Chapter Three


On a sunny morning in mid June 1792, Alvise and Lucia left Venice and headed for the Alps. Their aim was to reach Frankfurt on the Main, deep into the Habsburg Empire, in time to attend Emperor Francis II’s investiture. They took the familiar road that led from Padua to Vicenza and on to Verona, then they turned sharply to the north, travelling along the western shore of Lake Garda until they crossed into the southern tip of the Austrian Empire. The road threaded its way along the river Adige to the wealthy city of Bolzano, and continued to climb through the quaint towns of South Tyrol, where the air tingled and the snow-capped Dolomites glistened like giant meringues rising high above the thick alpine forest. Once over the mountain pass, they descended to Innsbruck and moved on, across the green valleys of northern Tyrol and southern Bavaria, reaching Munich by early July. They had been on the road for nearly three weeks but they did not pause, continuing their northward run and covering another forty posts in five days. When they finally arrived in Frankfurt, exhausted but exhilarated by their journey, they were only a few minutes late: the city gates had just been closed as the imperial procession was already heading for the cathedral, where the bishop was to bless the emperor. Undeterred by the frowning German guards, Alvise and Lucia pleaded and haggled and brought out any number of impressive-looking letters of recommendation until they were allowed into the city through a side street, and were instantly swallowed up in the festivities.

Lucia had read in her guidebook, Caspar von Riesbeck’s popular Voyage en Allemagne, that Frankfurt was a rich town where Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics lived together in bustling harmony—“the only imperial city that keeps all its splendour and continues to thrive and improve.”1And indeed the rich facades of the buildings, the splendid gardens, the elegant carriages, the fine clothes and even the ladies’ expensive jewels showed that Frankfurters knew “how to lay out their money with taste,” as Riesbeck put it. What Lucia did not expect to find on that particular day, in a city so far away from home, was an atmosphere that in many ways reminded her of Venice, or rather, of Venetian festivities. The rowdy crowds and the pageantry, the sheer excitement in the air: if Lucia narrowed her dark blue eyes until everything became a colourful blur, she could imagine they were celebrating a new doge or a new procuratore di San Marco. “Here, too, fistfuls of coins are thrown about, chunks of bread are handed out to the populace and fountains of wine are everywhere,”2 she told her sister, Paolina, who had pressed her to provide her with detailed descriptions of her travels.

Despite the similarities, Lucia added, there were peculiar local customs her fellow Venetians had never seen. In the centre of the main square she and Alvise came upon a pile of wheat as high as a four-storey house. The emperor looked on from a raised arbour in the shade while an ambassador of the Electorate of Hesse walked up to the giant heap, filled his cup with grains and came back to offer it to his majesty as a token of the German princes’ loyalty to the imperial crown. After this very solemn ceremony, the mountain of wheat was given over to a frenzied mob: men, women and children threw themselves on the mound, stuffing their bags with as much grain they could get their hands on. Within minutes, all the wheat had vanished and the crowd retreated in an orderly fashion. Lucia compared “the discipline which prevails in the German throng” to the festive chaos of Venetian crowds.

Next, her attention was drawn to a simple wooden house that had been erected in another part of the square. Again, the ambassador walked up to the house and opened the front door: inside was an ox that had been roasted whole on a great big spit. The beast was dragged out into the square and cut up into a thousand pieces that were thrown to the crowd. At the same time a band of strong-armed peasants appeared from the side and tore up the wooden house with their bare hands. “Not even the foundations were left standing,” Lucia observed in amazement.

That evening, after the celebrations, she and Alvise were to be presented to the emperor and empress. Lucia barely had time to retreat to their lodgings to take a short rest and make her toilette before Mademoiselle Bertin, the celebrated dressmaker who had been in the service of Queen Marie Antoinette and was now attached to the young Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, appeared in their apartment to put the final touches to her evening dress. It was a glittering night, the first of several with the travelling Imperial Court, and Lucia enjoyed every minute of it. “I’m having great fun,” she wrote enthusiastically. The black clouds that had gathered over her during the winter were a distant memory. For the first time since they were married, Lucia had Alvise all to herself, and she was happy.

The cheerful twenty-year-old Empress Maria Theresa was half Neapolitan—her father was King Ferdinand “Big Nose”—and she immediately put Lucia at ease by recollecting in her friendly manner their previous encounter in Naples, during the Carnival in 1786. She was glad to have her company, she said, to distract her from the stiffness of her German entourage. “And she repeatedly expressed a strong desire to come to Venice,”3 Lucia assured Paolina, mindful not to leave her young sister out of her royal banter.

Emperor Francis II was very different from his wife: haughty, cold, and, at twenty-four, older-looking than his age. He was generally considered to be less intelligent and imaginative than his two predecessors, his father, Leopold II, and his uncle, Joseph II. He was certainly more conservative than either of them, and now that the premature death of his father had lifted him to the imperial throne, he was determined to restore the monarchy in France at whatever cost—an obsession that led him very quickly to put himself and the Habsburg Empire entirely in the hands of his bellicose commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick. In a sense, the French revolutionary government had made things easier for Francis II by declaring war on Austria and Prussia earlier that year. Now the two allied powers were amassing their troops along the Rhine before invading France, and the emperor planned to inspect the troops.

The day after his investiture, Francis II and his vast following left Frankfurt and sailed down the Rhine. Alvise and Lucia latched on to the imperial cortège. They reached Mainz in the evening. The city had been illuminated by thousands of torches. “I danced with the greatest pleasure at a very scintillating ball,” Lucia boasted. The next day she and Alvise were among 400 guests at a lunch given by the emperor and empress. Maria Theresa, who loved to dance, seized the occasion to declare she wanted another ball, to be held that very same night. What a dazzling whirlwind it was!

Frederick William II, king of Prussia, made an impromptu appearance among the crowd of courtiers. He too had come to the region to salute his troops before the offensive against France, and was staying in a castle nearby. Unlike his uncle Frederick the Great, Frederick William II was not much of a military man. But he was handsome, intelligent and a great lover and patron of the arts, with a special passion for music. In addition, he spoke Italian fluently, and Lucia was left swooning when he spoke to her in her own language. She later confided to her sister that she got a little carried away, rambling on in Italian with his majesty. She was even tempted to put in a good word for the new Venetian ambassador to Prussia, but fortunately bit her lip. “You know how sovereigns are,” Lucia told Paolina knowingly. “It’s always a little risky to raise these sorts of issues with them. You never know how they’ll react.”

From Mainz, the court travelled up-river to Koblenz, where 52,000 Prussian troops were encamped. A small corps of French émigrés who had fled from the Revolution had been integrated into the Prussian army, and the French officers with whom Lucia spoke grumbled and complained about being “entirely encircled by Germans.”4 From Koblenz the imperial train, with Alvise and Lucia bringing up the rear as it were, turned south, towards Mannheim, where the bulk of the Austrian army, 75,000 men, waited for the emperor. The road to Mannheim followed “the enchanting riverbanks of the Rhine,”5 and the landscape could not have been gentler or more pleasing. The road itself, Lucia reported, was so well kept and manicured “it rather feels like driving down a pretty alley rather than a major thoroughfare.”

