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Authors: Andrea Di Robilant

Lucia (8 page)

BOOK: Lucia
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When Alvise and Lucia arrived in Venice after their long trip south, the doge, though in agony, was still alive, but the city was already divided in two camps. The coffee houses and wine shops were filled with political chatter. Figurines with caricatures of the two candidates circulated from hand to hand. Satirical epigrams such as this one were posted on the walls near Saint Mark’s:

Memmo wants to be doge without spending a lira,

Shrewdly he distributes his bows for free…

And would you believe who else

Now strives for the Ducal crown?

Bastian Mocenigo, who governs Verona

And brought Venetians such disrepute

With his terrible vices,

Enough to horrify any man of good sense,

Let alone a good Christian


Doge Paolo Renier died on 13 February 1789. The authorities did not divulge the news, not wishing to disrupt the Carnival, but word spread quickly among the ruling families and the campaign went into full gear. According to Memmo, “all the people in authority bluntly intervened to convince Mocenigo to withdraw…but he remained obstinate and followed no one’s advice.”
Sebastiano promised up to eight silver ducats to impoverished patricians for their vote. He ordered that bread and wine be handed out at all the ferry stops along the Grand Canal and coins distributed in the Mocenigo neighbourhood of San Samuele. He was so sure of victory, it was said, that he had already given orders to deck out as many as sixty-four ceremonial vessels for the splendid cortège he was planning for his accession to the ducal throne.

Alvise watched with great discomfort as his father made a spectacle of himself instead of staying quietly on the sideline, grateful that the Republic had allowed him back into the fold. He feared Sebastiano’s unreasonable bid would stain the family reputation precisely at a time when he was trying to restore the prestige of the Mocenigos; he worried, too, about the effect of his father’s antics on his own career. If his father persisted in his design, Alvise would have no choice but to stand by him in the name of the family, and participate in an electoral struggle against Memmo, the “friend and father” with whom he felt a much greater political affinity.

Government informers making the rounds of taverns and coffee shops picked up rumours about Alvise’s “hesitancy” and his “wariness at taking a firm stance” in favour of his father. This factor, more than any other, changed the dynamic of the contest. Alvise was not a novice: he was a rising political star and the future standard-bearer of the Mocenigos. His vacillation cast a pall over Sebastiano’s candidacy, which collapsed like a pack of cards. On 2 March, the death of Doge Renier was finally announced. A day later, an informer reported that there was “universal silence around Sebastiano Mocenigo’s candidacy and all the people close to him stay away from those discussing the matter.” The following day another report stated “there are no more meetings in Sebastiano Mocenigo’s
One only hears the complaint of those patricians who won’t be receiving their money.” By 7 March, the candidacy was dead, and Sebastiano was “in a state of great affliction on account of the insuperable difficulties he encountered.”

Even though Sebastiano lost his bid, he inflicted serious damage on Memmo, who was unable to turn the situation to his advantage. The conservative patricians who opposed him quickly put forward a new candidate, Ludovico Manin, a weak and ineffectual man from a very wealthy family in Friuli. It was an uninspiring, uncontroversial choice, and on 9 March, four months before the taking of the Bastille in Paris—the first of a series of events that would ultimately have a catastrophic impact on Venice—Manin was elected doge.

If Memmo was disappointed at having been outmanoeuvred in a game at which he usually excelled, he did his best not to show it. “I am at peace with myself,” he assured his friends, even as he blasted the obtuseness of his fellow politicians. But Memmo’s peace of mind did not last long for he soon had to put all his energy in salvaging Paolina’s marriage contract with the Martinengos, which was suddenly thrown into jeopardy when the Inquisitors put Luigi, the future groom, under house arrest for licentious behaviour. While his family was negotiating in earnest with Memmo, Luigi had started a very public and scandalous relation with another woman—“a Roman slut,” Memmo noted in disgust. The matter would have been best left to the families to solve, but the Inquisitors, with their obsessive inclination to interfere in private matters, took it upon themselves to have Luigi arrested. Despite all the effort he had put in the transaction, Memmo now realised he might well have to annul the marriage contract. But Luigi, “that great ass,” was putting on a pathetic show, claiming to be devoted to Paolina. “He raves deliriously about wanting her back and promises all kinds of things,” Memmo complained.
To make matters more unpleasant, the Martinengos, who had already taken possession of Ca’ Memmo and had begun to refurbish it even though the wedding had not yet taken place, were faced with the prospect of having to give it back. So they demanded that Memmo reimburse at least part of the 10,000 ducats they had spent on house improvements.

