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  • Written by Andrea Di Robilant
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  • Written by Andrea Di Robilant
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A Venetian Life in the Age of Napleon

Written by Andrea Di RobilantAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrea Di Robilant


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: January 22, 2008
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26857-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
Lucia Cover

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In 1787, the beautiful Lucia is married off to Alvise Mocenigo, scion of one of the most powerful Venetian families. But their life as a golden couple will be suddenly transformed when Venice falls to Bonaparte. We witness Lucia's painful series of miscarriages and the pressure on her to produce an heir; her impassioned affair with an Austrian officer; the glamour and strain of her career as a hostess in Vienna; and her amazing firsthand account of the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. With his brave and articulate heroine, Andrea di Robilant has once again reached across the centuries, and deep into his own past, to bring history to rich and vivid life on the page.



In the winter of 1786, Andrea Memmo, the Venetian ambassador to the Papal States, was visiting Naples with his daughters Lucia and Paolina during the Carnival season, when he received a dispatch from Venice that he had been waiting for anxiously. Alvise Mocenigo, the only son of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of the Venetian Republic, agreed to marry Memmo’s oldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Lucia.

Memmo was an experienced diplomat and he knew this letter was only the first step in what promised to be a long and difficult negotiation. Alvise’s personal commitment was no guarantee that the proposal would actually go through, for he was on very bad terms with his father, Sebastiano, and did not get on much better with the rest of his family, whose approval of the marriage contract was indispensable. The Mocenigo elders were irked by Alvise’s marital freelancing. Moreover, they did not favour the prospect of an attachment to the declining house of the Memmos, which had been among the founding families of the Venetian Republic back in the eighth century, but whose finances and political power had been waning for some generations. Still, Memmo felt Alvise’s letter was a promising start, and he was confident in his judgement that the twenty-six-year-old scion of Casa Mocenigo was a son-in-law worth an honest struggle. “For some time now he has shown real promise,” he had explained to his closest friends, “and as I flatter myself of foreseeing the future, I know my daughter will be well taken care of.”[1] The wisest course, he had concluded, was to cultivate Alvise directly, encouraging him to correspond with Lucia over the heads of the surly Mocenigos (it was Memmo who had convinced Alvise to go ahead and declare himself for Lucia). Meanwhile, he was going to exercise the full panoply of his diplomatic skills in an effort to bring Alvise’s family over to his side; marrying Lucia off without the consent of the Mocenigos in a clandestine ceremony was out of the question.

The small travelling household in Naples was already dizzy with excitement when Memmo, still clutching Alvise’s letter, summoned Lucia to his quarters. It was not clear to the rest of the family what the mysterious dispatch contained exactly, but it was plain to all that it must carry portentous news. Lucia entered her father’s room anxious and short of breath. Thirteen-year-old Paolina followed, her eyes already swelling with tears of anticipation, while Madame Dupont, their beloved governess, stood discreetly in the background. After revealing with appropriate solemnity the content of the dispatch, Memmo read out a draft copy of the marriage contract. He then handed to Lucia a separate letter in which Alvise, who was marrying for the second time, introduced himself to his young bride-to-be. He professed to remember Lucia from earlier days in Venice, though in truth he could only have had a vague recollection of her as a little girl. Lucia did not have any memory at all of Alvise. Standing in her father’s study, she must have struggled to conjure up an image towards which she could direct the rush of confusing emotions.

Alvise’s declaration called for an immediate reply. Memmo startled Lucia a second time by asking her to write to her future husband at once, and without his help. He would read the letter over, he assured her, but she had to set it down herself, letting her heart speak out and never forgetting to use her head. Lucia obediently retired to her room, and in her neat, elegant handwriting, penned her first letter to Alvise, a letter so poignant yet also so thoughtful and mature that it deserves to be quoted in full:

"My most esteemed spouse, my good father having informed me of your favourable disposition towards me, and having told me of your worthy qualities, I will confess to you that in seeing myself so honoured by your letter, and having been informed that you have agreed to the marriage contract which my own father read to me at length, I felt such agitation in my heart that for a brief moment I even lost consciousness. And now that I am writing to you I am so troubled, my father not wishing to suggest even one convenient word to me, that I feel embarrassed to the point that I don’t quite know how to express myself. I thank you very much for the kindness you have shown me, for the good impression you have formed of me and which I shall endeavour yet to improve by the proper exercise of my duties. I know my good fortune, as well I should, and I will strive to become worthy of it. I am certain that my father, and indeed my loving uncles, in carrying forth this marriage, have had my happiness in mind, which means that in you I shall find all that a spouse may desire. I do not have the strength to say more, except that I have no other will than that of my father’s, nor do I wish to have one, just as in the future I will only wish to have yours."[2]

