Early in April 1819, a man stood alone on the banks of the Hudson River, looking across the water to "the noble, populous, and to me beloved, city of New York." He had with him just a few clothes and some books, and his heart was "overflowing with hope and joy" at the prospect of the fresh start the city offered him. He had just turned 70.
Born in Ceneda, northern Italy, Lorenzo Da Ponte had lived in Venice, Vienna, and London. His departure from each had been in banishment or flight, leaving behind him debts, rancor, and, on one occasion, his teeth (when a rival in love gave him nitric acid to dab on his gums, under the pretext of curing an abscess). By birth a Jew, he had later become a Roman Catholic priest, and then (somehow) married. He had been a friend of Casanova’s, a protégé of Emperor Joseph II, a poet, bookseller, and impresario . . . and along the way, he had written the libretti for The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, which, with customary lack of modesty, he described as several dramas by himself, "set to music by Mozart."
With a life even more colorful than many of his creations, the librettist of Mozart’s greatest operas, Lorenzo Da Ponte, ended up in New York City—where he had quite the adventure. This was not Da Ponte’s first venture to New York. He had lived briefly in the city in 1805, and again from 1807 to 1811, having crossed the Atlantic after forays into the world of opera in London had ended nastily, and his bookshop on Pall Mall had floundered. On the voyage over, he gambled away the last of his money. His English wife, Nancy, who had family in America, had preceded him there with their children, but he did not know her address.
In contrast to her financially hapless husband, Nancy had been running a lucrative coffee room in London. When an impecunious, travel-bruised Da Ponte finally appeared on the doorstep in New York, she handed over her savings of nearly $7,000 to set up their family in a new American life. That was a considerable sum of money: Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary earned just $500 that year; skilled workers in New York were lucky to take home $1.25 a day.
New York was at the time a fever-pit of commerce. "Everything is in motion!" exclaimed one visitor. All was bustle, show, energy, speed, splendor, and profit. Da Ponte invested the money in a grocery store, diving headlong into the turbulent waters of New York trade. After a few months, he sold up and moved to open a shop in New Jersey, and, with familiar cries of betrayal and the perfidy of business partners, lost $6,000 within a year.
New York was a city custom made for those who wanted to slough off the past and reinvent themselves, an art at which Da Ponte was a master.
But New York was a city custom made for those who wanted to slough off the past and reinvent themselves, an art at which Da Ponte was a master. Returning with his family in 1807, he began investigating the possibility of teaching Italian. At that time the great wave of Italian migration was a few decades away, and only a handful of Da Ponte’s countrymen lived in New York. If English-speaking New Yorkers were to be bothered with learning another tongue, French and Spanish were commercially more useful to them.
Bewailing this fact, one December day in Riley's booksellers on Broadway, Da Ponte fell into conversation with Clement Clarke Moore (of ’Twas the night before Christmas fame). Moore, who was from one of New York's most well-to-do and respected families, was charmed, and offered to help.
Da Ponte and Nancy set up a school for young ladies and gentleman, teaching not only Italian, but French, music, dancing, and the finer arts. The Moore family endorsement and the Da Pontes' European background gave the school a certain tone and, crucially, respectability. The Hamiltons, Duers,Verplancks, and Onderdoncks sent their offspring and attended evening poetry readings. The academy on Partition Street was the find of the 1807 social season, and Nancy’s Italian cooking the talk of the town.
But fashions fade and customs change. A prudish twinge was already on its way to becoming the puritan cramp that would afflict the new century. Old World conversaziones and evening theatricals at Partition Street carried the whiff of a decadent era and corrupt religion. Numbers began to tail off, and Da Ponte compounded matters by sinking his newfound wealth into a distillery, which failed. In 1811, again facing financial ruin, he bundled his family off to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, where Nancy’s sister had recently moved.
Seven years in Sunbury followed the now familiar pattern of initial prosperity, then financial collapse, leaving Da Ponte destitute and seething against perceived injustices. Again Clement Moore came to the rescue, suggesting Da Ponte return to New York to devote himself "to the cultivation and diffusion of [Italian] language and literature" . . . which is why, Nancy and the children having remained in Sunbury until they could afford the fare, he came to be standing alone, but hopeful, on the banks of the Hudson soon after his 70th birthday.
Over the next two decades, Da Ponte had better fortune in his mission to establish Italian culture in America (though with the usual bitter disputes and financial crises). New York was booming, and the Italian population growing. Da Ponte had 12 students within a week of his return; students bought 80 of the 140 volumes of Italian classics in which he had earlier invested, and Moore funded the donation of the rest to the New York City Library. Nancy joined him to open "Ann Da Ponte’s Boarding House" for young ladies on fashionable Greenwich Street, and Da Ponte set up business as a publisher and bookseller, first from home then from a shop at 336 Broadway. And finally, after lobbying by Clement Moore, Da Ponte achieved a long-held dream when he was appointed the first Professor of Italian at Columbia College.
Like his friends Mozart and Casanova, [Da Ponte] was buried in an unmarked grave.
When Manuel Vincent García brought an Italian opera company to America, Da Ponte threw himself into its activities. The company departed after a nine-month stay, but Da Ponte (at the age of 83) set in motion plans for a permanent Italian Opera House—though he had been edged out of any managerial role by the time it opened in 1833. Opera in a foreign tongue, as expensive entertainment for an elite, struggled to survive in a New World atmosphere, and the opera house closed three years later.
Slowly, Da Ponte slipped from public gaze. He sold his remaining books, moved his family to a house on Spring Street, continued to teach a solitary pupil, and wrote bitter letters to friends. He died on August 17, 1838, at the age of 89, and, like his friends Mozart and Casanova, was buried in an unmarked grave. No monument was erected to him in New York until 1987.
Rodney Bolt’s biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Librettist of Venice, was short-listed for the LA Times Book Prize. He lives in Amsterdam, and in addition to biography writes—as "Britta Bolt," and together with the lawyer Britta Böhler—the Pieter Posthumus crime novels, all set in the city.