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Authors: Andrea Di Robilant

Lucia (38 page)

BOOK: Lucia
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Emperor Francis named one of his younger brothers, Archduke Rainier, viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia. In the spring Rainier came to Venice on his first official visit. Alvisetto was eager to be seen in a flashy new Austrian uniform on that occasion, and he enlisted his mother to help him find the proper one. Lucia was still recovering from a long and debilitating bout of tertian fever: perhaps the stress of the previous summer and autumn had weakened her more than she realised, for she was bedridden during much of the winter, and even suffered a dangerous relapse in March. Still, she understood more than anyone else how important it was for Alvisetto to have the right attire. She wrote to friends in Vienna asking for a book she remembered which had figurines wearing all the uniforms of the Habsburg Empire. Once she had identified the right uniform she had it copied “with the precise colours, the embroidery properly highlighted…the headgear with all its embellishments, as well as the épée and scabbard.”
18
The sketch was rushed off to the tailor just in time for Alvisetto to make his good impression on the imperial delegation.

         

T
he harvest in the summer of 1817 was very poor compared to the previous year. Rainfalls caused large-scale floods that seriously harmed the crops. The levee along the main canal at Alvisopoli burst and it took weeks to rebuild it, while hundreds of acres remained under water. Travelling from one estate to another was problematic because the roads and tracks were muddy. And every new drop of water made things worse. Lucia was so fearful of more rainfall she hardly slept any more. “I pray the Lord Almighty he will free me of the anxiety the weather is causing me,” she told Paolina, adding that the agents were taking it out on her.
19
Even Giovanni Lazzaroni, general manager of the Mocenigo Agency and Alvise’s right-hand man for many years, “is no longer well-disposed towards me and thinks ill of what I do.”
20

In his will, Alvise had requested that a specific number of masses be celebrated in his memory in the little church of Alvisopoli. Now Lucia discovered with dismay that his wish had been disregarded. Lazzaroni explained there was simply not enough money in the Agency’s coffers to pay for the extra services and offerings. Lucia reacted with anger and guilt. “It fills me with sorrow,” she told Lazzaroni, “to learn that our income is not sufficient to do things the way my poor husband had laid out, and to have to remain silent…”
21

Alvisetto did not improve the general atmosphere when he graduated rather ingloriously from the seminary at the end of the summer. “He could easily have distinguished himself more,” Lucia snapped, clearly irritated by her son’s lack of diligence. What was she going to do with him now? “God willing he will keep away from poisonous occasions,” she wrote to Vérand, “[as you know] his youthful fervour is so much greater than his strength of character.”
22
After briefly considering the possibility that Alvisetto join her in running the Agency, Lucia returned to the original plan of sending him to university. She was encouraged in this choice by Mattia Soranzo Mocenigo, a distant cousin with a reputation for wisdom whom Alvise had named “consultant” to his wife in his will. Alvise’s old project of sending Alvisetto to a prestigious university in Germany was quickly discarded. Lucia wanted him to be close at hand so that he could visit her often and gain familiarity with Alvisopoli and the other estates. It was decided he would study law at the university of Padua. “Alvisetto too seems comfortable with the idea,”
23
she observed.

Vérand felt this was the right moment to make a long-delayed journey to France to attend to pressing family business of his own. After all, Alvisetto was eighteen years old and out of school; he could easily do without his supervision for a few months. But Vérand underestimated the degree to which Lucia, so completely absorbed by work, had come to rely on him with regard to Alvisetto. She nipped Vérand’s plan in the bud:

You well understand how important your continued assistance to my son is at an age in which proper counselling is especially needed. The supervision on the part of an honest and wise educator is necessary to keep him away from all those dangers and enticements that lurk in the path of a young man…To abandon him at this early stage would be tantamount to losing at once all the gains obtained by your good governance.
24

Lucia was under tremendous pressure. The summer’s poor harvest at Alvisopoli meant more resources would have to be transferred from the other Mocenigo estates to avoid sinking further into debt. She received an even harder blow in February, when the government rejected Alvise’s petition to have the fiscal burden on Alvisopoli reduced. Lucia spent the rest of the winter with lawyers and family advisers trying to reverse the decision. “I find myself absolutely unable to submit myself to such an excessive burden,” she declared in her final statement to the authorities, adding that if the order were not repealed she would be “forced to give up the estate.”
25

