Last month, the home of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi – whose works include Aida, Rigoletto and La Traviata – was put up for sale, ending a long-running dispute among the Maestro’s heirs. Located three kilometres from the northern city of Bussetto, Villa Verdi was built on land the celebrity composer owned in Sant’Agata di Villanova, a small hamlet in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
The home is currently semi-inhabited by four siblings descended from Maria Filomena Verdi, Giuseppe’s younger cousin, who was raised by the composer and his wife Strepponi. For the last 20 years, the Carrara Verdi family have failed to come to an agreement concerning the house’s future. Now, having established that none of them can afford to buy the house outright, they’ve decided to sell the historic property. So what secrets does this palatial residence hold?
It was Antonio Barezzi who first suggested Giuseppe Verdi purchase the estate of Sant’Agata. The composer’s family had been residents of the small village since the tail end of the 16th century, where they’d lived as small landowners, tenants and innkeepers. Construction of the villa began at the start of 1849, at which time Verdi was still living in Paris. However, when he heard tell of the bloody massacre of Milanese citizens outside the Governer’s place by Austrian soldiers, he promptly made arrangements to return to Italy. Lured by the prospect of revolution, Verdi arrived to find the fighting long finished. One get’s a sense of Verdi’s fervent patriotism during this time from his letters. In one, the composer confesses his hunger for political upheaval has superseded his musical ambitions: “I would not write a note for all the money in the world,” he explains, “I would feel immense remorse, using music-paper, which is so good for making shells.”
Villa Verdi was built in fits and bursts over the course of 30 years. The Maestro’s parents lived in the house until a quarrel in 1851 led them to move out. Verdi and his mistress (later wife), Giuseppina Strepponi, moved in shortly afterwards. Some believe Strepponi was pregnant with an illegitimate child at the time, which goes some way to suggest why Verdi willingly cut himself off from his parents, shattering a previously stable relationship. Strepponi was a woman whose complicated past was evidenced through her children, and she attracted much gossip. None of this was helped by the fact that, by 1851, Verdi wasn’t just Europe’s operatic darling; he was an international celebrity.
Verdi’s desire to keep Strepponi away from the public eye echoes through the enclosed gardens that surround Villa Verdi. The composer designed the park in every detail. He ordered the construction of a lemon house and the planting of towering Ginko Biloba; he instructed masons to craft an array of neo-classical statues and drew plans for an artificial lake in the shape of a treble clef. With its constellations of roses and milk-leaved magnolias, the garden was intended to mesmerise its occupants no matter the season. It was, and still is, an Eden. But for Strepponi, it must have felt more like a very elaborate cage. Here, she was practically invisible, living more like a nun than the wife of a famous composer.
When she did leave the villa, she remained invisible, stepping into Verdi’s horse-drawn carriage only to ride around the courtyards of the Palazzo Cavalli with the curtains drawn. For Verdi himself, the villa was a constant source of inspiration. It was here that he wrote many of his most famous works while enjoying the privacy and silence of the area. However, even he came to resent it. Even as his most well-known and best-loved opera, Rigoletto, was wowing audiences, Verdi and Streppino were growing increasingly isolated from the community around them. Eventually, the silence that the composer had once treasured became deafening.
For many years, Villa Verdi has been kept in a state of suspended animation. The conservation of the property is largely thanks to the Carrara Verdi family. The museum section of the house upholds the aesthetics of Verdi’s day and contains everything from intact furnishings to musical relics and period photographs. Now that the house is on sale, however, the future of Villa Verdi remains unclear. Still, the current owners seem to feel that this opulent manor would serve better as a home than a cold museum. Perhaps they’re right.