In Mannheim, Alvise and Lucia took leave of their imperial highnesses, and headed down the road that follows the Neckar River, stopping briefly along the way to visit Stuttgart and Augsburg. Lucia’s trusty guidebook was never far from her. Riesbeck, an engaging traveller who had died at the age of thirty on one of his German journeys, mixed lyrical descriptions with political information, economic facts, social observations and the occasional chronique scandaleuse to spice things up a little. His rambling comments were never dull. About Augsburg, for example, he wrote: “Many houses are old and ugly and are built with so little attention to the rules of modern taste,” that Johannes Winckelmann, the great neoclassical art historian, “renounced living in Germany after seeing them.”6 From Augsburg the road to Munich went through some of the most primitive parts of Bavaria, “and the country one sees from the road is entirely uncultivated.” Every hamlet along the way was full of smelly taverns and drunkards. The Bavarian peasants—this is again Riesbeck writing—were “stout, muscular fleshy and…poorly dressed.” There were “large puddles before the doors of their hovels and so they were forced to stand on planks.”7 In Munich a packet of letters from Paolina awaited Lucia. News about their father was not good: Memmo’s circulation problems had worsened and he was confined to his bedroom, in considerable pain, surrounded by bickering doctors and a gaggle of wailing old mistresses. But there was good news as well: Paolina was expecting another child. Lucia suspected that she, too, was pregnant again, but this time she kept it to herself, choosing to wait until she reached Vienna and spoke to Doctor Vespa before breaking the news.

Paolina’s letters were filled with anxious queries about the war, and Lucia filled her in as best she could. The Austro-Prussian forces had by now begun their march towards Paris, with the Duke of Brunswick threatening to destroy the French capital if any harm was done to the king and queen. But his menaces had only inflamed the situation: an angry mob had stormed the Palais des Tuileries and seized the terrified Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

By mid August Lucia was anxious to get to Vienna and meet Doctor Vespa, but Alvise prevailed on her to join him on one last side-trip, to the famous salt mines near Salzburg, before reaching the capital. Riesbeck’s enticing description of a salt chamber helped to convince her: “Picture yourself in a hall about one hundred square feet, the walls and ground of which are composed of crystals of every earthly colour that reflect the light so wonderfully you imagine yourself to be in some enchanted palace.”8 Leaving the salt mines behind them, Alvise and Lucia travelled through the beautiful lake district until they reached the Danube, with the Styrian hills rising in the background. They followed the river eastward to Linz and made their final run to Vienna, which they reached on 9 September. They had been on the road for nearly three months.

Doctor Vespa was a genial, warm-hearted sixty-five-year-old. He took Lucia under his protective wing and quickly reassured her with his blend of self-confidence and familiarity. The Tuscan doctor was at the peak of a long and prestigious career. In his youth he had studied with André Levret, a pioneering obstetrician who invented the forceps. Having returned to the University of Florence, Vespa published his influential Treatise on Obstetrics and encouraged the use of the forceps in Italy. Archduke Leopold of Tuscany appointed him court obstetrician in Florence, and when he succeeded his brother on the imperial throne as Leopold II, he brought the doctor with him to Vienna. After Leopold II’s death, Vespa stayed on as court obstetrician, and was now looking after Empress Maria Theresa, who was in the first stages of pregnancy.

Vespa confirmed that Lucia too was expecting a baby. She was in her ninth week and possibly in the most delicate phase of her pregnancy. He told her firmly that if she wanted to have the baby, she had better stay in Vienna under his direct supervision. “He says the climate suits me well, the quiet lifestyle would also help,” Lucia explained to her sister, “and he assures me that if I should stay here, the pregnancy would certainly reach a happy conclusion.”9 Lucia, however, wanted very much to return to Venice, especially since her father was not well. She would stay in Vienna with Vespa until the first three months were over, and then decide whether to risk travelling south before the winter set in.

Alvise rented a house at 144 Kohlmarkt, a busy street in the centre of Vienna, and Lucia made herself a comfortable nest. She would have liked to go for strolls at the Prater, visit the porcelain museum and the gardens at the Belvedere, or take a hackney cab out to Schönbrunn Palace, the imperial summer residence that was open to the public. “But Doctor Vespa doesn’t want me to move around too much as we are approaching the stage of my last miscarriage.”10 Only once did she defy the doctor’s ban, sneaking out one late afternoon to see Wolfgang von Kempelen’s latest invention: the wondrous Talking Machine.

Von Kempelen was an intriguing character, a talented inventor with a bit of the prankster in him. He had already wowed the world with a mechanical chess-playing machine—a small cabinet on wheels containing a tiny wooden man wearing a turban, known as the Turk. In reality, a dwarf chess wizard controlled the movements of the Turk from inside the cabinet, but the trick was not discovered until many years later and von Kempelen’s machine went on baffling chess players the world over. The Talking Machine, on the other hand, was a legitimate contraption. All Vienna rushed to see it, and Lucia did not want to miss out on the great event. What she saw, as she struggled among the pressing crowd, was an elongated object that looked like a bellows with a keyboard. Inside was an elaborate machine made up of tubes, reeds, wires and a small mechanical device described as a “resonator.” The room went silent, von Kempelen sat down to play his Talking Machine, and Lucia was amazed to hear a series of human-like utterances, each connected to the other, and modulated at will by the inventor of this primitive form of synthetic speech.

Despite her escapade, Lucia reached the end of her first three months of pregnancy in fine shape. She now faced a choice: stay in Vienna until she delivered the child, as Doctor Vespa insisted, or risk it and travel home, as she felt inclined to do. Vespa’s recommendation made sense to Alvise. And it certainly made sense to Alvise’s mother, Chiara, who immediately wrote to her daughter-in-law that she “endlessly applauded” the illustrious obstetrician’s advice. “The displeasure in not seeing you sooner,” she added, “will be amply compensated by the sheer jubilation I shall feel at the thought of you being solidly and firmly pregnant, without the slightest fear of some ruinous development.”11 But it was not enough to sway Lucia. She wanted to be near her father. And she wanted to be near her sister, whose pregnancy was only one month ahead of hers. Lucia could think of nothing sweeter than the two of them keeping each other company as their bellies swelled, and later nursing their babies together.

It had been some time since the sisters, who had been inseparable during the earlier part of their life, had felt so close. In the past few years, as she coped with her miserable string of miscarriages, Lucia had seen Paolina drift away from her, into her own new family circle. It was easy enough to understand: she had been separated from her beloved older sister at fourteen, she had spent nearly three years locked up in a convent, she had emerged from Celestia to marry a man she became devoted to, and immediately had a daughter on whom she doted. Still, Lucia had counted on more sympathy and attention from Paolina during her difficult times, and she now told her frankly how much she had been hurt when “you did not show me the same tenderness as in the past.”12 Just as frankly, Paolina replied that she too had suffered to see Lucia behave so coldly when Cattina, her little baby girl, was born. To which a miffed Lucia reacted as a first-born would, rejecting with indignation “the injury you do to my heart, which loved the niece from the very start.”

