Lucia and Byron parted on very unfriendly terms, yet in a way the poet never really left Palazzo Mocenigo, or Venice for that matter, and still today his spirit hovers over the city he helped to resurrect. Venice was dead when he arrived in 1816, and the Austrians had no intention of spending money or effort to revive it—certainly not during the early years, when the policy in Vienna was to favour the port city of Trieste and let Venice go to ruin. It was Byron, a stranger to Lucia’s Venetian world, who gave the city a new life by turning those sinking ruins into an existential landscape—an island of the soul. Despite his dissolute lifestyle, he was an inspired and extremely prolific writer during the happier days of his Venetian sojourn, composing beautiful lyrics and poems about Venice, not to mention hundreds of letters to his friends that were an unbridled torrent of words and imagery and feeling.

For much of the nineteenth century, artists and poets drew on the romantic myth Byron had forged, and nourished it. In the new Venice that travellers came to see, Lucia had a small part to play, a cameo as it were, as Byron’s landlady (how the poet would have fumed!). But she was also a living connection to the fabled lost Republic of the doges. An invitation to Palazzo Mocenigo became a coveted prize on the Venice Grand Tour. Foreign visitors lined up to see her, and according to the accounts left to us by diarists and letter-writers, she enjoyed playing her role and always made an effort to turn these brief encounters into special occasions.

In his Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Chateaubriand describes a courtesy call he paid to Lucia in 1833. They had not seen each other since meeting in Paris in the twilight days of the Empire nearly twenty years before. As his gondola pulled up to the landing at Palazzo Mocenigo, Chateaubriand had a haunting vision: Byron’s old mooring pole was still planted there, his coat of arms “half erased” by wind and saltwater. Lucia was waiting for him upstairs:

Madame Mocenigo lives retired in a tiny corner of her own private Louvre, overwhelmed by its vastness. The desert advances daily into the inhabited parts. I found her sitting across from Tintoretto’s original sketch of his Paradise. Hanging on the wall right above her was Madame Mocenigo’s own portrait, painted in her youth…Madame Mocenigo is still beautiful, the way one is beautiful in the shadow of old age. I covered her with compliments, which she returned. We were lying to each other and we both knew it: “Madame, you’ve never looked so young.”—“Monsieur, you haven’t aged a bit.” We lamented the ruin of Venice so as not to mention our own…The time came to take my leave, and I respectfully kissed the hand of the Doges’ Daughter whilst casting a lingering glance at the same beautiful hand in the portrait, which now withered at my lips.1

Lucia was certainly getting on—she was sixty-three when Chateaubriand went to see her—but she was hardly a relic from the past. Indeed, she was still running the Mocenigo Agency, battling daily with inefficient agents, litigious neighbours, stern tax-enforcers and greedy moneylenders. The 1820s had been especially hard. She had been forced to take out more loans, and when there had been nothing left to mortgage, she had sold one by one the Memmo properties she had inherited from her father’s family. It had been a painful choice, each new sale “a sacrifice I make for my son,”2 but Lucia had made it her mission to preserve the Mocenigo estate intact during her watch. Fortunately, by the early 1830s, the economic outlook of the region improved, with the abolition of anachronistic trade barriers and the development of steam-driven industry. As the agricultural sector picked up, the Agency gained a sounder footing. Even Alvisopoli became less of a drain on the family holdings.

Alvisetto came of age in 1824, majority being reached at twenty-five, and though Lucia gave him regular updates and never made major decisions without consulting him, he did not really take charge of the family business until the late 1830s. Lucia’s willingness to stay at the helm well beyond her guardianship enabled Alvisetto to pursue a diplomatic career in the Austrian government. After his military service, he obtained a post as secretary in the Austrian embassy in Naples. He later moved to the embassy in Rome, still in a rather junior position and rather anxious to move up the ladder at a faster clip. Despite his occasional frustration at the slow pace of his career, he remained an enthusiastic Austrophile, wary of the growing opposition against the conservative governments of Europe. When protests erupted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Spain, he was “deeply troubled by the folly”3 of progressive liberals, and told his mother he hoped it did not spread to the territories in the Habsburg Empire.

