Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Perfect Evening in Venice - A Venetian Affair at Venice Music Project

Andrea di Robilant with Venice Music Project at Church of San Giovanni Evangelista
(Venice, Italy) If you have ever been in Venice when the spirits of the past make an appearance in the present, you know how wondrous it can be. On Friday, June 27, all the elements came together to create a magical evening when Andrea di Robilant, author of A Venetian Affair, told the story of his ancestor, Andrea Memmo (1729-1793) and his clandestine love affair with the alluring Giustiniana Wynne (1737-1791).

The Church of San Giovanni Evangelista where the Venice Music Project is based was the venue. Interspersed perfectly between the story were Baroque melodies played by the Venetia Antiqua Ensemble on original instruments, with soprano Liesl Odenweller bringing alive arias that were composed during the same era.

Andrea di Robilant - Venice Music Project
Andrea Memmo was the oldest son of one of Venice's oldest, wealthiest and most powerful families -- he was Andrea di Robilant's great-great-great-great-great grandfather. In 1919, the author's grandfather, also named Andrea di Robilant, inherited Palazzo Mocenigo, one of Venice's most magnificent palaces. Andrea's father, Alvise, found a carton of letters up in the attic, and they turned out to be be love letters written by Andrea Memmo to Giustiniana Wynne -- in secret code. Father and son worked together and broke the code, but Andrea's father was murdered during the project, and Andrea carried on alone, resulting in the New York Times notable book,  A Venetian Affair - A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century.

Giustiniana Wynne was the illegitimate daughter (her parents later married) of a British father, Sir Richard Wynne, and Greek-born Venetian mother, Anna Gazini. Giustiniana was the oldest of their five children, and was raised solely by Anna after the death of Sir Richard.

Giustiniana met Andrea Memmo at Palazzo Balbi, the home of Joseph Smith, the British Consul and Canaletto patron, and the two fell passionately in love; she was not quite 18; he was 24. (Giustiniana called him Memmo, and I will, too, since there are an abundance of Andreas in this story.) When Giustiniana's mother, Anna, learned of the affair, she forbade it, wanting to preserve her daughter's reputation. Venetian society at the time dictated that the oldest son of a patrician family must marry into Venetian nobility.

But Memmo was head-over-heels in love, as was Giustiniana, as their letters reveal. To communicate, the young couple developed a written secret code, as well as a sign language, and bombarded each other with love letters delivered by a boy named Alvisetto. They dashed all over town, hoping for a glimpse of one another. Anyone familiar with Venice can picture the scene depicted in one of Memmo's letters:

Yesterday I tried desperately to see you. Before lunch the gondoliers could not serve me. After lunch I went looking for you in Campo Santo Stefano. Nothing. So I walked toward Piazza San Marco, and when I arrived at the bridge of San Moisè I ran into Lucrezia Pisani! I gave her my hand on the bridge, and then I saw you. I left her immediately and went looking for you everywhere. Finally I found you in the Piazza. I sent Alvisetto ahead to find out whether you were on your way to the opera or to the new play at the Teatro Sant'Angelo so that I could rush to get a box in time. Then I forged ahead and waited for you, filled with desire. Finally you arrived and I went up to my box so that I could contemplate you -- not only for the sheer pleasure I take in admiring you, but also in the hope of receiving a sign of acknowledgment as a form of consolation. But you did nothing of the sort. Instead you laughed continuously, made loud noises until the end of the show, for which I was both sorry and angry -- as you can well imagine. 

