A well-composed but substance-thin tale of the author’s ancestor and the daughter of a great Venetian family.
Di Robilant (A Venetian Affair, 2003) departs from the venerable Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, once belonging to the family of the same name, now divided into private apartments, then moves into the story of the couple who commissioned the statue at the height of the Napoleonic empire. In 1787, teenaged Lucia Memmo, the first daughter of widower Andrea Memmo, a well-born Venetian ambassador, married the eligible bachelor Alvise Mocenigo and embarked on a long, rocky life as the wife of a rising diplomat. Overcoming her youthful bewilderment at living in the deluxe palazzo, depression after numerous miscarriages and her husband’s chronic womanizing, gambling and frequent absences, Lucia nonetheless made brilliant entry into the Hapsburg court in Vienna, where she was forced to stay to safeguard the pregnancy of her short-lived son. With the invasion of Napoleon in 1796 and the divvying up of Italy by France and Austria, Alvise was in the awkward position of aiding the capitulation of Venice to the French dictator. Alvise’s collaboration with the Bonapartists would lead to being ostracized socially, while Lucia’s affair with the occupying Austrian officer, Baron Maximilian Plunkett, created scandal and a love child brought up for years in secrecy. With Alvise appointed to Napoleon’s government in Novara, intrepid Lucia was enlisted as lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta in Milan. Lucia would serve as confidante of Empress Josephine, live for a year in Paris and later become landlady to Lord Byron, who lived for a time at Palazzo Mocenigo. Through letters and diaries, di Robilant reconstructs Lucia’s life around the tumultuous events of European history.
Occasionally tedious, but the author’s meticulous attention to personal detail yields compelling historical character sketches.