It would have been pleasant to linger in Naples—the seaside gaiety of this port-city so reminded the Memmos of Venice. They had been feted with lunches and dinners in the homes of the Neapolitan nobility, they had visited the porcelain factories at Capodimonte, gone out to Pozzuoli to view the antiquities, made a tour of the Catacombs and had walked through the magnificent stables of King Ferdinand IV, the primitive but jocular monarch known as Re Nasone, King Big Nose. On the night of the gran mascherata, “the great masquerade,” the King had spotted Lucia and Paolina in the packed crowd at Teatro San Carlo and had thrown handfuls of coloured confetti at them, giggling and clapping his hands when the two girls had thrown some back at him. Circumstances, however, had suddenly changed, and Memmo was anxious to return to Rome to push the deal on Lucia’s marriage forward before it lost momentum. Lucia, too, longed to be back in Rome, at the Venetian embassy in the Palazzo San Marco, among her things and in the company of her friends. Each additional day spent in Naples made her feel a little more unhinged. Her father had explained how complicated the negotiations might prove, going so far as to admit to Lucia that the deal was not yet sealed because of the opposition of the Mocenigos. With trepidation, she now wrote to Alvise beseeching him “to come to terms with your family before any official notice of our wedding is published . . . I must confess that I would be extremely mortified if your family did not acknowledge me as your very obedient and affectionate spouse.”[3]

Memmo drove out to the royal palace at Caserta to take formal leave of the King of Naples and his touchy Austrian wife, Queen Maria Carolina, as soon as it was convenient to do so without giving the impression of a rushed departure. Meanwhile he sent a small portrait of Lucia to Alvise. He had wanted to have a new miniature painted in Naples, but there was not enough time to arrange a sitting. So he sent an old one, of Lucia as a little girl, causing his daughter considerable discomfiture. “For heaven’s sake, don’t trust that picture,” she pleaded with Alvise. “My father had it painted years ago in order to take it with him to Constantinople. You might find me changed for the worse when you see me, and I wouldn’t want to suffer such disadvantage after a possibly favourable judgement on your part.”[4]

Finally, on 11 March, Memmo, Lucia, Paolina and Madame Dupont crammed their luggage in a rented carriage and headed north for Rome, leaving the hazy silhouette of Vesuvius behind them. “There I hope to receive your portrait, and there, I’m afraid, mine will be painted,” Lucia wrote spiritedly to Alvise in a note she dashed off before leaving.[5] She was already addressing him as her amatissimo sposo, her beloved spouse.

Although not yet sixteen, Lucia was already a young woman of uncommon poise. As the older of the two sisters she had taken on quite effortlessly some of the duties and responsibilities that would have been her mother’s as the wife of the ambassador. Five years had gone by since Elisabetta Piovene Memmo had died in Venice of a “gastro-rheumatic fever,” leaving her two young daughters, ten and eight, stunned with grief. Elisabetta had been ill for some time. She was a frail woman, who suffered nervous breakdowns and often took to her bed. She drank vinegar every morning for fear of putting on weight and developed what the doctors described as “a bilious temperament.”[6] When she died, Memmo was in Constantinople, serving as ambassador to the Porte. He sailed home utterly distraught, a widower with two young daughters to raise.

Lucia and Paolina’s education had been somewhat haphazard during his absence. The girls were taught basic reading and writing skills, they received piano and singing lessons, learnt a little French, but their schooling was unimaginative and perfunctory. Elisabetta became less reliable as her health declined, and the two sisters fell increasingly under the authority of their strict grandmother, Lucia Pisani Memmo, who lived upstairs from them at Ca’ Memmo, the family palazzo on the Grand Canal, and who was more interested in developing her granddaughters’ manners than their intellect.

Ambassador Memmo, a learned and widely read man with a considerable knowledge of history and philosophy and an abiding passion for architecture, embraced the opportunity to educate his daughters, in part because he had been an absent father. “My girls are still a little rough around the edges,” he confided to his friends, but under his care they would surely become “very beautiful and very educated.”[7] He did not want to stay in Venice after the death of his wife because it would only sharpen his misery. So he welcomed his appointment to the ambassadorship in Rome, where he moved with his daughters in 1783, at the age of fifty-four.

Life in the papal city offered Memmo a nice change of pace after his very active and distinguished career in the service of the Venetian Republic. He needed “distractions to preserve [his] health,” he claimed, and these he certainly found, throwing himself in the arms of lovers, young and old, and thanking his “amiable sluts” for breathing new life into his otherwise “moribund cock.” He also indulged in the pleasures of a good table. “My appetite thrives and I am an excellent companion at dinner.”[8]

Although he took his pleasures, he did not neglect his duties as a father. His best time, in Rome, was the one he spent in the company of Lucia and Paolina, who blossomed, he said, “thanks to their excellent French governess and to my own efforts.” His daughters were indeed much admired and Madame Dupont’s “unequalled vigilance” helped to preserve their innocence. “Perhaps even excessively,” quipped Memmo, the aging libertine, to Guglielmo Chiarabba, his agent back in Venice, “since it does not seem to me they have the slightest desire to be attractive to men.”[9]

In Lucia’s case, things were rapidly changing.

