The Orphan's Song: The Lost Children of Renaissance Venice

Best-selling author Lauren Kate reveals how a tour of Venice's storied ospedali inspired her new novel.

Two years ago, on a dusky April evening, my husband and I boarded a flight from L.A. to Venice to research my next novel. I knew the story would unfold in the city's hedonistic 18th century, and that it would orbit the unique Venetian institution called the ospedale—a combination hospital, orphanage and music conservatory. I was hoping the rest of the story would find me over the next ten days.

As the plane's door slammed, I felt that something was missing. I had my passport, my dog-eared copy of John Julius Norwich's A History of Venice opened on my tray table, Vivaldi soaring through my earbuds and an itinerary of meetings with historians ahead of me. But for the first time in ages I had an airplane seat all to myself—no bouncing toddler boy in my arms, no coloring book- and peanut-pleading little girl upon my knee.

The night before, my parents had flown in from Dallas, offering to look after our 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. It was my husband's and my first trip without our children, and as the plane's wheels lifted off the runaway, we clinked champagne glasses like escaping criminals.

I looked out the window and wondered: Did writing a book about abandoned children require me to temporarily abandon my own? Was I taking the research a little too far?

"We'll FaceTime when we land," my husband said, reading my expression and pouring more champagne into my glass.

We had taken our children and parents to wintry Venice the year before, at the end of my last book tour, and that trip gave me the idea for the story that would become The Orphan's Song. We'd rented a flat near the Ospedale degli incurabili—the Hospital of the Incurables. The massive stone compound was closed to the public, but the name had intrigued me, and I'd needed to know more.

I found out that this ospedale dated back to the 15th century and, for hundreds of years, trained foundling girls to perform music for the church. Schooled by the best composers, these girls were legendary talents, known by their first names and instruments: "Laura of the Violin," "Angela of the Oboe," "Maria of the Angel's Voice." Up until the Republic fell in 1797, Venice's four ospedaliPieta, Ospedaletto, Mendicanti, and of course, Inucrabili—drew huge audiences from around the world.

orphan's song ospedales
An orphan from the Venetian ospedales in the 16th century. Getty Images

I knew there was a story in the Incurables. I heard the voices of two young orphans who were aching to harmonize. I've written nine novels for young adults, but I quickly sensed that this story would be different, for an older audience. Becoming a mother made me want to explore not just falling in love, but what happens next. What love makes.

Our phones buzzed with video messages from Matilda and Venice (yes, our son is named for the city) when we arrived at the Venice airport—accounts of meals eaten and games played at school. There were urgent inquiries as to when we were coming home. How had they aged so dramatically in twelve hours? It was 5am back home, and I hoped dearly they were all still asleep. We sent them a video from the speedboat spiriting us to our flat in Dorsoduro, a few blocks away from the Incurables.

On previous trips we'd visited Venice's famous churches and museums. We'd taken a boat out to Murano to see the glassblowers and their creations. We took the requisite kissing selfie on the Rialto Bridge. On this trip, we were trying to travel back to Casanova's day, to the gaudy Baroque Era and the ospedali's musical peak. It was an age when Carnevale lasted roughly half the year, when most Venetians wore masks every day, everywhere, and when it was vulgar to be seen at the theater with your spouse (that's what lovers were for). This vogue for extramarital amour had presented a new problem: illegitimate children, homeless and crowding Venetian streets. The music programs at the ospedale were devised to give Venice's orphans something useful to do.

Ospedale della Pieta
A view of Venice city on a summer day, with the facade of Ospedale della Pieta. Getty Images

Our first appointment was at the Osepdale della Pieta, in San Marco. Situated on the Grand Canal in a building that is now the Metropole Hotel, Pieta is the best-preserved of the four ospedali, likely because it launched the career of Vivaldi, who served as its maestro for many years. I touched the orphans' red cloaks and their instruments. I marveled at the little brand used to mark the heel of each orphan with a "P" for Pieta. I knelt in the booth where the foundlings made their confessions, and stepped onto the second-story gallery where they sang.

