What do an eighteenth century Russian opera singer and a warlike tribal people of ancient Italy have in common?

May 6, 2009 at 10:40 am (books, History, Italy, Russophilia)

In  The Pearl, author Douglas Smith tells the story of Nicholas Scheremetev, a Russian aristocrat who finds, in the young Praskovia Kovalyova,  a woman of prodigious acting and singing talent. He puts her in starring roles in his home grown opera company. Then, almost inevitably, he falls in love with her. The problem: she is of lowly serf parentage. But this fact does nothing do dampen Scheremetev’s ardor; if anything, his devotion to Praskovia increases as she moves from triumph to artistic triumph.

I found myself turning back repeatedly to this portrait of Praskovia, attributed to German artist Johann Bardou and most likely painted in 1790. She is here depicted in the role of Eliane in an opera entitled “The Marriage of the Samnites” by Andre Gretry:


I admit that at the time, I was so engrossed in the poignant story of Nicholas and Praskovia that I did not stop long to wonder just who the Samnites were. But now that I’ve been reading up on the history of the Italian peninsula, I am encountering them again. Early settlers in central Italy, the Samnites warred repeatedly with the Romans for supremacy in the region. Ultimately they lost out, were dispersed, and gradually disappeared, as the Romans swept all before them.

Somehow, though, I doubt that their womenfolk got themselves up in elaborate costumes like Praskovia’s; animal skins were probably more the order of the day!

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