Emanuele Conegliano was born on March 10, 1749 in the Venetian Republic’s Ceneda ghetto. His mother died giving birth to his youngest brother and, in 1763, the entire family converted to Roman Catholicism so that the father could marry a Catholic girl. At the time, it was not uncommon for converted families to take the name of the priest who conducted the baptisms. Therefore, on August 24, 1763, Emanuele received the name Lorenzo Da Ponte in honor of the presiding bishop.
Da Ponte had a way with words, was highly intelligent, and had the makings of a great scholar. Under the patronage of the bishop, he was given a good education and was placed in a seminary. However, in the entire history of the Church, very few have been as little suited for the priesthood as Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Shortly after his ordination, he began a life of debauchery in the company of characters such as Casanova. He had absolutely no regard for the moral dictates of either the priesthood or society in general. His first major love affair was with a woman named Angiola Tiepolo. The neurotic and abusive Angiola was inseparable from her gambling addict brother. For three years, the siblings controlled Da Ponte’s life and abandoned him when his money was gone.
Da Ponte made no attempt to reform. His next flame was Angioletta Bellaudi, a married woman who had begun her sexual career at the age of ten. The two made very little effort to hide their affair. Angioletta was widely known as “the priest’s whore”. The scandal eventually barred Da Ponte from publically saying Mass and the two were forced to take up residence in a brothel. When Da Ponte started publishing politically charged poetry, the civil authorities banished him from the province for eighteen years.
With his religious life obviously ended, Da Ponte set out to become a poet. After forging a letter of introduction and composing Per la Morte di Sua Maesta l’Imperatrice Maria Teresa, a poem in honor of the beloved Empress Maria Theresa, Da Ponte was appointed the court poet/librettist to Joseph II of Austria.
For several years, Da Ponte made his living by translating Gluck’s French operas into Italian and providing libretti for composers such as Antonio Salieri. It was only a matter of time before he met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart and Da Ponte first collaborated together in 1785 on the oratorio Davidde Penitente. In 1786, Da Ponte provided the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart and Da Ponte would also work together on Cosi Fan Tutte and, appropriately, Don Giovanni.
Da Ponte essentially lost his job after the death of Joseph II. The Royal Court looked for an excuse to get rid of him and, in 1791, he was dismissed on the grounds of his supposed affair with an opera singer called Adriana Ferrarese del Bene.
Desperate to keep his career afloat, he asked Mozart to come to London and collaborate on another opera. Mozart, however, was currently working with one of his Masonic brothers on The Magic Flute and was unavailable. Da Ponte returned to Italy and lived on his savings and his shame for several months.
While in Trieste, he met Nancy Grahl, the very pretty daughter of a German merchant. At first, Nancy was not interested in him because he was twenty years older than her. However, Da Ponte eventually won her over. They were married in 1792. The couple went to Paris in the hopes of starting a new life. Da Ponte had planned to gain protection from Marie Antoinette, the sister of Joseph II. By the time they arrived in France, however, the royal family had been overthrown by the revolutionaries.
Although Da Ponte did find steady employment in London, his uncontrollable spending forced him to leave the country in 1805. The couple moved to New York and opened a grocery store. Da Ponte did not, however, have a head for business. He now had four children and was on the verge of ruin. In 1807 he happened to meet Clement Clarke Moore (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). Intrigued by the old poet, Moore helped Da Ponte become the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University.
Da Ponte became quite respected in New York society. In addition to teaching nearly three thousand students, he translated popular European poems into English and French, founded a boarding school that was meant to give children a “real Classical education”, used his own money to produce the first American performance of Don Giovanni, and even financed New York’s first opera house.
When Nancy passed away in 1832, the devastated Da Ponte wrote a series of eighteen sonnets in her honor. Da Ponte himself died on August 17, 1838. He is buried in Queens’ Calvary Cemetery.
Sources: Hodges, Sheila “Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist”
Russo, Joseph Louis “Lorenzo Da Ponte: Poet and Adventurer”