Authors: Andrea Di Robilant
1. Portrait of Andrea Memmo by Mar. Caricchio, 1788
© Tristano di Robilant
2. Portrait of Sebastiano Mocenigo (Alvise’s father) by A. Longhi ©
Museo Correr, Venezia
3. An ivory miniature of Lucia and Paolina c.1775 ©
4. Portrait of Lucia ©
Simon Houfe collection
5. Portrait of Paolina ©
The Faringdon Collection Trust
6. Letter from Lucia to Alvise in response to his offer of marriage ©
Andrea di Robilant
7. Palazzo San Marco ©
Archivio Fotografico Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Romano
8. Palazzo Mocenigo
9. The bronze horses of Saint Mark ©
Museo Correr, Venezia
10. Anti-aircraft defence of Venice ©
Museo Correr, Venezia
11. Statue of Napoleon by Angelo Pizzi, 1812–1814 ©
Andrea di Robilant, courtesy of Mark Smith
12. Etching of Napoleon and Joséphine
13. The Liberty Tree, Saint Mark’s Square, 1797 ©
Museo Correr, Venezia
14. Alvisopoli ©
Biblioteca comunale di Fossalta
15. Pencil drawing of Joséphine by Jacques-Louis David ©
Photo RMN Droits réservés
16. Portrait of Eugène de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani ©
Photo RMN Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans
17. Joséphine’s bedroom at Malmaison ©
Photo RMN Gérard Blot
18. Malmaison by Auguste Garneray ©
Photo RMN Bulloz
19. Lord Byron at Palazzo Mocenigo ©
Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library
The decisive impulse to write about Lucia came from Nancy Isenberg, Professor of Literature at Rome University; this book would not have seen the light without her persistent encouragement. A number of other friends offered their generous and sometimes crucial help along the way. Giulia Barberini, director of the Museo di Palazzo Venezia, shared with me her knowledge of the extraordinary
where Lucia lived when her father was the Venetian ambassador in Rome. Wendy Roworth, professor of art history at the University of Rhode Island, helped me locate the long-lost portrait of Lucia by Angelica Kauffmann in Buckinghamshire. Benedetta Piccolomini proved a most enthusiastic guide during our exploration of what remains of Alvisopoli. In Austria, the kind and tenacious Clarisse Maylunas led me to Margarethen Am Moos during a rainy excursion in the countryside south of Vienna. My research took an entirely unexpected direction with the discovery of Lucia’s secret lover, Maximilian Plunkett—a discovery which would certainly have eluded me but for the steady prodding of Anne-Claude de Plunkett in Paris. A final tassel in the reconstruction of Lucia’s affair came from the ever generous Marco Leeflang in Utrecht. Iain Brown and his staff could not have been kinder in helping me with the Byron papers at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. And I am very grateful to Simon Houfe and Alvise Memmo for allowing me to reproduce Angelica Kauffmann’s portrait of Lucia and the miniature of Lucia and Paolina as young girls.
The Venetian Republic, which had developed over the course of a thousand years, came to an end with the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed on 17 October 1797 by the French and the Austrians. Venice passed under Austrian rule, but in 1805 it became part of the Kingdom of Italy, a pro-French puppet state. Austrian rule was re-established after Napoleon’s fall in 1814.
The families of Lucia and her husband were firmly rooted in the heartland of Venice and the Venetian
The key locations mentioned in the text are shown here.
When I was growing up I sometimes heard my grandfather mention Lucia Mocenigo, my Venetian great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was known in the family as Lucietta. Her name usually came up in connection with Lord Byron, to whom she rented the
during his scandalous time in Venice. I learnt more about her many years later, while doing research on her father, Andrea Memmo, whose epic love story with the beautiful Giustiniana Wynne in the 1750s was the subject of my last book,
A Venetian Affair.
But it was not until a recent chance encounter brought me face to face with a ten-foot-high marble statue of Napoleon Bonaparte that my interest in Lucia deepened.
