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Authors: Andrea Di Robilant

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It was on account of his financial worries that, three years after arriving in Rome, Memmo still had not made his
the elaborate and very expensive ceremony during which an ambassador presented his credentials to the Pope. Memmo had calculated his
would cost him at least 700 ducats, a sum he could not possibly have come up with except by means of an extravagant loan or a lucky turn at the Lotto, which he played every week. Pope Pius VI, an energetic, cultivated man, had grown fond of Memmo and his family (both Lucia and Paolina received the sacrament of confirmation from him at the Vatican), and he took a lenient view of the matter, hardly pressing his friend at all. But the issue did not cease to worry Memmo, who continued to come up with original excuses to postpone the event, hoping to drag his feet until it was time to leave for his next post.

His plan, while in Rome, had been twofold: to prepare the ground for his next and possibly last career move—which would guarantee him a respectable status in Venice despite the economic decline of the family—and to find good and possibly wealthy husbands for his daughters. He had achieved the first objective the previous year, in 1785, when, to his own surprise, he was elected to the post of procuratore di San Marco, the second most prestigious position in the Venetian government after the one of doge. “I cannot deny that I am much obliged to my Venetians,” he conceded, “not just for having contributed in such high numbers to my exalted nomination but for the warmth they have shown me.” Indeed, many who had voted for him felt he was a strong candidate to be the next doge. Memmo must have grinned with satisfaction as he watched from his crumbling
in Rome events take such a favourable turn for him up in Venice. “Oh my, we might yet see Memmo doge,” he observed. True to himself, he quickly added: “Let us go slowly. I will have to see whether I can afford it, and I suspect I won’t be able to.”

Memmo next turned to his eldest daughter’s future. Initially, he had set his eyes on Alvise Pisani, a wealthy cousin of Memmo’s on his mother’s side. He thought he had the deal wrapped up only to see his two impoverished brothers, Lorenzo and Bernardo, scuttle it for fear they would end up having to contribute to the dowry he had agreed to pay. Memmo took “the loss of this great fortune” in stride, and decided to make one more attempt at a high-profile match for Lucia. If that too failed—he said—he was going to take the less exalted but simpler course of marrying both his daughters “to a pair of Memmo cousins” from a lesser branch of the family tree, and bring them all to live under one roof at Ca’ Memmo. “They will keep the name they were born with, and they will have food on their table. For the rest, fate will provide.”

For some time he had had his eye on Alvise Mocenigo, who had survived a difficult childhood and an even more turbulent youth to become a handsome, self-assured young man, endowed with the intelligence and the political skills necessary to embark on a promising career in government. The fact that Alvise belonged to one of the wealthiest and most prestigious Venetian dynasties made him an even more attractive choice. But it was a risky one as well, on account of the young man’s troubled relationship with his family. Sebastiano Mocenigo, Alvise’s father, was a moody, complicated man, whose history of homosexuality had caused grief and embarrassment to the family. Casanova, who met him when he was ambassador to the Spanish Court in the 1760s, writes in his memoirs that his “Greek friendships” were well known in Madrid. He was later appointed ambassador to France and he was briefly arrested in Paris “for displaying his dissolute behaviour against nature in public.”
The political clout of the Mocenigos was such that Sebastiano, despite his tainted reputation, obtained the coveted post of ambassador to the Habsburg Court in Vienna. Empress Maria Theresa, however, put her foot down, warning the Venetian authorities that Sebastiano was
persona non grata
in the Austrian capital. The scandal was in the open and the Republic, which was especially sensitive to its relations with Austria, could no longer turn a blind eye to Sebastiano’s unacceptable behaviour. In 1773, the Inquisitors had him arrested for “libidinous acts against nature.” The trial brought out all the more lurid details of his personal life. He was found guilty and imprisoned in the gloomy fortress of Brescia, where he remained confined during the following seven years.

