Vincenzo Bellini has Origins in Abruzzo.
by Giovanni Monrado
Between 1760 and 1767 a young Abruzzan musician happened to come to Catania by chance. How he came to be there is now difficult to ascertain. The young man was called Vincenzo Tobia Bellini and he was born in a little village in Abruzzo called Torricella, in the Province of Chieti, situated on a ridge at the watershed between valleys of the Aventino and the Sangro. History has it that this young man, after giving birth to the branch of the Bellini family in Catania, became the grandfather of the great genius Vincenzo Bellini, better known as the “Swan of Catania”. The great musician of the 1800’s thus was of Abruzzan origin.
In fact Bellini’s family have been listed in the Parochial Register of Torricella Peligna (then called Torricella in the Province of Abruzzo Citra) since 1660, and the first Bellinis that we come across are a husband and wife: Tobia and Anna Pacifico. Today the house of the Bellinis in Torricella, situated in front of the side of what once was the Church of San Rocco, and which belonged to them until that branch of the family died out, shows evidence of the changes brought about by the passage of centuries. In the same way as the urban structure of Torricella has been partially modified, at the time of the Bellinis it was much more noticeable than it is today due to its demographic “weight”. Vincenzo Tobia Bellini senior was born in Torricella on 11th May 1744 to Rosario Bellini and Francesca Mancini. Lack of news and documentation prevent a reconstruction of his biography from early childhood. Several reliable sources suggest that Bellini was the Town Hall Secretary of this little village.
It seems certain, however, that he knew how to play the violin. The Bellini family according to tradition, although not wealthy, were well-off. This is shown by certain entries in the Catasto Onciario of Torricella of 1743. The young Bellini must have shown his passion for music at an early age and after receiving his first lessons from a certain Canon Ricciardi, was invited to a Conservatory in Naples which at that time was the musical centre of the Bourbon Kingdom. Thus, in the same way as so many other musically talented Abruzzans, Bellini was forced to emigrate in order to further his studies. Thus a person at the heights of musicality in all Abruzzo, the “singing vein” of this land, had to go far away to bear fruit elsewhere. Little is known about his time in Naples. He studied at the Conservatory of Sant’ Onofrio at Capuana,“… where he was obliged to serve for ten years” and where he had enrolled on 13th October 1755. He studied with Carlo Cotumacci, Giuseppe Dol and it seems also with Nicolò Porpora. In 1765 Bellini (at the age of 21) was already a junior teacher/musician at the Conservatory and had composed an Oratorio “Isaac as the Figure of the Redeemer” with verses by Metastasio. But why did Bellini go to Catania? It is hard to give an answer with any accuracy.
The information that we have is scarce, both because investigation is difficult and because any news from those days is highly fragmented, so it is extremely hard to define his life story. What is certain is that Bellini was fertile and hard-working in Catania. Many people have put forward a hypothesis that suggests he was attracted there by the huge weight of work that needed to be carried out to revive the city, which had been ruined by an eruption of Etna in 1669, later followed by an earthquake in 1693, and the remaking of the city provided fuel for his passion for music. As a consequence of the great activity in chapel music in the 1600’s and the great diffusion that sacred music had had in those days, Bellini became organist to many Churches and he composed music for solemn religious occasions. Much of the many works he wrote is still unknown; some is kept in manuscript form at the Cathedral in Catania. Amongst his theatrical operatic works are “The Daughter of Adolfo the Svevo”, the Oratorios “Joshua Victorious Against the Five Kings of Canaca” of 1722 and “The Saving of Israel by the Death of Sarah” of 1789.
Some years after his arrival in Catania, Bellini had centralised within his hands the musical movement of Catania and had become worthy of the name “virtuoso” given to him by a Catanian chronicler of the time. So he was one of the very best teachers of music in all Sicily and a great composer.
In 1769, at the age of 25, he married Michela Urzi, they had five children and he became a widower towards the end of the century. When he was 52 years old he married for a second time, to Mattea Cognato but they had no children. OF the five children, only the firstborn, Rosario, who became the father of the “Swan”, followed in his father’s footsteps and so much so that he totally took over all his father’s activities. On 3rd November 1801, the great “Swan’s” date of birth, grandfather Don Vincenzo, the Torricellan, no doubt was happier than everyone, because he had hoped for a grandson to bear his name and to continue the family tradition of music under his guidance. And so it was for this family which had music in its blood. The old master favoured this grandson exceedingly and having an intuition about his talent, he started him off on his studies, teaching him himself. The Great Bellini was appreciative of all this as is testified by a letter he sent to the family : “… I am beside myself with pain at the death of my dear grandfather, to whom I am deeply obliged because he brought me up for so many years in his house, where I learned most of the dogmas of music and because he showered me with even more affection than any other relative does.” This is the same extract which is engraved on the marble plaque on the wall of the old Bellini house in Torricella.
But Torricella has few memories of the Bellini family because very few traces are left. Despite this, for Torricellans, it is a close bond that unites them with the Sicilian city for such a singular fact of art and humanity. Bellini senior, the “lute maker”, as someone called him, is another glory of Abruzzo that has remained a prisoner of silence.
Boundaries of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the Time of Napoleon
19th Century Province Names and their 20th Century More-or-less Equivalents
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Regno delle due Sicilie) consisted of the Kingdom of Naples (the Italian peninsula south of Rome, but including Abruzzo) and the Kingdom of Sicily (the island).
Region of Abruzzo:
Abruzzo Ultra 2 [now = L'Aquila (AQ)]. Note: Ultra (or, Ulteriore) meant "farther away from", as opposed to "nearer to", the City of Naples, the capital city of the Kingdom of Naples.
Abruzzo Ultra 1 lay to the north of Abruzzo Citra and Abruzzo Ultra 2. Note: Ultra 1 was the "farthest Abruzzo", [now = equivalent to the present Provinces of Pescara (PE) and Teramo (TE)) …. beyond which lay more provinces of the Papal States (Stati della Chiesa).
The province formerly called Abruzzo Citra included places that today belong to the Provinces of Chieti or Pescara.
* Amorite (Hebrew ’emōrî, Egyptian Amar, Akkadian Tidnum or Amurrūm (corresponding to Sumerian MAR.TU or Martu) refers to a Semitic people who occupied the country west of the Euphrates from the second half of the third millennium BC, and also the god they worshipped (see Amurru).
Translation courtesy of Dr. Marion Apley Porreca