Tosca - Historical Foundation cover

Tosca - Historical Foundation


Political intrigue, jealousy, passion, love, and heartbreaking cruelty are all brought to brilliant and tragic life in Puccini's eternal classic Tosca. In this NoteStream, we'll explore the historical significance of the sites used in each scene, and compare the original staging for Victorien Sardou's La Tosca, the play written as a star vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. The Battle of Marengo, the historical event that drives much of the drama onstage, will also be illuminated.

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Tosca - Historical Foundation

The Libretto and Source

Puccini's librettists for Tosca, as in Madama Butterfly a few years later, were Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.

They based their libretto, following the composer's directives, upon Victorien Sardou's La Tosca, written as a star vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Here, we concisely compare the original play with the opera.

A play such as La Tosca cannot be set to music without considerable change. To make an opera libretto, it is always necessary to make many cuts. It takes much longer to sing a line than to say it. Sardou's La Tosca has five acts and twenty-three characters; the opera Tosca was reduced to three acts and nine characters. While the essentials of the story were preserved, much of the detail was lost, including the backgrounds of the characters and history of the period. As a result, some points obscure, ie: how did Angelotti escape in prison garb in daylight and cross through busy city streets?



Front Cover of the Original Libretto

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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Sardou's Act I

Sardou's Act I takes place during the early afternoon, in Bernini's church of Sant'Andrea degli Gesuit.

This is Sant'Andrea of the Quirinale a Jesuit church, in a different part of Rome from Sant'Andrea della Valle of the opera.

Angelotti has been hiding in the church all night. When he appears, we learn that Cavaradossi has heard of him, but they have never met. The escapee proceeds to tell his story. His family had hoped for his release when a new Pope was elected, but the recent arrival of Baron Scarpia has put an end to this possibility. His sister, the Marquise Attavanti, has bribed one of his jailers, Trebelli, to let him escape and to give him the key to the family chapel where she has hidden women's clothing, including the fatal fan. He was able to mingle with the workers who were repairing the damage the French had done to the Castel Sant'Angelo and leave with them.

Sardou's Act I (Continued)

Trebelli was to have to collected Angelotti in a carriage during the High Mass and taken him to Frascati where his sister

is to meet him, but the jailer did not appear. Cavaradossi advises him to stay in the church until it reopens later that afternoon. Then he can mix with the crowd and thus escape detection. However, even if captured, he won't be sent to Naples, he has a ring with poison in it so that he can kill himself. As Tosca is heard, he hides.

Sardou's stage directions indicate that Tosca arrives with a long walking stick and a bunch of flowers. In early productions, this costume detail was followed in the opera. She tells Mario she cannot meet him that night because she is performing at a gala the Queen of Naples is holding in honor of surrender of Genoa by General Massena. There will be a concert followed by a ball.

Sardou's Act I (Continued)

As she and Mario talk, her maid brings a letter from the composer Paisiello, in which he tells of the supposed victory

of the Austrians at Marengo. He is writing a special cantata to mark the occasion and asks that she sing it at the gala that evening. She has to leave immediately to rehearse it.

After she leaves, Angelotti comes out. Because of the special prayers of thanksgiving which are to be said in honor of the 'victory', the church will open early, and they will be able take advantage of this to leave from the city before the gates close, not waiting for Trebelli.

Sardou's Act I (Continued)

However, a single cannon shot announces the prisoners escape has been discovered, and they leave immediately.

When Scarpia and his henchmen appear, we learn that Trebelli has confessed and been executed. As in the opera, the discovery of the fan and the empty food basket are evidence Angelotti has been there. There is no ecclesiastical procession. The act ends as the organ sounds and Scarpia kneels to thank God for his anticipated victory.

Palazzo Farnese

Palazzo Farnese

Giuseppe Vasi (1710 - 1782)

This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Sardou's Act II

In the Palazzo Farnese

Diego Naselli, the historic Prince of Aragon and Governor of Rome at the time, is present. Scarpia realizes that, if Angelotti escapes, he will be disgraced. He doesn't fear the Queen, but Emma Hamilton, who will have him hanged. He will use the fan, as Iago used the handkerchief in Shakespeare's Othello. After he arouses Floria's jealousy she tries to run to Mario and not sing the cantata, but he prevents her from leaving, telling her she can go after she has sung. Just as its first chords sound, the message is brought about the defeat of General Melas by Napoleon at Marengo. Floria leaves and Scarpia orders the "elegantly dressed" Spoletta to have her followed

Sardou's Act III and Act IV

Act III - Mario's villa

The torture scene takes place here. Angelotti is found, but he has taken poison. Mario is taken to prison, and Scarpia orders Floria to be taken also.