Meanwhile, what to do with Paolina? She was still confined at Celestia with the nuns, but now Memmo was forced to consider bringing her to live with him in his alcove at Saint Mark’s Square if the marriage fell through—a solution he was not happy with because he felt increasingly protective of his new privacy. Despite his best efforts to resist emotional attachments, he was in fact succumbing to the charms of a young woman. “In love at sixty? Yes sir!” he admitted. Her name was Dinda Petrocchi Orsini and she was only twenty years old. Memmo had met this enticing young beauty in Rome when she was still unhappily married. “Now she has fled from the arms of her husband to fall into mine,” he grinned.

Alvise emerged from the 1789 election with his prestige unscathed by his father’s debacle. Indeed, he was now regarded as the de facto head of the family, if not formally, at least from a political standpoint. Not yet thirty, he was a player to be reckoned with. His speeches at the Senate had enhanced his reputation as an able and even inspiring young politician. Inevitably, his increased responsibilities—both on the family front and the public one—weighed on his relationship with Lucia. But she was fast learning the rules of the game. She was, after all, the daughter of one of the most respected statesmen in Venice, and she had experienced first-hand the demands a political career placed on the family. “I console myself with the thought that you are happy to stay long hours at the Senate,” she assured Alvise without a trace of irony, “since you have a real love for the affairs of your fatherland.”

Lucia, meanwhile, worried about fulfilling her own task. To improve the chances of a successful pregnancy, Alvise thought it would be useful for Lucia to continue the water cures she had begun in Lucca during their trip to Tuscany. He sent her to spend the summer in Valdagno, a fashionable little town north of Vicenza, at the foot of the Alps. Valdagno was set in a region Lucia remembered well from her childhood summers. When her father was away in Constantinople, she spent the hottest months with her mother at Castel Gomberto, the country estate five miles down the road from Valdagno that belonged to her mother’s family, the Piovene. Castel Gomberto was a handsome neo-Palladian villa with a formal garden, a long rectangular fishpond and a huge elm tree that provided a refreshing shade in July and August. It was a warm, friendly house, filled with sweet memories of her mother. Thus Lucia’s dread of being separated again from Alvise for weeks at a time during her stay in Valdagno was mitigated by the prospect of frequent visits to Castel Gomberto to be with her Piovene uncles and aunts.

Lucia took rooms at the Casa Valle, a comfortable house in the main square of Valdagno, with a fenced-in rose garden in the back whence a path led directly to a little house at the source of the curative waters. Lucia’s days revolved around the schedule that had been arranged for her by the local doctor to fortify her body in order to carry her next pregnancy to its conclusion. “My health is good,” she dutifully reported to Alvise after settling in. “The water cure is following its course and the doctor seems pleased.”

In the afternoons, when she did not ride a carriage to Castel Gomberto, she explored the trails in neighbouring woods, taking walks, she wrote to Alvise, “which I cannot wait to show you.”
Occasionally, a football game was organised in the town square to amuse the summer residents or a travelling theatre company might put on a show. The surrounding mountains were known for the great variety of their mineral ores. They attracted geologists and amateur collectors of rocks and gems from inside the Venetian Republic and abroad, and the mineral collections on display in several curiosity shops were the principal attractions in Valdagno. In the evenings, visitors came by Casa Valle to exchange niceties, and brought a bouquet of freshly cut flowers, a plate of figs or perhaps a basket of mushrooms from the nearby woods. Lucia often put together a round of
her favourite society game, though “I lose most of the time,” she complained to her husband, “without even the comfort of hearing you read out the numbers with your usual grace.”

