I am glad this next segment gives me the opportunity to speak about the women of our family. Of those we have been smart enough--or lucky enough--to marry and of those we had (and continue to have) the good fortune to know, and rely upon, as sisters and relatives. Because none of us would be where we are without their affectionate, incessant, intelligent, support and--whenever necessary--criticism.

As a family we hail from Emilia, a region where thorough the ages women have never been simple bystanders but active participants. So much that the term "virago" was coined to describe them. Today it carries unpleasant connotations, but at the time--when women were considered "weak"--it was used to describe a woman who possessed a mental fortitude, toughness, and agility equal, when not superior, to that of most men. The kind of women we Zappi constantly see around ourselves.

An old family story narrates how, back in the 1050's when our able-bodied men were Crusading in the Far East, a band of marauding Bolognese captured two younger sons of the family while they were out hunting. When they appeared before the Keep demanding its surrender lest the youngsters lose their lives, our ancestress showed herself at the top of the turret and shouted "Go ahead, I have others," then, lifting her skirts, continued "...and here I have the mold to make more." That very night she organized a sortie, captured the would-be invaders (most likely a bunch of thieving louts), and hung them from the walls to rot.

We tend to marry, therefore procreate, tough, intelligent, highly opinionated, capable women. You, the casual visitor, may consider it either a warning or a suggestion. I’m simply stating what, for us, is a fact of life.

But these characteristics, which may seem "different" in other parts of the world, are fairly common among the women of Emilia: when the University of Bologna--arguably the first in the world--was created around the 1020's with the specific intent of providing a place where the learned could freely pursue their studies and teachings without interference from State or Church, women were instantly and naturally admitted both as students and as teachers.

Among the notable female cathedratics, we find in the late 1200's a daughter of Accursio teaching law, and Bettisia Gozzadini whose lessons became so popular she couldn’t hold them in the Studium (classroom) but dispensed them in a public square before large audiences. In the 1300's, Novella d'Andrea, reputed to be so beautiful, her features had to be veiled lest her students be distracted; Bettina Sangiorgi who taught Greek, and Giovanna Bianchetti whose specialty was Latin.


To condense things a bit, during the 1700's, while the rest of Europe--largely due to new ideas set forth by the Illuminism--discussed the role of women in society and their access to culture, Laura Bassi (seen right) obtained in 1733 the chair of philosophy and, in 1776, that of experimental physics--in the same Studium which had been used by Galileo. In 1750 Maria Gaetana Agnesi taught calculus and analytic geometry while, in 1760, Anna Morandi obtained the chair of anatomy. So much for women incapable of other than humanistic studies.

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There has never been a question of "woman's rights" or female emancipation in our minds simply because the thing itself is a matter of course: we have always had the habit of not just encouraging, but actively supporting our womens' academic and artistic talents. To our great benefit. Don't let the fact some of our women have been raised in other environments fool you: the blood is thick and still present.

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By the 1550's, with the exception of Rome, Bologna had emerged as the largest Papal city and, without exceptions,  Italy’s foremost learning center. Although since the end of the previous century our family had resided in Rome visiting our native holdings only during summer, most of our youngsters were educated at the University of Bologna.

This was how, while studying in Bologna with the well-known artist and teacher Prospero Fontana, Gian Paolo Zappi met, fell in love with, and married in 1577 Prospero's  daughter Lavinia who was to become the first female painter to have a widely successful artistic career.

In what was then considered an unusual relationship as a couple (unusual for any other than an Emilian-trained), Gian Paolo confined his output to painting the backgrounds and frames for his wife's compositions, and took care of their large family.  Unfortunately, only three of their eleven children outlived their parents.

Lavinia did not just produce portraits or still lifes--categories that ranked low on the academic hierarchy--but small and large scale biblical and mythological works with many figures, including male and female nudes. She painted large public altarpieces, a rare distinction for a woman artist. Women were generally not commissioned to execute them, partly because these ambitious compositions required studying from nude models.