The statue, wedged into a corner, faces a damp wall in the
of Palazzo Mocenigo, the venerable old
on the Grand Canal which once belonged to my family. The emperor is clad in a Roman toga. His left arm is extended forward, as if he were pointing to a luminous future, though in fact he stares vacuously at the peeling wall in front of him. A mantle of dark grey soot has settled on to his shoulders, and a slab of roughly hewn marble links the raised arm to the head, giving the statue an unfinished look. It is hard to imagine a more incongruous presence than the one of a youthful Napoleon standing sentinel in that humid hallway to the sound of brackish water slapping and sloshing in the nearby canal.
Alvise Mocenigo, Lucia’s husband, commissioned the statue in the heyday of Napoleon’s Empire. It was intended to be the centrepiece of a vast utopian estate he built on the mainland. The statue, however, was not delivered until after the emperor’s downfall. By then Alvise was dead, and Lucia, not quite knowing what to do with such a cumbersome and politically embarrassing object, stored it in the entrance hall of Palazzo Mocenigo, exactly where it stands today.
The statue is all that remains of our family possessions in Venice. In the 1920s and 1930s, my profligate grandfather, having inherited the Mocenigo fortune, sold the
and all its art treasures to finance his high-flying lifestyle. But he was never able to get rid of the marble Napoleon, which continued to languish in its corner untouched. Not long ago, while visiting Venice, I ran into the manager of Palazzo Mocenigo, which is now divided into apartments. Signor Degano looked at me as if I were a ghost from the past. It was quite understandable: not only do I carry the same name as my grandfather but the telephone line at Palazzo Mocenigo is still registered, strangely enough, under the name of Andrea di Robilant, even though my family has not lived there for more than fifty years.
After a few polite exchanges in the glaring sun of Campo Santo Stefano, Signor Degano reminded me that we were still the legal owners of the statue of Napoleon and asked me what we intended to do with it, adding that the various owners of the condominium would be quite happy to see it stay as it had been a part of the
for so long. I said I would let him know and we parted. I stayed in Venice an extra couple of days to try to sort things out, though I realised there were few options, and none of them particularly appealing. The statue was officially
which meant it could not leave the country, and would therefore be very difficult to sell. I couldn’t take it home with me, of course, because I had no space for it. Besides, the thought of facing the grumbling owners of the
in a tense condominium meeting was definitely off-putting. The thing to do, I concluded, was to leave the statue where it was and let matters take care of themselves, much as Lucia had done two centuries earlier. But in the course of my brief and fruitless dealings, I paid secret visits to the marble Napoleon, letting myself into the garden of Palazzo Mocenigo and hurrying to the hallway before suspicious tenants caught sight of me. It was hard to resist the peculiar spell of the statue as it lured me back to an age of great turmoil.
When Lucia was growing up in the 1770s and 1780s, the Venetian Republic had long been in a slow and steady decline, weakened by ossified political institutions and a closed, extremely inbred, ruling class. But on the surface, life went on pleasantly enough, much as it had for many years. There were no wars, the economy sputtered along and the Carnival season seemed to last a little longer every year. The thousand-year-old Republic appeared to be immutable; certainly nothing foreshadowed the cataclysmic events that lay ahead. The taking of the Bastille in 1789 reverberated in Venice like a very distant rumble late on a golden afternoon. But of course the storm eventually made its way across the Alps, and when the young Bonaparte led his army into northern Italy in 1796, the Venetian Republic quickly crumbled, vanishing into the vortex that engulfed all of Europe during the following two decades.
The man who had brought such devastation to Venice now stood in the shadows of Palazzo Mocenigo, frozen at the height of his glory. During one of my furtive visits, it occurred to me that this long-neglected statue of Napoleon provided a very tangible connection to Lucia and her world, which I was now loath to let slip.
My quest was lucky from the start. Among my late father’s papers I found a neatly tied bundle of very touching love letters Lucia wrote to Alvise during their engagement. But it was thanks to a second, much larger trove of letters found in a small public library in Bergamo—letters written to her sister Paolina over the course of five decades—that Lucia came to life more fully against the fast-changing social and political landscape of the times.
