Pietro Metastasio da Roma a Vienna (1730-1782)

A Biography in English

Pietro Metastasio is the poet of the melodrama in the eigtheenth century.  A giant of the musical theater in Italy and in Europe, he not only establishes Italian as the universal language of the most widespread and popular artistic spectacle of his age, he also furnishes the inspirational and expressive model for whole generations of musicians who try their hands at Italian opera. 

            The birth of Pietro Trapassi (known artistically as Metastasio) occurs under good auspices: he is baptized at the hands of the cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.  The powerful cardinal, a nephew of Pope Alexander VIII, a patron of the arts in Rome between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, exercises a constant protection over Pietro, the son of a modest merchant.  This protection is so constant, in fact, as to cast some doubt on the authentic paternity of the future Hapsburg court poet--whether we compare portraits of Ottoboni executed by Francesco Trevisani with one painted of Metastasio by Pompeo Batoni, or read Montesquieu’s incisive sociological-anthropological analysis in his Voyage d’Italie (1724-26)  of sexual customs, marriage, the role attributed to women in Rome at the time, and the cardinal himself.  All of these circumstances entrust the education and formation of the adolescent Pietro to Gian Vincenzo Gravina, one of the founders, along with Ottoboni himself, of the Accademia dell’Arcadia

            At Gravina’s school the young Metastasio studies not only Homer, the Greek tragedies, Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Seneca, Ariosto and Tasso (and, in secret, Giovanbattista Marino, of whom Gravina disapproved), but, with the revival of the work of Dante Alighieri, he also discovers the ethical and political dimension of the Italian literary tradition, placed at the basis of the social function of poetry and literature, that is, for a return to the composition of tragedies.  At only fourteen, Pietro, in his tragedy Giustino (1718; Justin), modelled on Gian Giorgio Trissino’s L’Italia liberata dai Goti (Italy Liberated from the Goths), combines the mission of the future emperor of Byzantium, who is called to restore Italy to the Roman Imperium, with a love for Sofia, a niece of the empress Theodora.  The union of individual affective desires and foundational values involving the common good and good government constitutes the center of Pietro Trapassi Metastasio’s entire dramatic ouevre, which is destined for the musical theater--from melodramas and theatrical festivals to oratorios.  In Naples he publishes his first work, Poesie di Pietro Metastasio (1717; Poems by Pietro Metastasio), which along with Giustino and other compositions bears the signature of his new surname.  Dedicated to Aurelia Gambacorta d’Este, the wife of one of the leaders of the anti-Spanish plot of Macchia in 1701, and herself an exponent of the philo-Austrian Neapolitan aristocracy, the collection lays the groundwork for the poet’s move to the city in which the Dantean dream of his teacher (the unity of Italy under the two suns of Faith and the supreme Roman authority of the Hapsburgs) seems to be realized with the vice-regency established by the Hapsburg emperor Charles VI in Naples. 

            With Gravina’s sudden death at the beginning of 1718, Metastasio, after failed attempts to launch a literary career in Rome, leaves for Naples in the summer of 1719.  Here he puts himself at the service of the nobility of the Austrian vice-regency, both for theatrical festivals at the palace and for public spectacles meant to bridge the historical, cultural, and anthropological separation between the ruling classes and the people, demythologizing–in the manner of Giambattista Vico–the archaic superstitions of the rural world and propounding the civilization of social customs.  This is the social function expressed by Endiminione (Endymion), Angelica (Angelica), Gli orti esperidi (1721; The Gardens of the Hesperides), and Galatea (Galatea), operas that permit both the sharing of expectations between the commissioners and audiences of the theatrical festivals, and the integration of poetic composition and musical song.  The Neapolitan school of music--from Alessandro Scarlatti to the young Niccolò Porpora and his favorite student, the sopranist Carlo Broschi “Farinelli” (Metastasio’s  “sweet twin” in Naples), from Domenico Sarro to Leo Vinci–elects Metastasio as their poet of opera seria. 

