Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

luciaI have the terrible wonderful habit of browsing the books for sale whenever I’m in a thrift store or library; I like inviting serendipity. I don’t remember where or when I found this biography, but it was definitely serendipity; my taste for personal histories, especially of women, would have been enough to pick it up, but the ability to justify it as a possible source for research – and, better still, a source for the sort of details of everyday life in historic Europe that are so hard to come by – made it an easy sale.

Any reservations I had came from the fact that Andrea di Robilant is Lucia’s descendant. On the one hand, there’s romance in the “long-lost story discovered in family archives,” but on the other – mightn’t it be vanity publishing, making a book out of nothing very much? It was, however, cool that the portrait on the cover is indeed of her – a portrait that was deemed lost until he tracked it down. (This would be a bit too much National Treasure if it did not become apparent in the telling of the story that, because it was not a major work, nobody had ever bothered to go looking before.)

But, anyhow, I bought it and read it and enjoyed every minute of it, and it vastly exceeded anything I hoped it would be. I also found myself confronting a number of common myths about the past and even discovering a few surprising facts we don’t often consider at all. Here are a few:

1. Myth: Unremarkable lives (i.e., ones that are never going to be in the history books) are, well, unremarkable.

Lucia (1771-1854) was born into a wealthy, aristocratic, old Venetian family (seven ancestors had been doges, the first in 949). The book begins when she is 15 and her father has succeeded in engaging her to an even more important Venetian aristocrat, Alvise Mocenigo.

From there, her life, in its broadest strokes, follows the exactly expected pattern: marriage, multiple pregnancies, motherhood, and complete dependence on her husband’s wishes, often involving long separations while she stayed home and he traveled and managed his estates.

The story, though, is in the details. Lucia lived in an interesting time, when Italy’s fortunes swung widely and its kingdoms fell alternately to the French and the Austrians. Moreover, Alvise’s position – and ambition – kept him at the forefront of many of these changes. The result was that Lucia met and befriended Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s first wife) and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. She was part of the court life in Vienna and, later, was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta, who, with her husband, had been installed by Napoleon to rule the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy. She was dressed by Mademoiselle Bertin, who had been Marie Antoinette’s chief dressmaker. She hung out with Josephine at the Malmaison and visited Jacques Louis David (who you might know from this) in his studio and saw this painting in progress. She was in Paris during Napoleon’s pre-Elba defeat, which happened within view of the city. And through it all, she corresponded regularly with her sister, Paolina, so that we get a first-hand view of it all. (It is interesting to compare her life to Paolina’s, who evidently did live the “exactly expected life” and never traveled farther than Rome.)

2. Myth: For the most part, travel is a modern invention; in the past, very few people left their hometown for any reason.

Prior to their marriage, Alvise spent three years travelling and was spotted as far away as Marseille (nearly 500 miles from Venice). Later, “for over two years” he “zigzagged up and down central Europe, from Dresden to Berlin and all the way to Hamburg, and on to Stockholm, then back down to Brunswick, east to Prague and finally to Vienna. He had never made it to London [which his travelling papers claimed was his destination], but then he had probably never intended to reach England.”

Lucia’s son, Alvisetto, was sent to school in Paris. Lucia lived in Rome when her father was an ambassador there; after her marriage she returned to Venice but also lived in Vienna and Paris, and in Vienna she was part of a large population of Venetian émigrés. She made a solo tour of Saxony one summer and visited Dresden and Prague.

“Well,” you’re saying, “but they were wealthy aristocrats. The normal folk didn’t travel.”

But that, too, is less true than you would think. Lucia and Paolina had a French governess. The portrait on the book’s cover was painted by Angelica Kauffman (who was born in Switzerland) in Rome; a few years after painting Lucia she was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in London. In Vienna, Lucia was able to win over her chilly fellow expats because it turned out the wife of one of her Austrian servants was from Verona and could bake “an excellent pan casalino, a bread typical of the Veneto,” which Lucia gave to homesick Venetians as a special treat.

Don’t forget, this was an era of war after war, and soldiers travelled between battles on foot or horse. When Napoleon was defeated and Paris fell at the end of March 1814, the city was occupied by Emperor Alexander of Russia, King Frederick William of Prussia, and the representative of Emperor Francis of Austria… and their more than 90,000 soldiers, all of whom had technically “travelled” and were now living, if temporarily, in a foreign city.

In 1818, Lucia rented a floor of her palazzo to Lord Byron, the English poet. The attention he brought Venice made her a sort of celebrity, too. As tourists flocked to the romanticized city, “foreign visitors lined up to see her.” In 1849, following yet another war, her son predicted “Very soon Venice will be extremely busy with foreigners”; soon she was again receiving a stream of visitors, and continued to do so into the early 1850s.

3. Myth: Throughout history, a woman who had an affair or an illegitimate child was permanently excluded from society.

Actually, depending on the location, century, and level of society, it could be completely accepted that one married for money and had affairs for love. Several of my favorite proofs of this come from the biography of Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford, among them:

“Children, in those days, were married off in their teens, and these little husbands and wives usually grew up to be very fond of each other… She had a lover, he had a mistress; everything was most friendly. ‘I allow you every latitude,’ the courtiers used to say to their wives, ‘except footmen and Princes of the Blood.’ A husband, finding his wife in bed with her lover: ‘Madame! Is this prudent? Supposing somebody else had seen you!’ ”

(However, Mitford adds, “The bourgeoisie of Paris did not see things with the same eye.”)

