Authors: Andrea Di Robilant
ucia took possession of Palazzo Mocenigo in the autumn, after Alvisetto’s graduation. She was glad Byron and his exotic ménage had left: however glamorous, his stay had caused a lot of ill feeling. Still, she was far from regretting that he had come to live in Palazzo Mocenigo. His valuable English pounds had brought succour to the house at a time of hardship and uncertainty. Life was not going to be easy in the years ahead. She had learnt enough to know that Alvisopoli, which she once described to Paolina as “that most wretched estate,”
would continue to drain energy and money. But the period of emergency she had lived through after Alvise’s death seemed behind her.
Alvisetto decided to surprise Lucia by secretly renovating her apartment during the summer, when she was in the country. Lucia got wind of the changes—of course she would—and she wrote to Paolina that she was reminded of when she was a young bride-to-be, living in Rome with her sister and their father, and Alvise was busy with masons and carpenters and painters preparing her apartment in Venice. “[Alvisetto] wants it to be more functional [but] I have not been told what instructions he has given—I hope he is not spending too much money.”
There was one more pressing matter to attend to which Lucia had put in the back of her mind during the trying times following Alvise’s death but which now required her full attention: what to do with the monumental statue of Napoleon which her husband had commissioned ten years earlier from Angelo Pizzi with the intention of placing it in the main square at Alvisopoli. Pizzi had died in 1812, leaving the statue unfinished in a studio at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, a short way down the Grand Canal. After the return of the Austrians to Venice, the directors of the Accademia had started to pressure Lucia to take charge of the embarrassing sculpture. It now occurred to her that her friend Canova might come to her rescue for the sake of old times, and she wrote to him asking if she could not by any chance interest him “in a piece of the purest marble of Carrara.” She never mentioned the word “Napoleon” in her letter, trusting Canova, who had initially been approached by Alvise for the job, knew very well what she was talking about. Obliquely, she reminded him the statue could easily take on a different profile “from the one initially pursued.” And if he was not interested himself, would he not show it to someone he could recommend? “As my son’s guardian,” she added at the end of her pitch, “it would give me great pleasure to enter into negotiation with you. We would be exchanging favours, as it were. For I am certain that if you were to look for a nice piece of marble you would not find a finer one as this. Furthermore, the work was already begun, and rather well. My son is not eager to see it finished, though, and he has left me free to sell it for a sum which I am sure will be agreeable to you.”
Canova, however, was not a taker, and Lucia resigned herself to have the statue (which was rather more finished than she had led Canova to believe) transported the short distance up the Grand Canal to Palazzo Mocenigo, and placed in a shadowy corner at the far end of the
It made no sense to attract the attention of the Austrian authorities any further by shipping the disgraced colossus all the way to Alvisopoli; its bulky presence in Venice was cumbersome enough.
lvisetto obtained a cadetship with the Austrian army and left for his military service, unaware he was following in his real father’s footsteps. He had matured during his last year at university, growing into an affable young man, with a good mind and a solid education. He was eager to do well in the world, and looked forward to a successful career in the Austrian administration after his tour of military duty. His loyalty to Vienna was unquestioned, but, like Lucia, he felt his Venetian roots very strongly. Soon his mother would cease to be his legal guardian. As head of the Mocenigo dynasty, he would take over from her the responsibility of running the family estate. Would he be up to the task? To Lucia, of course, he remained in many ways a boy. “He is young and I fear he is still a little green,” she reasoned with Paolina, “but he has no bad habits and no major character flaws so I suppose there is reason to be hopeful.”
ucia and Byron parted on very unfriendly terms, yet in a way the poet never really left Palazzo Mocenigo, or Venice for that matter, and still today his spirit hovers over the city he helped to resurrect. Venice was dead when he arrived in 1816, and the Austrians had no intention of spending money or effort to revive it—certainly not during the early years, when the policy in Vienna was to favour the port city of Trieste and let Venice go to ruin. It was Byron, a stranger to Lucia’s Venetian world, who gave the city a new life by turning those sinking ruins into an existential landscape—an island of the soul. Despite his dissolute lifestyle, he was an inspired and extremely prolific writer during the happier days of his Venetian sojourn, composing beautiful lyrics and poems about Venice, not to mention hundreds of letters to his friends that were an unbridled torrent of words and imagery and feeling.
