Authors: Andrea Di Robilant
You know we have little money. I don’t expect you to force yourself away from the gaming table but don’t go anxiously looking for it either. Let conversation be your entertainment of choice, and for God’s sake always keep that nefarious thought of “earning one’s money back” as far away from your mind as possible. Forgive me if I insist in giving you this advice: I do it only for your own sake.
Alvise was also spending some of his time—Lucia seems to have been unaware of this at the time—in the arms of Foscarina, the beautiful wife of a well-known Venetian senator. Foscarina was, by her own definition, “the most open-minded authority in the art of seduction.” Whether she seduced Alvise or he seduced her is unclear. In any case, while Lucia was away taking the waters, they began a light-hearted affair made of intimate conversations and furtive encounters. Their love notes were more practical than passionate. “My dearest Eige”—this was the nickname Foscarina gave Alvise—“my husband is at home and it would be unwise to receive you here now,” read one. “Drop me a line tomorrow morning and we shall arrange to see each other,” read another. On one occasion she sent word to him that she was alone at home all evening “so choose the time that is most convenient for you.” In the beginning she treated Alvise’s occasional lapses—a missed appointment, an unanswered note—with deliberate levity. “If I were one of those women who take the affairs of the heart seriously, then I should have reason to quarrel with you,” she once reprimanded him gently. “But it is of little importance to us, so let us laugh about it—we can’t go wrong…And let us keep trading our little confessions. The freshness of our conversation will continue to amuse us.”
It did not amuse them for very long. Foscarina liked to conduct her affairs efficiently and she quickly lost patience with Alvise’s disappearing acts. “After receiving two passionate notes from you, I waited for you like an ass until eight o’clock,” she wrote in anger, “thinking that if you couldn’t come you would at least send word, out of politeness if not affection.” The affair got out of hand. She accused Alvise of “running around too much and getting very little done, at least as far as I am concerned.” During one of their earlier, sweeter encounters, Alvise, in jest, had slipped off Foscarina’s wedding band and taken it home. Now she demanded to have it back, and she asked for all her letters as well. “I’ll send you my manservant and as soon as he returns, I’ll send him back with all your notes, which I have already gathered…Let us put an end to this story and let us stay friends…Adieu, and remember my wedding band.”
Alvise never returned Foscarina’s letters—Lucia found them years later among his private papers. It is unclear whether he ever even gave the ring back. “I am still waiting,” an exasperated Foscarina complained some time after the end of their affair. In any case it was over by the time Lucia returned to Venice after her summer in Valdagno.
In September, preparations began at last for Paolina’s wedding. Memmo, still frolicking happily in the arms of the beautiful Dinda Orsini, now a fixture in the family, had managed to disentangle the imbroglio with the Martinengos, making it possible for the chastened groom, Luigi, to marry his youngest daughter. Lucia was happy to have her sister just a short gondola ride away, at Ca’ Memmo, the old family
that now belonged to Paolina’s in-laws. And no one was more pleased than Lucia to hear, a few months after the wedding, that Paolina was expecting a child. Yet as the pregnancy progressed, it is difficult to imagine that Lucia did not also feel a growing sense of emptiness in her life. She certainly did not resign herself to childlessness, but the thought of that empty crib at Palazzo Mocenigo must have made it hard to keep her anxiety at bay.
Alvise’s frustration at not yet having an heir was deepened by his dissatisfaction at the way his father, Sebastiano, was running the family estate. Alvise was now responsible for the day-to-day management of the immense properties on the mainland and he received an adequate though by no means generous salary on which he and Lucia lived. But Sebastiano kept his son on a very short leash and this made for constant attrition between the two. Unlike his father, Alvise had a true passion for agriculture, or, as Memmo once said, a “talent for growing things.” He was fascinated by the development of new crops, the problems of irrigation, the possibilities introduced by machinery. He toured the country fairs and read the increasingly influential agricultural magazines.