Act IV - Scarpia's quarters in the Castel Sant'Angelo. His bed is visible.

Scarpia orders Cavaradossi to be hanged before dawn. The corpse of Angelotti shall be hung beside him. Part of his later bargain with Tosca is to use firing squad instead, making it easier to fake the execution.

Sardou's Act IV (Continued)

All of Tosca's stage business after she kills Scarpia, much probably suggested by Sarah Bernhardt, are in the play's directions.

She is supposed to go to the mirror, fix her hair, blow out the candles, look for the safe-conduct, finally find it in the dead man's hand, lay a crucifix on Scarpia's breast, and set the lighted candles on either side of him.

This is very effective theater in itself. When set to music in the opera, the effect is spine-chilling! There is no singing, just the orchestra mirroring Tosca's emotions and movements. Truly, this is drama through music.

Sardou's Act V

Tosca is not present during the 'shooting'.

When she discovers Mario's corpse, she is so over wrought that she confesses she killed Scarpia before leaping to her death.

The Sites: Act I - Sant'Andrea della Valle

Sardou set his first act in the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale. It was surrounded by empty spaces through

which Angelotti could have escaped. Puccini moved it to Sant'Andrea della Valle. This is much closer to the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant'Angelo, but is in a built-up area in where it would have been more difficult for an escaped prisoner to elude notice. Sant'Andrea della Valle is one of the great churches of Rome, the seat of a Cardinal-Prince. Its dome is second in size only to that of St. Peter's. It was built in 1591, on land adjacent to the site of the Pompey's Theatre in which Julius Caesar was killed.

Sant'Andrea della Valle

Sant'Andrea della Valle

Photo by Jensens

I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.



Although none are named after the Attavanti family, there are four chapels, one decorated by Michelangelo.

However, none of the chapels are closed by a lockable grill, and there is no painting of either Mary Magdalene or the Temptation of Lazarus, such as those on which the fictional Cavaradossi is supposed to be working.

Painting of St. Andrew by Mattia Preti in the apse of the basilica Sant'Andrea della Valle, Rome, Italy

Photo by Georges Jansoone

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The Sites: Act II - Palazzo Farnese

The Palazzo Farnese is admired as the handsomest palace of the high Renaissance in Rome. It was built — partly under the direction

of Michelangelo — for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, later to become Pope Paul III. In 1731 it passed to the wife of Philippe de Bourbon, grandson of the French King Louis XIV. Their oldest child was given the title of King of the Two Sicilies. In 1757 it passed to Ferdinand IV, husband of Marie Caroline and the palazzo became the seat of Bourbon authority in Rome. Under the French and the short-lived Roman Republic, it was ransacked and looted.

When, in 1800, the Bourbons regained control it became the headquarters of Naselli, the Governor of Rome. In Sardou's La Tosca, Scarpia's offices were in the Castel Sant'Angelo, but in the opera his quarters would have been on the top floor of the Palazzo Farnese.

Palazzo Farnese

Palazzo Farnese

In 1874 the palazzo was made the residence of French ambassador to the new Kingdom of Italy, and between 1908 and 1911,

it was purchased by French Republic. It is still the site of the French Embassy.

Photo by Roberto Ferrari

(CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Sites: Act III - The Castel Sant'Angelo

The Castel Sant'Angelo was built between 135 and 139 as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian and his successors.

The last burial was in 211, and the ashes were scattered long ago. In 271 Hadrian's Tomb became a defensive work guarding the bridge over the Tiber, and in the fifth century, the mausoleum was converted to a regular fortress. The marble facings and the statues were probably destroyed by the Goths.

There has been an angel at the top since 590, when Pope Gregory the Great saw the apparition of an archangel announcing the end of a plague. He erected a marble angel and renamed the fortress as the Castel Sant'Angelo. He built the circular ramp on which one reaches the upper stories today. This had a drawbridge half way up which still existed in 1800.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

The Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo, Roma

Photo courtesy Andreas Tille

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

The Castel Sant'Angelo (Cont.)

