Malaugurata Città: Lorenzo Da Ponte and Philadelphia  


During his thirty-three years in the United States, Da Ponte belonged to New York if he belonged to any place. In New York he found a circle of loyal friends, patrons, and allies that, along with his talents and energy, set him up as a figure of consequence and distinction, a notable addition to a city of increasing energy, diversity, and sophistication. He reflected bitterly on the contrast between his titles past and present—the bubble reputation—and the struggle of his daily life, but in the end, after his death, the struggle was the bubble and the reputation endured. He died with admirers at his side; appeared in obituaries not as a failed grocer and distiller, but as a celebrated Italian poet and scholar; and had the funeral of a leading citizen. Though a habitual flatterer, he was surely sincere when he spoke of the “noble, populous, and to me beloved, city of New York” (Memoirs, translated by Elisabeth Abbott, 409; number references are to this edition and to the notes by Arthur Livingston).

Of his nearly ninety years, about twenty-five were spent in that beloved city. About eight months (August 1818-April 1819) were spent as a resident of Philadelphia, a city that disappointed and thwarted him from the first hour, when he landed and found that his wife and children, who had crossed the ocean before him, had left town—for New York.

During his residence here at 27 Powell Street, the herald of Italian culture was listed in the city directory (1819) as a French teacher (see the “frame” of the photograph above). French must have seemed more marketable. His attempts to sell a collection of Italian classics to the public library failed, but his son Joseph was able to make a profit on them—in New York. After his family’s relocation, Joseph went back to Philadelphia to resume legal studies with Charles Jared Ingersoll. He returned to his family in broken health, and died of consumption in June 1821. When Da Ponte returned as an impresario in 1833, the visit reinforced his view of Philadelphia as a place where he would find only disappointment and misfortune.

Some accounts of Da Ponte’s life skip those eight months, as though he had returned to New York directly from Sunbury. Why bother with them?

First, of course, because Philadelphia is the subject here.

Second, Philadelphia was part of his years in Sunbury (1811-18). He made, he says, seventy-two trips (385) to Philadelphia in “L. de Ponty’s Wagon.” He made business deals here, with predictable results. The 1814 directory lists the “millenary” shop of “Lorenzo Daponta.”

Third, Philadelphia retains many buildings Da Ponte would have seen, and a few he would have entered: the house at 27 Powell (almost certainly the current 529 Delancey, shown above), where he and Joseph were importuned by their landlady; Musical Fund Hall; Christ Church, if he attended his son’s wedding; and Walnut Street Theater, if he was in town as an impresario in 1834.

And, fourth and last, his children seem to have been drawn to Philadelphia—not only the unfortunate Joseph, but also Fanny, who, Livingston suggested (384n), might have moved to Philadelphia to run the millinery shop (a few years later she was to marry a man from Bristol, about twenty miles upriver), and Lorenzo L., who was married (to the niece by marriage of President Monroe) at Christ Church (430n) and sought teaching jobs here.

Perhaps Lorenzo L.’s marriage explains his move to Philadelphia after a fire at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where he had had an appointment. A letter of introduction of 15 September 1829 from Fanny’s second husband, Henry James Anderson, to John Vaughan of the American Philosophical Society (American Philosophical Society Library) commends both the father and the son, but it was clearly Lorenzo L. who planned to set up a literary mission to Philadelphia. He advertised from 185 Pine (apparently the northeast corner of Pine and South Sixth, around the corner from 27 Powell Street, and somewhat to the east of the 1830 address of his father-in-law, John W. Durant). The Pine Street notice contains endorsements from at least half a dozen members of the Society, including William H. De Lancey, who had officiated at Lorenzo L.’s wedding. During his residence, the librettist had met one of them (Collins) and had been treated by the uncle of another (Barton). Lorenzo L. was advertised as an instructor at the Philadelphia Lyceum (with pretty much the same set of endorsements), and on 9 January 1830 the Inquirer noted that “Mr. Da Ponte, son of the eminent Italian Poet of that name, was elected on Tuesday evening last, by the board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Professor of the Italian Language in that institution.” But his name does not appear in city directories of the time, and by August 1830 he was listed as a professor of English at the Grammar School of Columbia College in New York (Evening Post, 12 August). New York was to be the final home of father and son.

So much for apologies. Now to rewind our story to the arrival of the family in America.

The passage was made on merchant ships. The Pigou brought Ann Da Ponte and her children to Philadelphia on 20 September 1804 (343n).  According to advertisements from the next few weeks, the Pigou also brought braziers’ copper, India book muslins, muslinets, corded dimities, “pic nic mitts & gloves,” and “patent lamps, girandoles and lustres.” It also brought news of a king (the relapse of George III into madness), and the statue of a founder (the William Penn now standing in Pennsylvania Hospital’s garden, on Pine Street).

