Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Palazzo Mocenigo - The Lives of Spaces (Lucia in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea di Robilant)

(Venice, Italy) I nominate Andrea di Robilant for American Ambassador to Italy, or Italian Ambassador to the United States, whichever position becomes available first. He is an international treasure and should be paid a pot of gold and a rainbow to bridge the gap between the cultures. Son of an American mother and an Italian father, Andrea's ancestors also include two of the most ancient noble families in Venice, the Memmos and the Mocenigos. Most importantly, he has a tri-cultural sense of humor.

That image you see is of Palazzo Mocenigo, and was shot by Carlo Naya back in the mid-1800s when photography was in its infancy. "The Lives of Spaces" was the name of Ireland’s participation at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale last year, and inspired my thought that Palazzo Mocenigo -- the space itself -- is a fertile backdrop for many Venetian stories right up until the present day. There's a whole lotta ghosts running around over there.

Last Monday, I heard Andrea speak in English over at UNESCO about his latest book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon. (Sitting next to me at the lecture were the current tenants of Palazzo Mocenigo, which made it even more surreal, though I do believe they were human beings, not ghosts:) This past Monday evening I caught the end of Andrea's talk in Italian, Lucia nel tempo di Napoleone, over at Ateneto Veneto. The first talk was so entertaining, I immediately read the book (in English). Andrea had some fascinating ancestors who also happened to be clever writers.

This is from the Prologue:

When I was growing up I sometimes heard my grandfather mention Lucia Mocenigo, my Venetian great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was known in the family as Lucietta. Her name usually came up in connection with Lord Byron, to whom she rented the piano nobile of her palazzo during his scandalous time in Venice. I learnt more about her many years later, while doing research on her father, Andrea Memmo, whose epic love story with the beautiful Giustiniana Wynne in the 1750s was the subject of my last book, A Venetian Affair.

You regular readers might remember hearing about Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne (another fab female writer) in the Venetian Cat Views on Venice blog. Perhaps you might want to have a look at that blog again so you can get a sense of just how small this town is, not only in space, but in time. In fact, you might want to get yourselves a pencil right now and keep a score card:)


If you've read Andrea's first book, A Venetian Affair, the second, Lucia, about Memmo's daughter, is even better. Andrea began his talk, and his book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon, wondering why the enormous statue of Napoleon is inside the entrance of Palazzo Mocenigo.

And that is everyone's first reaction: what in tarnation is that thing doing there? Then you sort of don't notice it anymore, the way you wouldn't notice a pink elephant if it were always there.

Here is Andrea's description:

The statue, wedged into a corner, faces a damp wall in the androne (water-level entrance) of Palazzo Mocenigo, the venerable old palazzo on the Grand Canal which once belonged to my family. The emperor is clad in a Roman toga. His left arm is extended forward, as if he were pointing to a luminous future, though in fact he stares vacuously at the peeling wall in front of him. A mantle of dark grey soot has settled on to his shoulders, and a slab of roughly hewn marble links the raised arm to the head, giving the statue an unfinished look. It is hard to imagine a more incongruous presence than the one of a youthful Napoleon standing sentinel in that humid hallway to the sound of brackish water slapping and sloshing in the nearby canal.

Back in 2001, when I was writing for the IHT-Italy Daily, I saw the statue for the first time. I had just submitted a piece about Vivaldi, and was on vacation in Croatia, splashing sweetly in the sea by Rovinj, when my editor in Milano called. He said my editor in NYC was not happy with the piece, and could I please rewrite it? Vivaldi was too old, too dusty; he wanted something more contemporary. "Oh, sure. No problem," I said, and tossed my cell phone to a baby shark.

Seriously, I think I had two days when I got back to Venice to tweak the piece, and I decided to write about composers in Venice in general (subtitled: The Music of Vivaldi and Many Modern Composers Attest to the Serenissima's Rich Musical Tradition -- and no, I did not write that!).

A friend said he knew a Spanish pianist who lived in Lord Byron's former apartment. Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn graciously granted me an interview inside the very rooms you see there. I mixed the story into the previous Vivaldi piece, tossed and served. My slave-driving editor in NYC, Claudio Gatti, was pleased.

This is from the IHT-Italy Daily September 7, 2001:

"I was bitten by Venice," said Pérez de Guzmán. "I fell in love with the city. You establish a rapport -- it gives you a peaceful feeling so that you can create. You absorb all the beauty and peace that Venice gives you, and incorporate it into your own work, then give it back to the world. To create your own music, to find peace of mind in order to create a new repertoire or to get ready for the season, Venice is ideal.

For centuries, artists and musicians have come to Venice for inspiration. Wagner composed the second act of 'Tristan und Isolde' here for many of the same reasons, I imagine. Tchaikowsky was here, Mozart, Goethe, Ezra Pound and John Ruskin. Lord Byron wrote the first two cantos of his masterpiece 'Don Juan' right here in these rooms. Benjamin Britten and Arthur Rubinstein have played the piano in my drawing room. Some of the greatest talents in the world have held private concerts in this palazzo."

A few years later I had a regatta party at my house -- it could have been for the Vogalonga because I vaguely remember Enrique wearing something stripey inspired by that theme. Pierre Higonnet, who then owned the Galleria del Leone over on Giudecca, brought Andrea di Robilant as his guest. And that, folks, is how Andrea di Robilant met Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn, who was living inside Andrea's family's former home (which included Lord Byron's apartment in Palazzo Mocenigo) and that is how I met Andrea.