Alvisetto’s loyalty was rewarded. He was made Chamberlain of His Majesty the Emperor and King, and Chevalier of the Order of Saint George. He was also promoted, at last, to the position of Legation councillor in the Austrian embassy in Florence. Emperor Francis received him in Vienna “with the greatest kindness,” he reported glowingly to Lucia. “His Majesty is well, thank God. He asked how you were. He told me of the importance of my position and promised to think of me if other opportunities should arise, confident that I shall continue to serve with as much zeal as ever.”4 Alvisetto was eventually appointed Austrian chargé d’affaires to the Prince Elector of Hesse. His assimilation into the Habsburg administration was by now complete, yet he must have felt a little disappointed at his less than sparkling achievements, especially in the light of his father’s ambitions for him. On the other hand, spectacular careers were rather rare during the grey, ultra-conservative years of the Restoration.

As Alvisetto neared his fortieth birthday, Lucia nimbly stepped in to find a suitable wife for her over-aged bachelor son. He had shown little inclination to marry and have children and ensure the Mocenigos did not become extinct, and he evidently needed a little prodding from his mother. Lucia set her aim very high, on Clementina Spaur, young daughter of Johann Baptist Spaur, governor of Lombardy–Venetia. After months of careful manoeuvring, the two sides reached an agreement—the long and detailed marriage contract bearing testimony to very elaborate negotiations. On 24 November 1840, at the age of forty-one, Alvisetto married Clementina. It was a notable match, which brought together wealth and political power.

The newly-weds settled into the large apartment on the piano nobile adjoining Lucia’s. Alvisetto retired from his career as a civil servant in the Austrian administration to take full charge of the Agency. He turned out to be an imaginative businessman, no doubt anxious to prove himself after his lacklustre career in diplomacy. He diversified the Mocenigo holdings, taking advantage of the economic expansion which had started in the thirties, investing heavily in property, railways, energy, steamships, and founding his own shipping line, the Società di piroscafi Mocenigo. He had a hand in many of the high-profile business ventures started in the forties, foremost among them the Venice–Milan railway, which reached across the lagoon and connected the city to the mainland. Although some of his investments turned out to be only moderately profitable, Alvisetto became a driving figure in the rapid development of the region. “From salt mines to rice fields,” one historian has written, “from land redevelopment to gas lighting, from steamships to railways, there is not a single area in which Mocenigo did not participate in one form or another from 1840 to 1848.”5

Indeed, Alvisetto’s transformation from mid-level career diplomat to enlightened industrialist is quite astonishing. He became widely respected and sought after for his entrepreneurial advice. “The man is notable for his intelligence and ready eloquence,” remarked Niccolò Tommaseo, a leading intellectual and political figure in Venice who was seeking influential allies in the drive for emancipation from Vienna. “He has the composed and courteous elegance, if not the dignity, of our gentlemen of old.”6

By the early forties, Alvisetto’s loyalty to the House of Habsburg was wavering. The frustrations he accumulated over the years in the Austrian administration probably played a role in his growing resistance to Vienna’s heavy-handed rule. His father-in-law’s retirement from the governorship no doubt made it easier for him to challenge the government. More importantly, Alvisetto’s wide-ranging business activities brought him face to face with an obtuse system of government which was limiting the economic and political development of the region. At a time of growing national aspirations, Vienna continued to rule the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia like a colony.

Many activists saw Alvisetto as a potential political leader, an ideal bridge between the lawyers and intellectuals who opposed Vienna’s rule and the land-owning liberal aristocracy. “He is an effective speaker,” one observer noted, “and he is sufficiently ambitious to be drawn to the glamour of a political role.”7 But those who looked to Alvisetto as a potential leader of a movement against Austria underestimated the complex nature of his ties to Vienna. He was not ready to be drawn into a fully fledged opposition and he saw himself more as a man of dialogue, a facilitator in a gradual process of emancipation from Vienna, certainly not as a revolutionary leader.