Around 1603 she created the best known of her public commissions, The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr. This altarpiece, painted for the church of S. Paolo Fuori le Mura, one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome, was over twenty feet high but was destroyed by fire in 1823. It became so controversial, however, that Lavinia gave up on public commissions and restricted herself to portrait painting. Nevertheless, by receiving public and private commissions for religious and mythological paintings, Lavinia had broken new ground for female artists.

She was elected to the Roman Academy and, in 1611 a portrait medal was created by the papacy in her honor.


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While over a hundred of Lavinia's are documented or recorded in early sources, only thirty-two signed and dated or datable works are known. Among these, Portrait of a Noblewoman (left), painted around 1580. A smaller number of pictures is also attributed to her on stylistic grounds. This nevertheless constitutes the largest surviving body of work by any woman artist active before 1700.



Lavinia died in 1614 but, largely due to her brilliance and the wide fame and renown she had cast upon us, eight years later, in 1622, our family was aggregated to the Roman Patritiate.

Only an Italian--and Roman to boot--can understand the importance and the magnitude of such honor. The Patriciate was the original Roman aristocracy, the eldest patrician families harking from the times of the foundation of Rome. By this time, the wealth and prominence of several families were such that a patrician owned little distinction beyond his blood. But, to an ancestor-revering, birth-conscious and history-loving people like the Italians, who had witnessed innumerable Empires and Kingdoms rise and bite the dust (often within the space of one generation) the importance of belonging to the seemingly eternal patrician stock can hardly be overestimated. Any Italian considered the status of Patrician of Rome far superior to that of King or--even worse--Emperor. This is why public display of wealth, resounding titles and priviledges mattered not a scrap to the common people: they knew Patrician was better.

In this manner, our family ceased to belong to the mere "nobility," to join the rarefied ranks of the aristocracy.


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In 1654, when Queen Christina, aged 28, abdicated the Swedish throne, she converted to catholicism and went to Rome where she remained for the rest of her life. A highly intelligent and cultivated woman, she had studied with the French philosopher Rene’ Descartes when he lived in Stockholm.

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In Rome, she slowly gathered around herself a group of young, talented scions of prominent families in what was loosely called "The Royal Academy." Growing up in a highly refined ambient that fostered the development of cultural and artistic pursuits, where contact with renowned writers, painters, philosophers and musicians was frequent and extensive, these young men and women originated what, for lack of a better term, I will call a proto-Dolce Vita.

Rebellious towards the overwrought baroque style that dominated the period, they advocated a return to a simpler, pastoral, life, esthetic canons, and universal concepts which could be easily grasped, and understood, by anybody, anywhere. They dressed, spoke, and lived accordingly. Unknowingly, they had a "hippie" mentality.

They lived like Lords, but their intellectual pursuits were extremely serious. In other words, wealthy artists--something that anywhere else would be a contradiction in terms but, in those times, a stone-throw from the Spanish Steps, wasn’t.

The spiritual leaders of this group were young Count Giovanni Battista Zappi, often termed the "Italian Anacreonte" and Faustina Maratti, who would become his wife.


Maratti-ClementIX.jpg (34582 bytes) Faustina was daughter of the already famous and celebrated painter Carlo Maratti, whose portrait of Pope Clement IX is on your left. I won't waste much time on her father who has a stamp issued by the Vatican, several theatres--even one in India, of all places--not to mention streets and museums named after him. The reason for theatres named after a painter is because he was also a celebrated scenographer who taught Andre', considered the "father of scenography" at the Opera de Paris. If you want to know more about Carlo Maratti, there's a course about him being held at the University of Notre Dame because, in his times, Maratti was considered equal or above such painters as Caravaggio, Rubens, Bernini, Van Dyck, Velazquez, Murillo, Watteau, Tiepolo, Canaletto or Gainsborough although this last is one of my personal favorites.

