Pietro Metastasio was born Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, the fourth child of a poor family living in Rome. Though little is known of his early years, he seems to have been a precocious child, gifted with the ability to create lyrics spontaneously. The first important event of his childhood years occurred in 1708, when, at the age of ten, he was reciting and singing extemporaneous verse to a group of playmates and he was noticed by the influential lawyer and literary man Gianvincenzo Gravina. So impressed was he with the boy’s ability that Gravina secured permission from the parents to adopt him and carried the boy into a world of classical and legal studies.
Though the story sounds improbable, the practice of extemporary declamation was not an unusual one in Italy at that time. As a form of public entertainment, it often dazzled and frequently awed the audience, who watched as poets vied with one another to expatiate in eight-line rhyming stanzas on any subject offered. Metastasio himself relates in his letters how, one evening at Gravina’s, he improvised eighty stanzas at a single sitting. Such a feat exhausted the youth, however, and Gravina, fearful for the boy’s health, soon put a stop to such improvisations.
Gravina himself was a member of an important literary club. A coterie of artists and poets who had originally come together in a Roman garden in 1690, the group formalized its association, founding an academy called Arcadia. Its members were devoted to the writing of simple, classically inspired verse, poetry of pastoral clarity and elegance free from the artificial mannerism of the seventeenth century baroque poet Giambattista Marino and his followers.
Arcadia was an important early influence on the work of the young Pietro Trapassi. Indicative of his respect for the classics, Gravina had already changed the boy’s family name to “Metastasio,” a Greek translation of Trapassi, meaning “crossing” and symbolizing, appropriately, the crossing from a humble, untutored station to a position of cultivated study and discipline. Metastasio’s admission to the Academy in 1718, at the age of twenty, provided him with examples of Italian neoclassical poetry that he would bring to theatrical brilliance in his melodramas. The Academy taught him the importance of verse that was musical, precise, clear—verse in which importance was given to the sound of the word, the rhythm of the phrase.
Ironically, Gravina died shortly before Metastasio’s formal admission to the Academy, but he left his protégé a large inheritance so that, for the first time in his life, Metastasio was independent. Both the law and literature now consumed his interest, and he continued to write lyric and conventional love poetry that began to attract notice. By 1719, he had moved to Naples, taking a position as law clerk in the office of one of that city’s most respected jurists. Meanwhile, his fame as a poet was spreading.
Though he had produced only one minor dramatic work, Justin...
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