There is a telling episode in this respect. Two young Venetian officers in the Austrian navy, Emilio and Attilio Bandiera, had formed a secret society, Esperia, with strong ties to Giuseppe Mazzini, the Republican leader living in exile in London, and to his organisation, Giovine Italia. The Bandiera brothers were betrayed by a spy and went into hiding on the island of Corfu. Emilio, who was trying to generate support for the Mazzinian cause in Italy, wrote to Alvisetto, whom he had never met, declaring him to be the man in whose hands “the destiny of Venice should be entrusted once our democratic revolution will have taken place.”8 Alvisetto was startled by the letter, and frightened. The last thing he wanted was to be associated with the radical revolutionary Mazzini. In a moment of panic, he handed the letter over to the Austrian police.

A few months later, in July 1844, the Bandiera brothers were arrested after a landing in Calabria, summarily tried and shot. They became the first martyrs of the Italian Risorgimento. Alvisetto’s little act of treachery was not divulged at the time so it did not lessen his standing in the liberal camp, and he was soon to become a player on the revolutionary stage in Venice.

Lucia settled into grandmotherhood, with its joys and sorrows. The first granddaughter, born in 1842, died in infancy. Three years later a boy was born; predictably, he was given the name Alvise and christened in the neighbourhood church of San Samuele, where a long line of Alvise Mocenigos had been christened before him. As customary, food was distributed to 300 poor families. The following year another boy was born, Giovanni. There was now a busy traffic between Lucia’s apartment and the adjacent one, occupied by Alvisetto’s family. The door separating the two was usually left open, as Lucia enjoyed dropping in on her daughter-in-law, Clementina, the way Chiara stopped by to see her after she had moved into Palazzo Mocenigo as a young bride.

The ghostly Venice of the twenties was a faded memory. The city was relatively prosperous again. The population was increasing. The shops were filled with goods from all over Europe. The canals were crowded with boats and the coffee shops were packed until late at night. The landscape of the city was changing: the Austrian administration approved plans to fill in and pave many side canals to improve circulation, and to build garden areas and promenades. Yet Venice remained a divided city, with the Venetians and the Austrians leading separate lives. In no place was the separation more evident than in Saint Mark’s Square, where Austrian officers sat at the tables of Quadri sipping coffee and listening to the orchestra play waltzes, while the Venetians crowded the smoke-filled rooms at Florian’s, across the square.

Although officially retired, Lucia led a busy life: she was very active on the board of La Fenice, the Venice opera house, she took care of her residual rental properties, she entertained small parties of younger friends*22 —most of her contemporaries having passed away—and she went out of her way to maintain good relations with Austrian officials.

Her lingering joy in her declining years was the company of Paolina, who still lived at Palazzo Martinengo, old Ca’ Memmo, up the Grand Canal from her. They saw each other as often as they could, and wrote daily, mostly about the vicissitudes of old age: sores, stomach seizures, discharges, regurgitations, throat lumps. Was the footbath giving relief? Was the magnesia having effect? The tone was sometimes caustic, sometimes humorous, always tender. When Lucia lost a blackened canine, she slipped it in an envelope and sent it to her sister “so that you may have the first fragment of my mortal spoils.”9

The winter in 1842 was especially harsh. “Stay where you are,” Lucia entreated her sister, who wanted to go to church despite having caught a chill. “This bitter cold will damage your health even inside the house. It says in the papers it is worse than in 1812, the year the French armies were forced to retreat in Russia…Promise me you’ll stay covered warmly, don’t go up and down the stairs unless you must…And take your meals near your [warm] bedroom. Adieu my dearest sister.”10

It is the last letter between the sisters to have come down to us. Paolina died shortly afterwards, leaving her sister completely bereft.

Lucia began preparing for her own death. She put her affairs in order, paid her outstanding debts, arranged her correspondence. She wrote her will. There was not much she could leave any more, not after having sold most of her properties to save Alvisopoli; but she made sure the house staff was taken care of after she was gone, and she set aside small sums and valuable objects for relatives and close friends to remember her by. She was very meticulous about her funeral arrangements, and specified everything from the number of torches to be lit, to the number of gondolas (only two) for the funerary procession, to the number of services to be celebrated after her death for the benefit of her soul. Her body was to be laid in a casket made of cypress wood (which her carpenter made for her), enclosed in a box of cheaper larchwood. She purchased a burial plot in the cemetery on the island of San Michele—she did not want to be buried at Alvisopoli, although she gave Alvisetto permission to transfer her remains there at a later date if it was important to him.11

Everything was ready, only the time to die had not come, and Lucia was to live through one more great upheaval.