Alvise was thirteen years old at the time of Sebastiano’s imprisonment. From Brescia, his father arranged to have him sent to Rome, to study at the Collegio Clementino, a venerable boarding school founded by Pope Clement VIII in 1595. It was a lonely, unhappy time for Alvise, and though he did his best to sound cheerful, his letters to his father and to his mother were filled with the bitter melancholy of a sensitive boy far away from home—and a broken one at that. Unlike the other boarders, he did not return home during the long summers. The priests who looked after him tried to improve his spirits by taking him on an occasional trip to Tivoli or the port of Civitavecchia. His mother, Chiara Zen Mocenigo, wrote brief, monotonous letters to her son, enquiring about his health and little else. His father sent him chocolate, coffee and pocket money from prison in Brescia. The gifts were appreciated but they did not assuage the resentment that was building up in his young heart.

When Alvise was eighteen and his education at the Collegio Clementino was drawing to a close, his father wrote to tell him that the time had come “to choose a wife,” and that, “having consulted the Golden Book”—the official ledger of the Venetian nobility—he had “taken aim” at the daughter of Pietro and Morosina Gradenigo, “a family with an excellent reputation, nobly governed and very fecund.” As for the coveted bride, Sebastiano added with enthusiasm, she had “good size, good looks, good health and good manners.”
Alvise was taken by surprise by his father’s proposition, and he slowed things up by saying he wished to come home first to see his family, and then make a decision about taking a wife. Timing was crucial in marriage negotiations, and Alvise’s attitude was not helpful. The Gradenigos looked elsewhere, and the deal quickly fell through, to Sebastiano’s irritation.

Alvise returned to Venice feeling embittered and rebellious but also very confused. He travelled to Brescia to visit his father, whom he had not seen in five years, but their meeting in the bleak prison-fortress did not bring them any closer. Back in Venice he fell under the spell of his uncle Giovanni Mocenigo, Sebastiano’s older brother and the titular head of the family. Giovanni persuaded Alvise that, for the sake of the Mocenigo dynasty, he should marry his own daughter Pisana—Alvise’s first cousin. Sebastiano, still confined in Brescia, reacted furiously, but he had little control over family affairs. The marriage was forced upon Pisana, a spirited hunchback whose heart belonged to another young patrician; but it was never consummated. Shortly after the wedding, Pisana ran away from Palazzo Mocenigo leaving this note behind:

My Alvisetto, adorable cousin, you of all people will not be surprised by my decision to leave you in order to give my reasons to a judge competent in these matters. I have voluntarily shut myself in a convent. You were well aware that I did not marry of my own free will, and you even complained about that. Now you too will be able to make your case. You will receive my petition to nullify our marriage. Please accept it with the forbearance worthy of your noble soul.

The judge ruled in favour of Pisana, handing down a decision that reflected the growing opposition in Venetian society to marriage contracts that were enforced against the will of the participants. But Alvise did not accept the ruling with the equanimity Pisana had hoped for. Enraged by a decision that defied the will of the family and made him feel personally humiliated, he fled from Venice, “that fatal place where malice persecutes me” and in those “desperate and painful” first few weeks and months, he wandered in the fields and woods of the vast Mocenigo estates on the mainland, moving from one farmer’s house to the next in search of shelter and food. He failed to report to duty in Vicenza for his first government assignment. Instead, he travelled to Udine, and then, against his father’s specific orders not to leave the Republic, he slipped abroad, forsaking his monthly stipend. “From the age of twenty-five until my death I will devote my life to country and family,” he wrote to his father before disappearing. “I have turned twenty-one, and I have four more years of freedom. Must I forsake these too?”
For the next three years he travelled from place to place, living on the generosity of friends and hocking the occasional piece of family jewellery he had taken with him. He was spotted in Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Livorno, Florence and Bologna, among other places. As promised, he made his way back in 1784. Upon entering Venetian territory, however, he was arrested and jailed in the fortress of Palma for having defied orders to go to Vicenza three years earlier. His father interceded, and a few months later the doge granted him an official pardon and he was released. Alvise arrived in Venice a changed man: he had matured, he had grown ambitious and he was determined to serve the Republic to the best of his ability. Although the sombre side of his personality still lurked in the background, he became more sociable and learnt to pursue some of the lighter pleasures of life. Very quickly, the most prominent members of the Venetian oligarchy began to take notice of him.

