A repository of musical prodigy, the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, circa 1700, welcomes foundlings and paying students from good families, the cloistered atmosphere of the Pieta offering not only shelter but a unique opportunity for talented musicians to hone their skills.
It is here that the composer Antonio Vivaldi creates his magnificent compositions for the violin and the increasingly popular operas, his students the girls fortunate enough to be chosen by the genius for instruction. The “red priest,” known for his bush of red hair, is a harsh taskmaster but unquestionably a master of composition.
When eight-year-old Anna Maria dal Violin comes to the master’s attention, Vivaldi recognizes a like spirit if an as-yet unschooled talent. The following years are spent teaching Anna Maria the exquisite nuances of the violin, her willing spirit a joy to behold in one who so values genius.
By the age of fourteen, Anna Maria has come to terms with her position. While the other students meet yearly with family members for a day of celebration, Anna remains behind, with no family to visit and no knowledge of her origins. It is Vivaldi who offers a balm to the girl’s pain, sending her sheets of music written just for her fleet fingers, a welcome distraction from a growing sorrow.
Informed that she will never know the identity of her mother, Anna Maria refuses to surrender to this cruel reality. She is aware of a book where the details of each orphan are written, although she has no way to access such information. Through the offices of others - a seamstress from the Jewish ghetto, a spirited young man somehow “different” than the others, and a nun who offers comfort and hope - Anna Maria finally gathers the pieces of her identity, although she is unable to make sense of what she has discovered.
The cloistered life is revealed through the character of Anna Maria dal Violin as she passes her adolescent years in the company of other young women who nurture hopes of marriage and careers outside the walls of the Pieta, sharing dreams and confidences, foolish assignations and the bitter reality of those confined to a restricted life of work and discipline.
Although she is tortured about a lack of knowledge of her mother, a series of letters written to that unknown woman offer insights into Anna Maria’s daily existence and the travails of a cruel nun who uses any excuse to punish her, the balm of Vivaldi’s friendship and the few escapades where she is set loose in the city behind a mask, attending a ball and the opera, riding in a gondola, tasting the heady wine of Venice’s six month’s long season of Carnival.
Yet for this young woman, it all comes back to the Pieta and a quest for her mother’s identity, the patience and perseverance of years of discipline paying dividends as Anna Maria is joyfully connected to her past, albeit many years later. This intimate portrait of one young woman in the cloistered life stands in stark relief to the decadence of a republic in its final days, her spirit caught forever in the notes of her beloved violin.