Antonia Of Venice
“Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus.” So says the book the Winged Lion holds open for the Doge above the Palace Door. Two Venetian merchants stole San Marco’s body from Alexandria in 828 and brought it to Venice. The relics were interred in the Doge’s Chapel, and the Basilica was built as their final resting place. The Venetians claimed San Marco belonged to them because he evangelized Venice and prophesied the return of his bones to the city. The Alexandrians in Egypt claimed San Marco was theirs because he founded their church. Am I to believe that Truth can be manipulated? That Truth varies? That there is no Absolute? Ah, but I have seen the Winged Lion fly over the Bacino. And I have heard the Winged Lion sing as he stalks the brooding Night Waters. I know the truth of no absolutes. [Antonia, 1743]
From the beginning, she belonged nowhere. Placed on the third day of her life in the orphanage attached to Antonio Vivaldi’s Venetian church, she was inducted into a proxy family of females and nurse-mothered by numerous women who assisted the orphanage. The only surrogate parents she ever knew were the Prioress of the orphanage and the celebrated Maestro Vivaldi. She accepted this separateness, this always being on the periphery of life, as an orphan’s birthright. She never questioned it. Rather, she became skilled at slipping into backgrounds, shedding her uniqueness the way jasmine gives itself over to perfume. Almost ephemeral, she became one with the texture of her environment. Like the nun she eventually became, she learned early to glide into the diaphanous fabric of the spiritual and disappear from ordinary life. Or, prodigy that she was, she would become so much a part of her music that she was not the performer. This was her true habitation. The world of notes, captured only on paper. She was the instrument, the voice, the estuary for music itself. Her skills at invisibility were honed from her innate shyness and deep intellect. Very few people really knew her. This despite her eventual fame as La Stella di Venice.
Antonio Vivaldi, violinist and composer, created her, making her his lifetime project. He raised her, trained her, shaped her, moulded her, bent her, broke her until she became his perfection. Until she became an extension of him, really. He took the young orphan and transformed her into Anna Giraud, his Magnum Opus. Anna Giraud, the centrepiece of all his compositions. His to shine from his private cosmos into the politics of Venice while he conducted from the podium. Orchestrating everything. Owning her—her music, her will, her soul.
Until she met Orlando of Siena.
He is the how and why of the intersection of my destiny with Anna’s, whose true name was Antonia. It took years for me to meet her, of course. And then more years for my life and its loneliness to make sense.
When I came upon this woman, the very day my obsession with her began, I’d been struggling to believe, to find meaning. I didn’t understand life. I didn’t understand love. I’d chosen the cloistered life because it allowed my pain and embraced my quest for purpose. Ultimately, Antonia made sense of all this for me. In truth, her story had been woven into my family’s story long before I discovered truth. My grandmother had spun the tale for me many times in my childhood. But until I finally spoke to her in her illness, I knew the Antonia of our family stories to be dead.
We didn’t know each other very long. Not the way we in this world measure time, that is. But in the mystery of our ultimate, fateful attachment, our time was immense, and she entrusted me with her story and its relics—her music and the history she so painstakingly documented.
I saw her first in a hidden garden along the southern border of my convent. Tending to herbs and flowers. Singing quietly to herself and yet to someone else. At first, because it was holy music and she was an elder Sister, I thought she was using the music as prayer. But there was a more elemental quality to it. Dare I say passionate? Wistful, desirous, knowing. From outside the garden, I watched. From within the garden, she watched, too. And listened… to another world, a world invisible to most of us. I still shudder at the memory of sensing, knowing, she was “elsewhere.”
I wanted to step into her world and join her. But I was an intruder. I knew I’d approached a forbidden place. Instantly. Who was this beautiful, frail creature who lifted her black skirt and bent to sift the dirt, to kiss the herbs, to look up into the hills? With whom was she communing? Or… was she waiting for someone? Whether she knelt to pull weeds or moved delicately through the basil and rosemary, she sang. Quietly and perfectly. Pure, clear, white contralto. As she became more immersed in gardening, she let go of her Latin words and sank beautifully into our mother tongue. I was privy to plaints, demands, desires. And I knew I shouldn’t be there. And I knew I must be there… that I must know her.
It was late afternoon. Long shadows pressed against the warm soil, breathing life into it, urging new life to come forth. As polite and uninitiated as I was in those days, I couldn’t leave the solitary singer. I felt I knew the innermost song of her heart. And yet, at the same time, I knew I was intruding into an intimacy that was not mine. It was no one’s but hers. Hers and the one to whom she sang.
But I could not, would not, leave. I’d already disregarded orders to stay on the immediate grounds of the convent. My disobedience had brought me here. And so I continued to ignore my training as a well-mannered novice, and sat down on a tree stump near the purple clusters of wisteria. I determined not to leave until she left. I watched while she filled her hands with dirt and lifted them as if in prayer, her transgressions clasped in her palms. And then, shocked, I attended to the words, the words that were so at odds with her surroundings. For she sang of feeling her blood like ice coursing through her veins. And I watched and heard as she let the soil slip through her fingers to fall before her knees. Her voice modulated into a bowed violin until the last notes trailed off into the hills. And all was silent.
And then she sighed, raised her hands in an arc above her head and brought them down to her side again. She stood with some difficulty, as though her back hurt her. There were tears on her cheeks. And she was smiling. Brilliantly.
She turned toward the gate and bent to pluck a leaf of basil. She stared at it for a moment, crushed it, inhaled its fragrance and placed it in her skirt pocket. And she was gone from the garden.
I sat, my cheeks wet with tears—I had been that much a part of the interlude, that intensely connected to her—and let the coolness of the evening envelope me.
That night, I spoke to Mother Superior about what I’d witnessed in the garden. “Who is she, Reverend Mother? What happened to her?”
“That, my daughter Osanna, is for you to discover. You have stepped into your own story. Let it unfold for you.”
From that day, the mystery of the woman in the garden took hold in my belly like the child I knew I would never conceive. Anna Giraud—though I was not to learn who she was for a few years—had implanted herself in me and began to occupy my thoughts daily.
All I knew that first night was this was a woman who had loved and who still loved. In a worldly way. And I must know her and her story. This woman had abandoned a lover for the cloistered life. Or—had she been abandoned? And how had she, with such a vast love, reconciled with God?
You will ask what I, a nun, could possibly know about worldly love. And I will tell you I know of its pain and beauty, its consummation and destruction from this Antonia. For it is she who still haunts the dank halls of the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. It is she who still runs freely through the lush Sienese hills. It is she who can still be seen and heard in the remote, shy garden of the convent between Siena and San Gimignano.
And it is she who still talks to me through her writings, her relics. For, like Saint Catherine of Siena, the saint she loved, she left a foot in Venice and her head in Siena. Unlike her saint, whose heart languishes in a sarcophagus in Rome, Antonia’s heart rests here in her tomb, the undulating, richly carpeted Tuscan hillside.
And it is that heart’s story I shall tell. For her sake. And for the sake of Orlando. This is my calling… to release their souls.
I found some old notes today. I’d written them years ago when I had returned from Siena the first time. Somehow they came here in a corner of an old trunk. For some reason, today was the day for me to find these pieces of myself. What am I to make of these remnants now? How can they possibly relate to Vienna? I’ll copy what I can decipher into this book before all becomes dust… or ashes. And perhaps… perhaps… I’ll write more and discover who I am. [Antonia, 1740]