In the Middle Ages the Castel became the principal place of refuge for popes during attacks on the Vatican.

In the fifteenth century it was connected with Vatican by a long corridor, still seen today. When Rome was threatened in 1525, Pope Clement fled to the Castel Sant'Angelo with guard of soldiers and a few favored cardinals, one of whom was pulled up in a basket just before the fortress was closed. During a summer-long siege, Clement, although in luxury, was effectively a prisoner. Finally, in December, he made his escape disguised as a merchant.

The Castel Sant'Angelo (Cont.)

The Castel also became a state prison as well as a papal residence, and during the Middle Ages, the people of Rome tried to destroy it

as a hated symbol of oppression. Unlike the storming of the French Bastille, they failed; it was just too strong.

Luxurious apartments for the popes and their families occupied the whole third floor. The quarters of Sardou's Scarpia may have been in one of them.

The Castel Sant'Angelo - Interior

The Castel Sant'Angelo - Interior

Photo by Karelj

I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

The Castel Sant'Angelo (Cont.)

Among the inhabitants of the castle during the Renaissance,

were member of the infamous Borgia family, including the beautiful Lucrezia, her evil brother Cesare, and their father Pope Alexander VI. The Borgia apartments have two square holes in the floor, one reputed to lead to a dungeon, the other to the River Tiber for the disposal of bodies.

As a prison the Castel was not always so bad. We know much about conditions there in the sixteenth century from the artist Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571).

In his autobiography this famous goldsmith and sculptor tells how he was imprisoned for stealing the papal jewels, injured during a brief escape, and then recaptured. (It was usually easy to escape from the Castel.) After giving his parole, he had the run of the place and was able to carry on his profession while incarcerated.

The Castel Sant'Angelo (Cont.)

In the eighteenth century, the marble angel was replaced by the present 18 foot high bronze one.

Under the French, the statue was painted red, white and blue and a liberty cap was set on its head.

The angel - usually part of Tosca sets - stands on a small terrace set back from the edge of the tower. Tosca is supposed to jump from there into the Tiber River but that is clearly impossible.

Castel Sant Angelo

Castel Sant Angelo

Photo Courtesy Joadl

(CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

The Castel Sant'Angelo (Cont.)

At that time, 1798-9, one could walk out of prison upon payment of a bribe, and many did. In La Tosca, Angelotti's sister

is able to bribe the jailor not only to allow her brother to leave the prison, but even to drive him from Rome in a carriage. Such conditions did not last.

Late nineteenth-century tourists were shown, along with the papal apartments and other features, the live political prisoners behind the bars. The Castel remained a prison until 1901 when it was converted to a museum. Mussolini 'restored' the Castel and converted it into a regular tourist attraction. The view from the terrace of this powerful symbol of the combined power of the Church and the State is one of finest in Rome.

The Battle of Marengo

One of the interesting aspects of Puccini's Tosca, is that much of the drama is driven by the historical events which surround the action.

Prominent in the text is mention of the battle between the French and Austrian forces on the plain of Marengo.

During a daring campaign in 1796-97 the French regained control of northern Italy. In 1799, despite the brilliance of Napoleon's General Massena, he could not overcome the superior numbers, and when General Aleksandr Suvorov arrived with 18,000 Russian troops to support the Austrian army, Napoleon's forces were pushed out of northern Italy once again. Northern Italy was restored to Austria, and Massena retreated to the Rhine River.


In 1799, after Napoleon, then First Consul of France, left what remained of his Eastern forces in Egypt, he faced several obstacles.

Chief among these were: the English had control over the Mediterranean Sea; they had effectively blockaded the Atlantic Coast of France; and there was a Russo-Austrian army in northern Italy. More importantly, Napoleon was threatened politically at home. Now that he possessed powers over war and peace, he needed to consolidate his grip on government, and gain a spectacular success in order to calm royalist sentiments in Paris and solidify his position as First Consul.

The fact that Napoleon's General in Germany and Italy, Massena, was able to retain control of Switzerland, gave the First Consul the route he needed to strike against the Austrians. While Massena massed his army to the east around Genoa, Napoleon was assembling a reserve force of approximately 50,000 troops just west of Switzerland


On May 1, Napoleon learned that Massena's forces had been split in two and were now facing a superior force of Austrians

under the command of General Michael von Mélas. He sent Massena orders to hold his position in Genoa until May 30, and used the opportunity to begin crossing the mountains into Italy. Mélas continued his campaign against Messena's forces. He wanted to drive the French out of Italy, however, this left him completely unaware of Napoleon's descent upon him from the north.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Artist Jacques-Louis David 1748 - 1825

This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.

