The Arts on the Stamps of the World — March 11

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.


By Doug Briscoe

Today we honor two very great Italian artists, the architect Donato Bramante, who died on this date in 1514, and the poet Torquato Tasso, who was born precisely thirty years later. 11 March is also the birthday of one of the most renowned choreographers, Marius Petipa, of the enormously popular Argentine tango composer Ástor Piazzolla, and of a Danish king who was an orchestra conductor. We also celebrate three men from the movies and the anniversaries of a novel and three operas (the sesquicentennial of Don Carlos).

Donato Bramante (1444 – 11 March 1514) is known by a variety of names—Donato d’Augnolo, Donato di Pascuccio d’Antonio, Bramante Lazzari, etc. He was born near Urbino, where he certainly knew and likely worked with Piero della Francesca. Little else is known of his early life, but when he was about thirty, he went to Milan, built a few churches, and was taken on by Ludovico Sforza. When that dignitary was forced to flee Milan before a hostile French army, Bramante moved on to Rome, where he found another great patron in Cardinal Della Rovere. As soon as the cardinal became Pope Julius II in 1503, he gave Bramante the commission for his grandest and most illustrious project, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. On two stamps from Spain and Italy we see Bramante’s lovely little Tempietto, which he built in 1510. The architectural work of Bramante has overshadowed his painting, but we also have stamps showing Man with a Halbard and Man-at-Arms, two paintings he created around 1481 for the Panigarola family.

The epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581) by Torquato Tasso (11 March 1544 – 25 April 1595) was such a landmark in literature that it inspired operas by Lully, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Salieri, Cherubini, Rossini, Dvořák, and Judith Weir! A section of that work also moved Goethe to write a cantata text, “Rinaldo”, which was set by Brahms, the closest that composer ever came to writing opera. Goethe also wrote a play—and Donizetti an opera—about the life of Tasso, and Franz Liszt commemorated the centenary of Goethe’s birth with a symphonic poem called “Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo”, which was also partly inspired by Byron’s poem “The Lament of Tasso”. Tasso’s own contemporaries Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo, and Giaches de Wert have left us madrigals and other pieces based on Tasso’s poetry. One of Monteverdi’s finest scores, the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” is set to words from Book XII of La Gerusalemme liberata. Tasso was a nobleman, born in Sorrento, whose father, also a poet, forfeited his holdings when he found himself on the losing side of one of the endless internecine conflicts of the Italian Renaissance. But that twist in fate did not too adversely affect young Torquato, who, with his good looks and brilliant mind, became the darling of society from childhood. Later in life, things took a turn for the worse when Tasso, who seems to have been what today we call bipolar, with a persecution mania, had to be confined to a lunatic asylum in Ferrara. During the seven years of his detention he wrote expansively on philosophy and ethics, but produced little more poetry. He was released in 1586 but never fully recovered.

Marius Petipa (11 March 1818 – 14 July [O.S. 1 July] 1910), to quote Wikipedia, “is considered to be the most influential ballet master and choreographer in ballet history.” Although closely associated with the history of Russian ballet, Marius Ivanovich Petipa (born Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa) was French. His mother was an actress and drama coach and his father was himself a distinguished ballet master. Marius was at first a reluctant ballet student but soon fell in love with it and by 1838 was himself named premier danseur to the Ballet de Nantes. It was at this time that he began to try his hand at choreography. He and his father went on a tour of the United States in 1839, giving the first ballet performance ever seen in New York City. The locals were not impressed, and the manager stole the receipts and absconded. But in the next year the younger Petipa was dancing with Comédie Française in Paris. From 1843 to 1846 he was principal dancer at the King’s Theatre in Madrid, and from 1847 was taken on in the same capacity at the Imperial Theatres of St. Petersburg, where he was ballet master from 1871 to 1903, presiding (not without serious challenges) over the golden age of Russian ballet. He choreographed some fifty works for the stage, three for Nantes, four for Bordeaux, seven for Madrid, and the rest, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty among them, for Russia. He suffered from eczema and pemphigus in his later years and died at Yalta at the age of 92.


Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla (March 11, 1921 – July 4, 1992) was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina to Italian immigrant parents. When he was four, the family moved to Greenwich Village, where he learned to play the bandoneon (a variant of the concertina or accordion) after his father bought one at a pawn shop. At 13 he met Carlos Gardel, who was so impressed that he gave Ástor a small part in his movie El día que me quieras and invited him to go with Gardel on his current tour. Luckily, Piazzolla’s father said no, for Gardel and his players were all killed in a plane crash the next year. At 17, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires, played with the band of Anibal Troilo and, at the suggestion of Arthur Rubinstein, undertook studies with Ginastera. For a time Piazzolla was determined to abandon the tango and stopped playing the bandoneon in preference to a planned career as a more “serious” composer. He studied conducting with Hermann Scherchen, and his Buenos Aires Symphony won him a grant to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. But when she heard his tango “Triunfal,” Boulanger urged him to be true to his muse. Piazzolla formed and disbanded several ensembles over the years, composed around 3,000 pieces, recorded about 500 of them, and wrote 47 film scores, including one for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi movie 12 Monkeys. Following a brain hemorrhage he lay in a coma for the last two years of his life. The stamp comes from a set that includes one for his teacher Ginastera (which we’ll see next month).

Today is also the birthday of Danish King Frederick IX (1899 – 14 January 1972), who reigned from 1947 and was a music lover to the extent that he became an able pianist and conductor. I have a CD box of recordings of the Royal Danish Orchestra, and there you can find his performances of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, an overture by Kuhlau, and a galop by Lumbye. His image appears on a series of Danish definitive stamps issued throughout his reign, plus one commemorative celebrating the 25th anniversary of his marriage to Queen Ingrid.

One may reasonably argue that the Three Stooges were a far cry from “artists”, but what’s the harm in including Shemp Howard in today’s roster? He was born Samuel Horwitz (1895 – November 22, 1955) and derived his unusual name, it is said, from the way his Lithuanian-Jewish mother pronounced “Sam”. He was the elder brother of Moe and Curly Howard and appeared with Moe and Larry Fine in 73 shorts and one feature, Gold Raiders (1951).

Claude Jutra (1930 – November 5, 1986) was a Canadian actor, director, and writer from Montreal. He made a couple of shorts while still an undergraduate and went to France, where he worked with Truffaut. His best known film was Mon oncle Antoine (1971), which he co-authored. He suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s and was found drowned in the St. Lawrence River some six months after he went missing. Very recently (after the stamp came out in 2014) accusations of sexual misconduct were made with the result that two awards (the Prix Jutra and the Claude Jutra Award), along with a number of streets, were hastily renamed.

How sad it was to learn of the early death last year of the gifted (and adorable) Anton Yelchin! Born in 1989 to stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet, he grew up from his birth year in the United States following his parents’ defection. He was a child actor, and a very good one, perhaps most noted for his performance opposite Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis (2001), but in recent years he had taken on the role of Chekov in the newest Star Trek movies. Thus he appears on some of the spate of Star Trek stamps that have been issued internationally in our century, including this one from Chad (Yelchin is at far left in this 2016 issue). Last June 19th he was killed in a freak accident when his Jeep rolled free on an incline and crushed him against a pillar. Reports say he died within a minute or so. He was 27.


You might recall that just the day before yesterday we celebrated the anniversaries of two Verdi operas, Nabucco (1842) and Ernani (1844). Well, today we have two more: the first performance of Rigoletto was given 166 years ago today at La Fenice in Venice (11 March 1851), and today is the 150th anniversary of the première of Don Carlos, in French, at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris (11 March 1867). The Italian version was first heard at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden three months later (4 June 1867). And let us not forget the opera L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), by Jacques Ibert and Arthur Honegger, whose birthday was just yesterday; L’Aiglon was first heard on this date in 1937. Ibert composed the first and last acts, and Honegger wrote acts 2-4. The stamps, from Niger, San Marino, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, and Monaco, specifically honor these operas.

In 1743, sixteen Leipzig merchants financed the addition of sixteen musicians to the existing (since 1479) town pipers. The result, founded on 11 March 1743, was the Leipzig Concert, now known as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The East German stamp, issued for a Mendelssohn anniversary, shows the 1884 Leipzig Gewandhaus (destroyed in World War II), and the later German stamp celebrates the 250th anniversary of the orchestra.

On this date in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein was first published.

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.

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