Lorenzo Da Ponte

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Lorenzo da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte, born Emanuele Conegliano (March 10, 1749 – August 17, 1838) was an Italian librettist and poet born in Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto). Appointed a professor at what is now Columbia University in 1826, he was the first faculty member to have been born Jewish and ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. The Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library at the University of California at Los Angeles has named in his memory. His books formed the basis of the Italian collection at Columbia, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library. He is most famous for having written the librettos to three of Mozart's operas, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. Many of his works belonged to the Opera buffa genre. Scandal and debt dogged his checkered career and his work was largely forgotten until a revival of interest on the eve of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. During the Third Reich in Adolf Hitler's Germany, when Mozart was considered an icon of German art, the Jewish background of his librettist was downplayed.


Conegliano was a Jew by birth. When he, his father, and siblings converted to Roman Catholicism in 1763, he took the name Lorenzo Da Ponte, the name of the bishop of Ceneda who administered the baptism. Still later, he studied to be a teacher and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1773, after training at the seminary at Portogruaro. He had excelled as a student, developing a particular interest in Dante Alighieri and in classical Greek and Roman literature. However, scandal resulted in a ban on his teaching and as a priest, and in 1799, he was exiled from Venice.

In addition to having an adulterous relationship, he had expressed doubts about Catholic dogma. He was also renowned for drinking and gambling. He may never really have embraced Christianity with any deep conviction. His father converted in order to marry a Christian woman (his first wife died in 1754). At this time, it was not uncommon for some Jews to convert because of the promise or possibility of social advancement. Leaving Venice, Da Ponte tried to find work in Dresden but failed, then in 1781, moved to Vienna, where he later collaborated with Mozart and Antonio Salieri. In 1780, he was appointed court librettist to Joseph II, for whom he composed libretti in many different languages, including French, German, and Italian. While in Vienna, he also worked with composers Vicente Martín y Soler and Antonio Salieri. It was in Vienna that he met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and began the collaboration for which he famous. His libretti, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, appeared in 1786, 1787, and 1790. During 1788, financial problems at the Viennese court due to the cost of the war with the Ottoman Empire resulted in the closure of several theaters. By 1790, when Joseph II died, Da Ponte's own position was threatened and in 1792, he was dismissed. Once again, scandal appears to have led to his loss of favor. He was even accused of plotting against Joseph's successor, Leopold II. That year, he married Celestina Ernestina Grahl (known as Nancy), who died on December 12, 1831. Their daughter, Luisa, married a Columbia professor and prominent Catholic philanthropist.

Migration to the United States

Moving to Paris in 1791, he went to London the following year, where he worked at the King's Theatre, taught Italian, and was employed as a bookseller. During 1800, he was imprisoned for his debts. In 1805, fleeing creditors, he migrated with Nancy and their daughter, Luisa (born 1794), to the United States. He briefly ran a grocery store in Philadelphia and gave private Italian lessons before returning to New York to open a bookstore. At one point, he may have played organ at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. He became friends with Clement Clarke Moore, the supposed author of Twas the Night Before Christmas, and through him gained an appointment as the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia College (now known as Columbia University). He was the first faculty member to have been born a Jew, and also the first to have been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. This was, however, an unsalaried position although he could charge fees for teaching. In 1828, at the age of 79, da Ponte became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[1] He was not very successful at Columbia, failing to interest his students in his native language. His attempt to establish an Opera company in New York also floundered. He is credited with being the first person to teach Dante in the United States. Donating his books to several libraries, some 26,000 of these formed the basis of the Italian collections at Columbia, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library.[2]


Da Ponte died in 1838. Another distinction shared by him with Mozart is the fact his place of burial is unmarked. Da Ponte was originally buried in a Catholic cemetery in Manhattan, near Old Saint Patrick's Cathedral. These interments were later removed to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, with little attention paid to who was who. A cenotaph to Da Ponte's memory is found at Calvary.


All but two of Da Ponte's works are adaptations of preexisting plots, as was common among librettists of the time. Le nozze di Figaro, for example, is based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais, as is Axur re d’Ormus, which Da Ponte wrote for Salieri. The minor exception is L'arbore di Diana; the great exception was Così fan tutte, an original work which he began with Salieri but completed with Mozart. Da Ponte's considerable musical legacy is less well known today than in his lifetime. This may be because his work is viewed as derivative. Certainly, he did not create his plots. However, he was brilliant at creating poetry and at giving new life to old material into which he skillfully wove comedy alongside tragedy. His Memoirs suggest that he saw his somewhat erratic career as the result of victimization by people he regarded as his enemies. However, it has also been described as "valuable" for "its portrait of early nineteenth century America."[3] During the Third Reich, when Mozart was "re-invented as a German artist," the "Jewish origins of his librettist were deliberately obscured."[4] The Lorenzo Da Ponte Library at UCLA is named for him. According to Holden (2006), Da Ponte "charmed" everyone he met and although his marriage lasted almost three decades, until his wife's death, his reputation as a womanizer lasted even longer.[5]