[1] Andrea Memmo to Giulio Perini, Rome, 25 April 1786, ASF, Acquisti e doni 94, filza 146.
[2] Lucia to Alvise, Naples, 21 February 1786, AdR Papers.
[3] Lucia to Alvise, Naples, 28 February 1786, AdR Papers.
[4] Lucia to Alvise, Naples, 7 March 1786, AdR Papers.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The medieval report signed by Professor Perlasca is in the Biblioteca Civica Correr di Venezia, Maoscritti, misc. IX, 1138. On the death of Lucia's mother, see A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant, New York: Knopf, 2003.
[7] Andrea Memmo to Giulio Perini, Rome, 30 April 1785, ASF, Acquisti e doni 94, filza 146.
[8] Andrea Memmo to Giulio Perini, Rome, 17 September 1783, ASF, Acquisti e doni 94, filza 146.
[9] Andrea Memmo to Guglielmo Chiarabba, Rome, 22 May 1784, AdR Papers.

From the Hardcover edition.
Andrea Di Robilant|Author Q&A

About Andrea Di Robilant

Andrea Di Robilant - Lucia

Photo © Pamela Berry

Andrea di Robilant was born in Italy and educated at Columbia University, where he specialized in international affairs. He is the author of two previous books, A Venetian Affair and Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon. He currently lives in Rome with his wife and two sons.

Author Q&A

Q. A discovery of letters between a young beauty, Giustiniana Wynne, and your ancestor, the Venetian nobleman Andrea Memmo, inspired your first work A Venetian Affair. What lead to the discovery of Lucia’s letters and what inspired you to tell her story in your new book, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon?

It was only after finishing A Venetian Affair that I realized there was another box of letters among my father’s papers which I had not yet opened. They turned out to be by Andrea Memmo’s daughter, Lucia, to her future husband, Alvise Mocenigo. These letters, written when Lucia was only sixteen, were so vivid and immediate and provided such a fascinating insight into the complex negotiations leading to an arranged marriage in Venice in the late 18th century, that they seemed to be the perfect starting point for a narrative on that period. In the course of researching Lucia’s life I was lucky to find several more collections of her correspondence in the archives in Venice and other cities of northern Italy, which, taken together, covered her entire life time. The sheer quality of her correspondence throughout her life — her observations, her descriptions, her wonderful habit of transcribing dialogues, the precise information about her personal life and the world around her - compelled me to write her story.

Q. How did the experience of writing Lucia differ from that of A Venetian Affair?

In writing A Venetian Affair I was entirely absorbed by the intensity of the love story between Andrea and Giustiniana. Lucia, instead, is more like a rich family saga. Whereas I had something of a crush on Giustiniana, the relationship I developed with Lucia was at once deeper and more complex. I grew to love and admire her. She was a strong, courageous, passionate woman. But she also irritated me at times, and disappointed me and even exasperated me.

Q. Who was Colonel Plunkett and what role did he play in Lucia’s life?

After the fall of the Venetian Republic, Colonel Plunkett, a dashing officer with the occupying Austrian troops, became Lucia’s secret lover. He fathered her only surviving child, Alvisetto, before being killed in action while fighting the French in Switzerland. All traces of this love affair were carefully erased by Lucia. Alvisetto was passed off as Alvise’s son, thereby ensuring the survival of the Mocenigo line.

Q. While we know that Lucia did have an affair, she was very selective about what she wrote in her letters, even to her sister. Do you think these letters were destroyed, or do you believe Lucia never wrote to anyone about these matters? If not, why?

Lucia’s letters could be very intimate, and that is part of their enduring charm. But she was too careful a person to write about her love affair in letters that might fall in the wrong hands. And the love letters she received by Colonel Plunkett she must have destroyed. In this she was far more discreet than her husband, who seldom burnt the letters he received from his numerous lovers — much to their annoyance.

Q. Like Giustiniana in A Venetian Affair, Lucia has a child in secret as the result of her affair. How common was the practice of bearing children outside of marriage during the 18th and 19th centuries?

The practice, though by no means frequent, was fairly common, especially in the eighteenth century, when arranged marriages were still the norm. It was not unusual for a pregnant woman to enter a convent to deliver a child out of wedlock. These children were usually brought up by women of modest means in exchange for a small stipend.

Q. During the Napoleonic reign in Europe, Lucia had seemingly conflicting alliances as a close friend of the Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Josephine, while also bearing papers of Austrian nobility and having many friends at the Hapsburg court. How did she sort out this tangled associations?

