Lucia:   A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

This book, as have been so many which I have reviewed here over the years, was a serendipitous find while I was doing flower research for my debut novel, Deflowering Daisy. I actually read its quasi-sequel first, the search for one of this lady’s roses. More of that anon. But it was the search for a single rose over the course of two centuries which is what made me want to read Lucia’s story. The majority of my Regency research has been very much focused on England during that time. Lucia’s biography was incredibly enlightening for me, since it is the life of a young woman from a patrician Venetian family who lived during the decade of the English Regency, on the Continent, from Italy to Austria to France.

Why I found Lucia’s biography so rich and so compelling . . .

Lucia:   A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, is by Andrea di Robilant. This gentleman is not only a talented writer, he also happens to be Lucia’s great-great-great-great-grandson. He learned her story sifting through a lifetime’s worth of her letters and diaries, some of which are in his personal possession and others which he sought out in various archives around the world. In that rich trove of family papers, he also learned of a heart-breaking love affair between Lucia’s father, the patrician Venetian, Andrea Memmo, and beautiful young woman whom he could never marry. Andrea Memmo’s story is told by di Robilant in his book, A Venetian Affair. However, it is not necessary to read the story of the father to enjoy the story of the daughter. Though I warn you, once you have read di Robilant’s life of Lucia, you will almost certainly want to read her father’s tale as well.

This biography opens in the winter of 1786, in Naples, where Andrea Memmo, a widower, was visiting with his two young daughters, Lucia, and her younger sister, Paolina. Memmo receives a letter regarding the negotiations in which he is engaged to marry the fifteen-year-old Lucia to the son of another patrician Venetian family, Alvise Mocenigo. Though the young man is willing, his family raises multiple objections. The negotiations drag on for some time, and one wonders if Andrea Memmo were not a diplomat, if they would ever have come to fruition. It seems unlikely that any English marriage contract was ever so convoluted and Machiavellian, but it certainly makes for interesting reading. Lucia does marry Alvise Mocenigo in the end, and thus she begins her life as the wife of the heir to a prominent Venetian family. Her sister, Paolina, is married to another prominent Venetian and makes her home in a palazzo up the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigo, Lucia’s home. The sisters remain close throughout their lives, writing regularly to one another for the next several decades. Much of the more intimate details of Lucia’s life is known through these letters.

Lucia assumes she will settle into the life of a matron of the Venetian patriciate, raising children and working to maintain the good name and reputation of the family into which she has married. But her life does not go at all as she had expected. She conceives more than once, but also suffers multiple miscarriages. Pressure on her from the family to provide an heir is intense. Worse, though she does not know it at the time, an upstart young French General marches into northern Italy within a decade of her marriage and soon destroys the ancient Venetian Republic which has been her home all her life. Lucia’s husband, Alvise, meets with the young General Bonaparte in 1796 as part of the Venetian delegation and soon comes to the conclusion that the French General is a very dangerous man. His belief is bourne out the following year, 1797, when, by the Treaty of Campo Formio, Napoleon gave Venice to the Austrians and forced the city state to renounce its Doge and the form of government they had maintained for many centuries. Venice as Lucia knew it was gone with a stroke of a pen.

Much of Lucia’s life after the demise of the Venetian Republic is to do what she can in support of her husband as he tries to make a place for himself in whichever government he believes will be most favorable to the preservation of the large Mocenigo estates. She would live for a time in Vienna, the Austrian capital, as her husband sought to regain control of the family estates. While there, she also consulted with Doctor Vespa regarding her inability to carry a child to term. He was the same doctor who cared for the young Empress of Austria, and her husband placed much faith in him. Lucia did eventually give birth to a son, which pleased her husband and his family. During her time in Vienna, Lucia learned to speak German and met and conversed with many of the most influential people of the day. She faithfully writes long and information letters to her sister, Paolina, who was still in Venice, telling her of her experiences in Vienna. Lucia loved parties and wearing fashionable clothes and she often enjoyed herself at the many social she attended in the Austrian capital. di Robilant often includes lengthy quotes from Lucia’s letters, allowing her to speak to us over the centuries in her own words. Certainly the many excerpts from these letters bring Lucia to life for the reader, and we feel we come to know her better and better as the years pass.

Once Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and took control of much of Europe, Lucia’s husband arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Augusta of Bavaria. Princess Augusta had married Napoleon’s step-son, Eugêne de Beauharnais, and the couple was currently living in Milan. So, Lucia traveled to Milan where she serves the young Princess and comes to like her and her husband, though not the dull routine of her duties. Once you read excerpts of Lucia’s letters to her sister about her life as a lady-in-waiting, you may not find the position any more glamourous than did Lucia herself. However, based on the records left us by the women who served as ladies-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte of England, it would seem that the life of a lady-in-waiting was not particularly exciting anywhere in Europe at that time, no matter how such positions might be portrayed in novels of the period.

