Verdi’s Italy

2013 marks the bicentennial of the legendary Italian opera composer’s birth, making it a perfect time to explore the remote countryside that saw his beginnings as a musician and a man.

“I have been, I am and always will be a villager from the Roncole.”

This statement, made by legendary Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1863 at the height of his artistic career, epitomises the strong connection the artist felt to his homeland. For 80 of his 88 years, Verdi lived in the same small corner of northern Italy, keeping a residence just a few kilometres from where he was born, even after becoming an internationally celebrated musician.

Recognised as one of the most influential opera composers of the 19th Century, the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth – 10 October 1813 – marks the perfect time to explore the countryside he called home, a landscape that mixes the majesty of lyrical music with the simplicity of a farmer’s life.

Start your journey in Verdi’s birthplace, Roncole, a small village in the province of Parma, in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. It is an area steeped in history, art and food traditions, a land of winter fog, farming, poplar trees and the mighty Po river.

Verdi is such a beloved figure here that the name of his hometown was changed to Roncole Verdi in 1963. The rural house where he was born (Via della Processione 1; 05-249-7450) was turned into a national monument in 1901, and has been kept as modest as it was when Verdi lived there. Verdi’s father was an innkeeper, and the ground floor was both a tavern and a shop, while the bedrooms, including the bed that marks where Verdi was born, are on the second floor.

Directly in front of the house is the equally unpretentious Church of San Michele Arcangelo (Piazza Guareschi 65; 05-249-2294), where Verdi was baptised in 1813. It is also where he learned to sing and play the organ – the same organ that, one year before his death in 1900, he repaired.

Continue northwest through Parma’s countryside to Busseto, where Verdi received his first music lessons and met his first love. The 5km walk between the two villages is the same route that Verdi took to reach the house of his benefactor, Antonio Barezzi, who paid for the composer's studies throughout his early 20s. Barezzi was a wealthy businessman who provided food supplies to Verdi’s father, and was so impressed upon hearing the young Verdi play that he decided to fund and host his music lessons. Today the house has been turned into the Museo Casa Barezzi, which offers guided visits.

The main room, where Verdi composed and performed the works of his youth, is still decorated with the original furniture. An oil painting of Antonio Barezzi hangs above the 16th-century stone fireplace, and the Tomaschek piano, on which Verdi composed, sits in the corner. Today the living room is again the seat of important public concerts and cultural events, as it was in the 19th Century. 

The visit continues into the adjacent rooms, which contain original letters, posters and portraits that give a fascinating look into Verdi’s life and career. A painting by artist Francesco Paolo Michetti in 1887, the same year as the premiere of the opera Otello, shows a close-up of Verdi at 74 years old, with white hair and beard and a fiery look in his eyes. Verdi also fell in love with Margherita Barezzi, Antonio's daughter, in this house. They married in 1836 when Verdi was 23 and Margherita died prematurely from illness in 1840.

Across the street from Barezzi’s house is Piazza Verdi, where a statue of the composer was erected in 1913: Verdi, portrayed sitting, seems to be watching over the life of the small town. 

Also on the square is Teatro Giuseppe Verdi (39-05-249-2487), a theatre built between 1856 and 1868. Located inside the 13th-century Pallavicino Fortress, the theatre holds up to 300 people, and even though Verdi was against its construction – in fact, he refused to ever see its interior – the theatre has represented almost all of Verdi’s works in its 140 years of activity, and is still used for music performances and events.

The last stop on a Verdi itinerary should be Villa Verdi in the municipality of Villanova Sull’arda, 5km north of Busseto. The composer moved to this house in 1851 with his second wife, the famous soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi and Strepponi requested that their rooms be on the ground floor so they could be closer to nature; the upper floor was reserved for their guests. At the original desk in his bedroom, Verdi composed some of his most important works, such as Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Don Carlos, Aida and his last masterpiece, Falstaff.

It was also here that Verdi devoted a lot of his time to tending to the land. He was a solitary man and the time in the fields gave him access to nature, which he believed was important for his creativity.

“This deep calm is ever more dear to me. It would be impossible for me to find another place where I can live with such freedom,” he wrote of Villa Verdi in 1859, in a letter addressed to his friend, the countess Clara Maffei.

The villa is surrounded by a garden with tall trees and a lake. You can see the country road that every morning at 5, after drinking a cup of black coffee, Verdi walked to check and work on his land. He was a well-travelled and cosmopolitan man, but to him, home was always the remote countryside that saw his beginnings as a musician and as a man.