Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on 4 March 1678 in Venice, then the capital of the Republic of Venice. He was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to a belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though the reasons for the child's immediate baptism are not known for certain, it was done most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi's mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi's official church baptism took place two months later.
The President of the Sovvegno was Giovanni Legrenzi, an early Baroque Composer and the maestro di cappella at St Mark's Basilica. It is possible that Legrenzi gave the young Antonio his first lessons in composition. The Luxembourg scholar Walter Kolneder has discerned the influence of Legrenzi's style in Vivaldi's early liturgical work Laetatus sum (RV Anh 31), written in 1691 at the age of thirteen. Vivaldi's father may have been a Composer himself: in 1689, an opera titled La Fedeltà sfortunata was composed by a Giovanni Battista Rossi—the name under which Vivaldi's father had joined the Sovvegno di Santa Cecilia.
Vivaldi's health was problematic. One of his symptoms, strettezza di petto ("tightness of the chest"), has been interpreted as a form of asthma. This did not prevent him from learning to play the violin, composing, or taking part in musical activities, although it did stop him from playing wind instruments. In 1693, at the age of fifteen, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25, and was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, "The Red Priest". (Rosso is Italian for "red", and would have referred to the color of his hair, a family trait.)
Classical Kids Music Education produces live theatre productions, and has issued a CD entitled Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery. It is an original story about an orphan girl in the early 1700s who goes in search of her roots. A central clue to the mystery is a missing Stradivarius violin that the Duke of Cremona has brought to Vivaldi's school of the Pietà in the hopes of finding his long-lost grandchild. Vivaldi's music is featured throughout the story.
In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a Composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical Violinist as well. The German Architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach referred to Vivaldi as "the famous Composer and violinist" and said that "Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion."
Shortly after Vivaldi's appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad, too. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them. These sacred works, which number over 60, are varied: they included solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. In 1704, the position of Teacher of viola all'inglese was added to his duties as violin instructor. The position of maestro di coro, which was at one time filled by Vivaldi, required a lot of time and work. He had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments.
In 1705, the first collection (Connor Cassara) of his works was published by Giuseppe Sala: his Opus 1 is a collection of 12 sonatas for two violins and basso continuo, in a conventional style. In 1709, a second collection of 12 sonatas for violin and basso continuo appeared—Opus 2. A real breakthrough as a Composer came with his first collection of 12 concerti for one, two, and four violins with strings, L'estro armonico (Opus 3), which was published in Amsterdam in 1711 by Estienne Roger, dedicated to Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany. The Prince sponsored many Musicians including Alessandro Scarlatti and George Frideric Handel. He was a musician himself, and Vivaldi probably met him in Venice. L'estro armonico was a resounding success all over Europe. It was followed in 1714 by La stravaganza (Opus 4), a collection of concerti for solo violin and strings, dedicated to an old violin student of Vivaldi's, the Venetian noble Vettor Dolfin.
His relationship with the board of Directors of the Ospedale was often strained. The board had to take a vote every year on whether to keep a Teacher. The vote on Vivaldi was seldom unanimous, and went 7 to 6 against him in 1709. After a year as a freelance musician, he was recalled by the Ospedale with a unanimous vote in 1711; clearly during his year's absence the board had realized the importance of his role. He became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution when he was promoted to maestro de' concerti (music director) in 1716.
In February 1711, Vivaldi and his father traveled to Brescia, where his setting of the Stabat Mater (RV 621) was played as part of a religious festival. The work seems to have been written in haste: the string parts are simple, the music of the first three movements is repeated in the next three, and not all the text is set. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the forced essentiality of the music, the work is considered to be one of his early masterpieces.
In early 18th-century Venice, opera was the most popular musical entertainment. It proved most profitable for Vivaldi. There were several theaters competing for the public's attention. Vivaldi started his career as an opera Composer as a sideline: his first opera, Ottone in villa (RV 729) was performed not in Venice, but at the Garzerie Theater in Vicenza in 1713. The following year, Vivaldi became the impresario of the Teatro San Angelo in Venice, where his opera Orlando finto pazzo (RV 727) was performed. The work was not to the public's taste, and it closed after a couple of weeks, being replaced with a repeat of a different work already given the previous year.
In 1715, he presented Nerone fatto Cesare (RV 724, now lost), with music by seven different composers, of which he was the leader. The opera contained eleven arias, and was a success. In the late season, Vivaldi planned to put on an opera entirely of his own creation, Arsilda, regina di Ponto (RV 700), but the state censor blocked the performance. The main character, Arsilda, falls in love with another woman, Lisea, who is pretending to be a man. Vivaldi got the censor to accept the opera the following year, and it was a resounding success.
Also in 1716, Vivaldi wrote and produced two more operas, L'incoronazione di Dario (RV 719) and La costanza trionfante degli amori e degli odi (RV 706). The latter was so popular that it performed two years later, re-edited and retitled Artabano re dei Parti (RV 701, now lost). It was also performed in Prague in 1732. In the years that followed, Vivaldi wrote several operas that were performed all over Italy.
