Love letters

The author of "A Venetian Affair" says we can learn much from the story of 18th century passion between his ancestor and the woman he wasn't allowed to marry.

Published November 4, 2003 5:48PM (EST)

"Some years ago, my father came home with a carton of old letters ..." begins "A Venetian Affair," a true story of impossible love by Andrea di Robilant.

Di Robilant is the descendant of an 18th century Venetian scion, Andrea Memmo, who fell in love with Giustiniana Wynne, a beautiful but illegitimate Anglo-Venetian who was definitely not marriage material in carefully controlled Venice. If the two had married, Andrea would have lost all status, political power and money. Andrea's uncle ended his political career in the second most prestigious position in government after the supreme office of doge. His favorite nephew, Andrea, was his chosen successor. So, after Andrea and Giustiniana met at the home of the British consul in Venice (when he was 24, she 17), they knew their passion had to be kept secret. Because the two were wonderfully literate and because the letters were found, the story became mythic -- and there was the added scintillation of Casanova entering the story, being smitten with Giustiniana and then later helping her to get an abortion.

The story of the story is as dramatic as the love itself. Di Robilant's father stumbled across a carton of old letters that had been retrieved from the attic of the family palazzo on the Grand Canal where he had lived in the 1920s. It turned out that the frayed and decaying paper was from the 1750s -- love letters between the two young people, mostly by Andrea -- who were prevented from marrying but were passionately in love. Di Robilant's father started the research for a book on the compelling story but died before it was completed.

Andrea di Robilant, a working journalist in Rome, took over his father's task and the result is a story of Venice at a time when people lived for romantic intrigue and where social and political restrictions led men and women into liaisons that made for delicious, tormented melodrama.

During the almost seven years that the lovers corresponded there are many gaps in the narrative, but enough survives of their furtive -- sometimes coded -- yearnings set to paper that the tone of their affection and frustration comes through clearly. Giustiniana, particularly, was extreme in her emotion. After a night away from Andrea she writes: "I wept a great deal and was inconsolable. I made a thousand plans to go back to you if you do not find a way to your Giustiniana. What misery is mine! You are always on my mind, and at this very moment I am kissing your little portrait. Let me speak to you about my passion. I shall be wiser when I will have persuaded myself that I am far from you; but will I ever be able not to talk to you about my passion? ... Write long letters to me, be my friend always, love me as much as you can. I owe you so much. I feel close to you in all those things to which my soul will always be sensitive ..."

But there are also witty, fanciful and erotic letters that display the very real delight and passion they gave each other. One letter shows Andrea at his most intimate: "As I lay in bed alone for so long I thought of the days when we will be together, comforting each other at night. This idea led to another and then to another and soon I was so fired up I could see you in bed with me ... You were so near to me and so seductive I took in your tender fragrance and felt your breath. You were in a deep sleep -- you even snored at times ... but then a most fortunate little accident occurred just as my discretion was exhausting itself. You turned to me at the very moment in which you dreamed of being in my arms. Nature, perhaps encouraged by habit, led you to embrace me. So there we were, next to each other, face to face and mouth to mouth! Your right leg was leaning on my left leg. Little by little the beak of the baby dove began to prick you so forcefully that in your sleep you moved your hand in such a way the thirsty little creature found the door wide open ... it entered oh so gently into that little cage and after quenching its thirst it began to have some fun, flying about those spaces and trying to penetrate them as far as it could. It was so eager and made such a fuss that in the end you woke up."

Andrea and Giustiniana both ended up marrying others, and Andrea had a family. But they never found a love as overwhelming and complete as they found with each other -- and each was the other's most trusted consigliere until the end. They were true soul mates. Giustiniana became a writer, famous for her novel "Les Morlacques," and died a single woman in 1791 at the age of 54. Andrea married and had two daughters whom he adored and died a widower in 1793.

Salon chatted with Andrea di Robilant in San Francisco during his book tour in October.

What is the biggest difference and the greatest similarity between the love between Andrea and Giustiniana and between lovers now?