Alvisetto’s opposition to the Austrians hardened in the face of Vienna’s reactionary politics, and by 1847 he was a strong supporter of Daniele Manin, the brilliant lawyer and scholar who was leading the nationalist movement in Venice. The Austrian police imprisoned Manin for seditious activities, but was forced to release him in January 1848 because of public protests. Alvisetto was at the prison gates to greet him and led the cheering crowd that carried him to Saint Mark’s Square.

Revolution was breaking out across Europe. In Vienna, Prince Metternich, the symbol of Austria’s repressive rule, was forced to resign. Anti-Austrian pressure continued to build in Venice. Fearing a popular insurrection, the military commander, Count Ferdinand Zichy, capitulated and withdrew his forces. On 23 March, Manin formed a provisional government and proclaimed a democratic Republic—an inheritor state of the Republic Napoleon had buried in 1797 at Campo Formio.

Vienna, however, had no intention of losing Venice. Austrian forces regrouped under Field Marshal Radetzky and marched back into northern Italy to recover the lost provinces. Manin’s government had two choices: join forces with Charles Albert, the ambitious king of Piedmont and Sardinia, or become the magnet for a more radical and democratic revolution in Italy. The liberal camp favoured joining the Piedmontese. Alvisetto, breaking with Manin, organised a public rally in support of this policy. The liberals won the day, and on 7 August the union between Venice and Piedmont was signed. However, it never took effect: the Austrians crushed the Piedmontese army at Custoza and took control of Lombardy and the Venetian mainland. The Venetian Republic stood alone, isolated in the lagoon. Manin was called back to lead the new emergency government. One of his first acts was to expel Alvisetto and other leaders of the liberal camp. At the end of August, Alvisetto, Clementina and the two boys, left Palazzo Mocenigo and sailed to Ravenna, and from there travelled on to Florence.

Lucia did not go with them—could not go, actually. Weeks earlier she had taken a tumble and badly damaged her hip. She was still trussed up and bedridden when Alvisetto and the rest of the family were forced to leave Venice, and travelling was out of the question. She grudgingly stayed behind, tended by the faithful Teresa, and a few other members of the house staff at Palazzo Mocenigo. It must have felt strange to see her son head for the same city where she and Alvise had been exiled half a century before.

In early September she was relieved to learn that Alvisetto and his family had settled into a pleasant Florentine house. “The air is excellent, we have a nice garden, and there is peace and quiet,” her son wrote, his only worry being “the damage the children might cause to the beautiful furniture.”12 But it did not take long for the news to get worse. Alvisetto, in constant touch with his agents on his estates, reported to his mother that the Austrian soldiers had ravaged several properties, and some 1,400 Croatian soldiers were encamped at Alvisopoli.

In October, Manin’s government imposed a forced loan that hit landowners especially hard. Alvisetto, determined to show himself a good patriot, went deeper into debt to pay his share, borrowing from moneylenders, raising mortgages on everything he owned, signing promissory notes. The weight of “such a disproportionate levy” broke Alvisetto’s spirit. He was hurt by “the injustice, the personal hatred, the sheer ingratitude of [his] fellow citizens.”13

Confined to her apartments at Palazzo Mocenigo, Lucia worried about the family in Florence and the perilous state of affairs the estate seemed to be falling into. Was Alvisetto making the right moves? Was he telling her everything? Often she felt she was being left in the dark. Meanwhile, food and fuel shortages were making life in Venice more uncomfortable each day. Her hip was slowly on the mend, but she had to be moved around in a chaise-longue carried by the gondoliers, who learnt to lower her in her gondola with great dexterity for her daily outings. Friends and relatives came by to keep her company in the evening. And she had a new best friend, an Englishman. Rawdon Brown had settled in Venice some years before and had become very knowledgeable about the city’s history (he thrived in Venice’s archives). Lucia was always pleased to see him appear at her door: he was amusing, vivacious and kept her well informed on the latest developments in Manin’s revolutionary government.