Their correspondence over the summer did much to clear the air and re-establish their old familiarity. “Thank God those endless recriminations are over,” Lucia declared, adding with mock pomposity: “My dearest, I’m rather pleased by the new direction you have taken with regard to your affection for me.”13 Their sisterly love, so long neglected, filled them with warmth and joy. “The faith your heart has in my love for you touches me deeply. My greatest pleasure here is to spend my time in your company, writing letters to you.”

At the end of October Lucia’s mind was made up: she would make the trip to Venice, regardless of what Doctor Vespa thought. “How could I possibly leave you alone in your circumstances? And not to see Papa after such a long illness! Alvise, whose duty calls him back to Venice, would also be far away from me if I stayed…I simply cannot resist the temptation any more.” She understood what “a risky gamble” she was taking by ignoring Vespa’s advice: “If fate wills it, I could well have to renounce for ever the longed for succession. I must do everything in my power to make this family happy, and I would only have myself to blame if it were left without an heir.”14 She knew what was expected of her; the pressure was considerable. Yet she decided to follow her instinct and do what she felt was best for her, which included “having the assistance of the people I love and by whom I am loved during the most interesting moment in my life.”15

It was all set: she fixed her departure for 20 November and assured Doctor Vespa she would take every precaution during the trip. Once home she would spend as much time as possible in the country, leading a very tranquil life. Doctor Vespa grumbled and growled like an old bear, but as Lucia was adamant he shrugged his shoulders and prescribed bloodletting sessions before the trip. Lucia went shopping for warm clothes she would need during the journey across the Alps. But on 15 November Vespa came to check on her again and showed great alarm. Her pregnancy, he warned, was suddenly at risk again; and she was also very weak. In all conscience he could not allow her to make the voyage back home.

Lucia was crushed. Was Doctor Vespa acting in good faith? Perhaps, but it is at least plausible he made up some medical excuse to prevent her from leaving, possibly in connivance with Alvise. In her letters to Paolina, Lucia never mentioned any pain or any complications. On the contrary, she wrote over and over again how healthy she felt and how well the pregnancy was proceeding and how excited she was to be going home. “I cannot begin to tell you about this new situation,” she wrote to her sister with resignation. “Only you can imagine how I feel.”16

Alvise returned to Venice, leaving Lucia to spend the winter in her isolated cocoon on the Kohlmarkt. As the freezing Viennese temperatures set in, she retreated to her warm apartment above the street bustle, seldom venturing outside and drifting into a dreamy world of her own where she was free to conjure up her sister’s presence. “I spend my time pleasantly building castles in the air with my imagination,” she wrote tenderly. “I walk around the house hoping to see you suddenly appear…sometimes I imagine you watching over me…I know your feelings for me, my dear, and I can assure you mine are the same for you.”17 Lucia admired Paolina’s moral fibre and the goodness of her heart, and she was a little in awe of the depth of her spirituality. She remembered her sister having a strong religious sensibility as a young girl. Her long stay at Celestia had no doubt strengthened it. Paolina yearned to devote her life to the poor and the ill. She composed prayers for Lucia, slipping them in the envelope she addressed every week to Vienna. Lucia’s religious sentiment was not as deep as her sister’s and she did not compose prayers for her, but she sent other tokens of her love that were just as touching. When Alvise headed for Venice, for example, Lucia gave him an envelope for Paolina containing her favourite earrings. “They are not new but are the latest fashion here,” she explained to her sister. “I’ve often used them and it will give me pleasure to think of you putting them to your ears at the same time as I, by sheer force of habit, would think of putting them to mine.”18

The small staff in the house, a maid and a cook, spoke only German, a language with which Lucia was having a good deal of difficulty. Communications were limited to the bare necessities, thereby increasing Lucia’s sense of isolation. The one person who came in and out was Doctor Vespa. He was Lucia’s link to the outside world; a benign, avuncular presence. He came by every day to check on how the pregnancy was proceeding, answer questions about what she was going to go through during delivery and illustrate his theories about nursing. The subject matter was endless and Lucia was an eager questioner. But the two also chatted and gossiped, and Doctor Vespa never failed to fill her in with the latest on the state of Empress Maria Theresa’s pregnancy. He was happy to dispense medical advice of all kinds, prescribing laurel oil baths for Paolina’s frequent blood discharges and aromatic tisanes to reduce her flatulence, special unguents for Alvise’s haemorrhoids and balls of opium to ease poor Memmo’s pain and give him a chance to rest. Lucia told Paolina:

Doctor Vespa says opium is the most effective remedy in such cases. Giving him just enough to doze off won’t do, I’m afraid. He needs a ball of opium every four hours for it to work. Make sure his swollen parts are kept moist and soft with the proper creams. And remember Doctor Vespa also advises he should be taking a few spoonfuls of China salt. My dearest sister, I know how much you love [our father] and how much you love me, and therefore I beg you to follow these instructions carefully.19

It broke her heart not to be with her father.

Hug Papa for me very, very tightly, and tell him not to worry because otherwise I shall not cease to worry myself. Above all, protect him from ordinary balsams that will only cause more inflammation and prevent other pernicious steps by all those so-called professors who have already been the cause of so many unhappy errors.

Vespa was one of the best-known doctors in Europe and Lucia, quite understandably, fell very much under his spell. Less so Paolina, who often stood her ground in her long-distance disputes with him. The discussion could turn quite heated, with Lucia stepping in to find some middle ground, especially when it touched issues related to childbirth—a field about which Paolina, already a mother, felt women knew more than men ever would, even if they were eminent doctors. Which was the best way to bring a child to life? Doctor Vespa wanted Lucia to deliver lying down in bed “since he strongly feels that it is the safer and more comfortable position.” Paolina argued that it was much more natural to deliver “in the chair,” that is sitting in a specially designed armchair with a large hole in the seat, and pushing downwards. This way the weight of gravity did much of the work, and the mother had only to help things along. It was, she argued, the more “natural” way to give birth. Vespa replied, through Lucia, that if Paolina wanted nature to do its work properly, it made “more sense to let the baby do most of the effort to come out, instead of making the mother exert herself on the chair, forcing a process that nature might not want to precipitate.” Paolina was not swayed, so Vespa took on a more scientific tone to make his point more forcefully. “Child delivery occurs as a result of the contractions of the uterus,” he expounded with impatience. If the mother is sitting, she will accelerate the delivery “and the weight of the baby will end up tearing at the uterus.” Bottom line: he never, ever, gave the go-ahead to “accelerated deliveries” such as the one Paolina was defending. Paolina insisted that delivering “in the chair” might be increasingly frowned upon in the medical community, but it suited her because it reduced the heavy discharges that had been such a problem the first time around. Not so, interjected Lucia, who valued Paolina’s experience but felt she was not in a position to contradict Doctor Vespa. “What do you think was the cause of so much discharge in your case? Precisely the fact that you gave birth in the chair,” she told her sister. “It seems obvious to me that all the effort one has to make in that position is likely to produce more consequences than if one is lying horizontally, on a bed.”20

