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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, April 18th, 2004


 

A Venetian Affair

by Andrea Di Robilant

Towards New Bliss and Danger

A review by Jonathan Keates

In 1935 Anne Fremantle began publication of "The Wynne Diaries", a gathering of journals written by members of her family during a period roughly spanning the French Revolution and the Battle of Waterloo. The early diaries, mostly kept by Elizabeth "Betsey" Wynne, are less interesting for what they reveal of the writer or her intimate associates than for their glimpses of daily life among a particular circle of Anglo-Italian cosmopolites settled in Venice and the Dolomite foothills in the years immediately preceding the French invasion of Italy and the collapse of the Venetian Republic.

Here and there in Betsey's precocious pages an aunt referred to as "The Countess" appears, a shadowy figure noted as thin and sickly, who soon falls seriously ill and dies, to the apparently genuine grief of her entire family. Anne Fremantle was probably unaware, in editing the manuscript, of the existence of another archive, one which should serve to create a perspective for the dead woman far richer and more absorbing than those surrounding her expatriate relatives. Giustiniana, Countess Orsini-Rosenberg, was not altogether unknown to cultural historians as a novelist, essay writer and friend of Giacomo Casanova, but her extensive secret correspondence with her Venetian lover Andrea Memmo remained substantially uninvestigated until the 1990s, when Memmo's descendant Alvise di Robilant reclaimed a large portion of it from the attic of a family palazzo. Following Robilant's murder in 1997 (still unsolved), his son Andrea resumed work on the letters, piecing them together with other documents in the present book to chronicle a relationship whose intensity survived the lovers' enforced separation from one another, Giustiniana's prolonged sojourns in France and England, and the marriages both she and Memmo were compelled to contract for social or dynastic reasons.

The pair first met in 1754, when Giustiniana was a sophisticated "miss in her teens" and Memmo was fresh from the tutelage of the enlightened Franciscan Carlo Lodoli, whose self-appointed mission to open the minds of young patricians subsequently attracted unwelcome attention from government inquisitors. The love affair which began almost at once was blighted by the disapproval of Giustiniana's mother, an Italian from the Ionian Islands known as "Mrs Anna". Having only married the Welsh baronet Sir Richard Wynne two years after their daughter was born, she was anxious to secure some sort of social credit by parading her respect for decorum in a city whose nobility was forbidden to contract alliances with those of lesser rank.

Out of the frame, therefore, as a prospective husband, Memmo was denied contact with Giustiniana, for whom Mrs Anna began lining up a more realistic assortment of suitors. Doubtless the clandestine nature of the continuing liaison added a certain zest, with compliant gondoliers and servants bearing messages to and fro, a system of signals and codes, and endless stratagems devised for dodging Mrs Anna's vigilance. The attachment was more deeply rooted than a mere amorous dalliance designed to kill the boredom of a pair of fretful adolescents. The fervour in Memmo's "I do not feel, I do not see anything but my Giustiniana" or in her response -- "We are rushing simultaneously towards new bliss and new danger. If you love me, be passionate about everything and fear nothing" -- would endure, in however attenuated a form, for the rest of their lives.

After trying in vain to send Memmo packing during a summer villeggiatura on the Brenta, Mrs Anna arranged a match between the eighteen-year-old Giustiniana and the family's elderly protector Joseph Smith, patron of Canaletto and a former British consul. Already wise to the intensity of the ongoing affair, he chose to marry elsewhere, and it seemed as if the lovers' constancy would at last be rewarded when the Memmo clan showed itself willing to negotiate a marriage contract. Ironically, it was Mrs Anna's past rather than her daughter's present indiscretions which ruined everything when investigation revealed the existence of another bastard child, sired on her in Corfu by a Greek and hastily committed to an orphanage. Anticipating banishment, the Wynnes fled Venetian territory and sought temporary refuge in Paris, where the husband-hunting could start anew.

Giustinana was not to be deterred from writing to Memmo, who had followed her as far as Brescia before turning forlornly homewards, but found herself assiduously courted by Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupliniere, a fermier general noted for his generosity and love of the arts. By now she was carrying Memmo's baby, to whom she gave birth in a convent after a botched attempt at abortion arranged by Casanova. Once again the family was forced to decamp, this time to London, though the combined mauvaises langues of Mary Wortley Montagu and Horace Walpole probably helped to wreck their chances of presentation at court. When at last the Wynnes were allowed back to Venice, the two lovers were briefly reunited before each settled for a marriage of convenience, Giustiniana to an Austrian diplomat and Memmo to a countess from Vicenza.

Andrea di Robilant sensibly declines to go beyond existing evidence in order to supply the kind of elegiac finale which the story seems to invite. Memmo was present as Giustinana lay dying of uterine cancer at Padua, but no last exchange of vows is recorded and neither are his feelings of loss. Supple and elegant a stylist as he is, Robilant never allows his own enjoyment in unfolding this long-hidden narrative to upstage the raw drama of the correspondence forming its backbone. He is entirely at home, what is more, with the world of the period, relating the social pressures burdening both the Wynne and Memmo households to wider political and economic issues arising from the Seven Years War and the subsequent reactionary sclerosis among the Venetian oligarchy at a time when independent initiative was needed to ensure the republic's survival. In this uneasily shifting perspective (refreshingly free of the usual masks-and-mandolins paraphernalia surrounding most evocations of rococo Venice) the lovers' voices reverberate with a transcendent confidence and sincerity. "You revealed all the mysteries of life to me", declares Giustiniana, "You gave thunder to my soul. You made my spirit delicate and noble."

The whole passionate correspondence, to which A Venetian Affair presents such a finely balanced introduction, is a thrilling addition to the corpus of eighteenth-century letter writing, and we must hope that Andrea di Robilant will eventually be able to publish it in full.

Jonathan Keates is the author of Handel: The man and his music (1985), Venice (1994), and Italian Journeys (1991)



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