To me their relationship is a completely modern, contemporary relationship. The kind of things they tell each other are the things people e-mail each other today. This was an unusual relationship for the period. We've come to think of that period as lighthearted, but not passionate, not intense. The 18th century had intrigue and triangles and -- because people had to be married -- they had to manage them all the time. This [the one between Andrea and Giustiniana] was an exclusive relationship so by this fact it was different. All the emotions related to this exclusivity -- the bliss, the sadness, the jealousy -- we can relate to this today. At the time, they were seen as different. They saw themselves as different. She would write, "The others can't understand us ..."

To what do you attribute this uniqueness?

When they met at the British consul's house [Consul Joseph Smith] something happened. They were drawn to each other. They were famished, there was an element of voraciousness in their communications.

Do you think it was the Romeo and Juliet syndrome -- they were so voracious because their love was forbidden?

Well, they know this. She writes, "Don't they realize that by putting up all these obstacles they make us more passionate?" They are self-aware. The obstacles intensify the feeling. In an affair, after a while, the excitement wears off. In this case it went on for a long time. The other part of it was that she was a very passionate woman. She already had a foot in the 19th century. She was a pre-Romantic figure, a product of the Age of Enlightenment. She read an incredible amount. He was very cultivated too, but she was clearly ahead of her time in terms of dealing with her emotions, dealing with pain and confusion. Her later letters are so amazing. It helps that they are good writers. She turned into a writer at the end of her life and wrote a novel that has themes of romance, man and nature, love and passion.

So both were out of step with their time?

She was, especially. He was drawn out of it by her. He was a product of his culture; his DNA was completely old Venice. He was intelligent, he could see Venice was dying. She wanted to get out. She wrote, "You have to live in Venice. I don't."

Speaking of modern, their sexual actions and discussions were quite bold --

You mean the letter about the dove?

No, the part in the book that describes how Andrea would send his semen to her, wrapped in little pieces of paper ...

Yes! At first she was disgusted by that -- but then she got used to it. He lamented that she never returned the favor, and then he stopped. But it shows how these letters are so important. Every time I went to work writing this book I thought, "What are we going to remember of our time?"

Do you write letters, or did you start writing them after doing this book?

I went through a period of writing a lot of letters when I started this book.

But isn't it sad that people don't write letters anymore?

I don't want to think about it negatively. E-mail is a new form. It's got a lot of energy. Like letter writing, they become part of the story. Of course, there's a loss, there's something that only letters capture. On the other hand, it's exceptional to find letters like these. And they burned their letters. It's an act of laziness on the part of Andrea that allowed my father to find these. Andrea and Giustiniana always reminded each other to burn them.

Do you think they had a secret wish for them to survive, for their story to survive?

She certainly wanted the story to survive, since the letters we have of hers are 18th century copies. I don't know who copied them but it was someone who knew their code so it must have been herself or someone close to her.

So what part did Casanova play in this drama?

Well, that letter she wrote to him when she was pregnant [by father undetermined] is very poignant ["Casanova, dearest, please do your best to help me find a surgeon, a doctor, talk about this case to a woman you can trust, who will lift me out of my misery by delivering me with whatever remedy and if necessary by force ... I do not fear pain ... I will sell diamonds ... I trust you: I have only you in the world"] This was an important letter because before it was found we had only Casanova's word and I didn't think I could trust it. He swears it was true and he generally doesn't make things up, but ...

How do you see Casanova?

As an absolutely 18th century character. His memoirs are the greatest masterpiece of the 18th century. You can't put them down. He was a real narrator -- it's one adventure after another, never boring.

In terms of romance and the sexual relationship are we naive to think we know more than Andrea and Giustiniana did?

We've got nothing to teach them. They had an ease, a facility, a lack of baggage, an honesty, a straightforwardness typical of that age and completely absent today. And so playful and lighthearted, especially the sex part, I wish I could have some of that. I'm jealous of the way Andrea handled his affairs. Casanova was in a way typical of his time, he had an attitude that was very common. He just wrote about it! When Byron arrives in Venice he says he has 200 affairs. That was how people saw sex in Venice. The norm was to have a husband, a lover, a secret lover and then some others. If you compare to today, it's such a struggle to manage just one relationship!

