cultural identities. Paolo Spedicato, another Da Ponte scholar who has compared the two autobiographies, has suggested that both were indebted to the novels of the eighteenth century, which in Da Ponte’s case included the highly influential epistolary novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) by that same Rousseau, with its original mode of self-expressive writing.39 Here, indeed, we may recognise another point of contact with the Don Giovanni libretto, with its highly individualised characters, which are always treated with compassion and an acute sense of the complexities of social identities and interactions. In the essays ‘Don Giovanni’s good nature’ and ‘Donna Elvira’ Baker herself analyses two of the libretto’s central characters with a degree of care and respect for the humanity of their delineation that one rarely finds in operatic criticism.

In this way, while Tirso and the other classic Stone Guest plays provided Da Ponte with the plot of his libretto, and while Dante inspired its language and imagery, Rousseau can be said to have inspired its characters who are modern but who find themselves in a world that is anything but modern. It is the depiction of the characters, above all, that spurs us to engage with the moral problems raised by a drama which, after almost two and a half centuries, has lost none of its political urgency or its ability to challenge the audience.

Stockholm, December 2020

1 Da Ponte, Estratto delle memorie, pp. 74–76.

2 Niem[e] tschek, Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, p. 41.

3 Niem[e] tschek, Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, p. 61.

4 Da Ponte, Estratto delle memorie, p. 58.

5 Da Ponte, Memorie (1976 edition), p. 104.

6 Abbate, Unsung Voices, p. 68.

7 Kerman, Opera as Drama, p. xiii.

8 Barthes, Image Music Text, p. 182.

9 Baker, ‘Singing and the Song’: p. 83.

10 Baker, ‘Singing and the Song’: pp. 90–91.

11 Baker, ‘Singing and the Song’: p. 91.

12 Baker, ‘Don Giovanni and the Spectator’: p. 12.

13 My own monograph, The Original Portrayal of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (London: Routledge, forthcoming), traces the origin of the two traditional interpretations of the character back to the turn of the nineteenth century: while the ‘diabolically immoral’ Don Giovanni can be traced back to early German singing translations, in particular that by Friedrich Rochlitz from 1801, the ‘pagan amoral’ Don Giovanni can be traced back to E. T. A. Hoffmann’s interpretation of the opera from 1813.

14 Baker, ‘Don Giovanni and the Spectator’: p. 12.

15 Baker, ‘Operatic Character, Cinematic Form’: pp. 34, 41.

16 L’arbore di Diana was premiered on 1 October, in celebration of the arrival in Vienna of Maria Theresa on her journey from Florence to Dresden. The premiere of Don Giovanni was planned to coincide with her arrival in Prague on 14 October, but since the opera was not finished at that point, its premiere was postponed two weeks and Le nozze di Figaro was performed in its place.

17 Baker, ‘The figures of hell’: p. 91.

18 The fact that Da Ponte based Una cosa rara on a Spanish play shows that he read Spanish, lending support to Baker’s suggestion that he was familiar with Tirso’s play. He says he selected Vélez de Guevara’s play after ‘having read some Spanish comedies in order to get a little acquainted with the theatrical character of that nation’. Clearly relying on memory, however, he misattributes the play to Pedro Calderón de la Barca in his autobiography. Notably, Goldoni made a similar mistake in the preface to Don Giovanni Tenorio (with which Da Ponte was also familiar), misattributing Tirso’s play to Calderón. See Da Ponte, Memorie, p. 119; Goldoni, Tutte le opere, vol. 9 (1950), p. 216. On Le nozze di Figaro, Una cosa rara and Il dissoluto punito as Da Ponte’s ‘Spanish’ trilogy, see my article ‘The Enlightened Gender Politics of Lorenzo Da Ponte’, I libretti italiani a Vienna tra Sei e Settecento, ed. Adriana De Feo, Alfred Noe and Nicola Usula (forthcoming).

19 Da Ponte, Memorie, p. 125.

20 Da Ponte, Memorie, pp. 7, 60.

21 The article is reproduced in Koch, Dante in America, pp. 64–71.

22 Da Ponte, Memorie, pp. 355, 381.

23 Da Ponte, Dante Alighieri, p. 48.

24 Da Ponte, A History of the Florentine Republic, vol. 2, p. 84.

25 Da Ponte, La profezia di Dante, p. 5.

26 Da Ponte, A History of the Florentine Republic, vol. 1, p. 73.

27 Da Ponte, A History of the Florentine Republic, vol. 1, pp. 79–80.

28 Baker, ‘The figures of hell’: p. 79.

29 Baker, ‘The figures of hell’: p. 93.

30 Baker, ‘The figures of hell’: p. 93.

31 Da Ponte, Poesie, p. 663.

32 Virgil’s lines, ‘Vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare’ (‘It is so willed there where is power to do that which is willed; and farther question not.’), occur twice, in the encounters with Charon and Minos who try to block his and Dante’s way. See Inferno, III.95–96 and V.23–24.

33 Da Ponte, Storia compendiosa, p. 93.

34 Da Ponte, Memorie, p. 336.

35 Rousseau originally published his translation of Metastasio’s canzonetta ‘La libertà: A Nice’ (1733) in a 1750 issue of the Mercure de France; but Da Ponte is likely to have found it either in the first volume of Rousseau’s OEuvres printed in Amsterdam in 1769 and again in 1772, or in the fifteenth volume of the posthumous OEuvres complètes printed in Zweibrücken in 1792.

36 Baker, ‘Tito’s Burden’: p. 105.

37 Da Ponte, Memorie, p. 170.

38 Casanova, History of My Life, vol. 4, p. 191.

39 Spedicato, La sindrome di Shehrazade, p. 146.

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I. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s witticisms: The implication of Jewish identity in the Memorie1

ABSTRACT. This essay re-examines aspects of the early biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838), drawing on original archival studies in the Venetian State Archive. It starts with a critical examination of the reception of his Memorie (1823–27) through the twentieth century: the recurring description of the poet as a ‘libertine’ and a ‘liar’, even in recent biographies, can be traced back to the first editor of his autobiography, Fausto Nicolini, whose views were informed by early twentieth-century antisemitism. This led him to a skewed interpretation of the historical documents. In reality, the Jewish-born Da Ponte was forced to convert to Christianity at the age of fourteen; he later attracted the negative attention of the state authorities, notably the authoritarian senator Andrea Tron, for a collection of poems inspired by the egalitarian thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and he was finally forced to flee from Venice due to his opposition to Tron following a trial on trumped-up charges in which he was accused of leading a dissolute life. The author argues that the poet’s personal experience of persecution instilled in him a keen awareness of political and social injustices, and that it made him identify with the Italian poetic tradition rather than with any specific national or religious group. An admirer of Rousseau’s writings from an early age, Da Ponte should rightly be regarded as a poet of the radical Late Enlightenment; throughout his writings, he used the poetic witticism to encourage readers and spectators to reflect critically on the inequalities inherent in conventional social relations.

KEYWORDS. Rousseau, antisemitism, Venice, autobiography, Enlightenment, censorship, Andrea Tron

1 A twentieth-century fantasy

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Mozart’s librettist was born in 1749 to a poor Jewish family of the Veneto, and was converted at the age of fourteen with his father and two brothers. Twentiethcentury editors of his Memorie have criticised certain omissions, his Jewish birth among them. The reproach has doubtless run the gamut of the century’s moral positions, from the Establishment’s belief that it had a right to know where people came from, through the call to authenticity and thence to the end-of-century demand that personal facts kept private be brought into the open, whether in the name of so-called transparency, or to educate the public about minorities. What has still not been interrogated is the moral position of Da Ponte himself, as expressed in the Memorie. Nor have commentators since 1918 questioned the accuracy of the criticism itself: does Da Ponte really remain silent about his Jewish background?

His principal detractor, Fausto Nicolini, completed the Laterza edition of the Memorie after its first editor Giovanni Gambarin left on military service in 1914. Nicolini’s annotations to that 1918 edition still provide to this day the textual basis and the main critical authority for ensuing Italian editions. To question Nicolini’s harsh moral judgements would seem to require recommencing all the archival research, an effort begun by some biographers: Livingston, who broke new ground in Da Ponte’s American period; Hodges, particularly good for the Viennese period; and Lanapoppi, who re-examines many aspects of Da Ponte’s life, including his Venetian youth. But we still await a new critical edition of the Memorie, one which could put behind it the derisive tone, unthinkingly perpetuated in successive paperback editions, of Nicolini’s now eighty-year-old notes. Even while making due allowance for the difficulty (which he mentions) of carrying out thorough research or, we should add, of remaining impartial and reasonable during those years of war, today’s reader cannot escape the impression that Nicolini’s commentary on Da Ponte is excessively class-bound and morally judgemental, and cannot help wondering how such an allegedly inferior being found a place among the Scrittori d’Italia. Nicolini’s notes tend to demonise and caricature the librettist, and must have played a part in the formation of the popular demonic image which recurs in opera journalism. For Nicolini, Da Ponte is a ‘Don Juan’ cursed with these ‘feminine’ traits: imagination (meaning dishonesty), vanity, fatuousness, persecution mania, and indulgence in gossip, scandalmongering and intrigue. Among the very few faults that Nicolini finds in the 1900 biography by Marchesan are the latter’s ‘excessive admiration for the adventurer’ and trust in his statements;2 he does not seem to see the value and interest of Marchesan’s positive bias, which is born of his having access to documents attesting that Da Ponte was a superb teacher, beloved and long remembered by his pupils. If he had been able to see Marchesan’s viewpoint, it would have mitigated his own view of Da Ponte.