Despite her multiple miscarriages, Lucia did eventually provide an heir to the House of Mocenigo. However, not in the way you might expect, and arranged by the man one would least expect to do such a thing. It seems unlikely that such a turn of events might have ever taken place in England during the Regency, but di Robilant provides conclusive proof of how it was done in this case. Alvise, Lucia’s husband, managed to get a position in the government of Napoleon’s far-flung empire. But at a cost. Napoleon expected all of his government officials to send their sons to schools in France, preferably Paris, so they could be turned into loyal supporters of France. Therefore, when his son was old enough to attend boarding school, Alvise arranged for him to attend school in Paris. However, Lucia was unwilling to be separated from her little boy and accompanied him to Paris.

Lucia ended up remaining in Paris for more than a year, from 1813 into 1814. During which time she became close to the Empress Joséphine, often visiting her at her country estate, the Château de Malmaison. Under Joséphine’s influence, Lucia became very interested in botany. She had also grown bored with the dullness of her social life in Paris. In the spring of 1813, remarkably, this fashionable if now middle-aged Venetian lady began a series of courses at the Jardins des Plants, the botanical gardens in Paris. Lucia had actually gone to a lecture at the Collège Duplessix on afternoon, but was refused admittance because she was a woman. She walked over to the nearby Jardins des Plants. where another lecture was about to begin and was welcomed with open arms. Soon thereafter, she enrolled for a full course of study. A dedicated student, she completed her courses before she left Paris the following year. Lucia was still in Paris in the spring of 1814, when Napoleon abdicated and was sent into exile on Elba. She and her son witnessed the retreat of the last of the French forces through the city as well as the arrival of the Allied generals and their troops some time later. Her accounts of what she witnessed during that period have such a sense of immediacy it is as though the events had happened only days before, not two centuries ago.

With Napoleon deposed, there was no reason for her son to remain in a French boarding school, so Lucia packed and arranged for their return to Venice. She was shocked to see how bad the situation in Venice was, since the Austrians, who still controlled the city, had done nothing to maintain it. But her home, the Palazzo Mocenigo was still standing, if in a state of disrepair. She set to work arranging for the most pressing repairs while her husband returned to his estates, which were also in very bad shape after neglect during years of war. At the end of 1815, Alvise Mocenigo died, leaving his wife, Lucia, the guardian for their still under-age son. Lucia then had to take on the management of the estates as well as the palazzo in Venice. She had had the management of one of them years before, and, determined to protect her son’s legacy, she threw herself into her work. During the Regency, in England, it would have been quite unlikely for most men of property to leave a will in which their wife became the sole guardian of their children and manager of their property. Few of those English women would have been equal to the task, yet Lucia, who did love fine clothes and elegant social events, was also capable of managing the family estates.

In the spring of 1818, Lucia was finding it difficult to maintain her Venetian palazzo with the limited income from the family estates. On 1 June 1818, Lucia, who never managed to travel to England, took in a border who would forever connect her to England. On that day, Lord Byron took a three-year lease on the piano nobile, the main floor of the Palazzo Mocenigo. And so, Lucia Mocenigo became landlady to the famous poet and his menagerie of curious animals. She was also able to get Byron to hire several members of her staff whom she could not then afford to pay. Lucia moved into smaller apartments elsewhere in the palazzo, and secure in the knowledge that the high rent she was charging Byron would allow her to keep her family home. Things did not go smoothly between Madame Mocenigo and Lord Byron in the last year of their association, but Byron’s writings on Venice drew many tourists to the city, which helped to restored the city’s economy. Lucia was able to spend the rest of her life in Palazzo Mocenigo and lived well into her eighties.

When she was a young girl, in Rome, awaiting her marriage, Lucia’s portrait was painted by the famous artist, Angelic Kauffman. Sadly, it long ago passed out of the Mocenigo family. However, Andrea di Robilant was able to track it down to its current owner, a gentleman living in England. He was also able to get permission to include it in his book, and a detail of this painting is used on the dust jacket of the hard cover edition. Lucia was a very pretty young woman, but she was much more than just a pretty face. She lived a long and remarkable life during an extraordinary period in history. Lucia’s story is not just a personal account of some of the significant moments during the time much of Europe was under Napoleonic control. It is also the life of a woman who survived and made a life for herself under very difficult conditions. Lucia:   A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon is a great read and a look at the years of the Regency outside England.