For much of the nineteenth century, artists and poets drew on the romantic myth Byron had forged, and nourished it. In the new Venice that travellers came to see, Lucia had a small part to play, a cameo as it were, as Byron’s landlady (how the poet would have fumed!). But she was also a living connection to the fabled lost Republic of the doges. An invitation to Palazzo Mocenigo became a coveted prize on the Venice Grand Tour. Foreign visitors lined up to see her, and according to the accounts left to us by diarists and letter-writers, she enjoyed playing her role and always made an effort to turn these brief encounters into special occasions.
Chateaubriand describes a courtesy call he paid to Lucia in 1833. They had not seen each other since meeting in Paris in the twilight days of the Empire nearly twenty years before. As his gondola pulled up to the landing at Palazzo Mocenigo, Chateaubriand had a haunting vision: Byron’s old mooring pole was still planted there, his coat of arms “half erased” by wind and saltwater. Lucia was waiting for him upstairs:
Madame Mocenigo lives retired in a tiny corner of her own private Louvre, overwhelmed by its vastness. The desert advances daily into the inhabited parts. I found her sitting across from Tintoretto’s original sketch of his
Hanging on the wall right above her was Madame Mocenigo’s own portrait, painted in her youth…Madame Mocenigo is still beautiful, the way one is beautiful in the shadow of old age. I covered her with compliments, which she returned. We were lying to each other and we both knew it: “Madame, you’ve never looked so young.”—“Monsieur, you haven’t aged a bit.” We lamented the ruin of Venice so as not to mention our own…The time came to take my leave, and I respectfully kissed the hand of the Doges’ Daughter whilst casting a lingering glance at the same beautiful hand in the portrait, which now withered at my lips.
Lucia was certainly getting on—she was sixty-three when Chateaubriand went to see her—but she was hardly a relic from the past. Indeed, she was still running the Mocenigo Agency, battling daily with inefficient agents, litigious neighbours, stern tax-enforcers and greedy moneylenders. The 1820s had been especially hard. She had been forced to take out more loans, and when there had been nothing left to mortgage, she had sold one by one the Memmo properties she had inherited from her father’s family. It had been a painful choice, each new sale “a sacrifice I make for my son,”
but Lucia had made it her mission to preserve the Mocenigo estate intact during her watch. Fortunately, by the early 1830s, the economic outlook of the region improved, with the abolition of anachronistic trade barriers and the development of steam-driven industry. As the agricultural sector picked up, the Agency gained a sounder footing. Even Alvisopoli became less of a drain on the family holdings.
Alvisetto came of age in 1824, majority being reached at twenty-five, and though Lucia gave him regular updates and never made major decisions without consulting him, he did not really take charge of the family business until the late 1830s. Lucia’s willingness to stay at the helm well beyond her guardianship enabled Alvisetto to pursue a diplomatic career in the Austrian government. After his military service, he obtained a post as secretary in the Austrian embassy in Naples. He later moved to the embassy in Rome, still in a rather junior position and rather anxious to move up the ladder at a faster clip. Despite his occasional frustration at the slow pace of his career, he remained an enthusiastic Austrophile, wary of the growing opposition against the conservative governments of Europe. When protests erupted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Spain, he was “deeply troubled by the folly”
of progressive liberals, and told his mother he hoped it did not spread to the territories in the Habsburg Empire.
Alvisetto’s loyalty was rewarded. He was made Chamberlain of His Majesty the Emperor and King, and Chevalier of the Order of Saint George. He was also promoted, at last, to the position of Legation councillor in the Austrian embassy in Florence. Emperor Francis received him in Vienna “with the greatest kindness,” he reported glowingly to Lucia. “His Majesty is well, thank God. He asked how you were. He told me of the importance of my position and promised to think of me if other opportunities should arise, confident that I shall continue to serve with as much zeal as ever.”