            The social and political function of Metastasio’s poetry for music appears in the melodrama Didone abbandonata (1724; Dido Deserted), thanks to the dramatic characterization of the Virgilian heroine, who is represented almost as a proto-feminist. Staged at the Teatro San Bartolomeo, it achieves success with the singer Marianna Benti Bulgarelli, the “Romanina,” in the role of the protagonist, and with music by Domenico Sarro.  Breaking from the traditions of baroque opera (the theater of the marvellous, plot twists, the mixing of tragic and comic elements) and the role of the woman, who is paradoxically defeated precisely when she affirms her autonomy and independence as an individual, Didone abbandonata is the first and last of Metastasio’s melodramas in which passion is not governed by value, that is by moral virtue.  In his next melodramas, both in Venice and Rome (1728-1730), and in Vienna, from Demetrio (1731; Demetrius) to Ruggiero (1771; Ruggiero), Metastasio clings to the aesthetic criterion expressed in the Estratto dell’arte poetica d’Aristotile e considerazioni su la medesima (An Excerpt from Aristotle’s Poetics and Some Considerations on the Same) according to which the truthful representation of characters able to affirm values like magnanimity, justice, forgiveness, patriotism (which generate a pedagogical pleasure in the spectators), is preferable to required catharsis or the purification of evil, which is provoked through terror and pity, sentiments prescribed by a mechanical interpretation of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy. 

Laxenburg - Neues Schloss

            Even before systematizing his aesthetic conception of melodrama in Vienna, Metastasio, from Siroe (1726; Siroe) to Catone in Utica (1728; Cato at Utica), Ezio (1728; Ezio), Semiramide (1729; Semiramis), Alessandro nell’Indie (1729; Alexander in India), and Artaserse (1730; Artaxerxes), employs the hedonistic-pedagogical criterion in his dramas with a happy ending (with the exception of Catone in Utica, in order to respect the historical truth of the protagonist’s sacrifice), along with admiration and emulation, which is generated in the spectators by the positive dramatizing of values/virtue, which prevail over the contrasting passions and conflicts among human beings.  In the Naples of the Austrian viceregency, Metastasio shares, along with Pietro Giannone and Giambattista Vico, the intellectual function of representing a possible moral and civil reform of customs in a city that is not dominant, which is to say deprived of its own autonomous political center; in papal Rome, he meets with spirited popular approval and theatrical impresarios, who are contested by curial factions.  In 1730 he comes to the Vienna of Charles VI and to a court that will make him the symbol and image of a civil, social, and political life which the post-feudal organism of the Empire intends to modernize and reform.  Living in Vienna for the rest of his life, until 1782, he learns German to the extent of knowing the “few words needed to survive,” as he confesses to Charles Burney, who in September of 1772 comes to visit him at his house in front of the Hofburg [Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces, edited by Percy A. Scholes, Oxford University Press, 1959].  The production of Demetrio, the first Viennese melodrama to celebrate the onomastic of Charles VI, 4 November 1731, demonstrates the importance attributed to Italian, Metastasio’s poetic language, for the compositional and communicative function, both theatrical and musical, of opera seria.  The entire social universe of Vienna, from the court to the inhabitants of every class and social rank, is irremediably attracted by Italian verses within the rational dramatic distribution of scenes. 