When the doctor was away attending to his imperial duties an eerie silence filled the house. Lucia heard from time to time the jingle of the sleds swishing below her windows and the muffled tolling of the bells at Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. It was freezing cold outside. “Fourteen degrees below zero,” she informed Paolina, “and it doesn’t look as if the rest of the winter will be any better. The Court is organising sled races all the way out to Schönbrunn.”21 Writing rambling letters to her sister would have provided a comforting distraction had it not been for the anguished thoughts about her father that inevitably found their way into them. Paolina worried about Lucia being alone; Lucia, in turn, worried about the “agitation” Paolina felt “in seeing Papa so ill.” According to Vespa, that very agitation was the cause of the “heat rushes” Paolina often complained about. He suggested soothing infusions of sorrel, violets and chicory. “You can water down the herbal solution or even mix it with broth if you like,” Lucia added. “And be sure to take it for fifteen to twenty days. It will certainly freshen up your blood.”22

Vespa offered solace but not much hope for Memmo’s condition. The opium he prescribed was a painkiller, not a cure. In December, Lucia’s father sounded a little perkier, and was even fantasising, probably just for the benefit of his oldest daughter, that he might be well enough to travel north to see the newborn as soon as the weather improved. “In the spring, dearest Papa, come and enjoy the dry climate of Vienna,” she urged him, keeping the fantasy alive. “I cannot tell you how happy I would be if such a project came true. The little baby living inside me returns your greetings by way of kicks and turns.”23 To Paolina she confessed more soberly that being so far away from her father at this time was “the heaviest burden” and she saw “as a gift from heaven” the possibility of the three of them being together again.24

Having to rely on the mail for news of her father was tricky. If, for some reason, Paolina’s letter from home did not arrive with the weekly post, Lucia had to content herself “with what my imagination will provide,” which was seldom reassuring. She asked her sister to write down her father’s condition every evening, so she could have a day-by-day progress report when the mail arrived. “It will only take you a minute at the end of the day and you will be doing the most charitable work, I assure you.”25

At Christmas Lucia was alone, save for a brief visit from trusty old Vespa. It was too cold to go to midnight mass, the doctor told her. She stayed home, holding her growing belly as she stood by the window and watched the snow falling on Kohlmarkt. Her thoughts were fixed on her father. On Boxing Day she wrote to Paolina that the last thing she wanted was for him to tire himself in his effort to reassure her:

My poor, beloved Papa, in spite of all his pain, he must have thought I would feel anxious without a letter from him. But of course I renounce what brings consolation only to me. I beg him not to weary himself by writing just to satisfy my longing to have news of him. To hear that he is well again is all that my heart desires, so that I may continue to dream of hugging him—and you—somewhere on the way back home.26

By January, Lucia was receiving daily accounts from Paolina “that truly make me feel as if I were with you.” The general outlook was not discouraging. Despite her entreaties, Memmo sent her a few “very lively and tender lines that gave me real comfort.” But the delay caused by the long distance the post had to cover created a false impression. The situation had in fact worsened. By the time Lucia received that last note from her father, he was already dead.

Fearful of the impact Memmo’s death might have on Lucia and the baby, Alvise left immediately for Vienna. He had already planned to be with Lucia when she delivered and with that in mind he had obtained a six-month leave of absence from his government duties. Now he hastened his departure in order to be the one to tell Lucia about her father’s death. He reached Vienna in less than a week despite a difficult crossing of the Alps in the dead of that frigid winter. The moment Lucia saw Alvise on the doorstep at Kohlmarkt, her happiness was crushed by what she read in his eyes. A feeling of complete devastation swept over her. Memmo had been the pillar of her life ever since her mother had died when she was only a little girl. And the pain was made all the more acute by the guilt she felt for not having been at his side. There were, of course, very good reasons why she had remained in Vienna, but that did not lessen the laceration she felt—and had felt for weeks. “My situation has been so cruel—forced to stay here in order to fulfil my duty as a mother and thus compelled to forget my duty as a daughter,”27 she wrote to her sister in desperation. Worried about Lucia’s health, Doctor Vespa ordered her to stay in bed.

But all I really want now is to be in your arms, Paolina. Oh God! Please tell me what I must do to stop thinking about dear Papa all the time, because no matter how hard I try, everything reminds me of him and I cannot bear it any more. I was so impatient to come back to Venice with my little baby. Now I can see that coming home will be the most difficult time of my life. And his sweet plan to meet me halfway, to surprise me somewhere on my return journey…It is lost for ever.28

The “oppressive weight” of the loss did not lift for weeks. The pain renewed itself “every moment of the day.” And just as Paolina was constantly worried about how Lucia was managing in Vienna, Lucia worried about Paolina’s “anxiety” about her. Their only thoughts were for each other. “What will happen to us when I come back?” Lucia asked, as she struggled to imagine her life without the reassuring presence of her father. During his illness, Memmo had tried his best to avoid upsetting his daughters excessively, especially Lucia, who was so far away. He had encouraged them to look ahead, and think of the children they were carrying in their wombs. And in the end “the thought that Papa would have forbidden us to torment ourselves in this way for the sake of our innocent babies,” helped Lucia to regain her balance.29

As she began her seventh month, Alvise’s presence made it easier to focus again on the child she was carrying. Doctor Vespa encouraged him to take his wife out for short walks or for carriage rides around town to get some fresh air and do some shopping: a crib, swaddling cloth, baby clothes, bottles, pans and even a beautiful dummy made of blown glass. So when the sun shone and the avenues glistened in the snow, Lucia, looking quite beautiful in her black mourning andrienne, a flowing loose gown, would venture out into the city bustle holding on to Alvise’s arm. She was grateful to have him by her side. His leave of absence might slow down his career a little bit, but how would she have managed without him? She was also “quite happy” that Alvise’s decision to take a pause in his work had been approved not only by the Mocenigos but by the ruling authorities as well. “I was sure such a friendly gesture towards me, in such a delicate moment for the family, would be applauded by the more sensitive people we know,” she wrote to Paolina. “But I also needed to hear the public applause following the inevitable suspension of his civil career, and having heard it, I can now look forward to all the good things his loving care and his experience will provide me with.”30

Doctor Vespa still came by every day, bringing his usual share of Viennese gossip and the latest news on the empress’s pregnancy. In mid February the talk of the town was Maria Theresa’s latest escapade to a carnival party dressed up as an oyster-andmacaroni vendor. But apart from the occasional titbit from the doctor, Lucia did not know much about what went on beyond Kohlmarkt. She remained very much confined. Carnival festivities were out of the question, and she agreed to her shopping forays with Alvise mostly out of necessity. She took her mourning seriously, and wore black at home as well.