Who has the time?

Exactly. The key element is time. They didn't have much to do, so sex and the things around sex -- like intrigue -- was what they did. The relationship between Andrea and Giustiniana was all they did for awhile. When not together, they were trying to figure out how to see each other. He was supposed to be this hotshot in Venetian government. But for three years he manages his relationship with Giustiniana. It's not practical, but when it happens, you make time. But there was no television, no movies. You went to the square and thought, What shall I do? I'll pay court to so and so, I'll chase so and so.

And what about the masks?

They wore masks from October to April, when going out. That by itself creates an element of illicitness and intrigue.

Like living in a play?

Absolutely. Venice is a stage. They would go to set places. [For Andrea and Giustiniana] it was about not getting caught. For them it was a serious issue, though. They couldn't get caught. There was an element of real danger. The Venetian society would crush them; they'd have been banished.

But danger is an aphrodisiac at times, isn't it?

That's what she said -- it made it pleasurable at first, but then the anxiety sets in, the fear and the thought that there's no future, everything becomes gloomy and a sense of desperation sets in as their schemes fail.

When did it turn for them?

When she comes back to Venice [after having been in France and England] she's still obsessed with Andrea. She comes back hoping somehow she can live her life in a way that there would be a place for him. If she can set herself up independently. But her letters get more desperate as it begins to dawn on her that it's over. She has mood swings, like at the end of an affair. It was delayed because she was away and living in a fantasy. When they meet again he has to do what's expected. He falls back. He is sucked back into the history of Venice. The whole love story becomes a metaphor for the death of Venice.

She's the future, he's the past. He's going down with it and he knows it. He makes a valiant effort by running for doge but does it more out of vanity. The ruling oligarchy of families were expected to marry among themselves and the contracts were the result of complex negotiations, of economic and political factors. He would have lost his career, inheritance, and what would they have done? They had a secret marriage book in Venice kept by the bishop but it was mostly a patrician, a second or third son, with a baker's daughter. These people had nothing to lose because they wouldn't inherit. At one point Andrea and Giustiniana flirted with the idea of a secret marriage -- there's a folder there with their names on it. But it's empty. At a certain point he tried to get his family to OK a real marriage and it almost happened but, alas, the bureaucrats started digging up dirt on Giustiniana's mother [who had her daughter out of wedlock].

What would have happened if they had gotten married. Do you ever fantasize about that?

I never have. I just hope that -- well, he loved women and loved sex and was active until his death. I hate to think he might have made her miserable. But what's nice is that throughout his life he always thought of her as the love of his life. A letter by Andrea's daughter describes her father suffering by Giustiniana's deathbed. He's completely destroyed by her death.

What does daily life do to a marriage, do you think?

It doesn't do much good. It's difficult to keep love and sex alive in the daily routine. If they had gotten married he certainly would have had affairs. She would have thought it was OK if she had nourishment from other sources. It was more creative then, more generous in allowing your partner to find what he or she needs. But it would have been more discreet, with less hypocrisy.

We Americans think that's what Europeans have now.

In part it's a cliché. In part it's not. There is a sense that American society is more rigid -- you get married, if it doesn't work out you get divorced. In Europe you tend to work with reality in a more practical way. It doesn't always work. It's not as if every European couple lives the way they did in 18th century Venice. It was more like that two generations ago, among a certain class. We didn't have divorce in Italy until 1975. People had to stay together. Now we are more similar to America.

The panorama is drab. But then things happen. Marriages need to be shaken up. Then, if it doesn't withstand the test, too bad. Sudden bursts of emotion are, in the end, healthy. They can cause pain, but the only thing that makes us feel alive is love, ultimately.

Not many Americans would say that, openly.

Then they've never been in love. If you have been, you know it's the only thing that can make you feel euphoric. So in the end one has to condone love, condone affairs -- not just one-night stands but love. One has to be respectful of those who fall in love. It's our link with the myths of ancient times when the gods were falling in love, causing tragedies and wars -- they were gods! Love makes you like a god. It gives you incredible power and energy. It makes you a superior being.

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By Karen Croft

Karen Croft is the editor of Salon Sex.

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