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In 1930, Nicolini wrote an article whose occasion was the publication, in 1929, of the American and English editions of the Memorie. He could now tell the American public exactly why Da Ponte had been expelled from Venice in 1779, having, after the war, found new material in the Venetian State Archive. The article is a diatribe about a sexual relationship, exploited by the authorities as a pretext to banish Da Ponte. Its flaws are its uncharitableness, its unthinking faith in every testimony against the virtually destitute lovers, however suspect the witnesses, and its failure to notice inconsistencies in the case. He recurs here in a footnote to what he sees as Marchesan’s perniciously influential positive construction of Da Ponte’s character, and continues: ‘for my part, I continue to regard Da Ponte as an unscrupulous, conceited adventurer, no different from Casanova, but worse, because while he lacked the brilliant talent and delectable writing talents of Casanova, he had a Jewish-priestish unctuousness and hypocrisy and a distinct inclination to treachery’.3 This quite Célinian image, fusing anticlerical and anti-Jewish elements and relaying the earlier confusion of Da Ponte with a despicable ‘femininity’, is irrelevant to the sexual subject-matter (‘the insalubrious events’);4 it could be an aberrant offshoot of the Hegelianism of the time, or a symptom of the prejudice fostered by fascist ‘ideology’. It is instructive to read Lanapoppi’s analysis of the same 1779 documents; he refers — only in passing, unfortunately — to the ‘reign of terror’ which generated the case against Da Ponte (to read Nicolini, you might think such a trial was normal) and finds that the facts speak in his favour.5 The Lanapoppi biography exemplifies the new, healthier era that has begun for Da Ponte studies, but some questions remain. For instance, it attaches little significance of any kind to Da Ponte’s Jewish origins; it rather exemplifies a generous modern sympathy for the noncelibate priest. The present essay could thus appear to be lagging behind, superseded by the galloping pace of cultural change. The methodological problem that this implies belongs to the study of such a varied personal history. Any interested scholar must resist the temptation of turning the librettist’s life story into a kind of Rorschach test for today’s attitudes, for this is no meaningless inkblot: the many possible interpretative viewpoints on the Memorie are not simply interchangeable. Da Ponte’s experience embraced all those aspects, and perhaps no one biographer’s viewpoint, however broad, could do justice to the whole of his history. A new annotated edition of the Memorie should perhaps be a group ←29 | 30→ project: not one which just gave ‘equal time’ to the relative truth of every angle on his life, but one which respected its subject as the principal translator and interpreter of all that happened to him. Lanapoppi was right to refute the false image of Da Ponte as a ‘Don Juan’ and to take up the cause of the non-celibate priest, but to do full justice to Da Ponte we must also pay attention to his way of presenting his partially Jewish identity. That is what this essay attempts to do.

There would be no point in focusing on what a serious scholar like Nicolini let himself write at two of the most vulnerable moments in modern European history, if there were not a problem of injustice: not so much an injustice consciously caused by Nicolini, as a larger, impersonal form of injustice to which, too thoughtlessly, he contributed. While few know that Da Ponte was born Jewish, today’s image of him owes much to that kind of projection of unwanted characteristics in which we recognise the antisemitic fantasy of ‘the Jew’ — and, as biographical research progressively proves, the image is as fictional as such images always are. There is perhaps nobody to denounce for antisemitic attacks on Da Ponte, apart from the Nazis. The strange caricature that we find in some editions of the Memorie or in opera house programme notes persists as a dark companion of the emergent fairer picture. It has a kind of autonomy as a construct, not of the malice of individuals, but of prejudices present in eighteenth-century culture, which proves to be still, in certain ways, our own: Nicolini derives his image of Da Ponte from letters by Pietro Antonio Zaguri, a Venetian patrician with whom he can identify.

The motivation for the present discussion will by now be clear: the need to address openly the legitimate question of a real Jewish identity comes of the transhistorical persistence, to the present day, of the caricatural image of him as a fantasy ‘Jew’. However, this essay cannot be exhaustive; on the basis of a few illustrative examples, it attempts to open up one line of discussion, displacing the stress from biographical judgement to literary reading. It draws attention to neglected links between the poetic figures of autobiography and its claims to referential truth, and between the history of one individual, Da Ponte, and the social and historical moment in which he lived.

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While autobiography makes the important claim of truthful reference to aspects of the writer’s life, its status always remains that of a subjective literary form and its truthfulness can only be indirect and figurative. This inseparability of poetic form and referentiality does not make archive research irrelevant, but it raises the possibility of a poetic critique of the illusory objectivity of the archival fact. My method will consist of juxtaposing factual documentation and a reading of Da Ponte’s figures, to show how closely poetic form and external reference interact. This entails a displacement of our critical judgement relevant to what we find in existing studies. Da Ponte’s editors and biographers have not only neglected his characteristics as a writer: they have not yet attended to the location of his personal history within the context of late eighteenth-century Venetian and European history. Conversely, historians of eighteenth-century Venice, if they mention Da Ponte at all, usually dismiss him with a patronising epithet. The time has come to set both autobiography and archive in their context, not inferring dishonesty from every discrepancy, but exploring the questions whether he could have written otherwise under the given social constraints and what kind of negotiation with reality — especially with that large part of reality which consists of myth and prejudice — is contained in his poetic figures. This approach will bring out some historical and subjective facts presented indirectly in the Memorie which existing studies have consistently neglected.

The principal charges of lying concern Da Ponte’s origins and expulsion from Venice in 1779. Another event, his dismissal from a teaching post in 1776, helps us to read these passages and to understand the function of the witticism in Da Ponte’s writing.6

2 The untold conversion

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The charge of dishonesty about his Jewish origins is patently unfair. The same charge could more justly be levelled at a church which practised nonvoluntary forms of conversion, than at the subsequent behaviour of any individual caught up in such a process, as Da Ponte was in his early adolescence: automatically converted with his two brothers when his widowed father changed religion. A number of remarks can be made at once. The practical purpose of his publishing his life story was professional: wishing to set up as a teacher of Italian in New York, he chose autobiography as his way of defending his qualifications for this office, in response to a campaign against him by rival Italians similarly employed. While, for instance, an extraordinary, exemplary convert like St Augustine might foreground his own conversion to edify his flock, an ordinary convert like Da Ponte would keep his pre-conversion identity away from the forefront of his social self-presentation. In any case, the reasons which writers of today might have for frankness on such a matter did not exist two centuries ago, and it is hard to see why reticence at that time (if reticence there be) should be judged negatively by modern scholars.7

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On the other hand, Da Ponte cannot be described as secretive on the subject. In the Memorie we find a few Jewish references, made in passing, which presuppose his first readers’ shared awareness of his mixed identity. That presupposition was justified: information concerning his Jewish birth tended to travel ahead of him wherever he went — Vienna, London, New York. A fund of Jewish experience is signalled in a paragraph which Da Ponte’s critics overlook entirely. About ten pages into his narrative, he mentions that he had looked forward to entering the Portogruaro seminary because he hoped to perfect there his knowledge of Hebrew, which he had studied deeply in his earliest years, but (as he goes on to say) he lost the chance of doing so when he was unexpectedly elevated above his fellows to the chair of rhetoric. He describes how enriching he found the teaching post because, while it deprived him of time to learn from his own masters, it enabled him to learn from his students. He quotes a learned rabbi as his precursor in loving this beneficial reversal of the teacher-learner relationship.8 Someone wishing to cover his birth (supposing he imagined it possible to do so) would hardly have included those details. But Da Ponte goes much further. Just as he occasionally highlights the point of an anecdote with a Latin quotation, so he ends this paragraph with a Hebrew quotation, ignored by commentators, which he himself translates in a footnote. The sentence, imperfectly recalled and also abridged by Da Ponte, comes from the Talmud. This subverts the claim that he conceals his Jewish origins.9

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The problem takes on a new dimension in the 1985 biography by Sheila Hodges, where there is no trace of negative bias, but instead the suggestion, which I would not uphold, that Da Ponte himself shows anti-Jewish bias. He had once written that his enemies in Vienna called him crucifigator and told him to go back to the ghetto from which his guilty people came; scholars regard this as his only written reference to his Jewish origins.10 Having cited this, Hodges comments that Da Ponte’s rare references to Jews are made ‘from a distance, without reference to himself or his background, and sometimes in a faintly derogatory way which strikes a rather disagreeable note’.11 I believe her reaction to his way of handling his identity is anachronistic, and her reading too restricted to the level of direct statement, whereas the quotation from the Talmud, and even its inexactitude, enacts for readers his inside experience of Judaism, and its interruption, in a touching way. She illustrates her point with the passage in the Memorie in which Da Ponte brilliantly describes the gaming rituals of the Venetian Ridotto, where the rich destroyed their fortunes by playing with their own money while the poor, like himself, ran up debts by playing with money borrowed, usually, from the ‘the rich [doviziosi] descendants of Abraham’.12 Here, Da Ponte consciously provides a precious social document of a part of Venetian life which had been abolished in 1774 because it fostered ‘squandering of assets, mixing with Jews, pimps, women, prostitutes, links among usurers and men who run banks’.13 The mode of ironic realism adopted in this story is maintained throughout, no less when he describes his own gullibility, and neither more nor less when including the part played by moneylenders. Hodges perhaps reacts, not so much to textual evidence or prejudice, as to the absence of a kind of solidarity among Jews, whatever their life situation, which might be thought normal today but should not be assumed to have been normal in Europe in the twenty-five-year periods before and after 1800. Historians record serious tensions between the Jews of Venice and those who were flocking there from the rural Veneto at the time Da Ponte lived there; although a convert might not share the plight of the crisis-ridden newcomers, we have no reason to suppose he would feel bound by solidarity with the Jewish people of the city, or they with him. That said, Elizabeth Abbott’s translation of ‘doviziosi’ as ‘fat-pursed’, which Hodges cites, could certainly create an illusion of derogatory meaning; the learned Italian adjective (from Latin dives, ‘rich’) entails neither positive nor negative connotations.