Her conversation with Paolina—for this is what it was, a continuous, daily dialogue by mail—was really the centre of her life. Lucia informed her sister:

Doctor Vespa says you will give birth before you think. I don’t exactly know when I am due. I am always made to worry. Everyone tells me I should be wary of the eighth month, which, thank goodness, will soon be over. Meanwhile I’ve ordered the hard, embroidered mattress we will use when I deliver. I’ve already hired the woman who will watch my baby. God willing, I’ll be well enough to provide the rest.31

Lucia felt very strongly about nursing the baby herself. In the past, the infants of the aristocracy had been put in the care of wet-nurses. Lucia’s generation, influenced by the new literature on childbirth and childcare generated by the ideas of the Enlightenment, was interested in a closer, more intimate relationship between mother and child. In Lucia’s case it was not merely an intellectual point of view. She yearned to breastfeed her child in order to fulfil the maternal instinct she felt growing in her. In this respect, she had a strong ally in Doctor Vespa, who, like many male obstetricians of the time, wanted to reduce the role of midwives and wet-nurses—in large measure to enhance his own authority and control. “He is encouraged by the fact that milk serum has started to ooze out of my right breast first,” she informed Paolina.32 Her sister had mixed feelings about breastfeeding her second-born; she remembered it had been a rather painful experience the first time. If she decided to go ahead anyway, she explained, she would probably breastfeed only the first few days, and then pass the child to the care of a wet-nurse. Lucia, under the influence of Doctor Vespa, argued against the idea of switching midway.

If you are not willing to raise the child with your own milk all the way, then you should think twice since changing to an inferior milk after such a short while would certainly be harmful for the child; and to suddenly interrupt your breastfeeding after allowing the milk to reach its natural flow would be harmful to you.33

As to why this was so, Lucia was forced to admit Doctor Vespa was “rather short on details.” Memmo had raised his daughters to be always curious and inquisitive in order to improve their knowledge. But the doctor simply said Paolina’s plan was “folly” and that she should not go ahead with it and that Lucia should tell her so. “I asked him if he could explain to me the reason behind his belief, as we are used to doing all the time, but he merely replied that we should just trust him because what he said was solidly grounded.”

By the end of March, Paolina, being one month ahead of her sister, was about to deliver at any moment. Lucia was in a state of utter fretfulness. She filled her letters with short, nervous questions. How was Paolina feeling? When did she expect to give birth? Was she in any pain? What had she decided to do about her milk? Was the bloodletting reducing her blood discharges? It is hard to imagine anyone being more anxious over a sister’s impending delivery. “Now I’m sure of it,” she wrote on 20 March, unable to stand the excitement any longer. “I know you’ve delivered. But what have you delivered?…Oh I am so happy…And you are such a strong girl I needn’t worry.” She assumed Paolina was breastfeeding the first few days, and she urged her once again not to give up. “I would be so happy if you decided to continue giving your own milk to the little baby,” she insisted. “It is better for him as it comes from the same body that has already nurtured him. It’s lighter, more easily digestible than the one of a stranger, whose milk thickens over time.”34

It turned out Paolina had not yet given birth when Lucia wrote her this letter but she had by the time she received it: another girl was born and she was christened Isabella, like their mother.*7

Despite the fatigue, Paolina made the effort of sending a short note to her sister a few hours after delivery in order to reassure her. In one of those curious double-takes caused by the slowness and irregularity of communications, Lucia could rejoice all over again:

Bravo! Hurrah! So, my dear sister, you have happily delivered and those few lines you sent me gave me infinite pleasure because it means you are in good health. I am so happy! I hug you with all my heart, and my two nieces as well. I so much want to see the first-born again, and the second one, who bears our mother’s name, I will love her so.35

Of course, Paolina’s husband, Luigi, was hoping for a son, an expectation Lucia well understood given the pressure she herself had felt from the Mocenigos. “I too was wishing for a little boy,” she wrote to her brother-in-law in a consolatory postscript, “but my prayers will not be useless and you will soon have one, I am sure.”

Lucia was so caught up in the emotional turmoil surrounding Paolina’s delivery that she had managed to put aside momentarily the fears about her own pregnancy. They came back to her even more strongly now that she was next in line. “I must tell you what scares me most as my own delivery approaches,” she confessed to her sister. “It is the awful pain I will have to endure: it terrifies me. And I know what a coward I can be in such a situation.”36 Her fear was compounded by the possibility that Doctor Vespa might not actually be at her side when the time came. After passing by to see her every day for months, he was now telling her that since the empress was also entering the last phase of her pregnancy, he would be on call at all times.

Lucia had seen the imperial carriage passing below her window just a few days before, when the empress had arrived from the country to spend the last part of her pregnancy in Vienna. “I actually enjoyed the splendid spectacle,” she told Paolina. “The cortège passed right in front of our house, followed by parents and friends and twenty-four postilions. The streets and windows were crowded with people. Everyone applauded and shouted hurrahs. The trumpets blared. It was all very beautiful and moving.” Still, Lucia was “immensely distressed” at the possibility of not being able to count on Doctor Vespa when she delivered. And the outlook was not encouraging. “Just yesterday the Empress told Vespa she had been on the point of calling him the night before. She’d woken up with terrible pains that had forced her to get out of bed and walk up and down the room, though luckily the pain had subsided.” Next day, Lucia added with a touch of irritation, the empress felt so much better “she went off to the theatre in an excellent mood.”37

The Viennese custom, at a time of mourning, required one to wear white in lieu of black after the first six weeks, except for a black veil over one’s head. Lucia consented to change her attire with the greatest reluctance. “Our loss has been so devastating,” she told her sister, “that I would like my outward appearance to continue expressing my sadness.”38 In her mind, the death of her father was still so indissolubly bound with the birth of her child that she even feared her enduring grief might somehow affect the newborn. She was afraid of pain, but more than anything else she was afraid of giving birth to a weak or diseased child. “I would be utterly crushed if, albeit for a noble reason, the creature I shall soon give birth to were unhealthy.” And she revealed to Paolina “that right after our terrible misfortune, I felt the baby trembling as he moved inside me. I hope to God my baby will not have to live in agony.”39

The regular post left once a week, but Lucia made a point of writing every day, often picking up the letter where she had left it the night before, in order to give her sister a precise account of what she was going through. She registered every movement of the child, checked her nipples for more traces of serum, took down Doctor Vespa’s latest advice—when he came to see her. Everything was ready; it was just a matter of waiting with Alvise at her side. “I begin my letter to you today,” she wrote to Paolina on 9 April, “even though I might have to interrupt at any moment. Now is when it should all be happening if the counting has been exact. But I haven’t felt any of the premonitory signs yet.” The next morning, she began: “No news as far as I am concerned…”40 The letter was left unfinished. Later that day Lucia delivered a healthy-looking baby boy who was christened Alvise, and instantly nicknamed Alvisetto to distinguish him from his father.