The Venetian mainland territories stretched all the way east to the duchy of Milan and included the fertile plains along the river Po. The agricultural revolution that was taking place there was as advanced as it was in England at that time, and it was transforming the Venetian economy. Vast tracts of desolate, marshy land in the Po delta were being reclaimed; new fertilisers and new crops were increasing yield and variety; the development of mechanical equipment was lowering production costs. To men like Alvise, the future of the Republic depended on how quickly and efficiently the agricultural revolution would spread. But his father was of another generation. He was not interested in modernisation. Much to Alvise’s dismay he seemed content to exploit the land inefficiently and with minimal effort, leaving everything in the hands of incapable and often dishonest agents. The result was wastefulness on a grand scale, and a decline in income so rapid that Alvise, who would soon inherit the family holdings, realised it might lead to financial catastrophe in a matter of a few years. However, he knew that he would never turn his old father into a champion of agricultural reform and that their relationship was too encrusted with bad feelings for the two of them ever to work together in harmony. Sebastiano, on his part, viewed Alvise’s attempts to introduce improvements as the encroachments of an ungrateful son on God-given parental rights. “What truly pains me,” he told Alvise, “is that I cannot even invoke the duty of a son, because I would not be listened to. Even worse, I would be treated with disdain and scoffed at, this being the manner in which sons treat their parents today.”
By the spring of 1790 Alvise had had enough and he took a decision that had a far-reaching impact on his life. Using the name of a conniving friend, he secretly leased from his own father a vast tract of marshy land that belonged to the Mocenigos. The property, Molinato, was 1,800 hectares in all, and it sloped from the hills of southern Friuli down towards the Adriatic Sea, near the town of Portogruaro. It was a relatively small portion of the Mocenigo land holdings, but large enough to grow extensive crops once the land had been reclaimed. When Alvise signed the lease, the property was still mostly made up of soggy marshes filled with natural drainage and overflowing canals from neighbouring properties.
The lease started on 1 August 1790. That summer, Alvise took Lucia to visit Molinato under the scorching sun. They reached the property by sailing up the small canals that criss-crossed the wetlands along the coast. Lucia was stunned at the sight of such a wild and inhospitable territory. At the centre of the property was a forlorn hamlet inhabited by a few wretched families—sixty people at the most, including women and children. They were desperately poor, had a sickly, yellowish complexion and stood in the mud with their swollen bellies, swatting flies and staring at the newcomers. The air was so unhealthy that the agent Alvise hired, Checco Locatelli, obtained in writing that he did not have to live in the filthy hamlet; he would settle in Cordovado, a village inside the ruins of a Roman army camp some five miles up the road, where the Mocenigos owned a farmhouse.
Alvise did his best to reassure Lucia. He had already planned an elaborate drainage system to reclaim the marshes. He would settle the land by bringing in more labourers with their families, increase the livestock (there were fewer than a hundred scraggy cows), and plant rows of willows and poplars and vineyards until Lucia would no longer recognise the place. If the land proved productive, and the income increased, then he would make even larger investments, and maybe one day build a whole town on those very bogs, something along the lines of San Leucio, the model estate created by the king of Naples and about which he had heard so much. He envisioned an ideal rural community inspired by the progressive philosophers of the Enlightenment yet adapted to a rapidly changing economic environment; a modern agricultural and manufacturing centre with proper housing for the workers and their families, schools and training facilities, and good health care. But all that was in the future, when they would have more money at their disposal. For the time being, and given the small resources he could count on, Alvise developed a short-term plan with Locatelli: they were going to plant wheat, rye and sorghum on the drier fields further away from the coastline while they started to drain the lower marshes. This would allow them to raise cash and offset the cost of the lease, of digging canals, of new machinery and stock.