Lucia was a Venetian at heart and even after the fall of the Republic she continued to consider Venice as her only fatherland. Even though she bore patents of Austrian and French nobility , and even though she had to maneuver carefully between conflicting alliances, she never felt an allegiance to Vienna or Paris — something which became a source of tension within her marriage (her husband Alvise was at first pro French, then pro Austrian and finally pro French again).

Q. Lucia returns to Italy from Paris after the fall of the Empire. How had Venice changed?

At the fall of the Napoleonic Empire in 1814 Venice had barely survived a six month siege by the Austrians. When Lucia returned to Venice from Paris she found a ghost of the city she had known — crippled by poverty, disease and hunger. A mournful Grand Canal was lined with abandoned and crumbling palazzos. Venice entered a period of steep decline which lasted two decades — into the 1830s.

Q. Lucia’s husband, Alvise, founded a utopian town aptly named Alvisopoli in the Italian countryside. What were his original goals for the town and how was Alvisopoli affected by Napoleon’s reign?

Alvisopoli was a self-sufficient agricultural and manufacturing community built on reclaimed marshes on the mainland facing Venice. The estate was notable for the modern housing facilities built for workers and their families, the technical schools and the health facilities. In recognition for his work in founding and developing Alvisopoli, Napoleon awarded Alvise the Iron Cross, the highest civilian decoration. But the land taxes levied to finance Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe eventually crippled Alvisopoli even as its young farm-hands were conscripted into Napoleon’s army. After Alvise’s premature death, Lucia managed Alvisopoli with great skill for thirty years before she handed control over to her son, Alvisetto.

Q. Lucia is often referred to as one of the last grandes dames of Venetian society. However, she seems progressive and independent throughout the book - she lived mostly on her own, made her own small business plans, and eventually took over all of her late husband’s financial affairs. Do you think she represented Venice’s past or its future?

One of the reasons why Lucia is such an appealing character is precisely because she seems to be such a modern woman. Highly resilient, very practical, fiercely independent, she often feels like a contemporary of ours, not someone who lived two hundred years ago. In her old age she came to be viewed as a grande dame; Effie, wife of John Ruskin, described her as the last of the Venetian grandes dames. She certainly played the part. To many foreign travelers who went to see her, she was a living link to the fabled Republic of old. In my view she is much more than that: Lucia brings to life that mysterious and dramatic transition from the eighteenth century Venice of Goldoni and Casanova (the setting of A Venetian Affair) to the Romantic Venice of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Q. How does Lord Byron play a role in Lucia’s story?

Lord Byron came into Lucia’s life in 1818 when he rented from her an entire floor of Palazzo Mocenigo for the princely sum of 200 pounds. Their landlord-tenant relationship was frought with animosity and turned quite vicious at the end. But there is no doubt that Byron’s infusion of cash at a time of great economic distress allowed Lucia to keep Palazzo Mocenigo.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Di Robilant paints a vivacious picture of the Napoleonic age.” —The New Yorker“What an amazing life, what a great story! And it's so deftly told by Lucia's great-great-great-great-grandson, who rummaged through his family's papers and found genuine treasure.” —The Washington Post Book World“Fascinating. . . . As with many engaging tales, this one proved elusive and complex-perfect fodder for a historian of di Robilant's imaginative bent.” —W Magazine“A rare treat. . . . Filled with the pageantry of the aristocracy and the political intrigue of countries at war. . . . History buffs should add this volume to their list of must-reads.” —The Free Lance-Star (Newark)“Lucia in the Age of Napoleon is less a biography than a ghost story; unsettling, exciting, almost unbelievable in its immediacy. Lucia will become as vital a part of Venetian history as Casanova, or Byron himself, or any of the Mocenigo doges who lie entombed in San Giovani e Paulo, ‘each face finer & more beautiful than the other’, as Effie Ruskin put it, ‘even in old age’.” —Frances Wilson, Sunday Telegraph“Lucia's life is an inspired choice for a parable of the end of the Venetian republic … Her letters to her [sister Paolina] paint Napoleon's Europe in all its grand and bloody colours … Andrea Di Robilant's strengths are in his portraits of Venetians during their city's worst times. He's not afraid to criticise Venice for the feckless policy of unarmed neutrality, the tepid resistance and the gibbering compliance that left her vulnerable to the steel-trap war-machines of France and Austria. Venice's mistake, like Lucia's, was to believe that she was beloved. For Napoleon, Venice was a trinket. As he passed through, he ransacked her art and archives with a sharp eye and a cool heart. To see that process personified in a flawed and fascinating woman makes for a deeply engaging read.” —Independent on Sunday“Well-composed . . . the author’s meticulous attention to personal detail yields compelling historical character sketches.” —Kirkus Reviews

  • Lucia by Andrea di Rocbilant
  • February 10, 2009
  • History - Modern - 19th Century
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400095117

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