The very last paragraph of Lucia:   A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon tells of a beautiful rose which now grows wild on what was once one of the Mocenigo family estates. It was believed to have been planted by Lucia after she returned from her year in Paris, one of the cuttings given to her by the head of the Jardins des Plants, where she studied botany. When Andrea di Robilant learned of this rose, he went in search of its origins. Coming soon, a review of that fascinating tale.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Lucia:   A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

  1. sounds fascinating! how wonderful to have so much ephemera! and plot bunnies are then available with Lucia as a patron or background figure, perhaps with a english heroine with an interest in botany who meets her while she is preparing to leave, who has come to Paris now it is safe, and who is stranded in France during the 100 days, and maybe escapes by travelling via Venice, armed with a letter from Lucia inviting her and, of course, aided by some resourceful and handsome hero.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sorry, but I don’t think those plot bunnies will fly, or to be more precise, hop. 😉

      Once the aristocratic rankings in the Golden Book of the Venetian patriciate were abolished by Austria, neither Lucia or her husband were considered aristocrats. The crushing taxes imposed on the property of most upper-class Venetians, first by Austria, then by Napoleon and then Austria again, left them all very strapped for cash. Lucia’s husband became what amounted to a middle-manager in the governments of Austria and then France, because he needed the money and hoped to protect something of his family estates in those positions. Lucia became a lady-in-waiting for the same reason, she needed the stipend which came with it, and hope to gain some influence to help protect her family’s property. Particularly through the Napoleonic period, they were just trying to survive.

      Lucia was eventually able to gain the title of Austrian countess, though she seems to have used it only at border crossings when traveling. Lucia loved the arts, but had no money or time for any kind of patronage. More importantly, during her year in Paris she was wise enough to avoid contact with anyone who had any connection to England or any of the allies. Fouche was still head of the police and those who were thought to be traitors were dealt with ruthlessly and mercilessly. Lucia would never had done anything which might have endangered her son. He was much too dear to her. She had so little money when it was time to leave Paris that she sold all her furniture and other possessions, even her husband’s military uniform, in order to afford the trip back to Venice.

      I can see Lucia making an appearance in a novel as a fellow student at the Jardins des Plants, or a member of a party at Malmaison while Josephine was still alive. She often took her teenage son to Malmaison with her, at Josephine’s invitation. She could tell wonderful tales of Venice, or discuss botany, should that be useful in a story, but she would not have issued an invitation to Venice to anyone when she was on the point of leaving Paris. She knew from letters from her sister that the palazzo was over-run with rats, the paint was peeling and part of the dock on the Grand Canal was rotting away. Lucia was a generous and charming hostess, and would certainly never have invited anyone into such a terrible situation. I think she might be more interesting as the former landlady of Lord Byron in the years just after the Regency.

      Once you read the book, you will much better understand her circumstances.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Heh, well, some of them are caught by ferrets of truth before they leave the burrow… and I can quite appreciate her not wanting to invite someone to a rat-infested leaking ruin of a place, it surpasses even the venue of a Gothic novel. But as a background figure with stories to tell… it all adds to flavour.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Lucia was very tender-hearted, and I can see her making a very clandestine offer to someone desperately in need of refuge to hide at the Palazzo Mocenigo. But she would certainly warn them of the conditions. I cannot imagine she would be so careless as to give this person a note to her servants there. But I could see that she might send some small personal object of hers with the fugitive, along with a verbal message, asking her servants to shelter her friend and keep it very quiet so that the authorities did not find out. There were also many in Venice who spied on their neighbors and reported to the authorities, so this person would have to be someone very special to Lucia.

          But if this fugitive was male, it would be quite romantic for him to disguise himself as the family gondolier. I learned from the book that Byron hired Lucia’s gondolier away from her when he left Venice. The fellow remained with him for the rest of his travels, was with him when he died and accompanied his body back to Britain. The erstwhile gondolier then settled in England.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Wow, that’s fascinating. I suppose in Venice the family gondolier was like the family coachman… and I’m sorry to be flippant but I now have a head full of Gilbert and Sullivan. that’s a grand plot bunny though.

  2. How charming to have a look at Venetia during the Napoleonic Age. This post certainly puts Venice and the Palazzo Mocenigo on the list of great places to go to for the next vacation. If one is in the Veneto area, one could also visit the Villa Pisani. Napoleon acquired the villa in 1807 for his stepson Eugène Beauharnais, whom he had appointed viceroy of Italy and later Prince of Venice, The villa is a museum today and features the Napoleonic apartment.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sadly, the Palazzo Mocenigo has not had such an illustrious fate. The author’s grandfather was apparently a wastrel and a spendthrift who burned through most of the remaining family fortune. Nearly all of the family property had to be sold off to meet his huge debts. The Palazzo Mocenigo was sold but has survived, though it has been cut up into multiple luxury apartments. However, it still might be worth a visit, just to the androne.

      When you read the book, you will learn that Lucia’s husband, Alvise, commissioned a sculpture of Napoleon which he intended to place in the village square on one of his properties. But it was not quite finished when Napoleon was deposed the first time, and this large marble statue of Napoleon was stored out of sight in a corner of the androne, or porch of Palazzo Mocenigo. The author found it still standing there when he went to see the house in the course of his research, nearly two hundred years later.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Pingback: Chasing the Rose by Andrea di Robilant | The Regency Redingote

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