Faustina is reputed among the most beautiful and graceful women of her times. A botanist admirer named an iris and an entire family of ferns, the "Marattiaceae," after her and another, a newly-discovered shell, the "oliva miniacea Maratti." While she was at Genzano, near Rome, where her father had built and personally frescoed a beautiful villa that is currently the town's main monument, one of these admirers, Duke Giovangiorgio Sforza-Cesarini, attempted to kidnap her. The episode is well known because, at the time, it created a furor prompting her father to close the villa at Genzano never to return there again. According to the chronicles, the affair didn't go too well for the Duke because Faustina pulled the knife from one of the would-be kidnappers' hands, almost killed the Sforza, and escaped with a large gash on her neck. This only increased the number of admirers because she was deemed to have a force of character to match her beauty.

Married Faustina, Giambattista gathered thirteen other writers and playwrights--none of them a "professional" artist, but amateurs who in real life occupied either a high office or public function--in the garden of the Reformed Priests located on the beautiful hill of Gianicolo overlooking Rome. In that occasion, they founded the famous "Accademia degli Arcadi" or, simply, Arcadia whose influence would be felt long after the original founders were gone and whose poetry, writings, themes and librettos would be put to music by Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Schubert and Bach among others.

I don’t want--nor this is the place--to enter a literary discussion that would require several pages. But there is no way you will ever understand the reasons for their popularity unless I say what changes they made. Since, thanks to the movies and TV, everyone is more or less familiar with the visual arts, I'll try to explain how they intervened in the sector of operas. 

"opera," with a minor "o," simply means "work." Whether you’re talking of Opera, Melodrama, or Tragedy, the purpose remains essentially the same: it is supposed to send a message across to the listeners.

You may divide it into three parts: the text, the music and the visual. These three components act together to "teach" and edify the audience. The visual part, the action, whether movements are natural or exaggerated, is strictly dependent on the actors' and directors' ability, so there was nothing they could do about it. About the rest they could and did, since music and text are especially close in the way they mesh to create the experience for melody can move the soul in a way no great orator can.

In oratory an argument can be divided in an Aristotelian manner, the three parts being ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos being what Aristotle believed music to possess. It is not a coincidence that opera developed with a relation to rhetoric since there must be an exordium (opening), medium, and finis. This kind of abstract and rigid structure provided composers with a skeleton to work with.

Contrary to modern opinion, an opera is drama with music on the side or Dramma per Musica (drama through music). Originally, the words were to be heard clearly and cleanly. The text took precedence over the music as the music had to follow the contours of speech. Extensive musical elaboration was frowned upon for the words had to be intelligible.

What resulted was recitative and the results were musically boring and lacking in pathos so eventually short songs were included. These quickly developed in to arias which showcased a singer’s skill. While recitative carried the action of an opera forward, the arias were akin to monologues in a play.

As the baroque style progressed, dialogues became shorter and less intelligible, arias more frequent and often contrapposed for effect, thus losing their character of "monologues," until operas became little else than a series of arias, chorales, and exaggerated gesturing destined to produce great effect at the expense of plot and intelligibility.

The Arcads converted the plot into a narratio (statement of facts), propositio (forecast of the main points in the speaker’s favour), confirmatio (proof), confutatio (rebuttal), and conclusio (end) using an A-B-A format with the first section expressing an idea, the second a complementary one, and the third a repeat of the first with ornamentation and elaboration of the music by the singer. A typical opera of theirs would start with an instrumental overture of three movements (fast-slow-fast) and then a string of recitatives containing clear dialogue punctuated by arias expressing the emotions of the character.

This went on for three acts before a final "happy" chorus and/or duet as most of these operas ended happily (lieto fine).

Contained within was elegant language and classical characters from antiquity that spoke of princely values and morality.

It was later objected that their main characters were mere cardboard figures that did not initiate action but resolved it. Their reply was, how could Alexander the Great show his clemency until someone tries to harm him so that he could later forgive him? Granted, realistically this is not what the historic Alexander would have done in the situation, but these characters are only a medium for the delivery of teachings, nor real flesh-and-blood representations.