As Christmas approached, Lucia received a melancholy letter from Alvisetto. “In the face of misfortune,” he told her, “family ties grow stronger. I cannot tell you how often we speak about you, and how strongly we wish to be reunited with you.” He added, revealingly: “In revolutions such as those we are living in, men with great ambitions leap into the fray and either triumph or perish; men with small ambitions, such as myself, withdraw from the stage. One’s family becomes the greatest consolation.”14

Alvisetto was being pressed by moneylenders to whom he had resorted at the time of the forced loan, and had reached the end of his tether. “I have nothing left in Venice, nothing left in the countryside,” he wrote in despair to his chief agent, Giovanni Pasqualini. “How is it possible that they cannot see this?”15 At the end of 1848, he painted a disheartening picture for Lucia: “Dear mother, every time I look at the children I feel a chill as I think about their financial future, so gravely compromised already and at risk of total ruin if the current misfortunes continue.”16 It did not augur well for the new year.

In February 1849, having obtained a short reprieve from his creditors, Alvisetto left Florence and took the family to Alvisopoli. The winter landscape was made bleaker by the devastation that had taken place during his absence. The Austrian troops had turned the fields, neatly tilled and sowed in the early autumn, into choppy seas of hardened mud. They had cut down the poplars along the dirt roads and levees to make fires, looted the grain stores and decimated the cattle stock. After the Austrians had left, moving south towards Venice, bands of marauders claiming to be “communists” had taken over plots of land and now had to be forcefully dislodged. It was hardly a warm return home. “The lack of ready cash and resources is such that we are forced to live in great economy,” he wrote in another gloomy letter. “We spend our evenings gathered around a single candle, and I keep sugar and coffee supplies under lock and key.”17

In Venice, the situation was no better. The isolation of Manin’s infant Republic quickly brought on a collapse of living conditions. Food supplies disappeared from the stores. Public health worsened dramatically. Manin assumed dictatorial powers to maintain public order. In April, Radetzky’s army lay siege to the city by blockading the port and placing heavy artillery along the coastline. Manin, still naively hoping for help from France or England, enforced a policy of “resistance at all costs.” All through the spring and summer, the Austrians bombarded the city with tens of thousands of projectiles, and even dropped bombs with the aid of air balloons. The Venetians showed extraordinary strength of character and valour and resisted for nearly five months. But by the end of the summer they had no ammunition left. The famine was devastating the population. The water supply had long been exhausted and families were drinking directly from the canals. Sanitary conditions were ghastly. A cholera epidemic broke out and in a few weeks killed more than 3,000 people. The rotting corpses were literally piling up in the streets. Neither France nor England were going to lift a finger to rescue the besieged Republic. Manin finally capitulated on 22 August and sailed to exile in London. Radetzky’s troops entered the city. Venice had been the last bastion of resistance; Austria now regained full control of the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia.

Lucia hardly recognised her son when he returned to Palazzo Mocenigo: he had grown a thick beard and was much thinner than when he had left. She was glad to have little Alvise and Giovanni scampering about the house again—how the two boys had grown in a year! Clementina, on the other hand, looked tired and drawn—in Alvisopoli she had had a very late miscarriage.

Alvisetto’s litany about his financial woes tapered off as the estates in the countryside resumed full production and the Agency started to generate more cash thanks to the Austrian reconstruction effort. Lucia was too old to start planning for the future, but she was relieved to see Alvisetto regain his enthusiasm for new business ventures. He wanted to invest in the food and drink business—“restaurants, coffee houses, wine shops and beer halls” for the Austrian clientele. The Mocenigo Agency owned many apartments and houses to rent in Venice and though money was still scarce among Venetians, Alvisetto was determined not to lower rents because, he said, “Very soon Venice will be extremely busy with foreigners.”18

Among the first foreigners to reach Venice after the siege were John Ruskin and his pretty young wife, Effie. They arrived in November 1849 by boat—the railway bridge was badly damaged during the revolution—and took rooms at the Danieli on the Riva degli Schiavoni. Ruskin took off on his architectural explorations, while Effie organised her own visits, normally in the company of the lively Rawdon Brown. “He has promised to present us to [Madame] Mocenigo whom he is very intimate with,” she wrote to her mother.19 Effie was curious to meet Lucia, if a little intimidated. “She considers herself a sort of Queen in Venice as she is the last of the great Venetian Dames.” Lucia hardly thought of herself as a queen, though evidently this was how Mr. Brown was advertising her on his tours of the city. Effie gives a vivid account of her visit with Lucia:

It was in this Palace that Byron lived when in Venice…The walls of the rooms are covered with full length pictures of Doges of the family in their ducal robes, admirals and statesmen…We were received by some well dressed servants and conducted through a number of cold, grand marble and frescoed apartments, to some nice warm well furnished ones where sat the Lady on a small couch. She received us very kindly and considering her age, 80 years, she was extremely well looking and upright…As she can no longer go out she receives visitors all day or relations. Her manners were quite beautiful and took away from your first impressions caused by the absurdity of her dress which though excessively rich was not becoming for her age…Generally speaking her features were marked and fine and [she has] still sparkling black eyes her hair grey but false curls of jet black at each side of her face, the hair surmounted by a blonde cap with blue artificial flowers, a brown loose satin Polka cloak lined with white, hanging open and showing her neck very bare, pale yellow kid gloves and exquisite point lace collar and handkerchief, a fan and dress of purple & green silk…After we were seated she rang for the men servants and they entered instantly bearing on massive silver plate & cups, black coffee, cake and iced lemonade in tumblers. The latter I took and found delicious. She was very affectionate to me and kissed me on both cheeks speaking French, and presented me with a work written I suppose a century ago by her father…We took leave of the old Lady and walked through her sleeping apartment by her permission. Here I was much astonished by the toilette table; I had never seen anything like it before; there was the mirror frame, two little other mirrors, essence pots, rouge pots, perfume bottles and boxes of various kinds, everything in wrought silver. It was very beautiful.20

A few days later, Effie was introduced to Alvisetto at La Fenice. She was not pleased by what she saw, innocently remarking: “He is very like his old mother in appearance, but extremely dark, and certainly to look at him you never could believe he was a descendant of the doges who lie entombed in [San] Giovanni e Paolo, each Mocenigo face finer & more beautiful than the other, even in old age.”21

Mr. Brown brought visitors around to Palazzo Mocenigo for a few more years. Lucia always rose to the occasion, dressing up for her guests and offering cake and iced lemonade in heavy silver tumblers. But in truth she was only waiting to join her beloved Paolina, her “other me.” She died on 7 March 1854, a month shy of her eighty-fourth birthday, and was buried, as she had wanted, in her cypress casket, on the island of San Michele.

In the end, Alvisetto decided not to transfer Lucia’s remains to the family chapel in Alvisopoli, where he and his children were later buried, next to Alvise, the founding father of the estate. There are no other tombs in the chapel. Despite the strenuous efforts to ensure a male line, the Mocenigos of San Samuele did not survive beyond the next generation.*23

Palazzo Mocenigo was sold many years ago and is now a prestigious condominium on the Grand Canal. There are no visible traces of Lucia, save for a plaque on the facade commemorating Byron’s stay and the mystifying statue of Napoleon hidden away at the end of the entrance hall. I recently visited the cemetery on San Michele to pay homage to my great-great-great-great-grandmother, but I discovered she no longer rests there: a century ago some of the older tombs were destroyed to make place for a wider mooring berth. Her bones, I was told, have long since dissolved in the silty waters of the lagoon.

Alvisopoli, the estate that caused Lucia so many worries over the years, was also sold, in the 1930s, and broken up in separate properties. But the hamlet of Alvisopoli still exists—a few houses, a general store, and the Bar Mocenigo are scattered along a sleepy back-road west of Portogruaro. After years of neglect, the main villa was recently restored and turned into a low-cost housing project. The park Lucia designed behind the house has miraculously survived the encroaching urban sprawl, and now borders the noisy autostrada. The local branch of the World Wildlife Fund tends it; paths and bridges and benches have been added to attract the local population, but visitors are rare. Few of the plants and trees Lucia brought from Paris in 1814 still grow there, but in the springtime a beautiful white and pink rose blossoms randomly in the sunnier parts of the wood. The gardeners do not know its provenance and call it the Rosa moceniga; but it is probably a variety of the Rosa multiflora that Lucia brought from Paris, and now grows wild in the garden of Alvisopoli.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!