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Authors: Andrea Di Robilant

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BOOK: Lucia
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I much prefer tranquillity, and I like to lead a withdrawn life unless there is something beautiful or worthwhile to see…so that I have never really given much attention to appearances and ornaments, nor have I endeavoured to impress people with endless chatter—the way some young ladies do, and are criticised for it.

Lucia wanted to bring happiness “in a life that has suffered its share of misfortune” and she was ready to do her part in full so as not let Alvise down. “I will take care of my duties to make sure that this time you will not be disappointed,” she wrote, bearing in mind his catastrophic earlier marriage to his first cousin, Pisana. “I pray to God that ill fate will turn to good fortune, and that I will contribute to a happy change rather than making your life less bearable.”

Her letters could easily have been written by someone older and wiser than a girl her age. Alvise was often startled by what he read, and in the name of that honesty that he hoped would always prevail in their marriage, he asked her whether someone was watching over her shoulder when she wrote to him. Lucia was flattered and faintly miffed. She had little experience in the art of letter-writing, having so far corresponded mostly with her aunts and uncles. When she wrote to Alvise, she drafted a rough copy to correct mistakes and preserve a record of their correspondence. That was why the letters were so neat, she confessed. Not even Abbé Sintich was allowed to help her:

I wouldn’t hide anything from my dear husband: I write them myself, and no one is allowed to read them, except my Father, who sometimes helps me find the right word, but usually has no time or patience…and will leave in place a piece of writing that I myself dislike. He always warns me not to bother him with my requests, adding it doesn’t matter if one writes badly to one’s husband.

No amount of fine writing on the part of Lucia, however, could conceal the fact that the fruitless negotiations with the Mocenigos were taking their toll on her. Although she put on the best possible front, she admitted feeling “very afflicted” because she seemed to be “everyone’s target,” as if she were “the principal reason” for the impasse even though she was in no way at fault. “Only the steadfastness you have demonstrated so far,” she confessed to Alvise, “prevents me from feeling even more distressed than I am.”
Her father had promised her “this painful situation” would not last much longer, but she was unsure, and she entreated Alvise over and over not to be stubborn with his family for the sake of their future well-being. “I do not doubt your efforts to give me full satisfaction. If I badger you so,” she explained to him on one occasion after he had reacted defensively, “it is only because of my strong desire to accelerate our destiny…By cultivating your family and lowering your expectations just a little, we might actually reach a good conclusion.”

In speaking with such firmness, she was probably influenced by her father, who felt Alvise had to do everything in his power to appease the intractable Sebastiano and obtain his approval of the wedding. There was talk, in the absence of such approval, of a marriage by proxy, which meant Lucia would remain in Rome for the foreseeable future. Another possibility suggested by the Mocenigos was to go ahead with the wedding, after which Alvise and Lucia would settle in with Memmo—a proposition Memmo did not even take into consideration as it would have added a new burden on his depleted finances. “These Mocenigos will use anything as an excuse to slow things up!”
he blurted out in exasperation.

One problem, however, was entirely of Memmo’s making. Overly confident in his ability to stage-manage the situation, he deliberately described Alvise to Lucia as less handsome than he was “so that she will find him more so upon laying eyes on him.” And unbeknownst to poor Lucia, he described her to Alvise “as heavier than she is, so he will find her less so.”
Memmo’s deception backfired for it sparked a rumour in Venice that Lucia had grown enormously fat, and he had to stay up late at night writing to friends back home in order to undo the damage he had caused. “On the topic of my daughter’s fatness,” he told one of them, “I assure you it is pure slander generated by nothing but envy. I promise you Lucia will be the most beautiful bride imaginable.”

The idea of going through with the wedding without the full consent of Alvise’s family worried Lucia. The hurried, semi-clandestine marriage ceremony that was sometimes mentioned as a possibility had no appeal for her. She did not want to begin her married life with a dark cloud hanging over her young family, and she urged Alvise again and again “to demonstrate his affection to people he should respect in any case, even though they are not what you would like them to be.”

There was little to distract Lucia from the frustrating pace of events now that she was no longer allowed to go out in society much. Occasionally, Memmo took his daughter to an opera by Cimarosa, the favourite in-house composer at the Teatro Valle. Lucia accepted Princess Borghese’s invitation to a dinner al fresco on the Pincio, followed by fireworks and musical entertainment. But the moment gambling tables were brought out, she headed home with Paolina and Madame Dupont. She attended only one public event: the unveiling of the Great Bell of Saint Peter’s, a colossal work in bronze that had cost the life of Luigi Valadier, the celebrated goldsmith who created it.