The gallery was cage-like, enclosed by a grate of brass pomegranates, which shielded the maiden singers from the mature churchgoers' eyes below. I lingered before a glass case containing orphans' "half-tokens," often a scrap of patterned fabric or a small painting cut in half. One part was kept by the abandoning mother, the other by the child. Should fate ever reunite the two, this half-token would prove their bond. Immediately I knew my story would hinge on one such broken promise.

When the sun was low on the Grand Canal that first day, my husband and I lingered in the lobby of the Metropole Hotel to enjoy Venice's signature cocktail—the bittersweet, golden pink Aperol spritz. We talked about our kids as we waited to attend the concert we had tickets to that evening: a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the Pieta. Hearing music from the era I was researching, played in an ospedale church, was such a concentrated dose of history that I was moved to tears. It was as valuable as three months' research in a library.

Violin Perfomers
Lauren Kate

The next day we visited the ospedale dei mendicanti in the northern neighborhood of the Castello. After the fall of the Republic to Napoleon, the priests of the mendicanti took pains to collect some of the most magnificent paintings that had decorated all four ospedali churches. My favorite is Tintoretto's Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, depicting them on their journey to Ursula's wedding, just before they were raped and massacred by Huns. The painting once hung above the altar in the church of the Incurables, and I knew I would soon write about my heroine gazing upon it as she sang each day. It would remind her that happiness is fleeting, that your best day might be your last.

Later in the week, we went to the ospedaletto, which has preserved an ornate music room where the orphans performed for famous guests. We dove into the ospedaletto archives, charmed by the orphans' requests for polenta, watermelon and eggs.

We explored the grand campo of Santa Margherita near the Incurables, buying masks for the whole family from a famous local mask maker. We visited the magnificent Baroque-era museum Ca' Rezzonico, housed in a former palace of a former doge. I took photos and scribbled pages of notes as one pastel Caneletto after another depicted the cultural moment my story would explore. I was most struck by the portraits by Rosalba Carriera, whose medium was chalk. I bought a postcard to show my daughter, a budding driveway chalk artist herself.

When I think back on this trip, I think of missing my children—and also in delighting in ten days alone with my husband. I think of huddling next to him over Veneto wine and chiccetti (Venetian snacks) at the Cantinone gia Schiavi, where they serve nothing that can't be eaten standing up.

I think of the only night we had dinner reservations, which we missed because we got lost and ended up on the other side of the city, passing happy hours at a hidden little bar in the Cannaregio. These decadent evenings left me wondering about the men and women in the era of my story—how often did their orphans cross their feasting minds? Did their masks obscure their heartache in the flow of lust and life?

On our final day in Venice, it was time for our appointment at the Incurables, and I was glad we'd saved it for last. By the time my husband took my hand and led me up to the building's roof to see the view of the Giudecca Canal, I held the whole story of The Orphan's Song within me, a confluence of our trip.

I knew where my heroine, Violetta, would meet my hero, Mino, on the forbidden rooftop; which bridge they would rendezvous upon after scaling Incurabili walls. I knew the feel of their carnival masks against their skin and the smell of the casinos where they'd carouse. I'd seen their regattas in Caneletto's paintings. I'd heard their music in the Pieta church.

Never has a novel found me so completely before I sat down to write it. Would you be surprised to know Violetta is inspired by my daughter and Mino by my son? It turns out they were with me all along.

Lauren Kate is the #1 New York Times and internationally best-selling author of nine novels for young adults, including Fallen, which was made into a major motion picture by Sony. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

Her debut adult novel, The Orphan's Song (Penguin Random House, $26) is out June 25.

lauren kate orphans song
Lauren Kate's 'The Orphan's Song' (Penguin Random House, $26) is out June 25, 2019. Lauren Kate/Penguin Random House
The Orphan's Song: The Lost Children of Renaissance Venice | Culture