“Tosca”: The Ultimate Historical Fiction

by Emily Murdock

Tosca is one of the most performed and most loved operas of all time. Modern audiences may view it as a love triangle gone wrong – a soprano is caught between an idealistic tenor and a sadistic baritone – but experiencing the opera can be infinitely more enjoyable and exciting if one has a grasp on the real historical context of Tosca. Let’s examine how the political landscape of Rome from 1798 through 1800 raised the stakes for Floria Tosca, Mario Cavaradossi, and Baron Scarpia, as well as the real-life inspirations for those characters.


A Rapidly Changing Political Landscape

French taking over Rome in 1798.

French taking over Rome in 1798.

Rome, 1798 – Pope Pius VI is in charge. The French Ambassador to Rome is none other than Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother. General Leonard Duphot is in Rome as a representative of the French Republic, but Duphot is killed in December 1797 by an anti-French mob and papal soldiers after an uprising of republican supporters. Ambassador Bonaparte flees Rome and goes back to his brother Napoleon, who invades the city in February 1798, wanting to avenge the death of his general and to make a statement of power. He banishes the pope from Rome – the pope dies over a year later in France – and turns the Papal States into the Roman Republic, a French client state. The ambassador also appoints a seven-man consulate to rule the territory. (The fictional Angelotti was one of these seven consuls.) About a year later, in January 1799, the French forces invade the Kingdom of Naples and establish the Parthenopean Republic, similar to Roman Republic. However, it fails just a few months later with much bloodshed, and the King and Queen of Naples return home. The Roman Republic stands until September 30, 1799, when the Kingdom of Naples takes over the territory and rules from Naples until the new pope arrives in Rome in July 1800 – right after the fictional events of Tosca. It is in this Rome, sede vacante (vacant seat, meaning no pope), that our story takes place.

The Characters and their Real-Life Inspirations

One of the fascinating aspects of Tosca is how much the characters seem as if they could have been real. This is entirely because the French playwright Victorien Sardou modeled the characters in his blockbuster play La Tosca after real people.

Baron Scarpia
Roman policeman, inspiration for Scarpia

Roman policeman, inspiration for Scarpia

When the Roman Republic fell in 1799, the French managed to get the Neapolitans to sign a treaty ensuring that any republicans remaining in Rome after the French left would not be molested for crimes they had committed in the past. However, crimes committed in the future were not protected. The Neapolitans honored this treaty surprisingly well, which is not how we see it in Tosca. The Rome of Tosca is portrayed as being under the thumb of The Church, when in reality, it was a relatively lawless place with absentee leadership – a perfect environment for the fictional Scarpia to act as he wished. Scarpia is from Sicily by way of Naples – the city that had just overthrown the short-lived Parthenopean Republic. Wresting power back from the French was bloody and violent – much like the Rome depicted in the opera and play. However, religion played a much smaller role in Naples than in Rome, so Sardou chose to transpose a chaotic Naples onto a quieter Rome. Four violent men, all from Naples or Sicily, provided inspiration for Baron Scarpia: Michele Pezza, known as “Fra Diavolo” (“Brother Devil”); Baron Curci, nicknamed “Sciarpa;” Vincenzo Speziale, a politician who dealt with the aftermath of the Parthenopean Republic, and Gaetano Mammone — the most notorious of all four men —famous for “piercing the throats of prisoners and drinking their blood.” (Nicassio, page 119)  While the fictional Scarpia does not drink blood in the opera, he is definitely hungry for power and domination.


Angelica Catalani, real life inspiration for "Tosca."

Angelica Catalani, real life inspiration for “Tosca.”

Floria Tosca

With the establishment of the Roman Republic in 1798, one change the leaders made was to allow women to perform on the stage. Since 1674, women had not been allowed to perform onstage in most of Italy (Venice being the exception). However, the French republicans felt that the male castrati were immoral and, frankly, really strange, so they reversed the ban and allowed women to perform. The tradition remained, despite the public wanting “their” castrati back. Women were there to stay. Enter Floria Tosca, a fictional celebrated singer from Venice who is brought to Rome by the real-life composer Paisiello. Four women singers were the inspiration for Tosca:  Giuseppina (Josephine) Grassini, one of Napoleon’s mistresses; Angelica Catalani, convent-educated like the fictional Tosca; Teresa Bertinotti, a firey-tempered diva who debuted in Rome in 1798; and Maria Marcolini, who sang in Venice in 1800 and became a star at Rome’s Teatro Argentino (Tosca’s theater) in 1806.


Mario Cavaradossi
Jacques Louis David, Mario Cavaradossi's teacher and a Napoleon supporter

Jacques Louis David, Mario Cavaradossi’s teacher and a Napoleon supporter

One way that the French Republic tried to influence the populace was through the visual and theatrical arts. Susan Vandiver Nicassio, author of the book Tosca’s Rome: the Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective, says: “Painting, like theater, was a narrative art closely tied to the cultural values of the day. The painter, like the performer, used his or her skills to tell a story with the aim of stirring the audience to virtuous action, or at least to virtuous sentiments….The arts were a major tool of statecraft, a means by which public opinion was shaped…” (pages 54-55). And in 1800, the most influential painters in Rome were not Italian; they were the students of French Republican sympathizer Jacques-Louis David. In Sardou’s play, we learn that Cavaradossi was one of those students. His job as a painter was perceived differently in 1800 than it would be nowadays. He was not a starving, romantic artist alla Rodolfo in La bohème. He was part and parcel of the politics of the day, there to make a statement. Painters were noticed for what their art said. In Sardou’s play, Cavaradossi says to Angelotti, “I would have already had a run-in with the hideous Scarpia if I hadn’t come up with a ruse…I asked the chapter of this church for permission to paint that wall, without pay…This devout piety has kept the hounds at bay and I may owe my safety to it until Floria leaves for Venice where she has an engagement for next season.” (Nicassio, page 282.) Puccini got rid of much of this descriptive dialogue for his opera, but the backstory remains.

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