Hofburg - Redoutensaal

            In the decade 1731-40, the understanding between Charles VI and his court poet assumes form in that admiration des héros, as the “contagion of heroism,” through which Metastasio introduces in the spectators the pleasure of tears and the emotion that develops virtue, both of which refer to the inspiration of the political deeds of Charles VI.  In the dramas, theatrical festivals, and oratorios, we see the grandeur of existence with the resolution of suffering, pain, and passion into values meant to promote the life of every subject, his happiness, along with the public happiness and hence that of the emperor himself.  Thus emerge masterpieces like Adriano in Siria (1732; Hadrian in Syria), L’olimpiade (1733; The Olympiad), Demofoonte (1733; Demofonte), La clemenza di Tito (1734; The Clemency of Titus), up until Attilo Regolo (Attilius Regulus), which in 1740 takes Charles VI as the model of patriotic virtue to be emulated, with his total dedication to the common good of the people whom he rules represented in the extreme sacrifice of the Roman consul.  Attilio Regolo is staged in Dresden, ten years later, in 1750, because in 1740 Charles VI dies suddenly, leaving the task of saving the Hapsburg Empire to his daughter, Maria Theresa, in the war of the Austrian succession.  After his most fertile artistic period, there follows a period of absence from Vienna because of war and epidemics, while Metastasio’s operas, together with the court Kappellmeister (Antonio Caldara, Francesco Conti, Georg Reutter, Luc’Antonio Predieri, Giuseppe Bonno), are staged in all the European cities, from the courts to the public theaters, following the deliberate choice of composers such as Vivaldi, Handel, Jommelli, Gluck, Hasse, Haydn, and Bach.  Thanks to these men, and later to Mozart, Salieri, Schubert, and Beethoven, music becomes an intrinsic form of poetry, both for the attraction exercised on notes by the rhythmic-phonetic exemplarity of Metastasian poetry (a unity that dates back to the song or melos of Greek tragedy), and for the ethical, religious, dramatic, and spectacular connotation of the court poet’s opera seria, whose music underlines emotions, sentiments, and passions, accompanying them until they are dramatically transformed into positive values.  Approbation, admiration, and enthusiastic judgments are expressed for Metastasio’s Italian opera by almost all of the artists, writers, and philosophers of the century.


Antonio Caldara                               Georg Reutter


Luca Antonio Predieri                               Giuseppe Bonno

Francesco Algarotti, an intellectual confidant of Frederick II of Prussia, is Metastasio’s correspondent, offering advice and suggestions for his poetic compositions, and always exhibiting his admiration and esteem for Italian opera.  In Paris, Carlo Goldoni dedicates the French edition of his comedies to him, praising the greatness of his dramas for music.  Diderot, through Luigi de Cahusac, asks him to write the entry on “melodrama” for the Encyclopédie, although he never does.  On various occasions Voltaire expresses positive judgments, and one which possesses relevant historical-hermeneutic interest is on Metastasio’s musical dramaturgy: in the libretto of the tragedie-lirique Sémiramis, he maintains that “in La clemenza di Tito there are scenes to be compared to the most beautiful of what has been passed down to us from the Greeks, which are worthy of Corneille when he does not declaim, of Racine when he is not dull.” 

Hofburg - NationalBibliothek

            Ranieri Calzabigi, in his “Dissertazione su Metastasio,” introducing and editing the 1755 Parisian edition of the works of the court poet, asserts the reciprocal correspondence in Metastasio between poetry and music in developing the sense and the emotions of beauty in the public.  Calzabigi, composing librettos for Gluck’s operas in Vienna during the 1760's, enters into competition with Metastasio and tries to dismantle his fame and prestige, without ever succeeding, however.  For one, the role of Metastasio’s theatrical-musical praxis, his aesthetic conception, the autonomy of the poetic-musical work, cannot be diminished; but what cannot be dismissed above all is the work of a poet who represented the aesthetic-moral universe in which all the men of the time recognized themselves, during the period of reforms begun by Charles VI and developed by Maria Theresa and Joseph II. 

            The strong moral spirit with which Metastasio informed his entire literary output makes his work not a mere continuation or derivation of the humanism of the Italian courts between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but a new expression of the individual’s power to create in modernity, that is, of the more creative part of each human being, evoked in his melodrama by Christian values reinforced by the civil, social, and symbolic tradition of classical literature, which is called to new life in the visual arts of the seventeenth century.  The Gesamtkuntswerk (total art-work), which Metastasio pursues in Italian opera through scenic stage-directions that serve as true and fitting explanatory guides for the stage-director, re-elaborates the mark of the painting masters who helped form him as a young man (Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo), and is integrated almost perfectly with architects/stage-designers in European theaters in their representations of Italian opera.  Theatricality as a perfect re-invention of nature–the mere imitation of which Metastasio rejected–is united with the languages of arts that pursue the same end, representing and reconstituting the space in which these arts narrate the truthful creation of the good and the beautiful.  The importance of Metastasio’s work for the Enlightenment philosophes and for Rousseau himself consists in having represented, as the internal critical conscience of the ancien régime, the extreme limit reached by that world in guiding the universal desire for greatness and justice of the peoples and social classes of the Empire, giving it form in visible and practical values-- no longer deforming its nature by producing deception and self-deception.