Pope Pius VI had commissioned the great bronze bell in 1779, to replace the one that had cracked a few years earlier. Valadier designed what was arguably the largest bronze bell ever built. It was three metres high and two and a half metres wide; its circumference was nearly eight metres, and it was decorated with beautifully detailed friezes. The technical complexity of melting such an enormous and yet very delicate object, not to mention the huge cost overruns, finally overwhelmed Valadier. He committed suicide by throwing himself in the Tiber before he could finish it. His son, Giuseppe Valadier, completed the work within a few months. He built a wooden fortress on wheels in which the bell was transported from the foundry in Via del Babuino to Saint Peter’s Square. As it travelled across the city, the bell rang loudly, attracting cheering crowds along the way. In the atrium of the basilica of Saint Peter’s, Lucia watched Pope Pius VI bless the mighty
“It is a true wonder,” she reported to Alvise, “for its size, for its sound and for all its intricate
bas relief.
” She saw it as a good omen. “Let us pray to God that the nasty climate hanging over us will soon change.”

By the end of June, encouraging news arrived from Venice. Alvise had finally begun to heed Memmo’s advice to seek an accommodation with his family, and his efforts had improved the atmosphere notably. Memmo’s own blandishments to the Mocenigos and the sheer lack of solid arguments to oppose the marriage helped as well. Seizing the momentum, Memmo urged Alvise to behave towards his father “with the prudence and respect required at this moment.”

Sebastiano’s assent to the marriage arrived at last on the morning of 1 July, nearly five months after Alvise had formally proposed. On a hunch, Lucia rushed out of Palazzo San Marco when she heard the courier Nullo had arrived at the station, dragging Paolina and Madame Dupont with her. They ran into Signor Nullo, who was coming to deliver the important dispatch in person. Breathless, they returned home and went immediately to Memmo’s apartment. “We couldn’t resist closing ourselves in my father’s room,” she told Alvise. “Some of us cried, some of us couldn’t catch their breath, some of us couldn’t say a word.” After all that had passed, Lucia had not anticipated the warm feelings expressed by her future father-in-law in his letter. “How could we not be utterly surprised at the manner with which he addressed my father, and the generous words he used with me,” she wrote to Alvise, at once relieved and elated at how the situation had quite suddenly turned in her favour. “He knew what I had gone through. Moved by delicate, humane feelings, he encouraged me with overflowing words, lifting me from gloom to happiness.” This old man, who had been so mean to her future husband and so hostile and strange to her, seemed so transformed and so clearly on her side that Lucia already felt “attached to him by the most respectful affection.” Such was her joy that even if he should again give her “displeasures” in the future, she was ready to “forgive all.”

Lucia was especially happy to receive a warm letter from Chiara, Alvise’s mother, who had remained in the background all this time and about whom Lucia had heard only good things. Chiara wrote:

My dear child, if I could have listened only to the voice of my feelings, I would have explained long ago to you, my lovable Luciettina, the pleasure and happiness I felt upon first hearing that you might become my daughter…Now that I bring together at last my love for you as a mother with the interests of the family, I have not allowed a moment to pass before assuring you of my jubilation…and the sheer joy of expressing to you my feelings…Consider me your mother for I shall always look upon you as my daughter.

These tender, heart-felt words were what Lucia had secretly hoped for. She yearned to find in her future mother-in-law some of that maternal love she had lost as a little girl, when her mother had died so suddenly. Chiara had wanted to let Lucia know she understood that yearning. “Surely your unequalled mother will take the place of mine,” Lucia confided to Alvise. She went even further, fantasising about how her marriage to Alvise, which had caused such bad feelings, would help bring the fractious Mocenigo family together. Was it too much to hope that they could all live together?

How wonderful it would be if the family lived under the same roof, ate at the same table…I’ll say no more. The skies have cleared and heaven is now clement with me, and I hope it will not abandon me.