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Hodges’ comment helps to define the problem on which this essay focuses. It is likely that the kind of fellow-feeling or group identity, not dependent on shared religion, which she senses is lacking in Da Ponte, arose in the nineteenth century, as a counterpart to the new pseudoscientific biological theory of ‘race’ which engendered antisemitism. Abandoning Judaism, Da Ponte was forbidden all contact with Jews, which meant, at that time, a group united by a religion and by the shared fate of living in ghettos; within that group, which comprised three nations, people may well have experienced their differences more intensely than a sense of common identity.14 Yet Da Ponte’s life story reads as a partially Jewish experience. Inexorably, as a convert in those earliest years of attempted ‘Jewish emancipation’ with its terrible backlash, many opportunities arose for him to discover that he was still Jewish, that this identity somehow outlived the loss of religion and nation; yet we should still not assume that he felt his Jewish identity in the same way as all Jews were to learn to do in the face of antisemitism.15 This discussion therefore points to signs in the Memorie, like the quotation from the Talmud, indicating that Da Ponte was able to integrate Jewishness into his sense of his self and his identity. But he had to do it in his own way: he probably lacked obvious models. To advance this discussion, I would suggest that Rousseau’s writing showed the way: first, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, whose anthropological vision certainly provided him with ways of expressing himself as an individual with no established status; second, the Confessions. The publication of this work in the 1780s inaugurated new modes of writing which expressed the self by way of the social, the social by way of the self, precisely through its revolutionary rejection of imposed identification with a given culture, identity or persona and its example of an original working-out of the self-other relationship which restored their denied unity. It is in terms similar to these that Claude Lévi-Strauss acknowledges Rousseau’s founding function for anthropological understanding.16

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The Memorie contain very few references to any religion, nor would it be easy to claim that Christian references outweigh Judaic ones, or the converse. What Da Ponte really does not mention, on the other hand, is the fact that he underwent conversion. This omission has a certain significance on the formal level: Battistini contends that autobiographies are generally structured on a narrative of conversion — metaphorically speaking, of course, in the majority of cases. But the Memorie of Da Ponte, who literally underwent conversion, clearly constitute a paradoxical exception to the general rule. The conversion structure is likely to represent a more or less happy resolution to a crisis, or at least the symptoms of a crisis, of both social identity and inner self. Instead, Da Ponte’s narrative repeatedly confirms a continuity of the inner self, despite multiple cultural, geographical and professional displacements on a scale which would certainly render social identity, to say the very least, unstable.

It is already clear that the gap in question is no accident, nor is it an attempt to conceal the information. Even for present-day readers who know nothing of the author, the story of a youth from a poor provincial family, in that era, whose experience includes well-defined Jewish and Christian aspects, points to the conclusion that he was at some point converted from the first to the second. An interpretable gap of this kind is a deliberate rhetorical device, of which there are brilliant examples in Da Ponte’s librettos. The device stimulates thoughtful readers’ curiosity as to the writer’s reasons for such circumspection, which they then have the pleasure of working out for themselves. (The level of complexity, here, not only exceeds Da Ponte’s reputation as a good storyteller, but also points to an implied reader who is quite different from the one often apostrophised in the autobiographical anecdotes — the latter being compatible with polite New York society, while the reader implied in the device of the deliberate gap is closer to his literary friends in the Veneto. Da Ponte did, in fact, write the Memorie with an eye to publication in both of those milieus.)

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If today’s Da Ponte scholars were to comment on the way that the autobiographical silence affects the conversion rather than the Jewish origins, they would in all likelihood seek to explain the silence by reference to the familial nature of the event. He does not baulk at saying that he entered the priesthood at his father’s instigation and because of his family’s poverty, that he was deeply unsuited to holy orders, and that he prefers to draw a veil over the event. But his conversion was one with that of his father and brothers, and his unquestionable love and loyalty may well have prevented him from writing of the event lest his frankness reflect unfavourably on the others’ more conventional lives. That is a very possible reading. However, I would note further that the omission of the conversion story must be multiply determined, and that subjective truth, as well as family loyalty, was better served by introducing this deliberate gap in the narrative. Da Ponte never represents himself as devout, and we have little reason to suppose that the conversion was significant as such. The text’s passing references to aspects of both the Judaic and the Christian traditions do not in any way suggest a gulf, let alone a massively symbolic transfer of allegiance from the one to the other. On the contrary, they leave us with the impression that neither religion marked him profoundly on the level of belief. That rhetorical effect certainly refers to a fact of Da Ponte’s existence. He never hesitates to acknowledge his debt to his educators, both institutions and individual teachers. His gratitude clearly designates humane attitudes and cultural enrichment, but not spiritual grace. Rather than accuse him of shameful concealment for this gap in the text, we could remark instead that his passing Jewish references, as in the paragraph where he mentions his study of Hebrew and quotes a learned rabbi from the Talmud, give Jewishness connotations of wit, wisdom, linguistic culture, learning and a warm-hearted readiness to reverse hierarchies: the very opposite of a state of darkness before the light. Although the references are minimal, we can say that he writes, in these passages, as if he regarded himself as a beneficiary of two traditions; more precisely, in writing these things without mentioning the event, conversion, he presents himself as if he did not experience his Judaic early education and subsequent Christian education as two, but as a continuity. This seems to me to denote an altogether mature adjustment in the self-representation of the septuagenarian writer, rather than a culpable aberration.

3 Venice and Jerusalem

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Another reference to Judaic tradition, which occurs about halfway through the Memorie, adds a further dimension to the above remarks. Da Ponte recounts his one and only return visit to his beloved Venice, in 1798, when the beautiful city and its inhabitants languished under Austrian rule. The first edition of the Memorie had been warmly reviewed in the Antologia of Florence by Giuseppe Montani, who had however commented that he found nothing beautiful or amusing in the stories of occupied Venice. In the second edition, Da Ponte adds a footnote citing Montani’s opinion and taking the opportunity of defending his own sense of occasion and his sensitivity to propriety of feeling or tone: ‘As for there being nothing cheering, it’s unfortunately true; but as for nothing beautiful, we weep. Yet the reason for weeping is as beautiful for an honourable Venetian as the fall of Jerusalem for an Israelite’.17 Love of his city fuses together his consciousness of it as a cultural ‘high place’ with his sense of the sacred, suggesting an identification of his own exilic feelings with the grief of the Israelites for the loss of Jerusalem. He knows how to distinguish between a dubious aestheticization of suffering and the intimate mingling of aesthetic appreciation with pain in the mourning of revered beauty. The comparison of Venice with Jerusalem preserves their difference, expresses his own love for the former and denotes an absolute respect for the latter and for the reverence of the religious — specifically, for the metaphysical dimension of Jewish tradition. At the same time, the comparison enables the writer to show that he locates his own sense of the sacred in objects of love which are not in an institutional sense religious objects for him. Thus the silence of the Memorie on the subject of conversion works in favour of the Jewish origins, or militates actively against their disfavour, by permitting Da Ponte to show not belief but deep appreciation of both traditions and by freeing him from the requirement of explicitly preferring the tradition to which, since the age of fourteen, he officially adheres.

Those textual observations, although significant, still respond inadequately to the incongruous charge of lying. By definition, autobiography cannot remain immune to confrontation with archives, but readers have too readily tended to use the archive as an unquestioned voice of authority and a basis for critical distancing from the autobiographical statement, as if that could suffice, as if there were the possibility of undermining subjective ‘lie’ with objective ‘truth’, as Nicolini claims to do. Such a naïve assumption reaches its most extreme expression in the latter’s 1930 article, wishfully entitled ‘The true reason for Lorenzo Da Ponte’s flight from Venice’. What Nicolini calls the ‘true reason’, documented in the Venice State Archive, happens to be the false reason, the coverup or pretext supplied by the authorities for getting rid of Da Ponte, as historians now agree and as Nicolini himself knew: he mentions the underlying political motive, and yet does not relinquish the fictional causality constructed by the ‘objective’ documents. The appropriate basis for research into autobiographical veracity, then, can only be a historical perspective sufficiently large to create a critical distance from the archive as well as from the subjective writing. The literary scholar’s resulting reliance on ongoing historical research and on the progress of historiographical theory and method, in its turn, relativizes the conclusions which can be reached at any given time, but that is in the nature of living research, and indeed of reading, since significant literary works always have to be reinterpreted for each new generation.

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Today’s historical and cultural turning-point, in so far as it affects our understanding of Da Ponte’s omission of his conversion from the Memorie, calls upon us to reject an earlier judgement whereby his silence masks his supposed moral abjection as ‘twice a renegade’:18 that judgement reads too literally the official records of religious institutions which, at the end of the eighteenth century, could still exercise power over the outer identity of individuals but had lost their authority over the subjective dimension. If Da Ponte was never religious, we can hardly speak of him as a renegade; he did not inwardly deny Judaism if it was not deeply instilled in him, or Christianity if his conversion was never a deeply lived and real event. Even though Da Ponte’s family background included a rabbinical education, it seems not to have fostered piety, probably because there was something of a trend towards conversion in the ghetto of Ceneda. The rituals of automatic conversion for minors inaugurated the regime of Christian devotion perhaps more efficiently than persuasively, at least in his own case, and paternal pressure burdened the adolescent youth with the task of taking his family out of exclusion and poverty to social integration: by just one path, that of priesthood, which was disastrously wrong for him. These observations are not proof of his moral integrity, but they mean that, as long as we lack (and we probably always will) very precise and detailed knowledge about that unmentioned conversion, we have no right at all to pass a negative judgement, on those grounds, about the text’s veracity or the author’s moral character. On the other hand, everything we do know of Da Ponte’s entirely secular personality and his deeply anti-celibate temperament, his poetic education and natural sympathy for Enlightenment attitudes and values, must mean that his existence only superficially represents through conversion the traditional split and theological opposition of Christians and Jews, while much more deeply illustrating the simultaneity of the two traditions and committing him to join in the earliest attempts at ‘assimilation’ in what some hoped was a newly secular society. Therein lies, I believe, the subjective truthfulness of the Memorie as they stand, complete with their silence about the formal fact of conversion.

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In other words, certain formal facts of Da Ponte’s history, as they are found to be couched in the official records, do not tell, or even point to, the story of his life as he experienced it. These facts (conversion, priesthood) occur in his personal history in the mode of archaisms: they do not serve to define the very modern secular existence that was his and which worked itself out far outside the framework of its apparent determination by what might, in a different context, have been very decisive events. Such effects are by no means a matter of individual choice, although the individual must take responsibility for making what he can of them; Da Ponte certainly took up that burden, which the Memorie later transfer on to writing. While it is true that Da Ponte’s access to the large society took the form of conversion and ordination, and that these are quite distinct from ‘assimilation’, nevertheless it turns out that Da Ponte’s trajectory, as known through both the Memorie and other records, belongs far more to the modern mode of ‘assimilation’ (a term designating a real experience, and yet one essentially constituted on failures, violations and shortcomings rather than on literal and positive actualisation) than to that of conversion. In that sense, the autobiography presents us not with a combined change of identity and of self, but with a remarkably continuous self somewhat loosely joined to a very mixed social identity. The historical reality was not logical; conversion and even priesthood were Da Ponte’s path from Jewish birth to secularisation and assimilation.

