Luigi Rossi
(c. 1597/8-1653)

One of the most respected opera and cantata composers of the seventeenth century, Luigi Rossi is best-known for his opera Orfeo, which premiered in France in 1647.  This work, one of six Italian operas presented at the French court between 1645 and 1662, was part of an attempt by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, chief minister of France but a native Italian, to introduce Italian culture to France.  Partly because of the unpopularity of Mazarin himself, French audiences did not take to Orfeo or to Italian opera in general.  Today, however, Orfeo is one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of the early Baroque period.

Birth and Education

Luigi Rossi was probably born in 1597 or 1598, but exactly where is not known.  His father, Donato, seems to have been from Torremaggiore in Apulia, but a plaque in the church where Luigi Rossi is buried tells us that he was Neapolitan.

Scholars know just as little about Rossi’s early training.  A manuscript Rossi may have once owned indicates that he learned music from Giovanni de Macque and that he was at court (presumably that of the viceroy of Naples) for fourteen years.

Under Borghese Patronage

Wherever Rossi’s career began, it is certain that he had come to Rome by January 1620.  His first recorded position was with Marc’Antonio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.  Listed as a “sonatore” (musician) rather than as a composer, Rossi was on Borghese’s payroll from August 1620 until September 1636.

Rossi’s future wife was a member of the Borghese household as well: Costanza de Ponte, an excellent harpist, was employed by Borghese’s wife, Camilla Orsini.  Costanza and Rossi married on July 3, 1627.  They traveled together as musicians at least once, in 1635 when, at Camilla Orsini’s recommendation, they performed for the Medici family in Florence.

In 1633, Rossi found an additional position as organist at San Luigi dei Francesi, the official church of France in Rome.  Although he was often absent from Rome, Rossi continued as organist at the church until he died, his brother Giovan Carlo substituting for him when necessary.

In the Barberini Household

By the end of the 1630s, it is believed that Rossi had left the service of the Borghese family, accepting instead an offer of employment from Cardinal Antonio Barberini.  It is not until 1642 that Rossi actually appears on Barberini’s payroll, but their connection must have begun earlier, as Barberini is a beneficiary of the will that Rossi made on November 14, 1641.  (Rossi bequeathed all his musical manuscripts to Barberini.)

Barberini was as well-connected as Borghese, being the nephew of Pope Urban VIII.  He was also a lover of French music and French culture, a fact which presages the direction that Rossi’s career was later to take.

1642 appears to be the year that Rossi composed his first opera, Il palazzo incantato.  It was performed on February 22, and Barberini seems to have been pleased with it although the scenery was less than perfect.

Between Paris and Rome

In 1644, Pope Urban VIII died.  The new pope, Innocent X, was no friend of the Barberini family, seeking to investigate them for their abuses of power under Urban VIII.  In consequence, Cardinal Antonio Barberini decided to leave Rome.  Under the protection of the powerful French minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Barberini went to France in 1645.  Rossi followed suit in 1646, leaving his wife in Rome.

Rossi stayed in Fontainebleau with the French court for the summer of 1646 and settled in Paris in the autumn.  On November 27, 1646, Costanza Rossi died.  Rossi nevertheless stayed in Paris, probably because of the opera he was putting together.  Orfeo premiered on March 2, 1647.  The opera was a visual and musical extravaganza that lasted about six hours in performance.  The opera’s critics were divided along political lines: Mazarin supporters (and, apparently, Mazarin himself) liked the opera, while Mazarin’s detractors were appalled by the cost of the production.

Rossi returned to Rome sometime before July 1647 but, at Mazarin’s behest, decided to make a second trip to Paris.  He arrived in January 1648 but found Paris a changed place.  Because of Mazarin’s harsh financial policies, the Cardinal was threatened with an armed rebellion (known as the Fronde) and had less time for music.  Rossi met with Antonio Barberini in Provence, staying there from autumn 1649 until 1651.

In June 1651, Rossi arrived back in Rome.  He died there two years later.


Donnington, Robert.  The Opera.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Holzer, Robert R: ‘Rossi, Luigi’, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 24 April 2006), <>