Anyhow, not to digress too far, even in societies which did not provide the same universally accepted latitude, it was possible to recover from such a misstep, and Lucia did.

Alvise, it turned out, was a man for whom the term “emotionally unavailable” could have been invented; not only did he neglect Lucia, but he carried on numerous affairs and even had an illegitimate daughter, whom he provided for in his will. The unsurprising result was that Lucia fell for an Austrian officer, Maximilian Plunkett, with whom she had an affair, assisted by her sister. (Okay, so that part is surprising.) Di Robilant observes that there were several common ways for a woman to have an inconvenient child quietly; it must have helped that it was in the midst of Alvise’s two-year absence.

Lucia found a woman to care for her son and it is unknown how Alvise finally discovered the truth about four years later, but what happened then is interesting. Alvise and Lucia had no child together; Lucia had suffered numerous miscarriages and the one baby who survived had been sickly and died as a toddler. Alvise now decided to legitimize her son as his heir. Oddly enough, popular opinion seems to have judged him much less sympathetically than her. A letter written by someone in Venice at the time records:

“[At this announcement] The poor woman falls into the greatest affliction. She tells him such a step will disgrace her forever, that she won’t be able to show her face, that it will cause an extraordinary scandal… The furious husband doesn’t listen… and everything happens the way he has planned it. Now the poor woman can’t leave the house without being pointed at; as for him, his atrocious behavior has earned him universal scorn and execration.” [emphasis mine]

However, eventually the scandal died down. Lucia re-entered Vienna high society with the boy in tow, and the scandal did not prevent her from being invited to participate in exclusive court events, being awarded “the Order of the Starred Cross, one of the most prestigious distinctions granted by the Habsburg Court” or from later being appointed a lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta. In fact, there’s no evidence that Alvisetto Massimiliano ever knew his true parentage, which means that after the first “incredible noise” the whole incident must have been universally politely ignored.

4. Surprise: In spite of travel being more common than you would think, there were even bigger differences in “local” culture than you might imagine.

After the fall of Paris in 1814, Lucia and her son returned home, crossing the alps in their carriage. Di Robilant records:

“In Chambery they stopped for their last French meal: onion soup, beef a la mode, roast chicken with peas and potatoes, fricassee of lamb, cheese and pears and biscuits, and two bottles of good wine… [The next day] they reached the old frontier town of Susa in time for a hearty Piedmontese lunch, their first Italian meal in a long time: vermicelli soup, mushrooms from the neighboring woods, roasted eels and spinach, mascarpone and grapes.”

Susa is only 10 miles from the border, yet it had a completely distinct cuisine.

(And if you’re grimacing at the idea of “beef a la mode,” never fear; “a la mode” simply means “according to the fashion.” Although it has become stuck in English to mean “with ice cream,” the term actually denoted a number of different recipes over the centuries as fashions changed and could be applied to any food.)

5. Surprise: There were restaurants and people ate out all the time!

We tend to think that everyone always ate at home, or, if they were traveling, in inns, but actually there have been restaurants as long as there have been cities (although the word itself apparently dates from 1765 or so). This fascinating article about the oldest restaurants still operating in Paris claims one that opened in 1582.

Both restaurants and food stands seem to have been quite common in all the various places Lucia lived.

In the fall of 1804, the whole family were in Vienna, where Alvise “took Alvisetto for a walk every day, often stopping at the sherbet kiosk by the Court Theater.” Alvise and Lucia “took long walks at the Prater, often lunching at the Lusthaus, the imperial hunting lodge… which had been turned into a pleasant restaurant [before 1790].”

In Paris, Lucia often stopped for lemonade or ice cream as she walked to class (yes, in her 40s she decided to attend lectures at the Jardin des Plantes, where she was welcomed, even as a woman). Other times she extended the excursion by having lunch at a popular restaurant. But my favorite is the account of the time “Lucia joined a crowd of Italian friends for a picnic lunch at Bagatelle, an open-air restaurant that had been very fashionable in pre-revolutionary days [that is, before 1789, 25 years before] and that was now struggling to come back into vogue:”

She wrote: “There were 60 of us and we ate under a big tent pitched in a lovely meadow in front of the pavilion… makes you so sad to look at it now: everything is so dilapidated. All the furniture is missing… But the garden outside the pavilion was lovely… Excellent food was served at a buffet… There were tasty cold soups, fresh eggs, mutton chops, roast chickens… delicious spring peas, salads and strawberries.”


I don’t understand people who don’t enjoy history. That said, in most cases, I assume they have simply never been exposed to a type of history that speaks to them – the high school focus on dates of battles would certainly be enough to deter anyone who had never encountered any other kind. And though I’m aware that this book would not be to everyone’s taste, its personal, detailed, every[wo]man focus is certainly a thorough antidote to the dry big-picture history that obscures the fact that all history was, at one point, modern life. I couldn’t be happier that I chanced upon it.

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