Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4th, 1678. He became a famous opera and classical music composer because he had asthma. He was known as the “Red Priest” because of his red hair that he inherited from his father.
His father was a barber and a professional violinist who taught Antonio to play the violin before he was five. Antonio always loved music and wanted to be a composer, but it was customary at that time for the oldest son in a poor family to become a priest.
ASTHMA SAVED THE DAY: He became a priest against his will. He was ordained a priest at age 25, but after just one year, he told his superiors that he couldn’t say mass because his asthma prevented him from chanting. Nobody knows if Vivaldi’s asthma kept him from performing his functions as a priest. He could have been faking because he often left the altar to write down tunes that suddenly popped into his head. He used his asthma as an excuse to spend time composing some of the world’s greatest operas and pieces of classical music.
His superiors must have suspected that he was faking because they allowed him to continue to be a priest without saying mass, but they gave him so many other duties that he claimed that he was unable to compose religious music until he had been with the monastery for more than ten years. If his asthma was severe enough to prevent him from saying mass, it should have also prevented him from touring the world and appearing in so many concerts during his lifetime.
ANNA GIRAUD: In 1726, when Vivaldi was 48, he met 16-year old Anna Giraud. She was born in Venice, the illegitimate daughter of a French wigmaker. She was elegant but not beautiful. He decided to train Miss Giraud to be a singer and invited her and her sister Paolina to live at his house and become his traveling partners. They stayed together for 15 years. They accompanied him on most of his trips through Europe. Vivaldi claimed that they helped him when he was sick with his asthma. However, his asthma did not prevent him from traveling, performing, teaching, composing prolifically, and even managing an opera house.
SUSPICIONS: Vivaldi maintained that Anna was no more than a housekeeper and good friend, just like her sister, Paolina, who also shared his house. Anna Giraud played the lead in his operas starting with Farnace. She was not an outstanding singer or a stunning beauty, but she was a convincing and successful actress.
At first, the fact that Vivaldi was a priest did not interfere with his love life. The first attacks against his lifestyle came in 1737 when he was 59 years old. Guido Bentivoglio refused to allow Vivaldi to stage an opera in the city of Ferrara, claiming that Vivaldi should not be given such an honor because he was a priest who did not say mass (which was true), and he was having an affair with Anna (which was rumor).
Vivaldi responded by writing a long rambling letter that was suggestive that he really was having an affair with Miss Giraud, even though he denied the accusations. However, he never renounced the priesthood, never married and remained a priest all his life.
HIS ASTHMA KILLED HIM: He died on July 28th 1741 of an asthma attack and, like Mozart fifty years later, received a modest burial. After Vivaldi’s death, Anna Giraud returned to Venice, married seven years later, and died at age 40 in 1750.
Nowadays, if you have asthma, you are likely to use an inhaler with cortisone-type drugs and take antibiotics when you have a severe infection.