Alvisopoli was not her only worry. The situation in Venice continued to deteriorate. The combination of trade barriers and the rise of Trieste as Vienna’s favoured port in the Adriatic had crippled the local economy. During his visit to the city, Archduke Rainier had written back to Vienna that he was stunned to find such poverty and squalor. Shops were still closed. Housing and health conditions were appalling. The active population was declining quickly. The streets were filled with beggars, rubbish and debris from crumbling buildings. Four years had gone by since the end of the siege. The Austrians had been running the city ever since, yet they had done little to lift Venice out of its dismal situation.

Lucia, who relied on her income from family properties in the city to run Palazzo Mocenigo, could no longer afford the maintenance costs and living expenses. The sprawling
palazzo
was falling into disrepair. She had already closed off entire floors because she could not afford to heat them in the winter, giving up room after room in her losing struggle with rats. She would soon have to start dismissing the staff; she might even have to abandon Palazzo Mocenigo, as so many families had already done with their palaces. But this depressing state of affairs was shaken up by an unexpected business opportunity.

Lucia had met Lord Byron a few times at the soirées given by Albrizzi and Benzoni, but their acquaintance had remained superficial. Byron had arrived in Venice in November of 1816, and for a year and a half he had led a dissolute and extravagant life, mostly, though not exclusively, in the arms of Marianna Segati, the “light and pretty”
26
young wife of the draper in the Frezzeria in whose house he was lodging. During the same period, Lucia was completely preoccupied with the running of her affairs on the mainland and was seldom in town.

By the early spring of 1818, however, Byron’s year-long affair with Marianna Segati came to an end. Word was that he wished to leave the house in the Frezzeria and was seeking more substantial quarters, possibly with a view of the Grand Canal. A wealthy foreign tenant was just what Lucia needed to ease the crushing financial burden and hold on to Palazzo Mocenigo. When she heard Byron was looking for spacious lodgings on the Grand Canal, she pricked up her ears. But it turned out that Fabio Gritti was already arranging the lease of a
palazzo
on the Grand Canal beyond the Rialto bridge, at San Marcuola. The deal was practically sealed, and Byron was already writing to his friends in London that he was moving into Palazzo Gritti.

How Lucia managed to unthread Byron’s deal with the Grittis is not entirely clear. It appears that Mattia Soranzo Mocenigo, the family adviser, played a central role in bringing about the new arrangement. Mattia was one of the poet’s few Venetian friends. He knew, of course, that Lucia was in dire financial straits, and he persuaded Byron to reconsider his agreement with the Grittis, reminding him, no doubt, that Palazzo Mocenigo was more prestigious and better located on the Grand Canal. The Grittis did not put up much resistance to protect their lucrative lease. Fabio Gritti was a cousin of Lucia’s on her father’s side, and a close friend. He had helped and advised her during the most difficult times after Alvise’s death, and he bowed out gracefully.

On 1 June, Byron settled into the
piano nobile
of Palazzo Mocenigo. Months later, when his relationship with Lucia soured, he complained about having been “seduced”
27
by Mattia Soranzo Mocenigo into making a deal with her. But in the late spring of 1818 he was enthralled by the prospect of living in such a fabled
palazzo.
“It is four, and the dawn gleams over the Grand Canal and unshadows the Rialto,” he wrote soon after moving in. “I must go to bed; up all night…it’s life, though, damn, it’s life.”
28

Expensive life, to be sure. Lucia asked a very high price: 4,800 francs a year—roughly the equivalent of 200 pounds sterling. It was a large amount as it was, but a huge one relative to the depressed Venetian economy. Byron was undeterred: he signed a three-year lease—a considerable commitment on the part of such a restless traveller. Further, he agreed to pay each year’s full rent in advance every month of June. For Lucia, this was manna from heaven. She was going to keep Palazzo Mocenigo after all. Her famous and very wealthy new tenant also agreed to hire several members of the house staff, including Tita, one of the family gondoliers.
*21

Lucia gladly moved her belongings into a small apartment on the mezzanine floor and, much relieved by the way matters had resolved themselves in Venice, travelled back to the mainland, where more good news awaited her. Her desperate appeal regarding the excessive taxes on Alvisopoli had been granted: “The royal government”—she read—“is pleased to inform you that the suspension of tax payments will continue until further notice.”
29
With a lightened heart, she went off to Valdagno for her yearly water cures and then settled in Alvisopoli during the long, hot months of July and August to supervise the wheat and corn harvests. Towards the end of the summer, she moved to Este, from where she took care of affairs at the nearby estates.

