Tuesday, May 19, 2020

La bohème: How a Movement Got its Name

Adolfo Hohenstein's 1895 poster for Puccini's La Bohème. Public domain.
By T.J. Callahan 

Though the global pandemic forced us to cancel our May La bohème at McCaw Hall, we continue to celebrate the opera’s legacy as one of our art form's most treasured works. This series of blog posts explores the historical context and modern relevance of Puccini’s enduring classic.

“Bohemianism” is an evocative term that today calls to mind images of artists like Puccini’s Rodolfo and Marcello, living for their art in a Parisian garret. Countless painters, poets, and other artists have taken up the bohemian lifestyle, and its romantic perception has inspired dozens of stories, including La bohème. But the story behind the “bohemian” label is fascinating all on its own—and one that spans hundreds of years.

An 1850 map showing the polities that make up the modern Czech Republic, including the Bohemian Empire. Public domain.
The term Bohemia originates from a region by the same name that makes up over half of the modern Czech Republic. The name for the region comes from the name of a Celtic tribe of ancient antiquity, the Boii, who occupied the territory around the 2nd century BCE, combined with the Germanic root word haima—a cognate with the English word “home.” The Boii were known to the bordering Romans thanks to a brief military conflict, and gave the region the name Boiohaemum. Though the Czech are a Slavic people, not Germanic or Celtic, the Bohemia moniker remained common in international parlance as an exonym—an external name for a region or people. The Czech call the region by its endonym, Čechy, though the use of Bohemia has also become part of the Czech lexicon.

In France, bohemién was used as a demonym for the Romani people, based on the belief that they migrated to the country from the region of Bohemia. While it is likely true that some Romani came to France via the Czech Republic, primarily in the 15th century, it is not altogether clear why the French drew this association. The Romani originate from the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, and they emigrated primarily to Persia and Europe, arriving in France during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. As a nomadic people with different appearances and social norms from White Europeans and whose lifestyle didn’t comport with European ideals of wealth, the Romani were stereotyped as destitute, thieves, and tricksters. The term “gypsy,” another term for the Romani that is now considered derogatory, is rooted in the incorrect belief that the Romani people came from Egypt. In 1530, the English tried to expel the Romani from Britain with the “Egyptians Act,” a surviving document that is indicative of this misconception being widespread at the time.

A 1902 French poster depicting a child being kidnapped by Romani nomads. Public domain.

In the 19th century, French artists residing primarily in the Latin Quarter of Paris lived in poverty—frequently by choice—to pursue their creative passions. They eschewed participation in conventional society in order to live a life defined entirely by their art. These denizens were given the name “bohemians” because their low-rent lodgings were in areas with high Romani populations, and because their itinerant, impoverished, and romanticized artist lifestyles reflected, to wealthier Parisians, the Romani way of life. Whether the artists appropriated the term themselves or were assigned it by the upper class is unclear, but the name stuck. The connection now seems problematic, since while the poverty of the Romani was the result of centuries of racially-motivated oppression, Parisian “bohemians” lived in a self-prescribed indigence in order to experience life as artists.

Rodolfo and Marcello in their studio apartment. La bohème, Washington National Opera, 2017 © Scott Suchman.

T.J. Callahan is Seattle Opera's Programs Communications Coordinator. At Seattle Opera, he writes and edits content for the Programs and Partnerships department and helps with general operations. You might recognize him from events at the Opera Center and in Tagney Jones Hall.

Learn more about the works used to create this blog series at seattleopera.org/bibliography.