The Columbia, which brought her husband and his pitiful possessions on 4 June 1805, carried a similar variety of goods. Da Ponte shared the long crossing with a large and probably inaccessible shipment of books.

The landing notice reminds us that passengers for Philadelphia made a preliminary stop at the Lazaretto, the local anticipation of Ellis Island. For later immigrants arriving in New York, the quarantine station, the Statue of Liberty, and the skyline were part of one sweeping view, still impressive to us, but greatly altered. The Lazaretto, in Tinicum Township ten miles south of (and thus insulated from) our rapidly changing city, is still standing, looking much as it did in 1804 and 1805. We can reconstruct, but not experience, what the Da Pontes would have seen on landing in Philadelphia. We can see the Lazaretto almost as they saw it, and there is another building for a “Philadelphia” list.

Da Ponte became familiar with Philadelphia only after his move to Sunbury, when he began carrying goods in the wagon. (On one journey, after he was hailed as Monsieur Du Pont by a French acquaintance, he received so much attention that he “could have carried all Reading away in my cart that day” [393].)


For the millinery shop of 1814 (84 North Second—see the bottom of the photograph frame, though given by Livingston [384n] and by others as 29 North Second—but notice Zaccheus Collins in the frame at that address), no advertisement has been found. To judge from nearby old-style addresses, it would have been on the west side, between Arch and Quarry. But here is an advertisement for Frances (the “E.” we can take as a misprint) Papegay, a dealer in millinery and artificial flowers who was a friend of Da Ponte’s sister-in-law Louisa Niccolini. If Fanny Da Ponte ran her father’s shop, Livingston thought, she might have lodged with Papegay. Perhaps Papegay took over the stock of the shop after Fanny’s marriage.


In August 1824, Lafayette was beginning his sensational tour of the U.S. The Da Pontes had been settled in New York for several years. Did Papegay visit them during her buying trip?

Da Ponte says little about the millinery shop, which was set up to make use of goods that had fallen into his hands (384). He has much more to say about his dealings with confectioner and fellow distiller Lawrence Astolfi, a native of Corsica whom Da Ponte, always grateful for a chance to speak Italian, befriended around the time of the move to Sunbury. Astolfi’s hospitality, piety, and good reputation were reassuring, but, says the poet in an echo of Così Fan Tutte, lauda finem (370). Da Ponte allowed him to sell some goods brought from New York. We can anticipate what he did not: a victim of Astolfi’s “confectioned hypocrisy,” Da Ponte was left beating his head with his fists. He found a characteristic consolation in a rumor that Astolfi, like many of his tormentors, had come to a bad end (379). Perhaps he was consoled, or would have been consoled, by the knowledge that Astolfi —depicted as an organ grinder—had been subjected to libel by waxwork (Richard N. Juliani, Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians before Mass Migration, 77). Meanwhile, Astolfi became the proprietor of the Columbian Garden, an elegant resort on the north side of Market Street between Thirteenth and Center Square, where he offered entertainment and strawberry ice cream. (Astolfi’s selection included “pine apple” and several others, but strawberry appears to have been his specialty.)

PHILADELPHIA GAZETTE, 11 June 1816. Courtesy of NewsBank, inc., and the American Antiquarian Society

It would seem that Pennsylvania in the 1810s presented a landscape of rogues and rustics who would have been at home in Martin Chuzzlewit. Da Ponte was glad to come to the end (so he thought) of his calamities in our state (409) and to follow the “paths miraculous” (395) that led him back to New York. There he resumed his friendship with Clement Clarke Moore and moved among notables including Moore’s cousin Nathaniel (Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, in whose house Da Ponte began his New York teaching career [362] had died in 1816), Gulian C. Verplanck, Fitz-Greene Halleck, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Ward (later author of a memoir on Da Ponte) and his sister Julia Ward Howe (a student of Lorenzo L.), as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving (who mentions “Signor Da Ponte” in Salmagundi), Samuel F. B. Morse,  John W. Francis (who married an aunt of the Ward siblings), William James MacNeven, and Fanny’s husband, Henry Anderson.

In Philadelphia as well the world of notables was a small one. Da Ponte knew this city as a trader wrangling with rascals and as an unsuccessful teacher and bookseller, but even here he brushed against several men who (like the last six in the previous paragraph) were members of the Philadelphia-based American Philosophical Society: his doctors Philip Syng Physick (whose instructions he cheerfully ignored) and Benjamin Smith Barton; the merchant Zaccheus Collins, a director of the Library Company with whom he negotiated about the Italian classics; Charles Jared Ingersoll, Da Ponte’s lawyer and the mentor of Joseph; and, as noted above, William H. De Lancey. It is pleasant, if pointless, to note that Powell Street is now part of a street named after De Lancey.

