One of the most delicious literary portraits of all time is that of the Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini as penned by the acid-tongued German poet and commentator Heinrich Heine.
“He was tall, slenderly built, moved gracefully – I would say coquettishly, always self-consciously,” wrote Heine of the 33-year-old blond, blue-eyed musician from Sicily. “There was something vague, an absence of character in his features, something milky; and sometimes a sour-sweet expression of sorrow would appear on that milk-face… But it was sorrow without depth; it quivered in his prosaic eyes and flickered without passion on the man’s lips.”
Vincenzo Bellini captured in an anonymous miniature around the time of his death
“His hair was combed in such a romantic, melancholy way, he carried his little Spanish cane in such an idyllic manner, that he always reminded me of one of the young shepherds who simper coyly in our pastoral plays,” Heine continued. “And his gait was so virginal, so elegiac, so ethereal. The whole man looked like a sigh in dancing pumps and silk stockings.”
The two met in Paris where Heine, attracted by the liberal ideals that had put Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen King” on the French throne, had been living in voluntary exile since 1831. By 1835, Bellini was at the height of his fame. He’d just been awarded the Légion d’honneur and was basking in the triumph of I Puritani – his tenth opera – which had brought the house down at the Théâtre-Italien that January.
Heinrich Heine in 1831 by Moritz Oppenheim
Heine was a social gadfly, but one with a notorious sting. Invited to all the best salons, his reputation for viperish comment meant that even those like Berlioz who claimed to like the man tended to hold him slightly at bay. As a critic, Heine had a reputation for soliciting bribes in exchange for a good review with both Liszt and Meyerbeer feeling the lash after refusing to part with ready cash.
As for Bellini, he was a sensitive soul whose dread of criticism and maniacal fear of the machinations of his – mostly imagined – secret enemies by this time bordered on the paranoid. And yet, there was a strange mutual attraction when they were introduced that spring in the fashionable salon of the Princess Belgiojoso. How they communicated is anybody’s guess. The poet must have spoken French, though in 25 years he never wrote in the language, whereas Bellini’s French was execrable according to Heine who likened the composer’s attempts to “breaking words on the wheel like an executioner”.
Either way, the two were considered sufficiently simpatico to be invited that summer as guests to Belgiojoso’s country estate. At first all went well with the two men jousting good-naturedly over the billiard table. Bellini’s mistake, it would appear, was to admit to Heine that he was, by nature, superstitious. The German saw an opening, joking that Bellini was fated to die young. “That prophecy frightened him,” Heine would write later, while Bellini accused the German of being a jettatore, that is of possessing the evil eye.
Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso in 1832 by Francesco Hayez
The writer Caroline Jaubert was a fellow guest and, in her reminiscences, explains how Heine took advantage of Bellini’s weakness. “At that time, our German poet, who wore black spectacles to rest his weak eyesight, was thus furnished with one of the special attributes of the jettatore,” she related. “You should have seen him taking advantage of the young Italian’s confessed weakness and all the Mephistophelean grimaces with which he accompanied this little war… The fearful Maestro never stopped [making a horn-like gesture with his fingers] to drive away the evil spirit.”
Matters came to a head one evening after the guests had been engaged in some typical 19th-century dabbling in the occult (Belgiojoso was famous for her seances and once turned down a request from Mary Shelley who hoped she might help her contact the dead).
Liszt en salon fantasizing at the piano, 1840 by Josef Danhauser
“You are a genius, Bellini, but you will pay for your great gift with a premature death. All the great geniuses died very young, like Raphael and like Mozart,” snarked Heine over supper. “Don’t say that, for the love of God!” cried Bellini, but Heine went on. “Let’s hope, my friend, that the world has been mistaken and you’re not a genius,” he quipped. “The good fairies granted you the face of a cherub, the candor of a boy, and the stomach of a stork. Let us hope that the evil fairy didn’t ruin everything by stirring in genius!”
According to Jaubert, Bellini was sufficiently furious that she felt it was incumbent upon her to attempt a reconciliation by inviting both men to a soirée at her house a month or so later. The hour for dinner arrived but there was no sign of the composer. Just as the guests were joking that Bellini must have been too afraid of re-encountering his sinister jettatore, the door opened, and the hostess was handed a letter. “In two written lines,” Jaubert explains, “the composer of I Puritani expressed his displeasure at being too ill to join us.”
Whether they laughed it off or gave a nervous shudder we’ll never know, but less than a month later Bellini was dead. Some said he’d died of cholera, some said dysentery. Still others claimed the composer had been poisoned, or even murdered by a mistress. Or was it – maybe, just maybe – the evil eye of Heinrich Heine?