Alvise was ecstatic and Lucia, though exhausted, was happy and relieved. After six years of marriage and three major miscarriages, she had produced at last the heir the Mocenigos had been anxiously waiting for. Everything had gone well. Lucia had delivered in bed, as planned, and Doctor Vespa had arrived just in time to supervise the delivery and savour his triumph. Lucia recovered very quickly and Vespa dispensed her from lying in the dark the first few days—a practice he often required on the grounds that daylight made it difficult to rest. He decided not to truss up her belly, as was usually done. “If the binding is too tight it prevents the normal functioning of the uterus, and if it is too loose it is useless,” he explained. “Besides, it creates excessive heat around the lower parts, which is never a good thing.”41 Vespa made sure Lucia was all settled and rushed off to attend to the empress’s needs.

Propped up against a wall of comfortable pillows, Lucia soon picked up her correspondence with Paolina. Alvisetto, she said, was giving her all sorts of satisfactions. He lost his umbilical cord on the third day, which she saw as “a sign of strength and health.” Six days later he shed all his milk crusts—another “sign of robustness.” The outlook for breastfeeding was promising too:

I haven’t had the joy of giving him my own milk yet but I understand it will happen very soon. The milk we are drawing from my breast we are giving to the wet-nurse’s daughter. [In two days] I will put my feet on the ground for the first time, and lie on the chaise-longue while they make my bed up.42

As she ended her letter she heard the thundering blast of 300 cannon announcing the christening of Archduke Ferdinand, the son of Emperor Francis II and Empress Maria Theresa. From her bed, Lucia could see the candles the Viennese had put at their windowsills to welcome the imperial heir. She also heard the crowds in the streets below “expressing their joy with boisterous chants”—a little too boisterous for Lucia’s taste, as they often kept her awake.

It was not until two full weeks after Alvisetto’s birth that Lucia announced to Paolina: “I am nursing my child and I am the happiest woman.”43 When she held her baby boy at her breast and felt him gently tugging at her nipple, she said, her fulfilment was complete. Doctor Vespa came by to check on Alvisetto and monitor Lucia’s condition, and resume his cosy chitchat. The empress was having difficulty with her milk. “Apparently she is envious that I am nursing my son,” Lucia reported with a hint of mischievous pride. The post brought packets of congratulatory letters from Venice, mostly from Mocenigo aunts and uncles and cousins. And nobody was genuinely more enthused than her mother-in-law, Chiara, who now claimed to have known all along that Lucia was going to deliver a baby boy: “My darling Lucietta, I cannot begin to tell you the joy I feel for this birth which, I can now reveal to you, my soul had presaged. I hope with all my heart that the two of you will remain in perfect health, and no doubt the good blood with which you have imbued your son will ensure this. Believe me, the arrival of this sweet baby has consoled this family, and us parents, no end.”44

Only echoes of the outside world had reached Lucia during the bitter cold winter. She had been far too absorbed by her apprehensive musings about motherhood to pay more than scant attention to the war of Austria and Prussia against France. Nevertheless, she had been shocked to learn, back in January, about Louis XVI’s beheading in Paris. She was also aware, thanks to Doctor Vespa’s briefings, of the court’s anxiety for the fate of Queen Marie Antoinette, herself a Habsburg and the aunt of Emperor Francis II. The Austro-Prussian offensive against revolutionary France had been repelled during the autumn of 1792. Now, in early spring of 1793, the tide seemed to be turning, with the monarchist coalition gaining victories at Liège and Maastricht, taking control of Holland and pushing the French armée as far south as Antwerp, where the attackers were hoping for a breakthrough that would open the field to an invasion of France.

As she nursed Alvisetto in the penumbra of her bedroom, Lucia sometimes heard the bells of Saint Stephen’s tolling for the dead soldiers who lay strewn in the muddy fields of Flanders. But otherwise, life at 144 Kohlmarkt went on quietly and uneventfully. Lucia’s milk was plentiful, and she spent most of her time with the baby, mired in a jumble of sheets, swaddling cloth, bathing appliances and bottles of essential oils prescribed by Doctor Vespa, who came by to see if Lucia had properly put the baby to sleep, “always on his side.” At the end of April, Lucia and Alvise planned to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary with a quiet dinner at home. “But you won’t be here, Paolina,” Lucia noted with sadness, “and neither will be the person who is always present in our hearts. So this family gathering won’t give me the pleasure it used to give me in the past.”45

Lucia slowly emerged from her gauzy cocoon. The weather grew mild and signs of spring were everywhere. She and Alvise took Alvisetto for an occasional stroll. The linden trees were regaining their lush foliage and flowerbeds were bursting with bright yellows and reds. It was a different, more vibrant and colourful city than the one she had seen when she had arrived in the early autumn. The latest fashions from Paris were all the rage—Lucia had heard that Viennese women had special dolls clad in Parisian clothes sent to them so as to better replicate the style of the new season. Splendid carriages paraded up and down the cobbled streets. At the Prater, music stands and lemonade booths attracted crowds of young families like theirs.

When Lucia had recovered enough strength, she began to organise dinner parties at home, eight or ten people at the most, “the quality of the guest compensating for the small number of people at the table.” These evenings were a welcome diversion—especially for Alvise, who was growing somewhat restless so far removed from the political scene in Venice and from his beloved Molinato. The guests tended to be mostly diplomats and travellers from Italy—Neapolitans, Tuscans, Milanese, and of course every Venetian who came through town. Doctor Vespa, practically part of the family and something of a hero to the Mocenigos, was a regular at these Italian soirées. Lucia was keen to get as much out of him as she possibly could before heading back to Venice. Unguents, potions, infusions, herbal teas: she wrote everything down very carefully, including his latest therapy for increasing the level of iron after childbirth, which she thought would be very useful for her slightly anaemic younger sister. The island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany, was known for its rich iron ore, and the doctor strongly suggested drinking the water from the river that flowed to Porto Ferraio, the main harbour on the island. A good apothecary in Venice might carry some bottles, Lucia told Paolina. If not, the simplest way was to have a demijohn of the precious water shipped from Livorno and drink two glasses every morning for two months.

