For most people, a trip to Venice involves taking a ride in a gondola, posing for photos on the Rialto bridge and eating gelato. For my husband and I, it also involves visiting cemeteries.
Venice’s graveyard island, San Michele, was already on the agenda of our latest trip to La Serenissima in March 2023, mainly because we wanted to pay our respects to some big names (Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound). Judging from the sheer numbers of tourists disembarking at the San Michele water-bus stop, this isn’t unusual. In fact, a young woman asked me for directions because she was ticking-off the famous graves in a race with her boyfriend.
What was less usual was our trip to the Lido the following day, in search of an 18th-century soprano. We were looking for Catherine Tofts (1685?-1756): a leading singer on the London stage. She came to prominence in 1705 thanks to the trend for all-sung opera in the Italian style, and she’s often credited with being England’s first prima donna. Her most famous role was Camilla in the opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini, and she can be seen in a white dress in Marco Ricci’s painting, Rehearsal of an Opera (above).
Biographical information is scant, but, until recently it was thought that Tofts left the stage in 1709 because of a nervous breakdown. After a period in the United Provinces (now Holland), she washed up in Venice, where she captured the heart of Joseph Smith: a merchant and collector of art and rare books. They married, and, when Tofts died, Smith had her buried on the Lido: originally the site of Venice’s Protestant cemetery (established in 1685).
Back in the 1960s, the main scholarly work on Tofts was done by Mollie Sands, and it was one of her papers that alerted me to the soprano’s burial arrangements:
…when the Lido airport was built [in the 1920s] the gravestones were removed to a corner of the Catholic cemetery, the bones being either covered by tarmac or removed and placed in one large sarcophagus. Overgrown and neglected though it may be, the garden where the gravestone of the Smiths and other English residents now lie in a pleasant retreat, away from the glare of Lido life. Birds sing, and the sun shines through tangled branches. Camilla’s tomb is at least worthy of her queenly aspirations, but the epitaph does not even mention her achievements as a singer, and leaves most of our questions unanswered.
This romantic description left me determined to find the gravestone (especially since Sands did not record the wording of the epitaph). We took a water bus out to the Lido and walked along the shoreline until we found the Catholic burial ground. Once inside, we wandered around for almost an hour, trying to find the patch of overgrown garden reserved for the Protestant tombs. After much searching and scrutiny of Google Maps, we concluded that a piece of waste ground, now walled-off and beyond the reach of visitors, was probably the area described by Sands (we could just see tombstones poking out of the grass but couldn’t read any of them).
We never found Tofts’ “handsome tomb”, as Sands called it, but I subsequently read newer research by Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson which sheds light on the life of this elusive soprano. According to their paper, it was probably debt, not madness, which forced Tofts to leave London in 1709. The ‘nervous breakdown’ theory originated with John Hawkins’ misreading of a satirical quotation by Richard Steele in The Tatler, which describes Tofts wandering and singing to herself in woods and forests (a tongue-in-cheek reference to her performance as Camilla, not a portrait of a woman with mental health problems).
In fact, all the evidence suggests that Tofts had a happy life with Smith, whose position (he was made British Consul in 1743) must have brought both comfort and status.
Venice in Peril, together with other international committees and UNESCO, has conserved a series of 18th-century tombstones (of British Ministers resident in Venice) which we enjoyed viewing at the Lido cemetery. Nevertheless, it was frustrating to have missed the one we had come to see. The lack of mention of Tofts’ singing career in her epitaph is probably the reason why her tomb has been neglected, but there’s one thing we know for certain: her grave remains a peaceful place, where birds still sing.
Baldwin, Olive, and Thelma Wilson, ‘The Harmonious Unfortunate: New Light on Catherine Tofts’, Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (Jul 2010), 217–34
Sands, Mollie, ‘Mrs. Tofts, 1685? –1756′, Theatre Notebook, vol. xx, no. 3 (Spring 1966), 100–113