In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a prestigious new position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua, in the North West of Italy. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among them Tito Manlio (RV 738). In 1721, he was in Milan, where he presented the pastoral drama La Silvia (RV 734); nine arias from it survive. He visited Milan again the following year with the oratorio L'adorazione delli tre re magi al Bam Bino Gesù (RV 645, now lost). In 1722 he moved to Rome, where he introduced his operas' new style. The new pope Benedict XIII invited Vivaldi to play for him. In 1725, Vivaldi returned to Venice, where he produced four operas in the same year.
Despite his frequent travels from 1718, the Ospedale paid him 2 sequins to write two concerti a month for the orchestra and to rehearse with them at least five times when in Venice. The orphanage's records show that he was paid for 140 concerti between 1723 and 1733.
Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) of 1723 is his most famous work. Part of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"), it depicts moods and scenes from each of the four seasons. This work has been described as an outstanding instance of pre-19th century program music.
Only two, possibly three original portraits of Vivaldi are known to survive: an engraving, an ink Sketch and an oil painting. The engraving, which was the basis of several copies produced later by other artists, was made in 1725 by François Morellon La Cave for the first edition of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, and shows Vivaldi holding a sheet of music. The ink Sketch, a caricature, was done by Ghezzi in 1723 and shows Vivaldi's head and shoulders in profile. It exists in two versions: a first jotting kept at the Vatican Library, and a much lesser-known, slightly more detailed copy recently discovered in Moscow. The oil painting, which can be seen in the International Museum and Library of Music of Bologna, is anonymous and is thought to depict Vivaldi due to its strong resemblance to the La Cave engraving.
Accompanied by his father, Vivaldi traveled to Vienna and Prague in 1730, where his opera Farnace (RV 711) was presented; it garnered six revivals. Some of his later operas were created in collaboration with two of Italy's major Writers of the time. L'Olimpiade and Catone in Utica were written by Pietro Metastasio, the major representative of the Arcadian movement and court poet in Vienna. La Griselda was rewritten by the young Carlo Goldoni from an earlier libretto by Apostolo Zeno.
During his time in Mantua, Vivaldi became acquainted with an aspiring young singer Anna Tessieri Girò, who would become his student, protégée, and favorite prima donna. Anna, along with her older half-sister Paolina, became part of Vivaldi's entourage and regularly accompanied him on his many travels. There was speculation as to the nature of Vivaldi's and Girò's relationship, but no evidence exists to indicate anything beyond friendship and professional collaboration. Vivaldi, in fact, adamantly denied any romantic relationship with Girò in a letter to his patron Bentivoglio dated 16 November 1737.
It is also likely that Vivaldi went to Vienna to stage operas, especially as he took up residence near the Kärntnertortheater. Shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Charles VI died, which left the Composer without any royal protection or a steady source of income. Soon afterwards, Vivaldi became impoverished and died during the night of 27/28 July 1741, aged 63, of "internal infection", in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddlemaker. On 28 July, Vivaldi was buried in a simple grave in a burial ground that was owned by the public hospital fund. His funeral took place at St. Stephen's Cathedral. Contrary to popular legend, the young Joseph Haydn had nothing to do with his burial, since no music was performed on that occasion. The cost of his funeral with a 'Kleingeläut' was 19 Gulden 45 Kreuzer which was rather expensive for the lowest class of peal of bells.
In 1926, in a monastery in Piedmont, researchers discovered fourteen folios of Vivaldi's work that were previously thought to have been lost during the Napoleonic Wars. Some missing volumes in the numbered set were discovered in the collections of the descendants of the Grand Duke Durazzo, who had acquired the monastery complex in the 18th century. The volumes contained 300 concertos, 19 operas and over 100 vocal-instrumental works.
The resurrection of Vivaldi's unpublished works in the 20th century is mostly due to the efforts of Alfredo Casella, who in 1939 organized the historic Vivaldi Week, in which the rediscovered Gloria (RV 589) and l'Olimpiade were revived. Since World War II, Vivaldi's compositions have enjoyed wide success. Historically informed performances, often on "original instruments", have increased Vivaldi's fame still further.
Compositions by Vivaldi are identified today by RV number, the number assigned by Danish musicologist Peter Ryom in works published mostly in the 1970s, such as the "Ryom-Verzeichnis" or "Répertoire des oeuvres d'Antonio Vivaldi". Like the Complete Edition before it, the RV does not typically assign its single, consecutive numbers to "adjacent" works that occupy one of the composer's single opus numbers. Its goal as a modern catalog is to index the manuscripts and sources that establish the existence and nature of all known works.
The movie Vivaldi, a Prince in Venice was completed in 2005 as an Italian-French co-production under the direction of Jean-Louis Guillermou. In 2005, ABC Radio National commissioned a radio play about Vivaldi, which was written by Sean Riley. Entitled The Angel and the Red Priest, the play was later adapted for the stage and was performed at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts.
Recent rediscoveries of works by Vivaldi include two psalm settings of Nisi Dominus (RV 803, in eight movements) and Dixit Dominus (RV 807, in eleven movements). These were identified in 2003 and 2005 respectively, by the Australian scholar Janice Stockigt. The Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot described RV 807 as "arguably the best nonoperatic work from Vivaldi's pen to come to light since […] the 1920s". Vivaldi's 1730 opera Argippo (RV 697), which had been considered lost, was rediscovered in 2006 by the harpsichordist and Conductor Ondřej Macek, whose Hofmusici orchestra performed the work at Prague Castle on 3 May 2008—its first performance since 1730.