Born in Rome, 3 January 1698, to Felice and Francesca Galastri on via dei Cappellari (Campo de’ Fiori).  His father is a merchant of foodstuffs.  In June 1702 his mother dies suddenly.  Felice Trapassi is re-married not long after to Angela Lucarelli.  Pietro is educated by Gian Vincenzo Gravina, who translates his surname Trapassi into its Greek form, Metastasio; in 1724 he composes his first melodrama, Didone abbandonata, establishing himself as the most important poet for the musical theater of the day.  In 1730 he moves to Vienna, and is named Poeta Cesareo (Court Poet) by Charles VI, succeeding Apostolo Zeno.  In the decade 1730-1740 he composes masterpieces like Adriano in Siria and La clemenza di Tito, which give him primacy as the librettist most often put to music.  He teaches singing and acting first to Maria Theresa, and then to her sons, Leopold and Joseph, future emperors.  He composes dramas for music for the court of Madrid between 1751-56, thanks to the singer Carlo Broschi “Farinelli,” who is taken on at the Spanish court in the same role Metastasio held in Vienna.  Up until the beginning of the 1760s, his works are represented in all the European theaters with the music of the greatest composers; the autonomy of music from Metastasio’s poetic operas attests to a continuous taste for his verses.  A correspondent of the greatest artists, writers, and philosophers of the age, Metastasio, in the 1760s and 1770s, contributes to the reconciliation of Maria Theresa with the Bourbons, maintaining epistolary exchanges with intellectuals from Naples, such as Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.  Metastasio’s emotional life in Vienna is bound to the contessa Marianna Pignatelli d’Althann, from 1734 to 1755, after the death of the singer Marianna Benti Bulgarelli, who inspired his choice as the author of the melodrama.  The last Marianna in Metastasio’s life, Marianna Martinez, herself a composer and singer, assists him until his death in Vienna, after a brief respiratory illness, 12 April 1782.  Buried at his request in the crypt of the Michaelkirche, only several steps from his house at Kohlmarkt, where for fifty-two years he was a guest of the Martinez family, on the order of Charles VI.

Selected works 


  • Poesie del Signor Abate Pietro Metastasio, edited by Ranieri Calzabigi, 9 vols., Paris: Quillau, 1755

  • Poesie del Signor Abate Pietro Metastasio, 10 vols., Turin: Stamperia Reale, 1757-1768

  • Opere del signor abate Pietro Metastasio, edited by Giuseppe Pezzana, 12 vols., Paris: Presso la vedova Hérissant, 1780-1783

  • Opere di Pietro Metastasio con dissertazioni e osservazioni, 16 vols., Nizza: Società Tipografica, 1785.

  • Dramas and Other Poems of the Abbé Pietro Metastasio, translated by John Hoole, 3 vols.,  London: Otridge & Son, R. Faulder, 1800

  • Opere, edited by  Fausto Nicolini, Bari: Laterza, 1912-1914

  • Opere scelte, edited by Giulio Natali, Milan: Francesco Vallardi, 1934

  • Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, 5 vols.,  Milan: Mondadori, 1943-1954

  • Teatro, edited by Mario Fubini, Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, 1968

  • Opere, introduced by Franca Angelini, edited by Daniele Del Giudice, Rome: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 1999

  • Drammi per musica: Il periodo italiano 1724-1730, edited by Anna Laura Bellina, vol. 1, Venice: Marsilio, 2002

  • Drammi per musica: Il regno di Carlo VI 1730-1740, edited by Anna Laura Bellina, vol. 1.,   Venice: Marsilio, 2003

  • Drammi per musica: L’età teresiana 1740-1771, edited by Anna Laura Bellina, vol. 3, Venice: Marsilio, 2004

Writings on Aesthetics

  • Estratto dell’Arte poetica d’Aristotile e considerazioni su la medesima, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.