Among them was Memmo, who, though living in Rome, was very much in touch with what went on in Venice. He nimbly stepped in with the idea of marrying his eldest daughter to this promising young bachelor who, though penniless, was sure to inherit a very large fortune in the not so distant future. True, he had had a troubled past. “To that kind of Mocenigo, a lightheaded, inexperienced youngster, abandoned by his father and always criticised by him, I certainly would not have offered the hand of my daughter, even if he was going to become four times richer than he will,” Memmo wrote to a friend. But Alvise had grown up and changed for the better, his early tribulations having made him a stronger man. It is possible that Memmo saw in Alvise parts of himself as a young man, open to the ideas of the Enlightenment, interested in a career in diplomacy and showing every sign of wanting to serve his country well:

He has already changed his style of life and sees only good people…He continues to study methodically even at twenty-six. He is very knowledgeable about agriculture, for which he seems to have a sublime talent, and he’s not a man who is easily fooled. He seeks only the company of respectable ladies, he is generous without excess, and he is sweet and very respectful, and he cuts a good figure without covering himself with ornaments.

Memmo moved quickly to forestall other interested parties. In early 1785, he and Alvise signed a preliminary contract without consulting with the Mocenigos. The deal fixed Lucia’s dowry at 43,000 ducats. It was, on paper, a respectable sum, in line with general expectations. However, because Alvise was entering the deal behind his father’s back, he was not likely to have any money of his own to pay for an adequate wedding, nor would he have the means to support Lucia decorously. Memmo therefore agreed—and this was the addendum that made it possible for Alvise to accept the deal—to pay Alvise 500 ducats a year until the death of his father, when he would inherit a considerable portion of the Mocenigo estate. Memmo did not have the money to honour the deal, but he did not worry. “It seems impossible that I shouldn’t find it on the basis of a signed contract…There are many rich Venetians who need to earn four per cent on their capital or the cash they keep in their jewel cases,” he told Chiarabba, his agent.

Sebastiano was angry when he found out his only son had entered into a marriage agreement behind his back. Alvise defended his decision: “Such a noble marriage can be the beginning of a new life for me,” he explained, adding peevishly that “in accepting, I imagined I would be meeting the wishes of father and family.” Sebastiano was not moved: under the circumstances he would not give his approval, adding that he needed at least a year to reflect on the matter, all the more so since he and Alvise were still embroiled in a complicated legal tangle regarding an inheritance they both claimed. “The last thing I expected,” Alvise answered with disappointment, “was for my good father to begin a discussion about my future with all this legal talk.”

It was a less than promising start. Memmo decided to deal with the cantankerous Sebastiano last, concentrating his effort on getting Uncle Giovanni and the rest of the Mocenigos on board. The strategy seemed to work and after a year of blandishments and reassurances, Memmo and Alvise both felt it was time to act. In January 1786 Memmo made a 5,000-ducat down payment on Lucia’s dowry to the Mocenigos; a few weeks later Alvise’s official agreement to marry Lucia reached the Memmos during their sojourn in Naples.


ord of Lucia’s impending marriage had already spread in Rome by the time the Memmos returned from their Neapolitan journey. Naturally, members of the household at Palazzo San Marco had been the first to know. Abbé Sintich, Lucia’s tutor, congratulated her warmly upon her arrival, followed by Memmo’s faithful secretary, Abbé Radicchio, the house manager, Signor Ceredo, Zanmaria the cook, down the line of maids to Zannetto Organo, Memmo’s young footman, who had been little more than a boy when they had all travelled down from Venice three years before. In her room Lucia found a pile of letters and notes from friends and relatives. To her relief, her father dispensed her from replying to every one, as it would have taken too much time away from her lessons with Abbé Sintich. But Lucia was soon overwhelmed by a stream of visiting Roman ladies, some of whom came to embrace the father as much as the daughter—according to Memmo’s own count, he was happily involved with no fewer than six of them at the same time.

All this attention unsettled Lucia. “The causes of such a triumph certainly have more to do with you than with me,” she wrote to Alvise with modesty. “How many compliments I have received! And why? Because fate has decreed that I should have an excellent gentleman like you for a husband.” Would she be up to the daunting task ahead of her? “I do not doubt you have many good qualities…I only hope that patience be among them, so that you may tolerate those defects which I will strive to eliminate as quickly as possible by following your loving advice.”

BOOK: Lucia
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