Recently, I published a review here of the biography of Lucia Mocenigo, a Venetian lady who lived through the Napoleonic era. The author, Andrea di Robilant, is that lady’s great-great-great-great-grandson, and spent many hours pouring over her papers and those of her family, in order to piece together her life. He also made it a point to visit all the places which were important in Lucia’s life. One of those places was the great Mocenigo estate north of Venice. It was there that Lucia’s husband built a villa for the family. And, it was there that di Robilant first learned of a unique and mysterious rose which was still growing on the estate and might be connected to Lucia.
Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside is the story of the search for the origins of that special rose.
The remarkable Lucia Mocenigo spent more than a year in Paris, from 1813 to 1814. There, she became a friend of the Empress Joséphine and shared her interest in botany. Lucia became a frequent visitor to Malmaison and the magnificent gardens the Empress cultivated there. Wishing to broaden her knowledge and enrich her life, Lucia also became a student of botany at the famous botanical gardens in Paris, the Jardins des Plants. Lucia enjoyed her studies, was a star pupil and was highly regarded by Professor René Desfontaines, who held the chair of botanical studies at the gardens.
In April of 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne of France and was sent into exile on the island of Elba. Just six weeks later, on 29 May 1814, the Empress Joséphine died at Malmaison. Lucia had been in Paris with her son while he attended a school which was intended to turn him into a loyal French citizen, mandated because his father was a member of Napoleon’s government in Italy. With Napoleon’s fall, there was no longer any reason for Lucia and her son to remain in Paris. In the late spring of 1814, Lucia prepared to return to her family home in Venice. In her baggage were several crates of seeds and plant cuttings provided to her by Professor Desfontaines and other notable French botanists, plant breeders and gardeners whom she had come to know during her studies in Paris.
After spending some time in Venice, Lucia and her family traveled to their estate in the countryside north of the city. It had become very neglected during the wars and required a great deal of effort to put right. Lucia’s husband had become ill, and in December of 1815, he died. She not only became the guardian to their underage son, she also assumed the burden of restoring the family estates. At some point after that, Lucia had a large garden created on the country estate. More than likely, she planted at least some of the plants which she had brought back with her from Paris. But which ones? Was one of them a pink rose with a distinctive scent which is now growing wild in the area which was once Lucia’s garden?
Chasing the Rose recounts di Robilant’s efforts to identify this beautiful, mysterious rose, which he suspected was linked to his great-great-great-great-grandmother. The story stretches over two centuries and reads in part like a detective story, as di Robilant patiently and persistently tracks down any and every lead which came his way. He began his quest knowing very little about roses, but by the time he finished, he had become much more knowledgeable. He searched archives around Europe to help augment the information he found in his own family archives. In addition to historical and archival research, he also spent time with various botanists and other scientists learning about how roses propagate and survive.
In the course of his research, di Robilant met a number of remarkable people who love roses and generously helped him as he built a case for the history of the rose he dubbed Rosa Mocenigo. This part of the story takes place in modern times, but di Robilant brings these dedicated folks alive for the reader and one cannot help but like and admire many of them. Though you might think the story of tracking down the origins of a plant would be quite dull, such is not the case with Chasing the Rose. Roses are the aristocracy of the flower world and the more one learns about their fascinating history, the more eager one is to know the origins of the mysterious and historical rose, Rosa Mocenigo.
This book is a great read, in which you will learn about the Empress Joséphine’s interest in botany, her gardens at Malmaison, her friendship with Lucia Mocenigo, the early history of rose breeding, and how much some people care about roses. As a further delightful enhancement, the book is illustrated with numerous charming watercolors by Nina Fuga. Treat yourself to this lovely gem of a story. You will be glad you did. I certainly am.