  • Estratto dell’Arte  poetica  d’Aristotile, critical edition by Elisabetta Selmi, Palermo, Novecento, 1998

  • Dell’arte poetica, epistola di Quinto Orazio Flacco a’ Pisoni, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.

  • Invito a cena d’Orazio a Torquato, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli,  vol. 2, 1947.

  • Osservazioni sul teatro greco, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.

  • Satira III di Giovenale, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.-1


  • Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Abate Metastasio: Translations of his Principal Letters, edited  by Charles Burney, 3 vols., 1796

  • Memorie, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.

  • Metodo per lo studio dell’italiano per l’arciduca Giuseppe, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 2, 1947.

  • Lettere, 1715-1757, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 3, 1951.

  • Lettere, 1757-1770, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 4, 1954. Lettere, 1770-1782, in P. Metastasio, Tutte le opere, edited by Bruno Brunelli, vol. 5,  1954.

  • “Dieci lettere inedite di Pietro Metastasio, edited by Mate Zoric, Studia romanica et anglica zagrabiensia, 21-22 (1966), 321-36

Further Reading 

  • Accorsi, Maria Grazia, “Etica nicomachea e Poetica nei primi drammi ‘italiani’ di Metastasio”, in La tradizione classica nelle arti del XVIII secolo e la fortuna di Metastasio a Vienna, edited by Mario Valente and Erika Kanduth, Rome, Artemide, 2003.

  • Binni, Walter, L’Arcadia e il Metastasio, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1963

  • Calzabigi, Ranieri, Scritti teatrali e letterari, edited by Anna Laura Bellina, Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1994

  • Giazotto. Remo, Poesia melodrammatica e pensiero critico nel Settecento, Milan, Bocca, 1952.

  • Gronda, Giovanna, Le passioni della ragione:  Studi sul Settecento, Pisa: Pacini, 1984

  • Joly, Jacques,  Les fétes théatrales de Métastase a la cour de Vienne (1731-1767) Clermont-Ferrand, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences humaines, 1978.

  • Muraro, Maria Teresa (Editor), Metastasio e il mondo musicale, Florence, Olschki, 1986.

  • Neville, Don, “Moral Philosophy in the Metastasian Dramas”, in Crosscurrents and the  Mainstream of Italian Serious Opera 1730-1790. A Symposium (11-13 February 1982), edited by Don Neville, London, Ontario: University of Western Ontario, 1982.

  • Pavone, Mario Alberto, “Il panorama figurativo nella memoria critica del Metastasio”, in La tradizione classica nelle arti del XVIII secolo e la fortuna di Metastasio a Vienna, edited by Mario Valente and Erika Kandut, Rome, Artemide, 2003.

  • Sala Di Felice, Elena, Metastasio: ideologia, drammaturgia, spettacolo, Milan: Angeli, 1983

  • Strohm, Reinhard, L’opera italiana nel Settecento, edited by Mario Armellini, Venice, Marsilio, 1991.

  • Valente, Mario (editor), Legge Poesia e Mito: Giannone Metastasio e Vico fra “tradizione” e   “trasgressione” nella Napoli degli anni Venti del Settecento, Rome: Aracne, 2001

  • Valente, Mario, “Pietro Metastasio e Giacomo Noventa: l’irresistibile fascino dei valori”, in Storia del Candore: Studi in memoria di Nino Rota nel ventesimo della scomparsa, edited by Giovanni Morelli, Florence: Olschki, 2001

  • Valente, Mario, and Erika Kanduth (editors), La tradizione classica nelle arti del XVIII secolo e la  fortuna di Metastasio a  Vienna, Rome: Artemide, 2003.

  • Valente, Mario, L’inafferrabile felicità e il senso del tragico “L’Olimpiade”, Metastasio e  Cimarosa, Rome: Artemide, 2003.

  • Vlad, Roman, “Metastasio, Salieri e la scuola viennese”, in La tradizione classica nelle arti del XVIII secolo e la fortuna di Metastasio a Vienna, edited by Mario Valente and Erika Kanduth, Rome, Artemide, 2003.

Roma, 18 luglio 2013                                      Mario Valente

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