In the pages of The Port Folio, of which Ingersoll was a patron, Da Ponte himself appears as a literary figure, though, as Livingston says, the journal accepted him with “a certain wariness” (414n). Is the man in the notices below the same one who was at the center of the Pennsylvania Gothic tales in the Memoirs? That man looks isolated and helpless when he wastes his classical abuse on a Cacus or on Thaïses who would not understand the allusions. Livingston’s notes remind us to look beyond the Memoirs, which are setting us up for the deliverance to New York. The Port Folio reminds us that in 1817 and 1818 Da Ponte’s literary connections, for example, those with Thomas Mathias (“T. M.”), counted for something.

Please note that here Da Ponte is a teacher of Italian, not French, and that Joseph is acting as his assistant. After Da Ponte returned to New York, The Port Folio published a similar notice with his new address (July 1819).

In Philadelphia, then, there were people with whom useful and gratifying connections could be made. As we see in “To the Lovers of Literature,” Da Ponte dealt with the well-known bookseller and French instructor N. G. Dufief (years later in New York, Lorenzo L. would favor his method of teaching languages by committing passages, not only phrases, to memory [Evening Star, 18 September 1834]). Some Italian friends or allies came through Philadelphia, for example, Filippo Traetta (see below); Luigi Pittori (who brought Da Ponte news of his childhood friend Michele Colombo [404]); and Orazio de Attellis, Marquis de Sant’Angelo. (True, the marquis encountered Da Ponte not here but in New York, during the course of a life that makes Da Ponte’s seem fairly sedate.)


Even in the very small world of the single block of Powell Street, there were notable neighbors in 1819: Robert McCartee, D.D. (SW corner of Fifth Street); Benjamin Carr, a composer and professor who had worked on music for The Spanish Barber, an English version of the first Figaro play of Beaumarchais (#7); Peter Duler, professor of languages (#12); Joseph Jefferson, comedian and grandfather of the Joseph Jefferson celebrated as Rip Van Winkle (#14); and Raphaelle Peale, portrait painter (#24).

Please keep Joseph Jefferson in mind when you look at the second notice below.

The advertisement for Mrs. Burke is from early 1818, before Da Ponte moved to town. It is here because it features a piece by Filippo Traetta (or Philip Trajetta), whom Da Ponte admired, and later summoned to New York in the vain hope that they could write an opera and bring it to the stage. Also notice the overture to Una Cosa Rara, written by Da Ponte with Vicente Martín y Soler and quoted, due to its great popularity, in Don Giovanni. Its presence, along with the programs featuring the overtures to Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, is a reminder that, even when they were known and appreciated, works of art were often served up in parts, or at second hand. Notice also B. Carr, perhaps the neighbor at #7, in the O’Neil program, as well as Mr. Taws, perhaps the same one whose pianos came over on the Columbia with Da Ponte.

We can only guess whether Da Ponte saw these notices, or what he might have thought of them. They offered the overtures to “his” operas, but even he would not have claimed that they were his overtures. As for adaptations and translations, they were nothing new to him or to anyone in the theater. Da Ponte had adapted a French play and an Italian version of a Spanish play, and had in London prepared an adaptation of Gazzaniga’s version of the Don Juan story, despite his preference for the Mozart. (The adaptation did feature Da Ponte’s version of the catalogue aria.) But in The Libertine, Da Ponte and his language were entirely cut out, as Mozart’s music for Don Giovanni was paired with an English text by Henry Rowley Bishop (who later adapted Le Nozze di Figaro). Mrs. Burke (Cornelia Frances Thomas Burke Jefferson) turns up again, as Zerlina, sharing the stage with her future in-laws, Da Ponte’s neighbors Joseph Jefferson (Leporello) and his wife, Euphemia (Maria)They were not his Zerlina and Leporello, though, and Maria, an attendant of Donna Leonora (Donna Anna), was neither Da Ponte’s nor Mozart’s.

Maybe Da Ponte read the Libertine notice with a shrug or a shake of the head. During his first two decades in the U.S., opera seems to have had little place in his thoughts. Whenever he could aspire to more than survival, he turned, not to the musical theater, but to the promotion of language and literature through teaching, writing, and the book trade. That was inclination, a deep and sometimes almost selfless love, combined with a less selfless regard for himself as an independent artist. Poetry stands on its own and can live on the page. A libretto comes to life only through the music of a better-known composer. Its dependence makes it weaker than poetry, though with the right music it can rise above poetry. It is also weaker than music, which is not limited by language or bound to a text, and can be adapted to modest, remote, even solitary performances. We can see why Da Ponte might have been reluctant to be thought of as a librettist. But that reluctance could be combined with a conviction that full-scale Italian opera productions would be invaluable in promoting his first, patriotic, love. Perhaps his apparent indifference to opera was resignation. In a country reluctant to embrace foreign languages and content with overtures and adaptations, he “did not dare to hope for such a thing” (446).