In early June, Alvise mapped out their return journey. They would travel through Carinthia, making a stopover in Klagenfurt before crossing the Julian Alps and descending towards Udine, the capital of Friuli, practically in sight of the northernmost Mocenigo estates. From there it would be an easy ride home. Lucia could already see herself in Venice with her sister, nursing Alvisetto on the balcony of Palazzo Mocenigo at one end of the Grand Canal, while Paolina nursed little Isabella further upstream, at the former Ca’ Memmo, renamed Palazzo Martinengo. “We shall visit each other all the time and enjoy the afternoon breeze together,” she wrote with anticipation.46

She was returning to Venice victorious. Her station in society was secure; her rank among her peers considerable. As she pictured herself settling once more at Palazzo Mocenigo, some of the old anxiety came back to her as she worried about the numerous relations living there—many of them quite old and doddering—reacting with impatience to Alvisetto’s shrieks and wailings. But her mother-in-law reassured her on that count: “My grandson’s loud music will never be unpleasant. It has been a very long time since such a comforting sound was heard in Ca’ Mocenigo.”47

Alvise and Lucia did not arrive in Venice until mid July, after a much longer and rougher journey than expected. The weather was unseasonably cold and the skies were stormy most of the way. It even snowed as they crossed the Alps. Apart from the general discomfort—the constant rattle, the banging on the hard wood—Lucia hardly had time to enjoy the scenery, what with having to breastfeed Alvisetto and nurse him to sleep as their carriage climbed up and down the mountains. By the time they reached Palazzo Mocenigo Lucia was sore, exhausted and sleepless. The absence of her father threw her into deep melancholy, which the sight of Paolina and her two daughters, Cattina and little Isabella, only partially assuaged. She was ordered to bed and the Mocenigo doctors gathered around her prescribing the usual cycle of bleedings. But Lucia feared this perfunctory, all-purpose remedy might reduce the quality of her milk if not even diminish it. Her mother-in-law hovered over her protectively, insisting she follow the house-doctors’ advice. “It would be most useful if you had the vein of your arm punctured in order to extract a good four ounces of blood,” she advised. As for the milk, Lucia need not worry. “If the blood is taken out while you are breastfeeding, then there is no danger of reducing the quantity of milk you have.”48 Lucia knew there was nothing wrong with her. She was just very tired. All that useless fretting made her feel a stranger in her own house again. She missed Vienna. Above all, she missed the comforting presence of Doctor Vespa.

In only a year the atmosphere had changed noticeably in Venice. All of Europe was at war now, and though the Venetian Republic still clung to its proud neutrality it was slowly being sucked into the vortex unleashed by the French Revolution. Great Britain, Spain and Piedmont had joined the Austro-Prussian coalition, which was routing French forces north, east and south. The French government was also defending itself from a bloody insurgency in the region of Vendée. It looked as if the Revolution were hopelessly besieged. Even the legendary General Dumouriez, the hero of the battle of Valmy, had quarrelled with the politicians at the Convention and had gone over to the enemy. The Jacobins had taken effective control in Paris, expelling the moderate Girondins from the Convention and establishing a Committee of Public Safety, a de facto dictatorship led by Maximilien-François Robespierre, that dragged the country deeper into a spiral of state violence and terror. By the time Lucia arrived in Venice in July, the grisly tales coming from Paris were suddenly brought into focus with the news that Queen Marie Antoinette had not been spared the guillotine. Hundreds if not thousands of French émigrés were roaming northern Italy now in search of a safe haven, and many of them had settled in Venetian territory. Chief among them was Louis XVI’s brother, the Comte de Provence, second in line to the throne after the dauphin, the young Louis.

The war was having a profound effect on the political climate in Venice. The Council of Ten tightened its grip and made all decisions largely ignoring the Senate. The State Inquisitors expanded their role in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. Alvise, who had been on leave to be with Lucia in Vienna, was eager to get back into the political game. He was alarmed by the reactionary turn the government had taken and blamed the old, conservative patricians for seeking cover in the face of turmoil rather than rising to the challenge with a more imaginative diplomacy. But he knew he had to bide his time and not appear callow or over-ambitious. His time would come, no doubt. Meanwhile he sought and obtained the post of captain of Verona—a city where the Mocenigos had maintained strong connections with the local ruling families.

In all the major cities in the mainland territories, the Venetian government traditionally appointed a capitano, in charge of security and finances, and a podestà, a mayor in charge of justice and local administration. These positions carried prestige, but they also required considerable personal expenditure, and the government was finding it increasingly hard to recruit qualified patricians who were also rich enough to occupy the position decorously. As a result, the military and the civilian ruler were often the same person. This was the case with Alvise, who was appointed capitanoand vice podestà—deputy mayor, the position of mayor remaining vacant during his tenure. He was, in other words, the highest and most visible authority in Verona, headquartered in the Palazzo del Capitano, an imposing early Renaissance marble palazzo in the Piazza della Signorìa, where a succession of Venetian proconsuls—including a number of Mocenigos—had lived since Venice had conquered Verona in the early part of the fifteenth century. The appointment was for sixteen months and Alvise installed himself in the autumn of 1793. The province of Verona was one of the richest of the Venetian Republic. Extensive fields of wheat and maize, interspersed with vineyards and olive groves, shaped the gently rolling countryside east of Lake Garda. Rice paddies covered the wetter plains along the river Adige. The mulberry tree was also widely grown, producing the worms for the silk industry that thrived in the area. Verona itself, an old Roman city on the banks of the Adige, had a population of about 50,000. Its military importance, once considerable, had diminished as the military power of the Venetian Republic had declined. But it was a busy commercial centre—the gateway for the all-important trade with the Habsburg Empire—and there could not have been a better vantage point for Alvise, interested as he was in exploring new outlets for his agricultural ventures and experiments at Molinato.

What was a good move for Alvise, though, was not the best arrangement for Lucia, who was just settling back in Venice after a year in Vienna, and was already being asked to pack up and get back on the road. Of course, Verona was not far. In ideal conditions, one could leave Venice at dawn, cross the lagoon and be in Padua by mid morning, take a post-chaise to Vicenza and reach Verona by nightfall. But travel conditions were seldom ideal. Carriages broke down, old beaten-up horses collapsed, and in the autumn and winter parts of the road were often flooded. Besides, Lucia was still on a full breastfeeding schedule, determined to nurse Alvisetto as long as she had milk to give him. The journey from Vienna had been distressing enough and the last thing she wanted was to climb into a carriage with her baby boy, who was not even six months old, and travel to a new city. So she decided to join her husband the following spring, when Alvisetto would be a little more robust, while her husband went ahead.

Somewhat to his surprise, Alvise discovered that the people of Verona had a fond memory of his eccentric father, who had held the same position he now occupied until he had launched his ill-fated candidacy for the supreme office of doge in 1788, only five years earlier. At the time, Sebastiano had celebrated the start of his campaign by distributing large quantities of money and bread among the Veronese and throwing an extravagant ball in the Palazzo del Capitano, where Alvise now lived. The Veronese had given him an equally impressive send-off, with dancing and drinking in the main city square, and fireworks at midnight over the splendid ruins of the Roman arena. The memory of that joyful carousing still lingered in the city and Alvise was warmly received as the son of Sebastiano—something he had hardly expected given his own view of his father.

