Mozart &
Material Culture


The Conservatorio di Sant'Onofrio a Capuana, founded in 1578 as a charitable institution for the care of orphans and abandoned children as the Congregazione delle Vesti Bianche, was converted to a music school in 1653. Intended chiefly to train singers for performances of sacred music, during the eighteenth century it emerged as a leading conservatory for the training of opera composers and singers, counting among its faculty Francesco Durante and Nicola Porpora. Sant’Onofrio merged in 1797 with the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Loreto and in 1806, all Neapolitan conservatories were incorporated into the Real Collegio di Musica, subsequently the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella.

When Charles Burney visited Sant’Onofrio in 1770, he gave a less than enthusiastic account of it, his admiration for the Neapolitan conservatories in general notwithstanding (The Present State of Music in France and Italy, [second edition: London, 1773], 336-337):

  1. This morning I went to [the] Conservatorio of St Onofrio, and visited all the rooms where the boys practise, sleep, and eat. On the first flight of stairs was a trumpeter, screaming upon his instrument till he was ready to burst; on the second was a French-horn, bellowing in the same manner. In the common practising room there was a Dutch concert, consisting of seven or eight harpsichords, more than as many violins, and several voices, all performing different things, and in different keys: other boys were writing in the same room; but it being holiday time, many were absent who usually study and practise there together.

    The jumbling them all together in this manner may be convenient of the house, and may teach the boys to attend to their own parts with firmness, whatever else may be going forward at the same time; it may likewise give them force, by obliging them to play loud in order to hear themselves; but in the midst of such jargon, and continued dissonance, it is wholly impossibly to give any kind of polish or finishing to their performance; hence the slovenly coarseness so remarkable in their public exhibitions; and the total want of taste, neatness and expression in all these young musicians, till they have acquired them elsewhere.

Mozart Relevance

Although Sant’Onofrio has no direct, documented relevance to Mozart, Burney’s description of the conservatory’s cacophony calls to mind Mozart’s similar experience in Milan in 1771 – and his playful reaction to it: [24 August 1771:]

  1. There’s a violinist above us, another one beneath us, next to us there’s a singing teacher giving lessons, and in the last room opposite ours there’s an oboist. It’s great fun when you’re composing! It gives you lots of ideas.