Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea Di Robilant.

March 1, 2008 at 10:36 pm (Book review, books, History)

venetian-affair.jpg In 2003, Andrea di Robilant, a correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, wrote a book entitled A Venetian Affair. In it, he tells the poignant love story of Giustiniana Wynne, a young Venetian who lived in genteel poverty with her mother and sisters, and Andrea Memmo, scion of one of Venice’s oldest and most distinguished families. For many reasons, Giustiniana was disqualified as wife material for Andrea; among the strikes against her was her illegitimacy. But although they were never able to marry, they remained devoted to each other. That devotion was chronicled in numerous letters which were discovered by the author’s father in the attic of Venetian palazzo which had at one time been owned by the family.

lucia.jpg Di Robilant used those letters to terrific effect in A Venetian Affair. And now comes Lucia, the sequel, as it were. Once again we meet Andrea Memmo, only now he is older and wiser and a widower with two daughters. The younger is Paolina; the older, Lucia. The story begins in the year 1786. We learn that Andrea has been working hard to arrange a marriage for sixteen-year-old Lucia to Alvise, scion of the distinguished Mocenigo family, who, like themselves, are Venetian. At the time he was engaged in these machinations, Andrea was Venice’s ambassador to the Papal States. Negotiations were thus taking place over long distance while he was fulfilling his obligations in Rome and in Naples. The proposed match encountered some obstacles, but these were eventually overcome. There followed an exchange of letters between Lucia and her betrothed. We don’t have Alvise’s side of the correspondence, but we do have Lucia’s. Her letters are filled with sweet anticipation and girlish delight. They are filled with hope, and alas, very naive. But she learns, oh, does she learn…

In fact, this book could have been called “The Education of Lucia.” Alvise wasn’t a terrible husband, just a largely absent one. Lucia had to learn to fend for herself, a proposition made all the more daunting by the chaotic dangers of the outside world. The Napoleonic Wars were raging over the face of Europe. Poor Venice, mired in an antiquated, reactionary system of government, didn’t stand a chance against the powers that were vying for control of it. La Serenissima was anything but serene. As a result of all the turmoil, Lucia commenced an almost nomadic existence, living for a time in Vienna, in Paris, and in a number of smaller principalities. But her love for Venice, her fierce loyalty to her homeland and her determination to return to it, never wavered.

I want to just come out and say it: This is a wonderful book! The times were dangerous and fascinating, true, but Lucia’s remarkable life is the star of the show. andrea-di-robilant.jpg I dearly hope that Andrea Di Robilant can tease at least one more book out of that treasure trove of letters. His writing is fluid and graceful; he is a born storyteller.

For a truly a wonderful reading experience, I’d suggest reading both books, starting with venetian2.jpg A Venetian Affair. Then kick back, relax, and prepare to be enthralled!

Addendum, March 2: I forgot to mention that Lucia’s favorite author was none author than the prolific and redoubtable Madame de Genlis! Writing phrasebooks for travelers, it turns out, was just one of the versatile Mme de Genlis’s many writerly occupations.

Lucia, by the way, was Andrea Di Robilant’s great-great-great-great-grandmother.

3 Comments

  1. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. When she heard that I was co-presenting a program called “Blue Ribbon Biographies,” a friend of mine at the library recommended this alternately hilarious and poignant little book. I […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] murder, and the collision of cultures in the Arctic, 1913 – McKay Jenkins A Venetian Affair and Lucia: a Venetian life in the age of Napoleon – Andrea Di Robilant Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a shocking […]

  3. “We pass through centuries, and we learn nothing.” – A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] While reading A Question of Belief, I was reminded of Joan Silber’s short story “Gaspara Stampa” (in Ideas of Heaven) and Andrea di Robilant’s tale of his illustrious forebears, A Venetian Affair. […]

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