Lucia in the Age of Napoleon

Lucia in the Age of Napoleon

Andrea di Robilant

Faber and Faber, HK$330

It's handy for a writer to have illustrious forebears suitable for a biography. It is handier still if the writer discovers unknown documentation about their ancestors, as Andrea di Robilant did when he wrote The Venetian Affair about a clandestine love between one such forerunner and an Englishwoman.

It has happened again with his great-great-great-great grandmother Lucia, who married Alvise Mocenigo from one of the oldest and most distinguished Venetian families.

Di Robilant found a cache of five decades of letters between Lucia and her younger sister Paola, along with other undiscovered documents. They helped him create a portrait of Lucia in the decades bridging the 18th and 19th centuries when Venice lost its independence to Austria and France.

Di Robilant's research enables him to follow each phase of Lucia's 83 years - from the dutiful spouse of distant husband Alvise, a statesman and farmer, to a lady-in-waiting at the court of Napoleon, to a society dame in imperial Venice, to Paris where she developed scientific interests, and finally to the tough farm manager and landlady of her last years.

After many miscarriages and the death at three years of her only legitimate child, she had a son, Alvisetto, by an Irish officer in the Austrian army. She was devoted to Alvisetto who became a mediocre diplomat for Austria and then a successful businessman before losing most of the family money. After reproving his wife for her dalliance, Alvise recognised his illegitimate son. Later, Lucia discovered that Alvise had an illegitimate daughter.

Lucia was intelligent, doughty and practical, but is not charismatic enough to dominate the narrative. There are dull or blank patches in her life.

The high points of the narrative are those involving great figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Talleyrand, Lord Byron and John Ruskin. Napoleon is seen as the 26-year-old general who burst into north Italy. Although 'skinny and dishevelled' he was socially charming except when there was the slightest hint of opposition.

Towards the end of her life, Lucia, as a widow, struggled to maintain an ideal agricultural community and other family properties. Her financial problems were relieved because the eccentric English poet, Lord Byron, rented the third floor of her palace on the Grand Canal for three years.

However, during his second year at the palace he fell in love with the young Countess Teresa Guccioli

and wanted to cancel his tenancy to join her in Ravenna. But Lucia had no intention of forgoing

Byron's rent. The poet was dismissive of the Venetian 'scoundrel', but she won out against him and the English consul.

The book suffers from the limitations of the popular history genre because not all sources are footnoted; it also lacks the imaginative and linguistic freedom of the best novels.

Still, it's a rounded, impartial portrayal of a woman and an age in which much tenacity and resourcefulness was needed to survive with dignity.