No single tradition more profoundly influenced European thought and culture than Christianity. Every artistic work since the fall of Rome has, in one way or another, engaged with its legacy. Every age has chosen to deal with Christ and the Church in a different way. The method of the Renaissance humanists deserves particular attention: they applied their faith to the writings of pre-Christian Greece and Rome. Especially evident in the arts, this Christianization of classical antiquity remained a potent intellectual force in the centuries following the Italian Renaissance.
As a genre, the opera was no exception to this trend. It is especially evident in L’Orfeo, la favola in musica the most widely circulated and influential early opera. Although ostensibly about the classical myth of Orpheus, L’Orfeo is in fact deeply Christian and must be considered within a Christian context. Written by the esteemed poet Alessandro Striggio and composed by Monteverdi, it was commissioned by the Gonzaga family in Mantua, and premiered in 1607 in the Prince’s “Most Illustrious Academy of the Enlightened” (DelDonna).
One of the major influences on Striggio’s work was the Renaissance humanism that pervaded Italy at this time. Dating back to Petrarch, who is often called “The Father of Modern Humanism,” this brand of humanism stressed a course of study that focused on classical texts (McCauley). The belief was that by studying the work of the ancients, an individual would become a more well-rounded human who better understood how to live. This appropriation of the classics was not entirely without precedent: the Catholic Church had been doing it for centuries. Early Church Fathers, steeped as they were in their own still-classical world, often turned to Aristotle to explain their faith. Aristotle fit so well within the Christian worldview that scholasticism, the method of thinking endorsed by the Church from the ninth century through the Reformation, was based almost entirely upon his work (Soltes). What was new about these Renaissance thinkers is that they did not apply classical thinking to Christianity; they applied Christian thinking to classical texts. And one did not just read the Church Fathers as the scholastics had. One also read Livy, Cicero, Homer, Seneca, Ovid, Catullus, and numerous other classical, pagan writers.
This is not to suggest, however, that this humanism was not Christian. It was deeply informed by Christian tradition and all of its major proponents were still devoutly religious. This posed a problem for scholars, namely: How to reconcile the pagan, polytheistic writings of Rome and Greece with their own Christian monotheism. They solved this problem in a rather simple manner; men like Seneca and Ovid, who lived entirely pagan lives, suddenly found themselves baptized.
And so the great works of the Greco-Roman world were reinterpreted through a Christian lens. Humanists found, or added, Christian messages to classical texts to make them fit better within their worldview. Seneca, to use just one example, reached near sainthood, especially in latter works like L'incoronazione di Poppea or Montaigne’s Essays. Other authors endured similar fates. This was all in the name of continuing the classical tradition. But by Christianizing these works, the humanists were creating a new tradition. It is within that tradition that L’Orfeo must be considered.