To be born with a physical difference in 18th century Italy was often regarded as more than unfortunate; it was a curse.

Among the superstitious, deformity was often regarded as a sign of God’s disfavour, a punishment for the misdeeds of the parents.

For women in particular, it placed limits on their marriageability, with subsequent impacts on family finances at a time when dowries accompanied marriage contracts. Young girls born with physical differences were routinely abandoned at or soon after birth.

So it was, perhaps, for an infant named Agatha (or Agata), who was placed into the Venetian orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, shortly after her birth in 1712, during which it was apparent the baby was missing four fingers of her left hand.

An inauspicious start to life (infants were often anonymously ‘posted’ through a metal grill in the wall), but in some ways Agatha was fortunate. The Ospedale della Pietà was no ordinary refuge for foundlings. Generously supported by leading Venetians (it housed many of their illegitimate children, it is said), it was comfortable by 18th century standards and dedicated to the education of its charges – particularly in the realm of music.

Thanks in part to Antonio Vivaldi, who was appointed as...