4 Assimilation and prejudice

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The historian’s selection of the facts deemed of greater value for elucidating events is inexorably conditioned by his personal experience in a given social setting, and so it is obvious that a better light will be shed if that conditioning is itself a matter for critical reflection: all the more important when the events for elucidation involve prejudices still powerful in our own milieu. In the priest’s habit which he wore for the first twenty-seven years or so of his adulthood, Da Ponte encountered some anti-Jewish prejudice almost everywhere. Casting off the priest’s habit in 1792 did not entirely change that. For us today to try to comprehend Da Ponte’s frankness or lack of it, or any other aspect of his navigation of the then uncharted route of ‘assimilation’, we surely should not compare his performance with that of modern writers of Jewish identity, but should look for present-day analogies which are closer to his total situation in order to inform our understanding. South African fiction comes to mind, with its explorations of the last years of the apartheid laws — not because the situation of black South Africans today resembles that of people like Da Ponte at the end of the eighteenth century, but because our own ineptitude, as well as the reflexive and projective nature of his contemporaries’ perception of his situation, perhaps resemble those of the white South Africans’ self-other relationship which is analysed in the novels of Nadine Gordimer or J. M. Coetzee. The provisional superimposition of such a mental framework serves to remind us of the powerful constraints which an official regime of prejudice places upon frank self-expression, while at the same time such control over discourse cannot fail, in the society in question, to betray itself in that same discourse. This implies that the entire text of the Memorie must inexorably represent, however indirectly and figuratively, the truth of Da Ponte’s identity. That would make a fairer basis on which to read the Memorie, not judging the author’s veracity by some supposed abstract yardstick which could apply in any era, but searching open mindedly for a reading which could come close to a truth which we acknowledge must be there.

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We can start from our historical knowledge that there had to be extreme tensions between this autobiographical self and at least some of its others, and ask ourselves where the text locates those tensions, and how it deals with them. We can examine first the representational level, that of the narrated relationships, and then move on to the level of the writer-reader relationship. The narrative level exhibits, in fact, a predominant literary effect which partakes of the qualities of a symptom and which is most commonly considered the text’s weakness. Whereas readers agree about the superb quality of Da Ponte’s storytelling, his economical evocation of a rich, diverse and eminently real human and social world, they comment less favourably on his repetitious self-depiction as the nice fellow to whom unjust men deal one foul blow after another. Sympathetic scholars rightly point out that this is inevitable, given the work’s personal apologetic function, but we can go further. To be fair, Da Ponte does not portray himself as always nice, only as predominantly so. The work is marked by that binary structure of a fundamentally well-meaning self harassed by malevolent others, but this structure in itself reverses a prior projection the other way. Da Ponte’s sonnet about Casti’s satire on him in Prima la musica e poi le parole limpidly illustrates this: ‘Everything he said of me, he said of himself ’.19 In other words, the text does not merely function on a mechanism of projection and blame, but also accedes to a degree of insight. Even though we do not, of course, find in Da Ponte a Freudian understanding of defence mechanisms as such, his representations of character dramatize the outer signs of such mechanisms so well that today’s readers can interpret them that way. As far as it goes, this dramatization shows that the blame predates its projection on to another, in a form initially directed at the self, either from the outside world or from within the self, and that its projection is a fundamental way of denying what is not wanted in the self. The insight remains, by poetic necessity, not strictly psychoanalytic, even while by historic necessity it can only be pre-psychoanalytic: not completing the properly psychoanalytic work of reintegrating the blame, alleviated by understanding, back into the self, and, in the process, of dismantling the projection outside. But there is a further reason for the incompleteness of the insight in the Memorie. Coetzee writes, of regimes of prejudice like the one that produced apartheid, that they make the relationships and the inner life of all individuals in their societies, and thence also the work of their literary writers, in some degree unlovable or crude, not fully human.20 The crude mechanism of projection and denial, although universally human, is not fully so. It may seem a slight thing to govern the structure of a long work such as the Memorie, but — limiting our vision of the immense historical problem, momentarily, to the scope of Da Ponte’s insight — we could also feel that it is a slight thing to have structured centuries of European social relations on an imaginary opposition between Christians and Jews. Therein lies the rigorously referential character of the anecdotes of the wellmeaning self beleaguered by ill-intentioned others. However, complete forms of the insight into the mechanism can certainly be recognised by today’s readers of Da Ponte’s writings, not only in the retort to Casti’s jibes but at the heart of Da Ponte’s poetics. The smallest, most complete and most incandescent dramatization of the insight is contained in Donna Anna’s account of her own attack on the fleeing Don Giovanni: ‘e sono / assalitrice d’assalita’ (‘and I turn assailant, from having been assailed’, 482–83), she says.21 This is not merely a scene of the victim becoming an attacker. Donna Anna perceives, and in this Dantean figure she proclaims, that what she says of Don Giovanni is true of herself also; in seeing it and saying it, she rises far above the level of the mechanism. At times, this insight into projection and denial comes to embrace the whole Dapontean view of humanity. In the Memorie, represented enactments of projection and denial constitute a human landscape, within which, nevertheless, individual examples of humane generosity, recognitions of the good in other people, are thrown into relief. Do the latter not suffice to redeem the former, and to ensure the whole work, after all, a vision of modern reality in which modest personal virtues can make a human world without transcendence acceptable?

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Perhaps that question of value and quality is too quickly posed. A comparison with Rousseau’s Confessions, also generated out of a pressing need for personal apologia, seems inevitable, but may be misleading here. The defence against wrongful accusation and the tendency to counteraccusation occur in Rousseau, but without the somewhat obsessive binary rhythm encountered in Da Ponte, and we may feel a drop in literary quality from the first to the second. Even if that is an accurate perception, as many would readily assume it to be, we have to remember that Da Ponte’s binarism is not simple, and above all, it is not just his: it is the world’s. His narrative constitutes his defence against it, a repetitious reversal into its opposite, an oft-renewed labour which might possibly limit the poetic scope of a work that could not afford to cease confronting it, rather as it limits the moral scope of the world. Nevertheless, once we have taken full account of the compelling repetition of those episodes of unlovably crude hostile exchanges, we must remember that this structure coexists in the Memorie with that unusual continuity and consistency of the autobiographical self ’s deepest bonds which, as we have already observed, place the work outside the conversion structure more certainly than does the author’s silence about his lived experience of conversion. His unswerving adherence to his family affections and certain lifelong friendships, his sense of the Veneto as his home and of Italian poetry as his spiritual home, his belief in the values of freedom, equality, tolerance, his fidelity to a demystifying irony and to his entirely terrestrial and carnal sensibility — all these remarkably constant loyalties, constituting the narrated self and borne out by the documents we have of Da Ponte’s life, stand in contrast to the stories of the harm done him by his enemies. So does his gratitude to certain men of the church, notably Bishop Da Ponte who, having given him his own name in baptism, cared unstintingly for his education. Furthermore, while readers must undertake to recognise the constraining circumstances under which the work was written, whereby it is inexorably permeated by symptoms of a prejudiceridden society, it is to Da Ponte’s credit that he finds the projection mechanism universally applicable, bringing his own insight into it to bear on episodes quite unconnected with questions of Jewish identity or anti-Jewish prejudice. This is another instance of this writer’s mature gift for integrating aspects of what it is up to us to recognise as a partially Jewish experience, into a comprehensive picture of the human world at large. So what at first seems a weakness of the work, or else just a symptom of his struggle to survive prejudice, not only forms part of a much richer autobiographical fabric but turns out itself to hold creative power. Even if we find the binary rhythm of the Memorie hard to bear — as well we might, since it mimes an unbearable reality of our lives — we must admit that it serves a worldview in which everybody has a share in the reversible mirroring of projection and denial, or better: in which all share the behaviour and moral characteristics, lovable and unlovable, which Christendom had delusively divided between Christians and Jews.

5 The implied reader

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The Memorie, as noted above, addressed most manifestly a cultivated New York readership which could appreciate the author’s fine Italian and his witty and very literate storytelling. On this overt level, the narrator often apostrophises the reader with a comfortable assumption of mutual cooperation and even complicity. This primary and very direct writer-reader relationship, however, does not account for all levels of the work’s rhetorical situation. The Memorie aspired also to give aesthetic pleasure to Italian men of letters with a poetic education similar to Da Ponte’s own: the kind of people who had already appreciated his gifts before he left Venice, some of whom had defended those gifts against authorities who held them to be dangerously subversive. In other words, this deeper-seated readership, although very favourably disposed to the writer, generates tensions within difficult passages of the text which raise the spectre of censure, and the shadowy figures of Da Ponte’s enemies. Publishing his first volumes in New York in 1823, he might well have hoped for the beneficial effects, in Venice, of the passage of time. Momentous historical change could well have plunged small offences into oblivion. The period of his banishment, which began in 1779, had expired in 1794, the authorities hostile to him had died and their successors had been ousted from power by the French, first in favour of a democratic Venetian government (1797) and then in favour of the Austrian empire (1798), until Napoleon took it into his Kingdom of Italy (1805); in 1815 it was reassigned to Austria, after which it was to experience the Revolution of 1848–49, but was not to be joined to the Italian nation, unified in 1861, until 1866. Copies of the Memorie were sent to Venice for sale and did reach Da Ponte’s sympathetic public, but also an unsympathetic one: following Montani’s 1828 review, the work was banned throughout the Austrian empire. Included in the area of the ban were Venice, Trieste and Naples, but the work remained available in Tuscany. The Austrian authorities took exception to the undiplomatic vigour with which Da Ponte had recounted his troubles in Vienna following the death of his protector Joseph II, and especially his misunderstanding with the new Emperor Leopold II. In spite of all that, the Memorie may be deemed to have reached the readership which shared the work’s discourse, the social space which had generated the work itself.

That survey of the direct links between Da Ponte’s implied and actual first readers already reveals a certain complexity of the rhetorical situation, from the surface simplicity of the explicit storytelling relationship of New York to the delights and the constraints of the writer’s relationships with readers in Italy: the pleasure derived from friendship and shared experience, and problems which had been rooted in the scandals of 1776 and 1779, and had spiralled from the impact of sudden and violent political changes.

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While those two real reading publics correspond closely to clear implications of the autobiographical writing itself, they also expose the inadequation of the actual or locatable readership to the full textual reality which we call the implied reader. If Da Ponte had to resort to rhetorical gaps rather than write critically about his conversion, ordination, dismissal and expulsion, his Venetian friends could work out how to fill the gaps and what they meant, of course, but the aim of giving those friends readerly pleasure was not the ‘cause’ of the gaps. What kind of censorship, then, operates so effectively within the very text of the Memorie, which can yet be bypassed by knowing and sympathetic readers? This question replaces earlier critics’ inferences that the writer resorted to lies, and the answer is obvious enough: this third level is that of the prejudiced reader.