  • Opera Librettos
    • Ifigenia in Tauride (1783, ital. translation of the French opera Iphigénie en Tauride—composer Christoph Willibald Gluck)
    • La Scuola de' gelosi (1783, New version of the 1778 Libretto by Caterino Mazzolà)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • Il Ricco d'un giorno (1784)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • Il Burbero di buon cuore (1786, from the play by Carlo Goldoni)—composer Vicente Martín y Soler
    • Il Demogorgone ovvero Il filosofo confuso (1786)—composer Vincenzo Righini
    • Il finto cieco (1786)—composer Giuseppe Gazzaniga
    • Le nozze di Figaro (1786, from the play Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais)—composer Mozart
    • Una cosa rara ossia Bellezza ed onestà (1786, from the comedy La Luna della Sierra by Luis Vélez de Guevara)—composer Vicente Martín y Soler
    • Gli equivoci (1786)—composer Stephen Storace
    • L'arbore di Diana (1787)—composer Vicente Martín y Soler
    • Il dissoluto punito o sia Il Don Giovanni (1787, from the opera Don Giovanni Tenorio by Giuseppe Gazzaniga)—composer Mozart
    • Axur, re d'Ormus (1787/88, ital. translation of the libretto Tarare by Beaumarchais)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • Il Talismano (1788, from Carlo Goldoni)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • Il Bertoldo (1788)—composer Antonio Brunetti
    • L'Ape musicale (1789)—Pasticcio of works by various composers
    • Il Pastor fido (1789, from the pastoral by Giovanni Battista Guarini)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • La Cifra (1789)—composer Antonio Salieri
    • Così fan tutte (1789/90)—composer Mozart
    • La Caffettiera bizzarra (1790)—composer Joseph Weigl
    • La Capricciosa corretta (1795)—composer Vicente Martín y Soler
    • Antigona (1796)—composer Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi
    • Il consiglio imprudente (1796)—composer Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi
    • Merope (1797)—composer Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi
    • Cinna (1798)—composer Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi
    • Armida (1802)—composer Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi
    • La Grotta di Calipso (1803)—composer Peter von Winter
    • Il Trionfo dell'amor fraterno (1804)—composer Peter von Winter
    • Il Ratto di Proserpina (1804)—composer Peter von Winter
  • Texts for Cantatas, Oratorios, etc.
  • Poetry: Da Ponte wrote poetry throughout his life, including:
    • Various laudatory poetry for royalty (and some disparaging ones)
    • A long letter of complaint in blank verse to Emperor Leopold II[6]
    • 18 sonnets in commemoration of his wife (1832)


  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Libretti viennesi," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano-Parma: Fondazione Bembo-Ugo Guanda Editore, 1999, due volumi. ISBN 88-8246-060-6
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Estratto delle Memorie," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 1999. ISBN 88-7050-438-7
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Il Mezenzio," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 2000. ISBN 88-7050-310-0
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Saggio di traduzione libera di Gil Blas," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 2002. ISBN 88-7050-461-1
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Dante Alighieri," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 2004. ISBN 88-7050-462-X
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Saggi poetici," a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 2005. ISBN 88-7050-463-8
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo, "Libretti londinesi" a cura di Lorenzo della Chà, Milano: Edizioni Il Polifilo, 2007. ISBN 88-7050-464-


  1. www.pzweifel.com, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Librettist.
  2. The Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library at UCLA, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Retrieved September 14, 2007.
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, Da Ponte, Lorenzo.
  4. Jewish Museum, Vienna, Lorenzo Da Ponte: Challenging the World. Retrieved September 14, 2007.
  5. Anthony Holden, The Phoenix. Retrieved September 14, 2007.
  6. Anthony Holden, p. 113-6.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bolt, Rodney. The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte—Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. ISBN 1596911182
  • Da Ponte, Lorenzo. Memorie. New York: The Orion Press, 1959. ISBN 0306762900
  • Hodges, Sheila. Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. ISBN 0299178749
  • Holden, Anthony. The Man Who Wrote Mozart: The Extraordinary Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte. London: Orion Publishing Company, 2007. ISBN 075382180X
  • Jewish Museum, Vienna. Lorenzo Da Ponte—Challenging the New World. Exhibition catalogue from the Jewish Museum. ISBN 978-3-7757-1748-9
  • Russo, Joseph Louis. Lorenzo Da Ponte: Poet and Adventurer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1922. ISBN 0404506321
  • Steptoe, Anthony. Mozart-Da Ponte Operas: The Cultural and Musical Background to "Le nozze di Figaro," "Don Giovanni," and "Cosi fan tutte." New York: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 019313215X

External links

All links retrieved November 3, 2022.


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