During those summer evenings at Valdagno the talk often drifted to the extraordinary events taking place in Paris. France’s absolute monarchy had effectively collapsed after the storming of the Bastille and the establishment of the Convention to draft a constitution. Naturally, these dramatic developments were also at the centre of animated discussions back in Venice, where conservative patricians expressed their alarm while the more progressive-minded Venetians followed the beginnings of the French Revolution with the hope that the winds blowing from Paris might ultimately have a beneficial influence on the old Republic as well. Alvise, a devoted reader of Montesquieu, Diderot and Rousseau, kept Lucia abreast of the news. His comments on the situation unfolding in France were sympathetic but cautious—he was not a revolutionary, either by temperament or political conviction.

Lucia knew the discussions taking place in Venice made it more difficult for Alvise to journey out to Valdagno, but in her reveries she imagined him riding his carriage into the little town. Every jingling bell made her blood rush and her head turn. “My darling Alvise, it is so hard to be away from you! I cannot help feeling envious each time I see a married couple.” But as the summer wore on, the chances of luring him there grew increasingly remote. “Tomorrow an aerostatic balloon will lift off from our garden,” she announced as a last resort. “I don’t know what else to offer to encourage you to come…”

The one thing that kept her spiritually connected with Alvise that summer at Valdagno were the books that he recommended to her. At his suggestion, she read
La Nouvelle Héloïse,
the epistolary novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau published thirty years earlier yet still very popular. The book tells the story of two star-crossed lovers. In brief, Saint-Preux, a middle-class tutor, falls in love with Julie, his aristocratic pupil, who in turn falls in love with him. It is an impossible passion. Julie is promised to another man of her same station, whom she marries out of a sense of duty. Saint-Preux leaves on a long journey abroad, but eventually returns and is engaged as tutor of Julie’s children. Everyone seems content in this ménage. Beneath the surface, however, the echoes of the earlier passion still reverberate, and Julie realises, as her death nears, that she has never stopped loving Saint-Preux. “You can imagine how eager I am to read it after the description you gave me of the writer and the theme of the book,”
Lucia wrote to Alvise as she delved into the thick 800-page tome.

There are many ways to read Rousseau’s classic novel. Tearful readers across Europe were certainly captivated by the sheer power of the passion between Saint-Preux and Julie, and the sexual tension underlying the book. And one can easily imagine Lucia in bed, propped up against her cushions, reading by candlelight into the night. Of course, unlike Julie she was in love with her husband. But she yearned to be loved back with the same intensity, whereas Alvise’s long absences left her unsteady—a feeling that was no doubt enhanced by the difficulty she was having in giving birth. “Please love me, Alvise,” she pleaded touchingly. “If only you knew how deep my feelings for you have reached inside my heart you would understand why I believe I have a right to demand equal love in return.”

By the end of August, as the temperature finally cooled a little and the countryside around Valdagno took on a golden hue, Lucia realised that Alvise was not going to come out to see her. In her last letter from Casa Valle before returning to Venice she made no effort to conceal her disappointment:

I received your latest this evening: very nice letter, amusing, filled with interesting news, and I thank you. But how is it that there is not the slightest word about a visit here, nor do you mention the love you said you felt for me. Oh God, forgive me if I sound reproachful, but you surely realise that the thing I am most interested in is also the thing I most lack. This is the cause of my bitterness. You won’t like this letter—how could you?—but you can forgive my sincerity.

Lucia heard that Alvise, back in Venice, was gambling at the Ridotto, the famous gaming-house closed by the Inquisitors back in the 1770s and now open again and attracting crowds of derelict patricians, ruffians and cheats. Gambling was a real scourge among Venetians. Countess Rosenberg, Memmo’s first love and life-long friend, had written an essay describing the ravages of this addiction, which had deeply affected Lucia.
Alvise admitted to her that he played cards for money and was not always lucky. “I am very disturbed by these continual losses,” she wrote back in alarm, reminding him that until his father died they only had a relatively small stipend to live on.

BOOK: Lucia
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