In her letters to Alvise, Lucia had always made a point of reminding him, delicately, that until matters were settled, her father remained her only guide. After receiving Sebastiano’s letter, she began in earnest her journey into the sphere of influence of the Mocenigos. “I shall do everything my husband asks me to do,” she now promised Alvise. “You will be my guide in everything.” Barely sixteen years old, she was ready “to become a true Moceniga.” She may well have felt a voluptuous pleasure in finally giving herself over to Alvise. His age and experience added to her sense of security. “The fact that you are ten years older than me,” she admitted, “is another good fortune.”

Alvise encouraged her to think ahead about their life together in Venice. The idea of living with his parents, which Lucia had broached in a moment of enthusiasm, did not appeal to him at all. Besides, there was plenty of space in Palazzo Mocenigo for the young couple to have their own, comfortable apartment. Renovations would soon be under way, Alvise informed her, and she should send him her ideas about their living arrangements, as well as any special request she might have. Lucia, unused to this kind of responsibility, was embarrassed by all the fuss. “Apropos
and apartments,” she wrote back, “I tell you with the greatest sincerity that I would suffer to see too much being done for my sake.” Besides, she would always be more interested in the people living in the house “rather than in all the beautiful furniture.”
But since Alvise had asked, she thought she might put in at least one request that was sure to make her life more comfortable: “All I really wish is to have a few small rooms
de retraite
just off the main bedroom, where I might write or paint without fear of messing up or dirtying [the apartment].”

The journey back to Venice was delayed until after the summer. The Senate instructed Memmo to wait for his successor before leaving Rome. And the new ambassador, much to Memmo’s irritation, was taking his time winding his way down from Venice with his wife and retinue. Memmo had never quite gotten used to “the deadly heat that springs from the earth” during the summer in Rome, which he found “much more unbearable” than in Venice. “The air is literally on fire,” he complained to his agent, “and in order to breathe you must lock yourself up even more than in winter.”
Palazzo San Marco was surrounded by three large squares that turned hard and dry “causing everyone to eat a lot of dust.” His neighbours “tormented” him and pressed him to cover the scorched earth with gravel, like everyone else did. But that was yet another expense Memmo would not put up with, especially now that he was preparing to leave.

Society life ground to a halt in July and August. The Corso was deserted most of the day. The great palaces emptied as the Roman nobility retreated to their summer villas in the hills south of Rome, where the temperature was several degrees cooler and a pleasant breeze blew in from the Tyrrhenian Sea. But renting a villa was a luxury Memmo could not afford. “Too much money for the sake of a little coolness,” he grumbled. To alleviate the tedium of those long summer days, Memmo organised a day-trip with the girls and Madame Dupont to the waterfalls at Tivoli. He took them on a picnic by the Roman pool at Hadrian’s Villa. And he found some respite from the heat during their frequent excursions to the early Christian catacombs on the Appian Way, just beyond the southern city gate. In the evenings, Memmo gathered the few friends who were still in town for a light dinner at home, followed by ices and a little musical entertainment, usually provided by Lucia and Paolina. On one of these intimate occasions, Lucia, feeling playful, appeared among her father’s guests wearing a bracelet with an image of Sebastiano on her left wrist and one with Memmo’s image on her right wrist, and with the miniature of Alvise resting as usual upon her breast. “You won’t believe the things I sometimes put on,”
she wrote to Alvise.

That summer the artist Angelica Kauffmann was among Lucia’s favourite companions. Memmo had commissioned her to paint a formal portrait of himself clad in the traditional red brocade robe of the Procuratore di San Marco, to take back with him to Venice. He took the opportunity to commission twin portraits of his two daughters as well, in order to have a family set. Kauffmann’s studio was on the Via Sistina, just off the church of Trinità dei Monti. A number of painters and sculptors had recently moved into the area from Piazza Farnese, and Kauffmann, then at the top of her fame, was very much at the centre of this thriving community of artists. The large house she lived in with her husband, Antonio Zucchi, was filled with sculptures and busts and classical paintings. It was a lively and welcoming haven for fellow painters and writers, dealers and travellers, and for the more adventurous members of the Roman aristocracy and the diplomatic corps. The studio, stacked with canvases and cluttered with easels, brushes, jars and powdered pigments, was at the end of the house, overlooking an unruly garden. Memmo often made the short trip from Palazzo San Marco to the atelier in Via Sistina with his daughters, and he encouraged Kauffmann and her husband to take Lucia and Paolina to visit the studios of their artist friends.

BOOK: Lucia
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