The Revoluntionary College Project

Da Ponte

ABOVE - Lorenzo Da Ponte (the elder) by Pekino

BELOW - The handwritten minutes of the Board of Visitors and Governors, dated June 19, 1826, document the hiring of "Mr. L. Da Ponte." In addition to language instruction, he was to teach courses in history and literature.

minutes

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Adam Goodheart
, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience

 

Red SwirlDon Giovanni in Chestertown
(A historical intermezzo)
 

By Adam Goodheart

Among the millions of immigrants who have ever crossed the ocean from Europe to the New World, surely one of the oddest and most colorful was the man who landed in Philadelphia on June 4, 1805, bringing with him little but a box of violin strings, a tea urn, and some books in Italian and Latin. He had embarked on the Atlantic crossing not in search of freedom, land, or opportunity, but for the excellent reason that he was in imminent danger of being jailed by his creditors.

Fifty-six years old, long-haired and prematurely toothless, Lorenzo Da Ponte had variously been a poet, a priest, a professional gambler, a courtier, a kept man, a political agitator, a printer, a teacher, a fugitive, and the proprietor of a bordello. Born a Jew, he had become a Catholic; raised near Venice, he had lived in Prague, Vienna, and London. He had befriended cardinals and composers, Giacomo Casanova and Joseph II of Austria. In America, his life would have a lengthy second act, and he would accumulate add several more professions (and residences, and famous friends) to that list. But the chapters of his biography that would ensure his lasting fame were already behind him. Scarcely more than a decade before his arrival in Philadelphia as a penniless escapee, he had been the toast of Europe as an opera librettist. Da Ponte had written the librettos for three of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most splendid operas: Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro.

I first heard the remarkable story of Lorenzo Da Ponte in America seven years ago, from a man almost as prodigiously polymathic as he had been: the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I was interviewing Senator Moynihan in his office in the U.S. Capitol when a painting on the wall next to his desk, depicting an elegantly arcaded 19th-century building, caught my eye. When I asked the Senator about it, he told me it was the first opera house in America – and then, completely forgetting the main subject of our interview, launched enthusiastically into a vivid account of Da Ponte’s adventures in the New World. Mozart’s librettist, he said, was eventually reduced to working as a grocer in New Jersey and as a traveling peddler in Pennsylvania. Then he came to New York, Senator Moynihan said proudly, where he was able to earn his living as a teacher of Italian and other languages. In 1833, Da Ponte was the driving force behind a new Italian Opera House in Lower Manhattan – the structure in the painting. And by the time of his death in 1838, he had become the first professor of Italian at Columbia University.

Senator Moynihan’s tale stayed with me for some reason, including the detail about Da Ponte as a teacher and professor of Italian. And it came rattling out of a dusty recess of my brain a few months ago, when I was perusing – of all things – a copy of the Chestertown Telegraph newspaper dated Friday, July 7, 1826. On an inside page, under the headline “Washington College,” a short article read:

The Board of Visitors and Governors of Washington College have made … such an addition to the Literary department, as will, they flatter themselves, present their Institution to the public with strong claims for patronage and support. ... They have engaged the services of Mr. L. Da Ponte, as professor of Modern Languages, (viz. French, Spanish, and Italian.)

“Mr. L. Da Ponte” … the name jumped off the page. Could it be that the wanderings of Mozart’s librettist had taken him to, of all places, the Eastern Shore? The discovery seemed even more fortuitous – almost a thing of destiny – when I remembered that the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth had been celebrated only a few days before, on January 27. My mind raced; I imagined the white-haired librettist strolling among the college elms, regaling wide-eyed undergraduates with tales of opera houses and imperial courts. I imagined 19th century students performing Don Giovanni on the campus green. I imagined the toast of Vienna becoming, in his dotage, the toast of Chestertown.

None of the published histories of Washington College mentioned that the operatic titan had spent time here. Nor did any biography of Da Ponte. Yet it had to be the same man, I reasoned. After all, how many L. Da Pontes could there have been teaching Italian in the United States in the 1820s?

* * *

Well, as it turns out … two of them.

As I dug further over the succeeding months, it became clear that Washington College’s Da Ponte was not the great librettist, alas, but rather his son, Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, who later became the first professor of Italian literature at New York University. This junior Lorenzo been brought to America by his family as a baby. So any tales of Mozart recounted under the Chestertown elms would have been merely secondhand ones.

