Three minor characters in La Tosca are real historical figures: Queen Maria Carolina; Prince Diego Naselli, the Governor of Rome; and the composer, Giovanni Paisiello. However, their treatment in the play is not always historically accurate. On the day the play takes place, Queen Maria Carolina was actually on her way to Austria and staying in Livorno, not Rome. Paisiello was a Neapolitan court composer, but at the time of the play he was under suspicion for anti-Royalist sympathies, making him a highly unlikely candidate for Maria Carolina's gathering in Act 2. According to Deborah Burton, another minor character, Princesse Orlonia, is probably based on Princess Torlonia. Although their names and backgrounds contain historical allusions, the four main protagonists, Cesare Angelotti, Mario Cavaradossi, Floria Tosca, and Baron Scarpia are fictional. Their backgrounds are revealed in the conversations between Angelotti and Cavaradossi in Acts 1 and 3.
Cesare Angelotti had been a wealthy landowner in Naples and defender of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic. When it fell to the British forces and Ferdinand IV was returned as ruler, he fled to Rome where he became one of the Consuls of the equally short lived Roman Republic. He is a wanted man, not only for his revolutionary activities but also for a youthful dalliance in London where he had an eight-day liaison with Emma Hamilton. She had been a prostitute in those days going by the name of Emma Lyon, but by the time of the play she had become the wife of the British Envoy to Naples, William Hamilton, and was a favourite of Queen Maria Carolina. Determined to avoid a scandal, the Queen demanded that he be returned to Naples and hung. He was languishing in Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo, when his sister Giulia, the Marquise Attavanti, helped him to escape. According to historian Susan Vandiver Nicassio, Angelotti was partly based on Liborio Angelucci who had briefly been a Consul of the Roman Republic, although the resemblance in terms of their life histories ends there. Another influence on the choice of surname may have been Nicola Antonio Angeletti (1791–1870), a prominent Italian revolutionary and member of the Carbonari.
Mario Cavaradossi is descended from an old Roman family but was born in France where his father had lived most of his life. The family still had a palazzo on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome and once owned the country villa which Cavaradossi now rents. His father had strong ties with Diderot and d'Alembert, and his mother was a grand-niece of the French philosopher Helvétius. Cavaradossi studied art in Paris with Jacques-Louis David and lived in David's atelier during the French Revolution. When he visited Rome in 1800 to settle his father's estate, he met and fell in love with the celebrated opera singer, Floria Tosca, and decided to prolong his stay. He soon gained a reputation as a free-thinker and Bonapartist. Even his mustache was suspect. Tosca's confessor told her it marked him as a revolutionary. To deflect these suspicions, he offered to do a painting in the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale for free. Nicassio has speculated that one of the influences on Sardou's choice of name was the extremely similar name Caravadossi, a noble Italian family from Nice, the birthplace of Garibaldi, and at several points in its history under Italian control. One of the Caravadossi descendants fought in the 19th century Italian Wars of Independence.
Floria Tosca is an orphan from Verona, where she had been found as a child, roaming the hillsides and herding sheep. The Benedictine monks took her in and educated her. The convent organist gave her singing lessons, and by the time she was sixteen, her church performances had made her a local celebrity. The Venetian composer Domenico Cimarosa went to hear her and wanted her to go on stage. The monks opposed this, but after she was presented to the Pope, he too declared that she should become an opera singer. Four years later she made her debut in the title role of Paisiello's Nina and went on to sing at La Scala, La Fenice, and the Teatro San Carlo to great acclaim. When Cavaradossi met her she was singing at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. As soon as her engagement at the theatre was over, she and Cavaradossi planned to leave for Venice where she had a contract to sing at La Fenice. Sardou took a long time to decide on her name and may have finally been influenced by Saint Tosca who is particularly revered in Verona. The 8th century church dedicated to her there is one of the oldest in the Veneto region.
Baron Vitellio Scarpia is from Sicily where he was known for his ruthless law enforcement. When Naples took control of Rome in 1799, he was appointed the city's Regent of Police, and quickly gained a reputation for the cruelty and licentiousness that lay beneath his seemingly courteous exterior. Angelotti characterises him as a religious hypocrite and an "impure satyr" from whom no woman is safe. Before Scarpia set his sights on Floria Tosca, he had tried to force himself on Angelotti's sister, who fled from him in terror. According to Nicassio, Sardou may have chosen his name for its similarity to "Sciarpa", the nickname of Gherardo Curci, a bandit who led irregular troops fighting on behalf of the monarchy in Naples and was made a baron by Ferdinand IV in 1800.
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