Which one?

Napoleon's army crossed the Alps through five separate passes in order to conceal the main body of his forces.

As a result, Mélas was unable to identify the French forces as anything more than diversionary troops. On May 19, he learned the truth. The French were descending upon Italy in force! Mélas turned to meet the threat, but was faced with one foreboding question; which of the five approaching armies was the main French force? Against incredible difficulties, Napoleon was crossing with the main French column through the Great St. Bernard Pass.


Napoleon had several alternatives. Mélas had finally discovered his intentions and was in the process of concentrating

his forces at Turin. Napoleon could move South to the aid of Massena, or attempt to take Milan, the main Austrian supply base. He chose the latter, and ordering General Lannes forces to the southeast in order to screen his movements, he headed East toward Milan, taking the city on June 2. By sending Lannes's to the south, however, Napoleon had divided his forces in the face of the enemy. This would prove to be a critical mistake which would almost cost him the campaign.

Bataille de Marengo, 1802

Bataille de Marengo, 1802

Artist: Louis-François, Baron Lejeune (1775–1848)

This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

June 4

On June 4, Massena surrendered Genoa, and the Austrians moved north to find Lannes's army. Lannes forced the Austrians to retreat,

cutting off all of Mélas' escape routes to the East. Mélas decided that he would have to face the French army near Alessandria and fight his way out.

Napoleon, thinking that Mélas was still trying to elude him, further dispersed his forces in an attempt to find the Austrians. Not knowing that an overwhelming Austrian force lay just on the other side of the Bormida River, he placed himself in a disastrous position.

June 14

On June 14, Mélas crossed the Bormida River and attacked, deploying his forces on the Marengo plain. Three hours later,

the French, under the command of General Claude Perrin Victor, retreated. Napoleon did not believe that he had met the main Austrian force, and ordered General Desaix, a veteran of Egypt and one of Napoleon's best fighters, to move further Southeast to find Mélas.

With the French on the run, and anxious to reassure the Emperor of a victory, Mélas sent out a number of dispatches saying the French had been defeated (in the opera this is the news that the Sacristan is telling the children's chorus in Act I and is the reason for the celebration at which Tosca is to sing).


Fortunately for Napoleon, Desaix knew that the Austrians were not waiting to the southeast, and as a result,

he hesitated when he received Napoleon's orders to march further south. As he was finally preparing his troops to carry out the order, a messenger arrived from the First Consul, "Mélas has attacked me first. For God's sake come if you can!" By the time Desaix arrived, Napoleon had used all of his reserves and the French were on the retreat. Napoleon told Desaix, "The battle is lost." "Yes," Desaix replied, "But there is time to win another."


In a brilliant counterstroke, Desaix turned to meet Mélas head on, and within several hours turned defeat into victory.

At the critical moment of the counterattack, Desaix was mortally wounded. Fearing that his death would destroy the morale of his troops, he gave orders that he was not to be moved from the field of battle. His troops were so outraged at the Austrians for having struck down their commander, that they found new courage and drove the Austrians from the field.

It is at this point in the opera, that Sciarrone arrives with the terrible news and informs Scarpia that what they had thought was a victory against Napoleon, was in fact, a defeat, and Cavaradossi convicts himself by shouting "Victory!".

Death of General Desaix

Death of General Desaix

Artist: Jean Broc (1771–1850)

This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Victory at Great Cost

Napoleon could not rejoice. He bore a deep personal loss in General Desaix. In addition, he had endangered the army

by dividing his forces and almost lost the campaign. On June 15, Baron von Mélas asked Napoleon for truce terms. The battle had recovered Italy for the French, and stabilized the political climate at home for Napoleon. Marengo also marked the end for the Republic in France. Following the battle, Napoleon sent word to Paris saying, "I hope the French people will be pleased with their Army." Dictatorship was just over the horizon, and with it, greater desires for military glory.

Note: Tosca takes place on June 17, three days after the Battle of Marengo. It took that long for the dispatches to cover the approximately 250 miles from Marengo to Rome.