The Arcads revived melodrama by limiting the encroachment of music, the excessive spectacular effects, and the eccentricities of romantic poets. Also, their greater simplicity and naturalness in plot, their use of universal themes that were felt by people of diverse nationalities and ages, turned it into the dramatic form that enjoyed the greatest popularity in the 18th century.

Arcadia became an instant success, an institution, almost. Hundreds applied, few--several women among them--were selected. To be appointed an "Arcade" meant immediate recognition, an instant reputation, for they were the most visible, sought-after, popular, citizens of Rome and at that time--by extension--the world: as modern-day celebrities, everything about them was instant fashion.

If you think the components of this restricted group became "stars," you’re right. But if you think they behaved as such, you’d be wrong. Society looked at them with respect, in a way asking their intervention on the artistic scene, followed their every move to see what received their "imprimatur." Therefore members had to be on top of everything.

Being an Arcade implied hard work, not just a facility with words or concepts. In addition to the work demanded by their professions of offices, they had to find the time to read, listen, and see everything. On top of that came the fact that, run as a non-profit organization, the Academy still needed accountants, clerks, speakers. And members had to absolve those functions. Then members expected, demanded, and got from each other a very high editorial production of equally high standards. To underline the "official" and collective character of that artistic think-tank, their work was innerly criticized, and that portion which survived the massacre was invariably published as a collection. Publishers such as Buagni, De Rossi or Salvoni, vied for the honor, knowing the Arcads had the full support of the Vatican establishment, led by Cardinal Ottoboni.

As the foremost exponent of a "new," universal culture, to be an Arcade not only you had to display an impeccable artistic sense in everything that surrounded you, but you had to do it using simple items of extreme good taste. Further, your work should also reflect your lifestyle, so that one complemented the other. Finally, above all, the ensemble had to be useful.

If you think that's easy, you've never waited for my sister when she's dressing for a party.

To (badly) translate our ancestor’s philosophy,

"One kind of beauty is all external, entices with appearances, a beautiful, well-ornamented, freshly painted facade tempting the passer-by into an empty building of precarious balance. Another is all the opposite. Caring not for looks, guards behind solid walls of rude stone precious gems, rare perfumes and exquisite objects.

In the same manner, many write beautiful, well rhymed phrases which delight the ears but starve the intellect while others fill their compositions with deep thoughts, hidden mysteries, allusions to the senses which leave only the taste of smoke.

The Arcade artfully merges usefulness with beauty in such manner that the reader finds under a light, silky cover, noble thoughts appealing to the instincts in a filigrane so well crafted that it entertains while teaching and teaches while pleasing."

The translation is not as good as the original. But then, of course, he was a poet and wrote in Italian, I'm not. Or my personal favorite:

".....in such manner that the public at large can make the best use of poets by drawing from them the healthiest and most beneficial feelings and acquiring, by reading and copying their style, a facility of expression so that men may become eloquent in their everyday family life, which will inevitably lead to an improvement in our public life."

Giambattista and Faustina became so famous for their wit, elegance, and ability to turn everything into learned entertainment that Jean Sobiesky, the very King of Poland who a few years earlier, in 1683, had whooped the Turks and Ottomans who were laying siege to Vienna, invited them to his palace at Wilanow. The King gave the couple free rein, and they quickly turned Thursday evening dinners into theatrical events where the foremost international artists appeared.

King Jean's successor, King August II insisted that the couple, which in the meantime had given themselves to the task of improving public learning, should remain.

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Years later, when Faustina had become a widow and decided to return to Italy, King August was so grateful for the couple's endeavors in the field of public learning, he conferred on October 15, 1718, upon Faustina, her son Luigi Evangelista, her daughter Livia, and on their natural and legitimate heirs the title of Marquis.

In perpetual memory, the city of Imola named a beautiful tree-lined street "Viale Giovanni Battista Zappi."

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