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We can be more precise than that, since we know a certain number of things about the relation between the writer and the prejudiced reader. We know that, while this relation seriously disturbs the autobiographical writing, it does so only in a few rare places in the text: those dealing with (or in some cases, seeming not to deal with) the events of conversion, ordination, dismissal from the Treviso seminary and expulsion from Venice. Working from the knowledge we have already inferred from the social and historical moment, that Da Ponte’s existence was marked by anti-Jewish attitudes in the society at large, we recur to the idea that, even if the fact never becomes entirely explicit, and even if Da Ponte himself was not fully conscious of it, those events could not have failed to focus anti-Jewish bias with particular intensity. I have already proposed that we seek help in understanding this situation by reference, not to modern writing on Jewish identity, but rather to the analogy provided by the South African literature of interracial relations in the last years of the apartheid laws. A 1993 study of this literature by Michael Wade can refine our understanding of the implied presence, in the Memorie, of the prejudiced reader.22 The analogy allows us to make use of a limited similarity in the destiny of black South Africans under apartheid and that of converted Jews in late eighteenth-century Italy, namely that the dominant community treated them as objects. It has been remarked elsewhere that the reduction of Jews to the status of object typified the Italian policy of conversion, which required a conception of the ‘Jew’ as a cluster of traits which could be made to undergo change, and that this constituted a difference of the Italian policy from the contemporaneous Spanish policy of expulsion, which generated the image of the ‘Jew’ as unchangeable, that is, in spite of all, as a person, a subject.23 Wade observes that it is frightening for members of the dominant community when the ‘object’ comes to life and even shows a certain independence (as Da Ponte certainly did) relative to the designs of the powerful institution, because the institution, having created the world in which some people can be treated as objects, finds the stability of this created world threatened by signs that the object is actually an active subject who can interpret the totality of his experience (even including oppression, conversion) in a subjectively coherent way. Wade writes that this sense of threat denotes an impasse, not of the manipulated individual but of the dominant community: an impasse to which the only solution would be the integration of the objectified people, as autonomous other subjects, into the universe of the dominant group’s perception. Wade’s description of the dominant community’s impasse thus defines it as a perceptual crisis.

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Transposing that analysis to Da Ponte’s autobiographical situation, we can discern some definite qualities in the initially grey area of the implied prejudiced reader. We are used to associating the idea of identity crisis with modern autobiography, but we have seen that Da Ponte’s Memorie are not notably structured on such a crisis: the autobiographer’s inner sense of who he is remains remarkably stable in the fact of the most extreme external displacements, gains and losses of social position and status. However, the episodes in which we recognise a serious disturbance of the writer-reader relationship must assuredly count as moments when the self is in question. Certainly, the writer maintains control, every time, of the narrative thread, but he has to resort to extreme measures (which have been called lies) in order to do so. The representation of the self to a negatively predisposed public must sometimes take tortuous detours. Today’s public’s very idea that the text cannot be trusted thus arises as a rhetorical effect of the way in which the text itself presupposes the existence of a reader who will not trust the writer’s statements. We can deduce from what has already been posited that the implied reader’s distrust includes both the originary condemnation of Jewishness which structures the subject-object relation by proselytising community to convert, and the subsequent shock caused by the revelation of the fantasised object’s real subjecthood. We may even infer that the unresolvability of that shock, the implied reader’s impasse, has a place in the text. We could hardly be going too far if we interpreted that perceptual crisis triggered by the Jewish convert who in a certain way ‘answers back’ as a sign of the times, and a microcosmic confirmation, for today’s readers, of the impasse, inertia or lassitude which modern historians have explored in the patrician group which ruled over Venice in its inglorious last years as a Republic. When Da Ponte integrates into his Memorie the events which led to his disgrace, the text goes over to a partially negative writer-reader relationship — redeemed at certain points by his art of the witticism — and enacts a crisis which, although first located in the implied reader alone, involves both sides of this intratextual relationship. The writer’s very discourse thus contains the drama of its social and historical moment. Further, it enables us to see how major collective situations and events operate within one individual and in his intellectual productions.

6 ‘That poetic joke’: The condemnation of 1776

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The story of the poetic exercises of the 1776 Accademia (end-of-year-ceremony) of the Treviso seminary vividly encapsulates this drama, not only on the level of the writer-reader relation in the Memorie, but also on the level of the narrated event, a particular, authoritarian response to Da Ponte’s youthful poems. In fact, the story to be told seems to stage the whole drama so fully and so publicly that the autobiographer needs, in this case, only a fleeting recourse to indirect expression. Da Ponte wrote the poems in his late twenties, when still striving to make a good impression on his superiors, but also seeking to instruct and delight his students: a first complication of the writer-reader relation, but one which entailed no problems. We may assume that the young poet succeeded in pleasing both audiences. In the poems, the narrating voice shifts viewpoint radically from poem to poem, and in lesser degrees from verse to verse. Da Ponte chose to amplify and vary the question derived from Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, whether man is happier in the social state or in the state of nature: the poems alternate positive and negative transformations of the question.24 The poet’s voice represents different personae in different poems, but the most persuasive persona corresponds loosely to Rousseau’s imaginary Carib Indian who, near the end of the Discourse, surveys the grandeur and luxury of the European dignitary and prefers his own hard life and death. The Reformers of the University of Padua, the three-man body (equivalent to a school inspectorate) which condemned the poems after the event as seditious, wrote a report which took not just their Rousseauean content, but also the skill and mobility of the poetic voice — ‘the rare talent of a man who writes well but thinks badly’ — to be signs that the poet was ‘licentious’, from which we may infer: not successfully converted; that he was not deeply changed; that he displayed vicious intents which a modern reader can easily recognise as commonplaces of a Christian fantasy structured on projection and denial, according to which such vices belong not to Christians but to Jews.25 That they had political motives for activating this fantasy is abundantly clear; the Reformers were explicitly prejudiced readers, who interpreted the textual evidence in ways that we would not endorse. In their analysis of the poems, they accuse Da Ponte of directly teaching his pupils, as maxims to live by and act upon, what the poems actually present clearly as merely the thoughts, feelings and longings expressed by certain of his poetic personae, in the mode of the prosopopoeia. Such nuance meant nothing to the Reformers. ‘If appetite were the sole rule governing actions, all the points of union among humans would be destroyed’: they charge him with trying to destroy the very foundations of society, no less; the pupils would receive impressions ‘the most harmful to public peace’. The umbrage taken is hugely exaggerated. Artistically aware people, who included Bernardo Memmo and Gasparo Gozzi, appreciated the poems as gifted and defended them at the hearing. It is not difficult to recognise in the rigour of the condemnation — which the poems really did not warrant — the alarm described by Michael Wade when the individual whose mind is supposed to have been modified, in the manner of a malleable object, displays a mental life of his own and a tendency to interpret the world for himself. But the solution invoked by Wade — the integration of the other as an autonomous subject into the world of the dominant group’s perception — was far from the minds of the Reformers, not just because of the impasse of their theological thinking but, I would suggest, also because they had immediate and concrete interests to protect, which they were determined to identify with the law of the State — and thence, with divine law — jeopardised (so they said) by the ‘freedom and licentiousness of thought’ which they maintained Da Ponte’s poems encouraged in his pupils. Adapting Wade’s analysis, we might say that the Reformers passed off their impasse as Da Ponte’s vice and set about their first attempt at silencing him.

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Defending himself in the Memorie against that charge of sedition, Da Ponte describes his Accademia poems as ‘that poetic joke, composed by me as nothing but that’.26 His most characteristic writing is always poetic and based on the witticism. He explains that he varied his viewpoint as a display of skill, taking a pro-nature line in some poems and a pro-society line in others. But the inspiration of the Discourse on Inequality is real, and the Reformers correctly noted that the poems closest to Rousseau’s praise of a carefree presocial state carried a passionate conviction lacking in their opposite numbers. Da Ponte’s poetic wit works on the material of his own reality, observed invariably from his own viewpoint, and that was enough, given the nature of his reality and the intensity of his figures, to make him seem dangerous.

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Nevertheless, in 1776 this joke was not out of place. All Rousseau’s works were banned since 1771, but such a ban only affected bookshops, not private individuals: he was widely read and could be discussed, even in a religious environment such as the seminary.27 We cannot reproach Da Ponte, here, for lack of judgement. He had submitted the poems for approval to the appropriate superior, who had seen no harm in them. Were the Reformers such devout men that they would condemn, in the precincts of a religious institution, a freedom of thought which the religious themselves found acceptable? It is hard to believe. And it is revealing that the defence of the poems by such substantial personalities as Memmo and Gozzi did not make them relent. We have to sense a compelling motive among the Reformers, and a readiness to adopt a tortuous route, even to appear inflexibly reactionary, much more so than the Inquisitor who had given his approval in the context of the church.

7 Andrea Tron

The compelling motive probably belonged to only one of the three Reformers, whom the others knew better than to oppose. One of the signatures on the damning analysis of Da Ponte’s poems is that of Andrea Tron, a ruthlessly ambitious man whose political-judicial machinations — including those for which he has been called ‘enlightened, but not a man of the Enlightenment’, a qualification which touches the troubling aspect of this man — brooked no opposition, showed him impervious to the harm he brought upon individuals, and made him already one of the most powerful figures in the Senate. Tron’s ambitions, likened to the policies of enlightened absolutism, extended to many fronts. He was using his position as a Reformer of the University of Padua, at that time, to attack the church, not because it was too liberal-minded, but in order to force it to serve the State and to surrender much of its wealth. We might well heed Da Ponte’s own opinion, that he was the pawn through which Tron could harm the Inquisitor Rovigo, who had approved the poems, and Bishop Giustinian of Treviso who at first supported Da Ponte: both were officially reprimanded. However, that does not explain the peculiar ferocity of the condemnation of Da Ponte. I believe that when research is sufficiently advanced into the political impact of Enlightenment thinking among the Venetian intelligentsia, it will clarify fully the condemnation of Da Ponte’s poems, and his 1779 trial and expulsion from Venice. I would note, meanwhile, the striking homology of the terms typically used to reprove Rousseau’s works28 and those used in the report of the Reformers to condemn Da Ponte’s poems: this latter is a new assertion of lay authoritarianism, demanding obedience and insisting that divine power and State power are one.