Alvisetto was eventually appointed Austrian chargé d’affaires to the Prince Elector of Hesse. His assimilation into the Habsburg administration was by now complete, yet he must have felt a little disappointed at his less than sparkling achievements, especially in the light of his father’s ambitions for him. On the other hand, spectacular careers were rather rare during the grey, ultra-conservative years of the Restoration.
As Alvisetto neared his fortieth birthday, Lucia nimbly stepped in to find a suitable wife for her over-aged bachelor son. He had shown little inclination to marry and have children and ensure the Mocenigos did not become extinct, and he evidently needed a little prodding from his mother. Lucia set her aim very high, on Clementina Spaur, young daughter of Johann Baptist Spaur, governor of Lombardy–Venetia. After months of careful manoeuvring, the two sides reached an agreement—the long and detailed marriage contract bearing testimony to very elaborate negotiations. On 24 November 1840, at the age of forty-one, Alvisetto married Clementina. It was a notable match, which brought together wealth and political power.
The newly-weds settled into the large apartment on the
adjoining Lucia’s. Alvisetto retired from his career as a civil servant in the Austrian administration to take full charge of the Agency. He turned out to be an imaginative businessman, no doubt anxious to prove himself after his lacklustre career in diplomacy. He diversified the Mocenigo holdings, taking advantage of the economic expansion which had started in the thirties, investing heavily in property, railways, energy, steamships, and founding his own shipping line, the Società di piroscafi Mocenigo. He had a hand in many of the high-profile business ventures started in the forties, foremost among them the Venice–Milan railway, which reached across the lagoon and connected the city to the mainland. Although some of his investments turned out to be only moderately profitable, Alvisetto became a driving figure in the rapid development of the region. “From salt mines to rice fields,” one historian has written, “from land redevelopment to gas lighting, from steamships to railways, there is not a single area in which Mocenigo did not participate in one form or another from 1840 to 1848.”
Indeed, Alvisetto’s transformation from mid-level career diplomat to enlightened industrialist is quite astonishing. He became widely respected and sought after for his entrepreneurial advice. “The man is notable for his intelligence and ready eloquence,” remarked Niccolò Tommaseo, a leading intellectual and political figure in Venice who was seeking influential allies in the drive for emancipation from Vienna. “He has the composed and courteous elegance, if not the dignity, of our gentlemen of old.”
By the early forties, Alvisetto’s loyalty to the House of Habsburg was wavering. The frustrations he accumulated over the years in the Austrian administration probably played a role in his growing resistance to Vienna’s heavy-handed rule. His father-in-law’s retirement from the governorship no doubt made it easier for him to challenge the government. More importantly, Alvisetto’s wide-ranging business activities brought him face to face with an obtuse system of government which was limiting the economic and political development of the region. At a time of growing national aspirations, Vienna continued to rule the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia like a colony.
Many activists saw Alvisetto as a potential political leader, an ideal bridge between the lawyers and intellectuals who opposed Vienna’s rule and the land-owning liberal aristocracy. “He is an effective speaker,” one observer noted, “and he is sufficiently ambitious to be drawn to the glamour of a political role.”
But those who looked to Alvisetto as a potential leader of a movement against Austria underestimated the complex nature of his ties to Vienna. He was not ready to be drawn into a fully fledged opposition and he saw himself more as a man of dialogue, a facilitator in a gradual process of emancipation from Vienna, certainly not as a revolutionary leader.
There is a telling episode in this respect. Two young Venetian officers in the Austrian navy, Emilio and Attilio Bandiera, had formed a secret society, Esperia, with strong ties to Giuseppe Mazzini, the Republican leader living in exile in London, and to his organisation, Giovine Italia. The Bandiera brothers were betrayed by a spy and went into hiding on the island of Corfu. Emilio, who was trying to generate support for the Mazzinian cause in Italy, wrote to Alvisetto, whom he had never met, declaring him to be the man in whose hands “the destiny of Venice should be entrusted once our democratic revolution will have taken place.”
