An 18th-century affair in Venice revealed in the lovers’ myriad letters, some only recently discovered.
The story seems to contain all the necessary elements for a riveting tale: a beautiful young woman, a charming, upwardly mobile Venetian politician, forbidden love, clandestine meetings, help from Casanova (yes, that one), covert correspondence, a surprise pregnancy, a suspicious mother, treacherous servants, seclusion in a convent, a mystery child who disappears from history, a republic in decline—and, remarkably, so many extant letters. Some had been previously archived due to the protagonists’ modest historical importance: Giustiniana Wynne, an Anglo-Venetian of illegitimate birth (and thus unable to marry above her without some political machinations), had gone on to write several books; and her lover, Andrea Memmo, had nearly won the office of doge. The author’s father, a descendant of Memmo, had recently uncovered in the old family palazzo even more letters that had lain untouched for centuries, but he did not live to realize his dream of writing about the affair. Now di Robilant, an Italian journalist, has completed the project to problematic effect. The main difficulty is the narration; the author cannot decide how to approach the subject. At times it reads like a romance novel (“she was radiant in her brocaded evening cape”), at others like a memoir, an epistolary novel, a strangely prudish biography, or an informal cultural history. Sometimes di Robilant summarizes the letters, sometimes he prints lengthy excerpts that too often fail to do more than reveal the banality of the situation and the vacuousness of the lovers. Despite a few provocative details—Andrea sent letters containing semen samples and confessed anxieties about excessive masturbation—the tone is generally bland; even Casanova comes across as a rather dull bird on a bare branch.
Strong potential, poor execution.