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For Da Ponte to have attracted the attention of Andrea Tron, this first time, was a catastrophic misfortune because, even while Tron’s wrath would later propel the poet in the direction of Vienna and the Mozart-Da Ponte operas — an immeasurably good fortune for him, for Mozart and for us — , he was doomed to lose his beloved Venice and Veneto forever. Tron’s relentless tenacity in persecuting quite minor figures who represented something he wished to abolish (doubtless choosing ‘dispensable’ individuals as warnings to set before persons of status) has been finely documented.29 He is the most outstanding, even overwhelming, personality at the centre of research into the crisis of the Venetian ruling group in the late eighteenth century, the members of forty-two families who showed themselves, before the collapse of the Republic, conscious of its decline and yet paralysed despite their will to modernise the State and the economy or revivify its political structures.30 In Georgelin’s analysis, the problem was not economic but politico-social: this extremely ancient ruling group had held on to power for centuries longer than such groups normally do, knew from the 1740s that its days were numbered, and was merely delaying the inevitable by rigidity and inquisitorial surveillance. In fact, this group was dramatically divided internally, especially since the 1750s when the Enlightenment brought new inspiration to some families: the will to reform was strong in certain individuals, whom others immobilised. Tron employed his huge influence in violently hostile oppressive measures against would-be innovators; Georgelin imputes to this ‘deliberate choice’ on Tron’s part the destruction of the Republic, whose demise he dates from 16 March 1762, when the pro-reform group — which represented the State’s only hope of new life, and whose impressive leader, Angelo Querini, had been imprisoned — was outvoted by one or two votes.

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For this discussion, it is legitimate to isolate the case of Tron from his various collaborators, and if I give most weight to Georgelin’s analysis — the most damning — of Tron’s part in that political moment, it is just because this is the one which sheds most light, albeit in a provisional way (pending the thorough clarification which will surely follow) on the misfortune of Da Ponte and his own account of it. However, it is Venturi who brings out a rational pattern in what others see as Tron’s enigmatically contradictory combination of reformism and immobilism. Tron victoriously confronted the Roman Curia and carried out educational reforms which brought him great prestige in enlightened Europe. The Senate’s energies, in the years following 1762, also focused on projects of urgently needed reform of the associations of the guilds, new ideas for agrarian reform in the Terraferma, State control of the church and new, harsher restrictions upon the Jews. Venturi points out that Tron threw himself into reforms which brought him sure success and secured his power in the Senate. Agrarian reform, on the other hand, would take effect slowly; it would strengthen the provincial nobility against Venetian control; so, even while putting the new ideas into practice on his own country estate, he did not support it. The reorganisation of the corporations controlling industry would also put the dominance of Venice at risk. On this project he let down his great admirer, Andrea Memmo. Furthermore, writes Venturi, by targeting the church in Venice, he could overcome resistance from the provinces. With Georgelin’s dating, we might say all this came after the Republic had died, even because it had died: Tron’s positive and negative action, including ready recourse to police repression, worked consistently to concentrate power in Venice and in his own person, when all hope was already lost — through his own ‘deliberate choice’. Last, the one area in which he fought tirelessly for ‘reform’ in trade and industry was his campaign against the Jews. Historians acknowledge the uniquely sinister character of this legislation, but perhaps its centrality to the last stage of Tron’s career has yet to receive adequate attention.

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This solitary man (as a friend described him) does not live and let live; he does not tolerate the knowledge that others group together to talk or to plan a better world; he does not allow others their privacy. Every group is deemed seditious and placed under ever more invasive surveillance. This was the position of the Freemasons, whose lodges might foster a nonconformist mentality: the persecution of Pier Antonio Gratarol was part of Tron’s political struggle with the patricians who had joined ranks against his hegemony and his policies, and whose will for reform was not crushed by the suppression of Querini. Through the lodge he had founded in 1770 Gratarol could, and apparently did, militate for the reform group both in Venice and outside, as Boccotti shows. He was forced to flee and never return. The lodge (L’Union) continued, until it was suppressed, to foster reforming ideas; during the contentious years of the Senate debates about the fate of the Jews, it welcomed some Jewish members.31 The targets of Tron’s hostility do not appear to have constituted any kind of organised opposition, and yet in these indistinct groups, such as the Freemasons, or those who favoured reform, those who dared to appeal for a diminution of inquisitorial power, those who argued for laws favourable to the Jews, one tends to find some of the same names recurring, those of the enlightened intellectuals. One of the main defenders of Da Ponte’s poems, Bernardo Memmo, was deemed to be a Querinian and a Mason: ‘deemed to be’ because no one could afford to be open about anything. If the facts assembled here achieve anything at all for our understanding of Da Ponte, I hope that they will put an end to the suggestion that his autobiographical silences point to some moral defect in him. In his seventies he still longed to return to Venice, and had learned to his cost that the Austrian government was no more lenient than the Venetian Republic, which might exact deathlike years in a fortress as the price for any indiscretion.

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Frankness was out of the question — except, in Tron’s lifetime, for one person, Caterina Dolfin, the beautiful and enlightened woman of letters, for many years Tron’s protetta before their marriage in 1772. This strange relationship seems to complicate enormously our picture of Andrea Tron: his choice of the dazzling woman poet who reigned over the best literary circles of Venice, among whom were some of the men whom Tron most deeply suspected of ‘seditious’ intentions. And what of her choice of Tron? She was genuinely dedicated to Enlightenment thought; as a noblewoman on her own, without wealth, she ran huge risks and paid for her freedom to do so; Tron’s powerful protection, necessary to her socially and emotionally, did not make her life easy. She was hounded by the inquisitors for reading banned books; satirised by Carlo Gozzi for her rationalism (and for her friendship with Goldoni); reviled by the populace who denounced her to the authorities: ‘this lady never goes to church, she does not observe the divine or human laws concerning correct diet and she swears like a heretic . . .’ .32 Her biographer portrays her as non-political, but I find that impossible to believe. She must perforce have consciously served the solitary Tron’s hunger for surveillance and indirect control of a group whose interrelationships he detested. She was particularly friendly with Gasparo Gozzi and the women of his family; Tron needed Gozzi’s help in academic matters and repeatedly helped Gozzi in his financial difficulties. When Caterina Tron reprimanded Gozzi, in 1772, for some offence unknown to us, he replied in a letter which combines dignity with total submission. The evidence that she was much loved by her intellectual friends is counteracted by the fact that they deserted her after Tron’s death in 1785. The facts allow us to infer that this partially sincere woman had the letterati of her circle in a perfect double bind. Their devotion to her, her ascendancy in their lives, were inseparable from her alliance with Tron, and they cannot have failed to hope that she would influence him in favour of reform, of a lesser authoritarianism, a greater tolerance; yet, in talking to her as she talked to them, they lost their freedom to resist Tron. In the end, they gave up talking to her. On the face of it, her dependence on Tron appears to us as a self-incurred immaturity disqualifying her from inclusion among ‘the enlightened’, as Kant was defining them in those same years: those individuals who do not abdicate the responsibility of judgement by accepting that of others.33 But our picture of her is not yet rounded enough for such conclusions. In any event, her attachment to Tron was a politically dangerous liaison, and when Memmo and Gozzi embraced Da Ponte’s cause, in 1776, the poet was at once caught up in that spider’s web. In those years, their sympathy with his poetic gifts would have been doubled by the fact of his Jewish origins.

8 The Restoration of the Status of the Jews and Da Ponte’s banishment

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Every ten years, the government renegotiated the conditions under which the Jews were allowed to continue living in Venice. The continued Restoration of the Status of the Jews fell due in 1770, but Tron delayed it until he could overcome all resistance to his persecutory new legislation, which he did in 1777. This included the alternative of impossibly limiting trade restrictions, or exile from Venice and the Veneto by the deadline of 1779. Historians’ accounts differ somewhat: some individuals were exempted from the restrictions, and, according to Tabacco, most of the legislation was never put into effect because it was not judged reasonable. But this view seems to overlook information gleaned from Hebrew sources, which indicate great distress and confusion in at least some ghettos, and social tensions resulting from the convergence of many provincial Jews on Venice.34 Georgelin confirms Berengo’s interpretation, that Tron’s motivation arose from the growing financial strength of a very few Jewish families, around 1765–70, whose wealth placed them above other Venetian merchants and even on a par with the top quarter of the Venetian nobility. This incomplete and unclear picture does not, in any event, obscure Tron’s role as the ruthlessly anti-Jewish leader. The 1777 Restoration of the Jews therefore corresponds to the consistent pattern which Venturi indicates, whereby Tron protected the existing concentration of power against all ‘outsiders’, but here the sociopathic character of his politics stands fully revealed.

Lower down the scale from the wealthiest Jewish families, Berengo points to the damage done to the economic interests of the State by confining to the cities all operations of rural ‘banks’, which harmed not only the ‘banks’ (each consisted of four or five Jewish families in small rural locations which had no ‘monte di pietà’) but also the poor peasants whom they customarily lent money until the harvest, accepting payment in whatever form could be managed. Depositions were made in 1770 by representatives of the peasantry, describing the beneficent effect of these banks. Berengo cites as typical a bank located in the ghetto of Ceneda, which happens to have been Da Ponte’s birthplace. The four families’ names include a Conegliano (Da Ponte’s patronym) and a Pincherle (his mother’s family name).35 Da Ponte’s family included some bankers; those named by Berengo may well have been his cousins. In any case, we cannot pretend that Da Ponte might not have known about such developments. His Rousseauean poems do not contain a political protest as such, but they include open appeals for freedom and equality against harsh laws and authoritarian oppression, and that seems to have been quite enough for Tron who, in 1776, was so close to achieving his notorious and bitterly fought goal of destroying the lives of the Jews of the Veneto. Yet his pursuit of Da Ponte still seems a bizarre deflection of a powerful leader’s destructive energies. At least Gratarol had founded a Masonic lodge and thus became a social and political actor, militating for reform; but Da Ponte had done nothing of the kind, and even the friendship of Memmo and Gozzi only began when his poetry needed defenders against Tron (it speaks well for them — and for Da Ponte — that they did not withdraw their friendship after the condemnation). Where is ‘enlightenment’ in all this? Did Tron seriously seek to keep the youth of the Veneto in ignorance of the central Enlightenment values? If so he too, no less than did the woman who depended on him, disqualified himself from membership in Kant’s class of the enlightened.