Lucia saw little of her son during his first year at university. When the summer term was over, Vérand left for France while Alvisetto travelled south towards Ferrara with other fellow students. It was his first taste of real freedom. He seldom gave news of himself, though he was occasionally spotted in one town or another by friends of the family who were thoughtful enough to inform Lucia. All the same, she worried that he might fall in with “a band of oafs” and wondered how he got by since “he doesn’t have any money to travel.”
30

Lucia was still in Este, making last-minute arrangements for the grape harvest, when Alvisetto reappeared at last, and very much in a hurry to meet the enrolment deadline for the new academic year. They went to Padua together for the start of the term, both of them staying at the run-down old Memmo
palazzo
on Prato della Valle, which Lucia and Paolina had recently inherited upon the death of their uncle Lorenzo. Lucia headed to Venice in late October, in time to tuck herself into her mezzanine apartment before the cold season set in. She asked Paolina to make sure her rooms were ready and her bed made. “Most importantly, check to see if all the holes in my bedroom have been properly filled in—and not just with paper…”
31

Lucia found Palazzo Mocenigo transformed by Byron’s colourful menagerie. Inside the porch he had set up a noisy little zoo: several types of bird, dogs, two monkeys, a fox and a wolf. All of them lived in large cages that cluttered the access to the canal and terrified anyone passing by. The atmosphere was even more chaotic upstairs, on the
piano nobile.
Byron had collected up to fourteen servants, including his cook, Stevens, and his valet, William Fletcher. A former clerk at the British Consulate, Richard Edgecombe, managed the household: he paid salaries, bought groceries and kept the accounts. He was always rushing, always very obsequious every time Lucia ran into him in the courtyard. Byron’s two-year-old daughter, Allegra, and her shy governess, Elise, were the latest additions to this eclectic and very rambunctious little court.

The lady of the house, as it were, was Margherita Cogni, the illiterate young wife of a country baker, whom Byron had met while summering at La Mira, on the Brenta Canal, the year before. Byron’s torrid affair with the very sensual Margherita had accelerated the break-up with Marianna Segati. After the poet moved to Palazzo Mocenigo, Margherita, known as
La Fornarina
(the baker’s wife), left her husband, came to Venice and joined the crowded ménage living on the
piano nobile.
Margherita had a fiery temperament, was loud and theatrical, and made hysterical scenes over the merest trifle. Byron explained to his friends that she had forced herself into the household without his consent, but that every time he angrily told her to leave “she always finished by making me laugh with some Venetian pantaloonery or another.”
32

By the time Lucia returned to Palazzo Mocenigo in the autumn of 1818, however, Margherita had worn out Byron’s patience. She took her leave with a final, pyrotechnical performance, shrieking and yelling and slicing the air with a large knife. Alerted by the racket, Lucia went to her balcony and saw the frenzied Margherita leap into the freezing waters of the Grand Canal. “All of this was for the sake of effect and not real stabbing or drowning,” Byron observed coolly. “She was fished out without much damage except throwing Madame Mocenigo into fits.”
33

         

L
ucia did not usually intrude upon Byron’s life nor did she comment on his style of living—not in her letters at least. A certain distance, she felt, was the prerequisite for keeping their relationship on a sound, business-like footing. She kept an eye on him discreetly and limited herself to appropriate enquiries about beds and mattresses, linen and silverware. During the first year of the lease, every thing went smoothly despite the noise, the confusion, the constant coming and going, not to mention the wild cawing and barking in the porch. But the atmosphere changed in the spring of 1819, and what had been a perfect landlady–tenant relationship soon turned into a fierce confrontation.

BOOK: Lucia
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