Then, in 1825, Manuel Garcia’s company came to New York. That brought Da Ponte back to the theater, and eventually back to Philadelphia. The performances brought him attention and income, but it was for the sake of “our music” and its language that the success of Italian opera became “the desideratum of my greatest zeal” (446). Despite his pleasure at seeing Don Giovanni on an American stage (448), he was reluctant to take the part of his collaborator “the German” against the champions of Rossini. And when the sale of the libretto led Da Ponte indirectly to a lucky lottery ticket (456), he blessed Mozart and Don Giovanni, but spent his winnings on books from Italy.

Soon Da Ponte was preparing to present his niece from Italy in a series of vocal recitals. He loved his family, but affection was jumbled up in his mind with the acquisition of students and books, all leading to the glory of Italy. After the visit proved a disappointment, he became not less, but more, grandiose in his plans, spending months cajoling and negotiating to bring the Montresor company to New York and Philadelphia. Extensive correspondence with Giacomo Montresor began in August 1830. Da Ponte came to Philadelphia in October 1831 to raise money, and returned with the company for performances early in 1833.

Though he did not see another production of one of his operas, it seems likely that the “grand patriotic hymn” from 22 February is the “Hymn to America” written to Da Ponte’s words by his loyal friend Antonio Bagioli. Bagioli was one of many Europeans who came over with opera companies and remained here, enriching our musical life.

Opera enriched merchants as well. There is no doubt where the fashionable ladies solicited in the second advertisement were expected to wear their new turbans.

The tour was not a triumph for Da Ponte. After being eased out of his position, denied his benefit performance (he did receive benefits in New York, in July 1833 and June 1834), abandoned by most of the company (but not by Bagioli) while recovering from a painful injury, and losing a great deal of money, he wrote a bitter account of the tour, Storia incredibile ma vera, which described Philadelphia as “quella malaugurata città. Malaugurata per me, perché non ebbi la sorte mai di visitarla senza dissapori o disgrazie fatali.”

That certainly sounds like a final visit to Philadelphia, but it was not the end of this story. Once again, failure only fanned his ambition. He would not abandon his mission to the unconverted, but would build for them in New York a house of worship, a beautiful theater with a tier of private boxes. Thus he became involved with the company of Signor Rivafinoli, which gave performances in that “Italian Opera House” and in Philadelphia.

It seems unlikely that Da Ponte, who was once again eased out the management of a project he had championed, was encouraged, or inclined, to come to Philadelphia with the Rivafinoli group. In April and May 1834, when the company was in Philadelphia, Da Ponte was placing notices for the sale of books (described as the sacrifice of his devotion to Italian opera) in the New York papers. The performances of Mozart’s Requiem seem striking as a reminder of Vienna, but Vienna was probably far from Da Ponte’s thoughts. He speaks like countless others of Mozart’s immortality, but, though he also knew him as a mortal being, Da Ponte does not mention his premature death in the Memoirs.  Some of his notices claim that Mozart died in his arms, but he and his thoughts were elsewhere at the time

Despite the beautiful theater in New York, the Rivafinoli venture failed to make a profit. From our perspective, the deficits and the quarrels over who was to blame seem like another bubble, compared with the eventual success of Italian opera in this country. Da Ponte could see only that the good he intended had been undone by ingrates who would not listen to him. He presented his side of the story, and turned away from the theater.

“L. Da Ponta” of 35 Dey Street (the address of Lorenzo L. and Cornelia, with whom the poet lived as a widower; Livingston 416n) advertised in the Herald starting in January 1836 for students of Italian literature and for subscribers to his annotated version of “La Morale Cattolica” by “Mazoni” (apparently Alessandro  Manzoni, Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica1819). If the elder Lorenzo placed both notices (“Signor Da Ponte” is the subject of a somewhat snarky comment [Herald, 2 March] about the Manzoni edition, which, along with the solicitation of a good translator from Italian to English, suggests that that was the case), the second would represent a striking change in his interests. When the poet died, reconciled to the Church, on 17 August 1838, the gathering at his bedside included Bagioli and another veteran of the Montresor performances in New York and Philadelphia, Luciano Fornasari, who had sung a cavatina —“Se vuol ballare”? —from Le Nozze di Figaro at the 1833 benefit —another chance for Da Ponte to see his operatic work in the stage. The deathbed blessings, as well as his funeral, testified to the respect he had won in America. Unfortunately for our city, he must have felt that his successes had been achieved in spite of his experiences in Philadelphia.