(Think of it like this: you grow up in your grandparent's home. Things change. People die. Other people now live in your home. Now you live somewhere else on the planet. But you still yearn for those old familiar childhood memories. Many years later, you visit your hometown. You go to a party. You meet someone, and they are now living in your old home. Venice is like that.)

Andrea writes about Lucia Mocenigo's most famous tenant, Lord Byron:

Lucia 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... 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...

What Lord Byron wrote upon exiting Palazzo Mocenigo:

I have replenished three times over and made good by the equivalent of the doors and canal posts any little damage to her pottery. If any articles were taken by mistake, they shall be restored or replaced; but I will submit to no exorbitant charge nor imposition. What she may do I neither know nor care; if they like the law they shall have it for years to come, and if they gain, what then? They will find it difficult to 'shear the wolf' no longer in Venice. They are a damned, infamous set... a nest of whores and scoundrels.

Even today, palaces and artistocracy hold a great fascination for travelers to Venice, as does the Age of Napoleon. During Carnival, guests plop down hundreds -- if not thousands -- of euro to dress up as aristocrats and reinact the balls, a curious phenomenon to American eyes, since it is not part of our system. Gilbert von Studnitz, a German nobleman, begins his precise explanation of European aristocracy with this sentence: The German system of nobility, as indeed the European system in general, is quite different from the English system with which most Americans are familiar.


I will confess as to being completely confused myself, since there seem to be all sorts of creatures running around Venice with titles at any given moment, behaving in the strangest fashion.

This is where Lucia in the Age of Napoleon comes in handy. Not only was Lucia a Memmo herself, descended from one of the oldest families in Venice, she had married a Mocenigo, a family who had produced a whopping seven Doges for the Venetian Republic, plus she had lived through the Venetian Republic's collapse, through Napoleon, through the Austrian Empire -- all the way through to Lord Byron -- and she kept notes!

For example, after she became lady-in-waiting to Empress Josephine's daughter-in-law, Princess Augusta, this is what she wrote in a letter to her sister, Paolina:

I lead the dullest existence, rushing from my apartment to Court and from Court to my apartment. What does one do at Court? Well, the evenings in which we have Grand cercel (Large Circle) we tend to sit around for about an hour before moving to the gaming room. When the card-playing is over the Princess rises, says a few nice words to us and I run back home as fast as I can. When we have Petit cercle ( Small Circle) only those attached to the Court are invited. The evening usually begins with a session of baby-watching: we crowd around ten-month-old Josephine, Princess of Bologna, as she plays in her pen. Very interesting...

It was educational to read how the family routinely switched loyalties and languages between France and Austria, depending on which was more prudent. Even more enlightening was how intelligent, enterprising and educated Lucia was. In general, Lucia led a lonely existence, since her husband, Alvise, left her alone for long periods of time. She had several miscarriages before they finally produced an heir, a son, Alvisetto, who also died young.

But then, Lucia did something extraordinary -- she fell in love with a dashing, daring Irish-Austrian Colonel with the Hollywood name of Baron Maximilian Plunkett. They began a secret love affair, which produced a secret son! Maximilian died gloriously in a rain of French bullets two days after his son was christened.

Lucia's husband, Alvise, didn't find out for four years; of course, he was furious when he did. But, ultimately, he was pragmatic. Being without an heir himself, he decided to change the boy's name (which was Massimiliano) to Alvise, or Alvisetto (I guess we can call him Alvisetto Due), and turn his wife's lover's son into a Mocenigo. Oh, those wacky aristocrats!

This is from an interview that Andrea did with Robert Murphy for W Magazine:

Most stunningly, perhaps, di Robilant's book blows the cover off a two-hundred-year-old family secret. While examing archives in Venice, he discovered that Lucia's only son to survive infancy, theretofore presumed legitimate, was actually the fruit of an illicit union with an alluring Irish-Austrian officer. "For a long while I wondered why my father had red sideburns," said di Robilant. "Everything that brings out the truth is good. It puts into perspective all this crap about blood and legitimacy. Who would have figured that I was part Irish?"

(That gorgeous image you see of Andrea di Robilant was taken by Pamela Berry http://www.studiopb.com/.)

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog


  1. Great post Cat!
    I really enjoy it.

  2. Cat I once saw a political cartoon dating from when France occupied Venice (or shortly thereafter) that depicted a statue exactly like the one of Napolean shown in your post. I believe the original statue was erected in the piazzetta on a mable plinth and surrounded by a chain barrier. I can scan the image if you're interested.


  3. Oh...and the cartoon depicted the statue being thrown from the pedestal by the rays of providence and allied European nations.

  4. Chris, I think you're talking about the 8-foot statue commissioned in 1811 by Venetian merchants that had disappeared for 200 years. They sneaked that into the Correr Museum one night a few years ago.

    This is another statue entirely of the same guy:) From Lucia: "Alvise Mocenigo, Lucia's husband, commissioned the statue in the heyday of Napoleon's Empire. It was intended to be the centrepiece of a vast utopian estate he built on the mainland. The statue, however, was not delivered until after the Emperor's downfall. By then Alvise was dead, and Lucia, not quite knowing what to do with such a cumbersome and politically embarrassing object, stored it in the entrance hall of Palazzo Mocenigo, exactly where it stands today. The statue is all that remains of our family possessions in Venice..."

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