Lucia in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea di Robilant

Lucia Mocenigo became Byron's landlady in Venice. It was only the last chapter in an extraordinary life
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The Independent Culture

Lucia Mocenigo flees the garish entertainments at Schonau for a quiet moment in the park. Like all Venetians, she instinctively seeks water. And in the ornamental pond she's startled to come across another refugee from Venice. It's a gondola: lonely, exiled and slightly absurd, just like her. This is Baden, 1801. Napoleon has recently sold Venice to the Austrians. As far as the Habsburgs are concerned, Lucia Mocenigo, Venetian noblewoman, belongs to them, another trophy tethered in waters far from home.

Lucia's life is an inspired choice for a parable of the end of the Venetian republic. Lucia spent much of her life away from Venice, not because she desired it, but because daughterly, marital and international politics required it. However, this very absence has given us Lucia's life to know intimately. Her sister Paolina was her anchor in Venice. Lucia's letters to her paint Napoleon's Europe in all its grand and bloody colours.

Lucia personally saw Bonaparte through from a raw, magnetic young officer to a torpid, megalomaniac dictator. She was a friend to Empress Josephine, and served as lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta. Mozart's son Carl Thomas was her son's music-master. In old age, she cultivated Byron's bitter enmity as his landlady.

Lucia was just 15 when her father arranged a match with Alvise Mocenigo, heir to one of Venice's noble dynasties. A contemporary portrait shows a large-eyed, voluptuous girl with a sparrow's nervy charm. Alvise was 10 years her senior. His first bride had run away to a convent. Lucia should have taken note. Instead she whipped herself into a one-handed romantic frenzy that her cool, serially unfaithful spouse would never fulfil. Even on their first meeting he sneaked away without saying goodbye. Yet Lucia's effusions excused him prettily.

Their married life would consist mostly of Alvise's lamented absences on business and pleasure, with Lucia left to fend for herself. There were times when she had to pawn the silverware to pay the rent. Once she stripped Alvise's old senatorial robes to sell the braid and silver buttons.

The marriage began in the shadow of the French revolution. Lucia's task was to fill the Mocenigo family crib. Three miscarriages broke her health and her heart. A son, Alvisetto, was coaxed to term but died before his second birthday, leaving Lucia a ghost of herself. She came back to life only when she fell in love with an Irish-Austrian soldier by the fabulous name of Baron Maximilian Plunkett. She had plenty of time to bear Plunkett's son and settle him with a stepmother without Alvise finding out: this time her husband's absence lasted 28 months. Plunkett was killed in battle two days after their son's christening. Lucia had no choice but to welcome her husband back and try to make the marriage work – on his terms, as usual. When Alvise discovered the truth, his revenge was cruel and unusual. Lacking an heir, he forced Lucia to bring the boy home, an act that razed her reputation. Society openly pitied her. Alvise had the birth certificate falsified, claiming paternity. Lucia was left to bring up the child without support.

Alvise's one constant passion was the rural utopia he strove to create on the Venetian mainland. Modestly, he called it Alvisopoli. His other passion was for being on the winning side. Venice's shuttle diplomatist, he spun his way round the ruins of Europe while Napoleon picked it to the bone. Knowing that he lacked charm, Alvise despatched Lucia to court influential society. Whichever way the wind blew, whether in Austria's or France's favour, that was where Alvise sent his wife.

After Alvise died, Lucia installed herself as a kind of stately curiosity in the rat-ridden Palazzo Mocenigo. Privileged tourists were taken there to drink iced lemonade and observe the elegant old relic of empire. Effie Ruskin was among her visitors. Byron's two-year tenure was stormy. Lucia endured the poet's wretched wolf, fox and monkey tethered in the entrance, and the presence of his fiery mistress Margherita Cogni.

Lucia took on her dead husband's estates and tried to sell Alvise's 10ft Napoleon to Canova as scrap marble. She sorted her husband's papers, only to discover hundreds of passionate notes from women she had considered friends. Instead of burning them, she filed them alphabetically.

Andrea Di Robilant's strengths are in his portraits of Venetians during their city's worst times. He's not afraid to criticise Venice for the feckless policy of unarmed neutrality, the tepid resistance and the gibbering compliance that left her vulnerable to the steel-trap war-machines of France and Austria. Venice's mistake, like Lucia's, was to believe that she was beloved. For Napoleon, Venice was a trinket. As he passed through, he ransacked her art and archives with a sharp eye and a cool heart.

To see that process personified in a flawed and fascinating woman makes for a deeply engaging read. One hopes there are more letters up in the attic at the Palazzo Mocenigo.

Faber, £20

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