Alvisetto was startled by the letter, and frightened. The last thing he wanted was to be associated with the radical revolutionary Mazzini. In a moment of panic, he handed the letter over to the Austrian police.
A few months later, in July 1844, the Bandiera brothers were arrested after a landing in Calabria, summarily tried and shot. They became the first martyrs of the Italian Risorgimento. Alvisetto’s little act of treachery was not divulged at the time so it did not lessen his standing in the liberal camp, and he was soon to become a player on the revolutionary stage in Venice.
ucia settled into grandmotherhood, with its joys and sorrows. The first granddaughter, born in 1842, died in infancy. Three years later a boy was born; predictably, he was given the name Alvise and christened in the neighbourhood church of San Samuele, where a long line of Alvise Mocenigos had been christened before him. As customary, food was distributed to 300 poor families. The following year another boy was born, Giovanni. There was now a busy traffic between Lucia’s apartment and the adjacent one, occupied by Alvisetto’s family. The door separating the two was usually left open, as Lucia enjoyed dropping in on her daughter-in-law, Clementina, the way Chiara stopped by to see her after she had moved into Palazzo Mocenigo as a young bride.
The ghostly Venice of the twenties was a faded memory. The city was relatively prosperous again. The population was increasing. The shops were filled with goods from all over Europe. The canals were crowded with boats and the coffee shops were packed until late at night. The landscape of the city was changing: the Austrian administration approved plans to fill in and pave many side canals to improve circulation, and to build garden areas and promenades. Yet Venice remained a divided city, with the Venetians and the Austrians leading separate lives. In no place was the separation more evident than in Saint Mark’s Square, where Austrian officers sat at the tables of Quadri sipping coffee and listening to the orchestra play waltzes, while the Venetians crowded the smoke-filled rooms at Florian’s, across the square.
Although officially retired, Lucia led a busy life: she was very active on the board of La Fenice, the Venice opera house, she took care of her residual rental properties, she entertained small parties of younger friends
—most of her contemporaries having passed away—and she went out of her way to maintain good relations with Austrian officials.
Her lingering joy in her declining years was the company of Paolina, who still lived at Palazzo Martinengo, old Ca’ Memmo, up the Grand Canal from her. They saw each other as often as they could, and wrote daily, mostly about the vicissitudes of old age: sores, stomach seizures, discharges, regurgitations, throat lumps. Was the footbath giving relief? Was the magnesia having effect? The tone was sometimes caustic, sometimes humorous, always tender. When Lucia lost a blackened canine, she slipped it in an envelope and sent it to her sister “so that you may have the first fragment of my mortal spoils.”
The winter in 1842 was especially harsh. “Stay where you are,” Lucia entreated her sister, who wanted to go to church despite having caught a chill. “This bitter cold will damage your health even inside the house. It says in the papers it is worse than in 1812, the year the French armies were forced to retreat in Russia…Promise me you’ll stay covered warmly, don’t go up and down the stairs unless you must…And take your meals near your [warm] bedroom. Adieu my dearest sister.”
It is the last letter between the sisters to have come down to us. Paolina died shortly afterwards, leaving her sister completely bereft.
ucia began preparing for her own death. She put her affairs in order, paid her outstanding debts, arranged her correspondence. She wrote her will. There was not much she could leave any more, not after having sold most of her properties to save Alvisopoli; but she made sure the house staff was taken care of after she was gone, and she set aside small sums and valuable objects for relatives and close friends to remember her by. She was very meticulous about her funeral arrangements, and specified everything from the number of torches to be lit, to the number of gondolas (only two) for the funerary procession, to the number of services to be celebrated after her death for the benefit of her soul. Her body was to be laid in a casket made of cypress wood (which her carpenter made for her), enclosed in a box of cheaper larchwood. She purchased a burial plot in the cemetery on the island of San Michele—she did not want to be buried at Alvisopoli, although she gave Alvisetto permission to transfer her remains there at a later date if it was important to him.