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A strong sense of political dysfunction emerges from what we know of Tron’s minor actions against Da Ponte, not such a different feeling from that which accompanies our reading of the facts of the very grave Querini affair. Pietro Franceschi, although a friend of Tron and an enemy of Querini, described the latter as a man of the noblest talents and great soul; Tron, who believed himself dedicated to the cause of Venice, should have known, long before the crisis provoked by throwing Querini into prison, that the right way forward was to form some sort of alliance with him. We turn again to Venturi’s analysis of Tron’s capacity and incapacity for action. At the most fundamental level, Venice had an extreme form of absolute government, and that was what the enlightened reform group desired to change. But Tron desired a modernised absolutism, which could also be called ‘enlightened’; so the living Venetians dramatically enacted the tensions of the negative dialectic while rigor mortis overtook the body politic. Any theory or practice faithful to values like reason, tolerance, humanity or freedom, such as could favour the transformation of authoritarian structures into something more flexible and lenient, met with the deadly inflexibility of the absolutist whose ‘enlightenment’ entailed nothing other than rational systems of measurement and control of the physical and social world.36 Now whenever Tron himself envisaged undertaking this kind of change in Venice and the dominated provinces, he saw that it too would dilute absolute power (that of Venice tending to become confused with his own), although much less than would the changes desired by his opponents. Not only the activity of anti-absolutists, but even almost any action of his own, was likely to dynamize the community, revivifying or empowering at least a few others. Any modernisation would defeat Tron’s deadening conception of Venetian absolutism. He therefore imposed on all sides the inertia which he then denounced. Tron’s double bind was of his own making, but he implicated everyone in it. His absolutist project failed, in the years following the new anti-Jewish laws, causing a ‘cultural crisis’ which drove numerous high-ranking noblemen to join the Masonic lodges in quest of some new outlet for hope. In the legislation against the Jews Tron found that release for his energies in which his own position felt secure, because it harmed many and could do nobody any good at all. The dialectic of enlightenment within the ←56 | 57→ Venetian Republic’s last internal drama offers luminous instruction for us who are still living the Enlightenment’s uncompleted project and are no less perplexed by its contradictions.

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We have to infer that Da Ponte represented something uniquely infuriating for Tron. The live-and-let-live message of the powerless Da Ponte’s poems was unbearable to this man who had committed his own political life totally to the preservation and concentration of power, to the point of committing the very life in himself in dangerously large measure to the death-drive, as the anti-Jewish legislation illustrates. On the day in 1776 when the Reformers read out his sentence, Da Ponte’s new friends waited for him on the steps of the Doge’s Palace: ‘the pallor of death was depicted on their faces’.37 We know enough of their historical moment to realise that that was hardly an exaggeration. But Da Ponte, mindful of the authorities’ unceremonious tendency to seize their enemies in the dead of night and throw them into dungeons, found the diurnal pomp and ceremony of the tribunal reassuring, and was unsurprised to learn that he was merely excluded from teaching in Venice and her dominions. So he met the deathly pallor of his friends with a broad smile, and Memmo took him home to celebrate. This literary figure of the others’ white faces contrasted with the poet’s smile can be said to epitomise Da Ponte’s unique contribution, really quite different from the carnival frivolity and promiscuity today associated with his name. In this episode, which I described above as itself epitomising, fifty years earlier, that real presence of the prejudiced reader which is implied in the text of the Memorie, Da Ponte portrays his younger self as more sensitised to the political event than his noble friends, even more than Memmo ‘who had a deep knowledge of the laws and the politics of his home country’:38 not as a political personality, not as a social actor, only as having a poetic sensibility which was intensely political. He was the merest observer of the pageant of Venice, a marginal and minor witness, but this hypersensitivity to the political could not but express itself, appropriately or inappropriately, and for a person of Da Ponte’s station — of no station — it was never appropriate. When his gift for a smiling detachment did not desert him, he tended to express his sense of the political in the form of the witticism, a valuable resource against the impossibility of expression. I would propose that his exacerbated perceptiveness crossed boundaries the poet was not supposed to cross, and that, with or without his wit, it lies at the heart of the trouble he found himself in on several occasions, in Venice and in Vienna. It brought him to the attention of Tron, who could feel that an individual who personified all those whom he most despised, ‘the frivolous literary characters’, ‘the idle friars’ and the Jews ‘not integrated in the moral and political body of the “nation” ’,39 should simply not be there.40 It is as if these two characters from the farthest extremes of the social fabric and the political spectrum were destined, by causes deeper-seated than reasons of State, for a mortal confrontation.

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From the question of the implied prejudiced reader, Da Ponte’s anecdote of the condemnation of his ‘poetic joke’ has led us out of the text and into history. The anecdote might be called a ‘specular scene’, mirroring not the production of the Memorie as such, but a horrific dimension of the writer-reader relationship which at times introduces a crisis endangering the writing.41 We most often think of the specular image as a figure of the writing process, a dimension of the work’s self-referentiality, but if we go back to the model of Van Eyck’s portrait of Jan Arnolfini and his wife, there is no reason, in principle, why the convex mirror reflecting the painter at work should not also show (especially if the work is a self-portrait) the entire social-historical genesis of the painter’s situation. The external reference within the specular scene may, for the sake of justice, command the reader’s attention. If we then ask how Da Ponte’s sensibility could have become politicised in such an intense way, we should look even more deeply into the mirror, back to his earliest, most impressionable years. There we find a series of minor actions by Venetian authorities, starting from 1720, progressively undoing the previous century’s good relations between the Christians and the Jews and heralding, in a minor way, the terrible decrees of 1776–78: reminders of vestimentary distinctions and of restrictions of movement outside the ghetto, attacks, abductions, incitements to denunciation.42 I would press for the inclusion of these facts for consideration, at least, among the hypotheses of editors and biographers about the reason for the Conegliano family’s conversion in 1763: new dark times could be seen on the horizon. As for the child who would become Lorenzo Da Ponte, one can easily imagine that the shock of any of those symbolic forms of discrimination, such as the yellow beret whose colour signified infamy — denial of civil rights — could suffice to sensitise him prematurely to the political through its impact on himself, and could adequately explain the binary rhythm of projection and denial which we find in the Memorie. Hence also, perhaps, the centrality of the image of comical headgear in the story of the Accademia poems: what enraged the Senate, he writes, was his portrayal of the mental freedom of the slave, untouched by the authority of gold-horned masters — a reference, they suspected, to the horn on the Doge’s cap. Whether or not he consciously made that link from yellow beret to gold-horned cap, such displacements and reversals characterise Da Ponte’s poetics and his art of the witticism. He certainly writes with consciousness of the continuity of his political sensibility, because he quotes the passage of his poem deriding the emptiness of oppressive power, and then recurs to the same Rousseauean demystification to debunk the exercise of senatorial power against himself, as if to say: I wrote this in my poem and they proved me right, and now, at seventy-four, I still haven’t learned my lesson. He never departed from the Rousseauean position, transforming a sensitivity born of injustice undergone into a political autonomy and resolve which no doubt kept him sane.

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Tron’s resolve worked, so he believed, in the interests of Venice, but even in his own day, some judged otherwise. Surely we cannot mistake his obsession with centralisation, uniformity and the exclusion of difference for an acceptable conservatism such as might express a real need, in a time of crisis, to reaffirm the fundamental social structures of inclusion, order and degree? Tron’s huge investment of energy in anti-Jewish legislation indicates, on the contrary, that intolerance had become an end in itself, a destruction of the very diversity which desires, and thereby creates, community. And that being the case, we should not be surprised at the often-attested sense of impasse, lassitude and inertia afflicting the ruling group in Venice’s declining years, or at Tron’s deepening pessimism, from the ‘success’ of his anti-Jewish project to his death in 1785; this would fit Coetzee’s description of the despair of the self who, having annihilated the other and so lost the self-other relationship which would supply the only unity, confronts the void.43 Nor should it surprise us, then, if the very complex autobiographical self of the Memorie becomes so much more complex in the passages where communication is almost impossible. In Tron’s mind, reading Da Ponte (whether the 1776 Accademia poems, or in 1779 the verses written against Tron himself), the structures of conversion and expulsion converged; malleable object and unchangeable subject became intolerably confused, necessitating inquisition and expulsion. This crisis of the writer-reader relationship persists in the Memorie, putting all of us in danger of ceasing to read, but also offering us the opportunity of surviving the crisis, as did the writer.

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In the years between 1776 and 1779, between the condemnation of the poems and the expulsion for leading a ‘life of crime’, Da Ponte acted as private secretary or tutor in the houses of broadminded patricians and developed a passionate relationship with a young married woman as poor as himself. There is no need to tell this story, the most overexposed episode of his life. When we know of the scandal and punishment of which it was the pretext, it comes as a shock to discover that all the fuss is about nothing but a sexual relationship. The odour of perversity or lewdness arises entirely from the effects of the inquisitorial curiosity of the Executors for Blasphemy, the series of comically or pathetically voyeuristic depositions of witnesses constituting the substance of his trial. I would only add a few remarks. First, every indecorum attributable to this love, as well as the label of ‘libertine’ or ‘Don Juan’, is strictly determined by the combination of poverty with the incongruous fact that Da Ponte was disgraced but not unfrocked; he was not promiscuous or unprincipled, but merely pitted against the possibility, as a priest, of living life as half of a sexual couple. Second, the scandal and disgrace depended entirely on the sudden decision of the woman’s husband (who had had his own extramarital relationship since before his wife left him), after two years’ separation, to post a denunciation of Da Ponte through the lion’s mouth. For historical insight into the husband’s seeming inconsistency, we can turn to the running record of social deterioration contained in the documents of the secretaries of the inquisitors: along with increasing unrest, lawbreaking, and the flight from Venice of more and more Venetians seeking work (1770–72), we find that in 1775 the secretaries complain of their growing solitude; they write that in the past, they could obtain information from some citizens about others without having to hold out the enticement of material gain.44 I would draw attention to the obscure heroism of a neighbour of Da Ponte’s who responded to the questioning by saying that he was unable to provide the desired information as he never went on to his balcony or even opened the door to it. The vacuity of this trumped-up trial reveals its real character, no doubt, in the most vacuous of the interrogators’ questions: ‘Where does this Lorenzo Da Ponte come from?’, and in the answer supplied by a cooperative priest: ‘I don’t know, he is a Jew become Christian…’.45 Certainly there is a film in this document, waiting for a good director: a critical film, let us hope, and not one that merely relays the fantasy image of the ‘libertine’.