Lorenzo the Younger – though completely forgotten today – was, I found, an estimable figure in his own right. Apparently something of a prodigy (he was still in his early twenties at the time of his Washington College appointment), he won early renown not just as a teacher of languages, but as a translator (including of his father’s operas), poet, classicist, and historian.

In 1833, “our” Lorenzo published his most notable work, A History of the Florentine Republic and of the Age and Rule of the Medici, an original copy of which I tracked down through interlibrary loan at Johns Hopkins University. (When the volume arrived, I discovered that it had not been loaned out since 1958.) It was an ambitious work; in his preface, Da Ponte proclaimed it the first volume of a projected “American Library of History,” which would chronicle the history of the world from a patriotic Yankee point of view.

Unlike the works of British historians – tainted with “opinions and doctrines the reverse of those which, as Americans, we should desire our children to imbibe” – young Lorenzo’s books would, he pledged, show a healthy respect for democratic traditions. In his history of Florence, he extolled that city’s medieval republic, while (ironically, given his name) the Medici appear as villains, the strongmen who eventually subverted the will of the people. In the final chapter, he ventures into political and economic theory, arguing forcefully that republics are more effective than monarchies or oligarchies at stimulating growth and commerce. But unfortunately, none of the other promised volumes of the American Library of History – such as the “History of Persia” or “History of the Northern Nations of Europe” – seem ever to have ever appeared.

Similarly, Professor Da Ponte’s tenure at Washington College – though it, too, would be cut short – began amid high expectations. In Miller Library, Jennifer Nesbitt helped me unearth a thick volume of the Board of Visitors and Governors’ minutes from the early 19th century. A handwritten entry dated June 19, 1826 recorded his hiring at an annual salary of $300. A newspaper article from later that month noted that the College, in hiring Da Ponte, intended “to blend with the study of the languages, that also of Belles-Lettres and Philosophy. The students will also have the privilege of attending lectures on the Literature of the South of Europe and the History of Italy.”

Indeed, 1826 was a moment of optimism and ambition at Washington College. After decades of financial hardship, the Board had just managed to boost the college’s endowment through a public lottery. (By hiring Da Ponte, they doubled the size of the faculty, which had previously consisted of one professor plus the president.)

Unfortunately, that moment would not last. On January 11, 1827, a pile of dry cornstalks in the basement of the College building caught fire. “The whole building was soon wrapt in one sheet of vivid flame,” reported the Chestertown Telegraph, and in little more than two hours, Washington College was a smoldering ruin. Although the College’s other professor lived on premises (and lost everything he owned), Da Ponte apparently did not, since he is not mentioned in the list of those left homeless by the blaze. Nor did the Board record his departure. But according to a later obituary of Da Ponte in a New York newspaper, he decamped to Philadelphia after the fire, before returning to Manhattan.

Professor Da Ponte died of consumption in New York in 1840, at the age of 37. (His father, Mozart’s librettist, had died two years earlier in the same city at 89.) He was not unmourned; even in the early 20th century, one of his former students still remembered him as “a man of unusual versatility, [who] was especially distinguished as a linguist. He taught us English literature in such a successful manner that we regarded that study merely as a recreation.” Another historian called him “an absent-minded fellow, beloved for his droll ways and words.” Furthermore, Da Ponte’s children and grandchildren would go on to form a notable dynasty of literati, journalists, and scholars; as late as the 1960s, one descendant, Durant Da Ponte, was a respected professor of American literature at the University of Tennessee.

* * *

Even if Da Ponte's sojourn in Chestertown turned out to be little more than a brief intermezzo, it was still, I think, a significant one.

His presence here suggests that even two centuries ago, this little Eastern Shore town could be a cosmopolitan place, or at least a place with cosmopolitan ambitions. It attests to Washington College's forward-thinking approach to education, even at an early and difficult moment in its history, and at a time when most American colleges were still dominated by rote instruction in the Greek and Latin classics. In fact, by hiring Da Ponte, the College became one of the first in the nation to offer instruction in Italian, ahead of such institutions as Yale, Princeton and Penn. (Few colleges at the time offered French and Spanish, either.) While such heroes of curricular reform as Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia and George Ticknor at Harvard were loudly championing (amid fierce opposition) the cause of modern languages and literature, Washington College had quietly undertaken its own revolution.

Moreover, as our College prepares to celebrate its 225th anniversary in 2007, the story of Lorenzo Da Ponte reminds us how many of the dark corners of its history remain unexplored.

More than mere curiosities, such tales help shine new light on Washington College's original mission and identity.

And perhaps on some warm summer night, if you strain your ears enough, you can still catch the faint sighing of violins along the campus green.

 


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