Last night, I finished Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, which was an excellent way to spend time.
It’s the story of the author’s great-great-great-great grandmother, born into one of the ruling Venetian families, married into another. He’s able to tell the story in great detail because Lucia and those to whom she wrote kept most of their correspondence (even her philandering husband kept all of the little love notes penned by his paramours) and she was a committed and observant correspondent. Rather astonishing.
Through Lucia, we see the fortunes – rather misfortunes of Venice during the years of constant war between Napoleon and everyone else, a period in which the fading Venetian Republic finally collapsed, was defeated and occupied by either the French or the Austrians for a very long time. We get insight into medical practices as Lucia struggles with miscarriages, pregnancy, and illness, agriculture as her husband tries to create a model, progressive community on the mainland, and, of course into politics. Because of the intimate nature of the letters, we even get some insight into her spiritual growth – Mass attendance is duly noted, but also noted is a period in which Lucia decides she really wants to know more about her faith:
Lucia ordered The Life of Jesus from a bookshop in Milan, and she and Alvisetto (her son) curled up together in bed every evening to read three chapters of the big volume. ‘I’m finding this book very useful. I had never read the life of Jesus as a whole but only in bits and pieces. In fact, what I knew of it usually came form the study of paintings and sculptures when we were young.’ (200)
Lucia is a Venetian, but her travels – mostly because of her husband, but not always – take her to other points in Italy, Vienna and, for a good bit of time, Paris. For a time she served as a lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta-Amelia (wife of Prince Eugene, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy) in Milan, and her accounts of the tedium of the position are amusing but rather sad.
She and her husband never have a surviving child together, but they each have illegitimate children, with the sone Lucia had with her Irish lover serving in the Austrian army eventually adopted by her husband as his heir.
I read a book like this and I keep trying to imagine it as historical fiction, and all I can think of how it would be mucked up by most attempts, which would undoubtedly manage to work in all sorts of anachronisms in terms of Lucia’s emotional, social and intellectual life. This was far better – Robilant does a marvelous job of introducing us to his ancestor whose late nights scratching out letter after letter to her sister, her son, her husband and others end up providing us with a gift – the gift of a window into a past age, in through which we can see how much we have – and haven’t – changed.