Magazine article The Spectator

Memories of the Venetian Palace Where I Lived

Magazine article The Spectator

Memories of the Venetian Palace Where I Lived

Article excerpt

'There are cities that mark a definite stage in life's development. For no reason that the mind can immediately follow, they absorb and localise the workings of the imagination: till the outlines of their rooftops, the colour and configuration of their walls, the changing yet recurrent pattern of odours and street-noises, and most of all the quality of the light that clothes them, damp and concealing or sharp and crystalclear, become associated with the mood and emotions of a particular period. Such on Byron was the effect produced by Venice. Weary of travel and sick of sightseeing, he left the mainland, and was ferried out from Mestre across the torpid lagoon and opened his eyes, pleased and bewildered, to a new experience.' Peter Quennell, the biographer and literary historian. describes what I also experienced. From 1999 to 2001, almost two years, like Byron, I was a tenant in the same palace he lived in, Palazzo Mocenigo. A fascinating new book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea di Robilant, tells the story of the landlady who rented the house to Byron. It is a different story from Byron's and other visitors', many of whom have written about it. This is a Venetian point of view, a rare one, from the inside, the very heart of Venice. Rats, rent disputes, breakages . . . Some things never change, especially not in Venice.

Our apartment was on the top two floors.

In square metres (not to mention cubic metres, which would give a better idea of the contrast) it was roughly triple the size of our house in London, in Ovington Square, that we had rented out to an American banker for about quadruple what we were paying in rent at Mocenigo. My landlady was 22 years old. Like Lucia she had inherited vast agricultural estates on the mainland. Her father had died when she was a child and her mother had died only recently from a mysterious disease which had caused her to bloat to an enormous size. It was said she died trying on a pair of shoes. The girl was blonde and pretty, but she had a disconcerting habit of sucking her thumb. She hated Venice and never came there; her only interest was horses. All her affairs were managed by her lawyer, who had been the lover of her mother.

There are no exact parallels with the past of course, but at Palazzo Mocenigo the sense of history, the presence of ghosts, spirits and tangible decadence, is at the high-water mark. Byron already found it to be that way when he lived there with his tempestuous mistress, La Fornarina. Di Robilant describes how Chateaubriand came to visit Lucia, 'the Doge's daughter' still 'beautiful in the shadow of old age', and 'had a haunting vision: Byron's old mooring pole was still planted there, his coat of arms half erased by wind and saltwater.' Today in the garden there is a rabbit which could be left from Byron's collection of animals, which included various birds, two monkeys, a fox and a wolf.

It belongs to the little girl who lives on the main floor of the palazzo with her chillingly regal grandmother and her no less beautiful mother, both widows. All three seem to be from another time and another world.

We moved in with our Russian nanny, who was also our housekeeper, but since it was so large a place we ended up also taking on a Venetian woman whose husband had a stall at the Rialto fish market. …

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