The Veronese quickly realised Alvise was very different from his father. He certainly seems to have cut quite a figure in his own right in the somewhat provincial atmosphere of local society, the ladies in particular perking up in his presence, perhaps encouraged by Lucia’s prolonged absence. He formed several liaisons, none of them of any lasting importance. In fact, every trace of them would probably have disappeared had it not been for Alvise’s persistent neglect in destroying the evidence of his secret affairs. Thus one learns of the anonymous wife of a government official who confessed to him she stared “all day at your miniature portrait, isolated in my usual, rigid solitude.” Or of the equally mysterious but rather more sanguine Spanish lady who warned Alvise to keep his wandering eye in check “because in matters of gallantry, women of my naciòndo not care for the company of other ladies.”49 Verona, of course, was the city of Romeo and Juliet, but the tone of these letters to Alvise was hardly Shakespearian. It was more like vaudeville in the Venetian province.

His romantic entanglements did not distract Alvise from his official work. From the start he faced a tricky diplomatic controversy with France. Louis XVI’s young brother, the Comte de Provence, having failed to obtain a safe passage to Vienna, had fled from Paris and established his headquarters in Verona of all places, where he was attracting an increasing number of French émigrés.*8 The revolutionary government in Paris was pressing Venice for his expulsion. Alvise’s instructions were to mark time using whatever delaying tactic he could come up with. There was no legal ground for the Comte de Provence’s expulsion: he led a relatively dignified life in Verona, and the Venetian Republic was a neutral party in the war. Alvise remained on very cordial terms with him: as long as the anti-French conservative European alliance was forcing France on the defensive, there was no need to rush to comply with the request of the revolutionary government in Paris.

Lucia moved to Verona in the spring of 1794. Alvisetto was now a year old and it would have been difficult to postpone her trip any longer without appearing to snub the Veronese. She was reluctant to leave all the same. Her baby boy was neither strong nor particularly healthy. He was prone to catarrh, colds and fevers that kept Lucia in a state of perpetual worry. She wondered whether they had left Vienna too soon. She complained about the humid climate in Venice. She even asked herself if something might be wrong with her milk. The Mocenigos, meanwhile, observed Alvisetto with creeping scepticism, some relatives even beginning to make unpleasant remarks about “Memmo blood” after having praised that very same blood only a year before. Even Chiara, always very protective of her grandson, admitted he was a weak child. “The truth is,” she told Lucia shortly before their departure for Verona, “I shall remain in anguish until he has grown a little more, especially every time you set off on a journey.”50

In Verona, Alvisetto seemed to get stronger as the days grew warmer. Lucia still nursed him and was never far away from him. She would have liked to take advantage of the pleasant weather and parade him in the lively marketplace in piazzale delle erbe, or visit the square in front of the Roman arena, where the Veronese took their afternoon stroll, or walk along the banks of the Adige, its icy cold water rushing from the snows of the Dolomites towards the Adriatic Sea. But of course the wife of the captain was not free to move about as she pleased; as the first lady of Verona, Lucia was forced to follow a fairly rigid protocol and she felt a prisoner within the grey walls of the Palazzo del Capitano. The view from her apartment was cut off to the right by the Torre Lamberti, the 300-foot-high medieval tower that had served for centuries as Verona’s trusty sentinel, and to her left by the gothic spires of the church of Santa Maria Antica. The place was definitely austere.

Lucia stayed but a few months. In the summer she returned to Le Scalette, their villa on the Brenta, while Alvise shuttled back and forth between Verona, Le Scalette and Molinato. Alvisetto was in fine shape during the entire villeggiatura (summer season), taking his mother’s milk but also eating solids. He ventured about the house and the garden on his own feet, and uttered his first syllables. He played and laughed and basked in his mother’s company. In early autumn, they all travelled back to Verona. It was their last stint in the Palazzo del Capitano as Alvise’s tenure would soon be over. Lucia did not look forward to spending another winter in those inhospitable rooms, but at least she felt more confident about Alvisetto’s ability to endure the cold season.

With the first chills, however, Alvisetto’s catarrh began to thicken, and his breathing difficulties started again, with coughing bouts and the inevitable fevers. He ate with difficulty and often refused to take his mother’s milk. Lucia held him close to her. She stroked his chest and massaged his spindly legs and arms. She felt the frailty of her little boy at the end of her fingertips. In February the days grew longer and Lucia beheld the first promise of spring in the air. The worst seemed behind them. The winter would soon be over, she told her sister, and Alvisetto was going to be all right. The first couple of years were always the most difficult. It would be easier as time went by. Each day, each week that passed strengthened his chances.

Then the sudden cold spell at the end of February caught everyone by surprise. It all happened very swiftly. Alvisetto’s chronic catarrh problems worsened. The infection moved to his lungs. He breathed with increasing difficulty and would not take any food. Soon his body was burning hot. Lucia pressed damp cloths on his face and limbs to cool him down but the temperature would not abate. The doctors insisted on puncturing his veins and the bleedings made him weaker each day. “He is struggling against the illness,” a distraught Alvise wrote to his father on 9 March.51 The little boy fought a few more days but the odds became overwhelming, and he stopped breathing in the early morning on the 12th.

Alvisetto was buried the same day in the church of San Sebastiano, around the corner from the Palazzo del Capitano. He was a month shy of his second birthday.*9

The tiny coffin had barely been lowered into the ground in San Sebastiano and covered with a marble slab when Mocenigo family politics took over again. The passing away of Alvisetto meant there was no male heir. Alvise, grief-stricken as he was, moved quickly to reassert control over family affairs, pre-empting those relatives who might be tempted to take advantage of the situation in order to lay their own claim to parts of the estate. As Alvise saw it, his principal liability was his own spendthrift father, who had grossly mismanaged the estate and was sinking deeper into personal debt in order to pursue his extravagant lifestyle. If Sebastiano was allowed to persist along that path, the entire Mocenigo fortune would soon be at risk. Alvise confronted his father, who was in very poor health, and forced him to relinquish control over the estate. In May 1795, only two months after Alvisetto’s death, father and son signed an agreement that made Alvise de facto head of the family. He took over his father’s conspicuous debts in exchange for complete control of the family holdings. He also agreed to pay his father a yearly stipend of 9,000 ducats, a proviso that in the end proved unnecessary: Sebastiano died a broken man a few weeks later.

When the deal between Alvise and his father was made known, Chiara told Lucia she was now “free to move about as you please within the land of the Mocenigos.”52 It was a strange thing to say given what she herself referred to as “the sad circumstances” that had led to the new arrangement. Was it simply an awkward attempt at consoling her daughter-in-law? Or maybe the spontaneous cry of one who had clearly not been able to move around as she pleased in those lands ever since marrying into the family? Whatever the reason for that remark, it is doubtful Lucia paid much attention to it. After the death of her son, she retreated into a stunned silence. Not a single letter from that period has come down to us. Not even a cursory note, nothing at all, month after month, as if a dark chasm had opened up before her and she had fallen deep inside it.

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