In that period, Da Ponte was actually rising towards the status of political exile. Giorgio Pisani, in a less impressive but still significant sequel to the Querini affair, had launched a serious challenge to Tron’s hegemony, scoring a first, and last, electoral victory in 1775. The next confrontation was in 1778, over Tron’s opposition to the Jews. Da Ponte, tutor to Pisani’s sons, supported his campaign for election as Procurator of St Mark’s by distributing anti-Tron verses in the streets of Venice. The verses, written in dialect for readability by the populace (for whom Pisani had little appeal), soon came to Tron’s attention, and the trial for sexual misconduct was rapidly mounted. Pisani was elected, but immediately destroyed thanks to a detail of procedure: until the official date of his assumption of duties as Procurator, the law forbade him to address the Senate. In that interval, he was put in prison, where he remained for twenty-seven years. Being a lesser personality than Querini, Pisani has been ridiculed, along with his somewhat demagogic campaign; Venturi nonetheless considers the campaign important, and Georgelin concedes that the man was not a charlatan. As when he wrote his Rousseauean poems, so when he supported Pisani, Da Ponte cannot be charged with lack of moral, social or political judgement, only with an underdeveloped sense of personal danger. So it came about that he was forced to leave Venice in the same year, 1779, which saw the completion of the Restoration of the Status of the Jews, the deadline by which the Jews of the Veneto had to have effected a crippling change of profession, or else have gone into exile.

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9 A joke is not a lie

Ever since Nicolini, critics have not spared their moralising reproaches for what they call the most shameless line in the Memorie. Da Ponte does not refer at all to his trial, but explains his banishment by his role as a pawn between Pisani and Tron, and adds that they got someone to denounce him for breaking two religious rules. Actually, Da Ponte is making a joke, which is not the same as telling a lie. Strangely, when his critics refer to these lines in the text they misquote them, saying Da Ponte claims he was accused of having eaten meat on a Friday. Da Ponte’s words are: ‘He accused me of having eaten ham on a Friday. . .’ .46 His joke tells us that he was damned as a Christian and damned as a Jew. He could not win, since he was accepted as neither Christian nor Jew, being both, in a world where you had to be either one or the other. Here, more intensely than anywhere else, we find the reference to Jewish identity alleged to be missing from the Memorie. The poetic figure of eating ham on Friday so perfectly represents Da Ponte’s entrapment in his society’s all-pervading system for projecting guilt as to have already answered, two hundred years in advance, the historian’s dismissal of him as ‘that talkative, unrestrained man, like many in his day, denier of more than one faith. . .’ .47 A one-line joke dismantles the twentieth century’s main allegations against Da Ponte, that of keeping silent about his Jewish origins, and that of concealing the reason for his disgrace in 1779.

In full, the joke runs as follows:

A rascal, familiar in a certain house where I sometimes visited, offered to lay various charges against me to the authority for Blasphemy. He accused me of having eaten ham on a Friday (he had eaten it with me!) and of not going to church on various Sundays. That man had never gone to mass in his entire life!

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We may never know all of this joke’s levels of allusion to Venetian social facts, but we can already read it as neither literal fact nor lie, but pure metaphor, structured on projection and denial. Da Ponte does not pretend to be innocent, but denounces his accuser’s hypocrisy, undoes the projection. Whatever the identity of the person who denounced him, the real hypocritical accuser can only be Andrea Tron. The witticism depends on the delicacy with which it evokes a real homology, and a real imbalance, between two destructive personal attacks which were well known to Da Ponte’s Venetian readers. The house at which Da Ponte and Tron were occasional guests was probably that of Gasparo Gozzi, and the forbidden food which they both shared was the love of a married woman. Tron, protettore of Caterina Dolfin, observed religious formalities as little as she and Da Ponte did, and loved the church much less than did Da Ponte. Tron’s enemies failed to harm him by attacking the enlightened woman in his life but, assalitore da assalito, he uses the same tactic, with unmitigated success, to inaugurate the destruction of Pisani by destroying the Rousseauean poet Da Ponte. Da Ponte’s political motto di spirito undergoes a further transformation in Don Giovanni:


O caro il mio Masetto!

Cara la mia Zerlina! t’esibisco

la mia protezione. . .

A Leporello che fa dei scherzi all’altre contadine.

Leporello. . .

cosa fai lì, birbone?


Anch’io, caro padrone,

esibisco la mia protezione.

(‘DON GIOVANNI: Oh my dear Masetto! My dear Zerlina! I offer you my protection. . . To Leporello who is joking with the other peasant women. Leporello. . . what are you doing there, you rascal? LEPORELLO: I too, dear master, am offering my protection’, 270–75)

But the padrone of the opera, the only true Don Juan, is punished for his appetite, while the common man seeks a better master; that is another story.

Venice is fully symbolic for Da Ponte, as it is also for Byron, whom he so deeply admired: a symbol of both life and death, an object of love and also hate. But Ceneda, Da Ponte’s modest birthplace, was fully symbolic in a different way. He chose to describe himself, on the title page of the New York editions of the Memorie, as ‘Lorenzo Da Ponte from Ceneda’. This was the only place which had genuinely known him both as a Christian and a Jew.

This essay was originally published in Italian Autobiography from Vico to Alfieri (and Beyond), ed. by John Lindon, Supplement to The Italianist no. 17 (1997), pp. 42–79. © Italian Studies at the Universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Reading, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. For the present edition, the editor has made some light revisions, substituting French and Italian references with the English translations (when such exist) and replacing or supplying Italian terms and quotations with English translations, all by the author.

1 The research for this essay was completed thanks to a British Academy grant to read documents in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia in 1993. To this grateful acknowledgement I add my thanks to Federica Bonaldi, Giovanna Gronda, John Lindon and Jonathan White for their advice and valuable discussion of aspects of this work.

2 Nicolini’s notes in Da Ponte (1918), vol. 2, p. 264n.

3 Nicolini, ‘La vera ragione’: p. 130n5.

4 Nicolini, ‘La vera ragione’: p. 130.

5 Lanapoppi, Lorenzo Da Ponte, p. 69.

6 The principal studies relevant to my introductory comments, apart from those listed in footnotes above, are as follows: Marchesan, Della vita e delle opere di Lorenzo Da Ponte; Da Ponte, Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Among recent biographies, Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte. A fairly recent publication, based on Nicolini, which maximises the image of Da Ponte as a ‘liar’, is Da Ponte, Mémoires et livrets, edited by Jean-François Labie: Labie actually entitles his introduction ‘Da Ponte et l’instinct du mensonge’, and inserts biographical essays of his own between the parts of the Memorie. Lanapoppi shows the greatest freedom from Nicolini’s bias. Scarabello’s entry for Da Ponte in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani covers the main events and includes a comprehensive bibliography. Da Ponte as an autobiographical writer has rarely been studied; see Battistini, Lo specchio di Dedalo, chapter 3.

7 It has long been assumed that the father’s conversion was a formality, a necessary precondition for his marriage to a Christian woman, which took place a few days after the family baptism. However, it has been quite persuasively argued that the marriage was probably arranged by the church during the period of instruction, as a way of establishing both the new members of the parish and the young woman: see Toffoli, ‘Lorenzo Da Ponte a Ceneda’. But while that would mean that the father initiated his own conversion voluntarily, and therefore perhaps for purely religious reasons, it does not allow us to discount other possible reasons, and certainly cannot lead us to infer that the sons were all as self-motivated (or as moved by grace, as the case may be) as the father: the conversion of minors was compulsory when a parent converted. The Memorie only allow us to gather that young Lorenzo — or Emanuele, to use his prebaptismal name — enjoyed the prospect of the excellent education in Italian poetry (an early object of his passionate enthusiasm) which conversion could open up for him. On the other hand, Toffoli’s real advance in archive research only affects our perception of the links between the conversions and the marriage: establishing that the bride was poor too, he justifiably infers that the father did not marry her to improve his financial position, as scholars had thought. But he goes on from there to infer that the conversion itself had no such motive, and that is not so clear. Zorattini (‘Gli ebrei nel Veneto’) paints a picture of such general financial and cultural depression in the Jewish communities of the rural Veneto at that time, that conversion would certainly be one of the paths considered as escape routes from a state of impasse. A Christian education for the sons might have been the only chance for the family’s material betterment, or even survival; Da Ponte writes explicitly that that was his father’s reason for impelling him thereafter toward the priesthood, to which he was in no way suited.

8 Da Ponte, Memorie (1976), pp. 11–12. This edition, based on the 1918 Laterza text, will be the one cited, as Memorie, in subsequent references.

9 The Hebrew sentence reads: ‘Umitalmidai rabádi miculám’, meaning ‘Through my students most of all, I increased myself ’. I am most grateful to my colleagues Anita and Michael Weitzman for identifying the original sentence and its source. Anita Weitzman writes: ‘It goes back to Rabbi Judah the Prince, who lived in Palestine in the midthird century A. D. The text is preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Makkot, folio 10a, and runs as follows: [text] ה רבהת ורהל מדתימ רבותיו מחביריי ותרמ הםו מתלמידיי ותרמ כולן[transliteration] harbe tora lamadti merabotay, umechaveray yoter mehem, umitalmiday yoter mikulam [translated] I have learnt much Torah from my teachers, but from my colleagues still more, and from my pupils most of all.

10 Letter to Zaguri, written in verse, early 1785; see Da Ponte, Poesie, pp. 319–34, especially p. 324.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Da Ponte Mozart opera librettos Don Juan antisemitism Enlightenment
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 218 pp., 3 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Felicity Baker (Author) Magnus Tessing Schneider (Author)

Felicity Baker is a Reader Emeritus in French, University College London, who has published and lectured internationally on eighteenth-century literature since the 1960s. Her main research areas are Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom and equality, his contractual thinking in the Late Enlightenment and its significance today. Magnus Tessing Schneider holds a PhD from Aarhus University, Denmark, and works as a researcher in theatre studies at Stockholm University. His research centres on the dramaturgy of Italian opera, including the operas of Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart and Verdi.


Title: Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a masterpiece