Naturally, the more I learnt about Lucia, the more I longed to know what she had looked like. In several letters written to Alvise when she was still only sixteen, Lucia mentioned sitting for Angelica Kauffmann, the eighteenth-century portraitist then living in Rome. I consulted Kauffmann specialists and none had ever heard of a portrait of Lucia. But after scouring the catalogues and ledgers of the main auction houses I found myself once again on the trail of my spendthrift grandfather, who, it turned out, had inherited the painting back in 1919, along with all the contents of Palazzo Mocenigo.
He first tried to sell it at Christie’s in 1931, during the Depression. The painting did not fetch the high reserve price he had set and was “bought in.” It was not surprising: my grandfather had chosen the worst possible moment to sell a painting. I pictured him making the rounds of the other auction houses, canvas under arm, in order to pay his expensive bills at 3 Albermarle Street, the elegant London town house where he lived at the time. Eventually, he left the portrait of Lucia with Sir William Agnews, of Agnews & Co., and it was not until five years later, on Christmas Eve of 1936, that Sir William was able to actually sell the picture for a modest sum. The buyer was Sir Albert Richardson, an eclectic architect and collector known in London’s artistic circles as “the Professor.” He made a down payment of £20 on an agreed purchase price of £160, which included a drawing by the Dutch artist Johannes Bosboom. The Professor hung the painting by the fireplace in the dining room of his Georgian house in Ampthill, Bedfordshire.
The painting now belongs to Mr. Simon Houfe, the Professor’s grandson, who has made it his mission to preserve his grandfather’s house and art collection. In January of 2005, while in England over the Christmas holidays, I arranged to see the portrait with a Kauffmann expert, Professor Wendy Roworth, of the University of Rhode Island, and took a train out to Bedfordshire. Mr. Houfe, a very amiable man in his sixties, greeted us warmly in front of his house, and took us straight in.
The interior had the appearance of a country museum that had been untouched for many years. Mr. Houfe had laid out a plate of ginger biscuits and cups and saucers. “Will it be coffee or shall we go straight to the painting?” he asked. “The painting!” Professor Roworth and I cried. Mr. Houfe grinned and led us to a large, sunlit room on the ground floor. The walls were covered with English landscapes, portraits and equestrian paintings. A number of architectural drawings were also in view, and several eighteenth-century miniatures. A great gilded harp stood in one corner, next to a Merlin pianoforte dated 1786. Straight ahead, to the left of the unlit fireplace, in the spot where Mr. Houfe’s grandfather had placed it seventy years before, was the glowing portrait of Lucia.
I had, by then, become quite familiar with Lucia and her world, having read several hundred of her letters. But seeing her for the first time, as a blossoming young woman, caused my heart to miss a beat. I had travelled from Italy to see what Lucia looked like, and I was prepared to be more than partial in my judgement. But her warm seductiveness took me completely by surprise. The delicate rosy skin, the pomegranate lips, the generous bosom, the long auburn curls that followed the line of her beautiful gold earrings: every detail gave off a sense of youthful voluptuousness. And her eyes, of a blue so deep as to seem nearly black, drew me to her with a strange intensity. Her profile was far from perfect. Yet even the slight protuberance at the tip of her delicate nose—a trait that so reminded me of her father, Andrea Memmo—did not diminish her beauty but gave it more character. Professor Roworth, meanwhile, was eagerly taking pictures and pronouncing the portrait to be one of Kauffmann’s very best.
Mr. Houfe proceeded to give us a guided tour of the house, but I was a very distracted visitor, and at each opportunity I snuck back to the dining room for one more glimpse of Lucia. “I was so pleased to be able to re-unite you with your ancestor in this house,” Mr. Houfe said kindly as we bid each other goodbye. “It was a very interesting event, and I hope it is not the end of the story.”
At the empty railway station, as I waited for my train back to London, I drifted back to the floating white muslin with which Ms Kauffmann had delicately enveloped Lucia. I missed her already, and in a moment of fancy I wondered whether a million tiny particles had not travelled across time and space to dance in Mr. Houfe’s dining room that morning.