Venetia Antiqua Ensemble www.lieslodenweller.com
The music performed between the intervals in the story moved the action along seamlessly. Pieces composed by Vivaldi, J.A. Hasse and Benedetto and Alessandro Marcello provided the soundtrack to the love story. Memmo desperately wanted to be with Giustiana, and tried several schemes to make that happen. When the elderly John Smith's wife died, Memmo directed Giustiana to seduce the old man in the hopes of making a marriage, thereby opening up the possibility for Giustiana to be seen in the company of gentlemen -- since she would be a properly married woman. At first Giustiana was outraged, then saw Memmo's logic, and made the attempt. She writes:

I've never seen Smith so sprightly. He made me walk with him all morning and climbed the stairs, skipping the steps to show his agility and strenth. [The children] were playing in the garden at who could throw stones the furthest. And Memmo, would you believe it? Smith turned to me and said, "Do you want to see me throw a stone further than anyone else?" I thought he was kidding, but no: he asked [the children] to hand him two rocks and threw them toward the target. He didn't even reach it, so he blamed the stones, saying they were too light. He then threw more stones. By that time I was bursting with laughter and kept biting my lip.

Amazon
 My favorite letter was the young Memmo's sexual fantasy about his beloved:

As I lay in bed alone for so long I thought of the days when we will be together, comforting each other at night. This idea led to another and then to another and soon I was so fired up I could see you in bed with me. You wore that nightcap of yours I like so much, and a certain ribbon I gave you adorned your face so sweetly. You were so near to me and so seductive I took in your tender fragrance and felt your breath. You were in a deep sleep -- you even snored at times. You had kept me company all evening long with such grace that I really didn't have the heart to wake you up... but then a most fortunate little accident occurred just as my discretion was exhausting itself. You turned to me at the very moment in which you dreamed of being in my arms. Nature, perhaps encourage by habit, led you to embrace me. So there we were, next to each other, face to face and mouth to mouth! Your right leg was leaning on my left leg. Little by little the beak of the baby dove began to prick you so forcefully that in your sleep you moved your hand in such a way the thirsty little creature found the door wide open. Trembling from both fear and delight, it entered oh so gently into that little cage and after quenching its thirst it began to have some fun, flying about those spaces and trying to penetrate them as far as it could. It was so eager and made such a fuss that in the end you woke up.

It was not long before Memmo's scheme was found out -- Venice being the gossipy town that it is -- and Smith, furious, banished him from Palazzo Balbi. Undeterred, Memmo then plotted to marry Giustiana secretly in the church, and the church was happy to oblige, eager to capture such a notable young nobleman. But when Memmo seriously considered what he would lose -- his entire life and career -- he reconsidered.

He next decided that he would marry Giustiana legally, in front of the entire world -- all he needed to do was to change the law itself. He was not the only young man who wanted to move the oligarchy into modern times; there were other aristocrats in the same spot, and Memmo had the wealth and power to do it. He came very close to persuading enough nobility to join his cause until a document was found in the Archives revealing that Giustiana's mother, Anna, had been deflowered by a Greek in her youth, and that was the end of that.

Andrea di Robilant and Liesl Odenweller
In the end, both Memmo and Giustiana married others, but remained lifelong friends; Giustiana even went to Memmo's daughter's wedding. Memmo became governor of Padua and Ambassador to Constantinople; Giustiana married Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Austrian Ambassador to Venice, and then became a writer. Although they have been gone for more than 200 hundred years, their great love story lives on.

Titian's Assumption at the Frari
Coda: As we left San Giovanni Evangelista and headed toward dinner, a chorus of angels filled the night air. The door to the Frari was wide open, and Titian's Assumption of the Virgin glowed as if it were lit by heaven itself. We entered the enormous basilica and learned it was a free concert -- a perfect coda to a perfect evening in mystical, magical Venice.

Click for Venice Music Project
Click for Andrea di Robilant
Click for Liesl Odenweller

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. If you have ever been in Venice when the spirits of the past make an appearance in the present, you know how wondrous it can be. On Friday, June 27, all the elements came together to create a magical evening when Andrea di Robilant, author of A Venetian Affair, told the story of his ancestor, Andrea Memmo (1729-1793) and his clandestine love affair with the alluring Giustiniana Wynne (1737-1791).

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