Despite her initial dismay, Lucia agreed to stay on for a few months and she set to work with pioneering spirit. Alvise was often away, meeting suppliers, calling on middlemen and visiting fairs. Lucia, meanwhile, reorganised the house, which had been left in a state of semi-abandon by Alvise’s father. She replaced all the rusty and “completely useless” appliances—the old stove, the water tank, the laundry basin, the casseroles and pans. She started keeping accounts and discovered she was good at cutting expenses. She also learnt to manage a much larger staff than the one at Palazzo Mocenigo or the summer villa on the Brenta. It was not always easy. The old caretaker, for one, was a hot-tempered man who drank and cursed, and resented the new occupants of the house. He did not get along at all with the house manager and threatened to kill him several times. Lucia confronted the caretaker sternly, obtaining a promise from him “that he will not abuse [us] with either words or deeds.” Locatelli, the experienced agent of the estate, warned Lucia that the caretaker was not to be believed. But she worried, correctly, about the consequences of sending him away. “If I left this man with no food and no place to go he might well become desperate and take revenge upon those who caused his ruin,” she wrote to Alvise. In the end she followed her instinct: she did not send the man away, and it does not appear he caused her further trouble. But it was during such tense moments that she most missed her husband, “wishing [your] return for a thousand reasons.”
Lucia had rarely felt so isolated as during those first months at Cordovado. When she was frantic for company, she rode her carriage to Portogruaro, an attractive little town with a bustling waterfront just off the main square where one boarded the
the water ferry to Venice. But she usually stayed at home, catching up on the reading she had planned for herself. Alvise had given her a beautifully bound two-volume French translation of Daniel Defoe’s
In truth, the choice had left Lucia a little baffled, as her interests ran in a different direction; but it occurred to her, only partly in jest, that Molinato was her desert island and that she might draw strength from Crusoe’s ingenuity. Another novel she had enjoyed after
La Nouvelle Héloïse
was Countess Rosenberg’s
a romantic tale of love and death set in the rugged mountains of Dalmatia. She was keen to have a copy with her at Cordovado and told Alvise to send one up from Venice. “You might ask Papa to lend us one of his,” she added, knowing her father kept several copies of Countess Rosenberg’s books at home.
Although Lucia enjoyed novels, she was also interested in books on the education of children. She had brought with her from Venice Madame de Genlis’s
Le Siècle passé,
a book on the teaching of history. Madame de Genlis, whom Lucia would meet and befriend years later in Paris, was a prolific writer and educator. She came from an impoverished aristocratic family in Burgundy and had become quite a celebrity in the Parisian salons thanks to her wit and distinguished manners. Appointed governess of the Duke of Chartres’s daughters, she handled herself so well that she was promoted to governess of his sons, one of whom was the future king, Louis Philippe. What most intrigued Lucia was how Madame de Genlis revolutionised traditional teaching methods, drawing her students out and engaging them in a dialogue. She taught botany during walks in the garden and in the countryside; she taught history with the help of magic lantern slides to make the lessons more vivid and entertaining; she taught literature by staging small plays and organising readings. Her progressive thinking had led her to welcome the fall of the absolute monarchy in France despite her links to the royal house, and to throw in her lot with the Girondins, the moderate party that was soon to be overpowered by the more militant Jacobins in Paris. In the isolation of Cordovado, this whiff of subversion must have made Madame de Genlis’s books even more exciting.
Lucia put in a number of other requests for educational books to Alvise, should he find himself “with a little extra money in his pocket.” One in particular she hoped he could purchase for her was
Instruction d’un père à ses enfants sur la nature et la religion,
by Abraham Trembley, a Swiss naturalist known in scientific circles for his studies on the fresh water polyp—the hydra—which he believed to be the missing link between the animal and the vegetable world. Trembley, who was influenced by his fellow countryman Rousseau, later became an educator and a philosopher interested in the connections between nature and human development. His two-volume work was written in very simple, “elementary” prose, Lucia explained to her husband. The first volume dealt with natural history, biology and geology; the second one focused on ethics and physics. Despite Lucia’s painstaking instructions, Alvise managed to send her the wrong book, and though she was “quite grateful” to see that he had “so promptly tried to please” her, she told him frankly, and with a touch of irritation: “It’s not the book I wanted.”