Napoleon Complex

Writer Andrea di Robilant pens another true tale of love and war in Venice.

by Robert Murphy


The statue—a 10-foot likeness of a toga-clad Napoleon, blackened with a patina of grime—stands on a plinth near a side entrance to the

Palazzo Mocenigo, on Venice’s Grand Canal. It’s an imposing presence amid the decaying splendor that surrounds it: damp, peeling walls; a discarded washing machine wedged near a gondola berth; and electrical wires snaking across the richly coffered ceiling.

Until recently the sculpture, commissioned at the height of Bonaparte’s reign, seemed little more than an embarrassing skeleton in the closet of the illustrious Venetian family to whom the palazzo once belonged. (Palazzo Mocenigo was sold some 70 years ago and split into apartments.) By the time the marble statue was delivered, the emperor had fallen, his empire was divided and his Venetian admirers were keen to conceal their ill-judged fervor for a man who, most agree, instigated an end to the legendary Republic of Venice.

Di Robilant with his family’s statue of Napoleon

“The most extraordinary thing was that no one knew why the statue was there,” says writer Andrea di Robilant, explaining how the likeness inspired his new book, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon (Knopf). “It was hush-hush,” continues the author, a descendant of the Mocenigo family. “It was like when you walk into a room and there’s a piece of furniture that obviously doesn’t belong. I thought, There’s a story here.”

As with many engaging tales, this one proved elusive and complex—perfect fodder for a historian of di Robilant’s imaginative bent. And like di Robilant’s last tome—A Venetian Affair, which used family documents found in Palazzo Mocenigo to weave a tapestry of clandestine amore among his ancestors—his latest work takes its cue from old family correspondence. “After I finished the last book, I realized there was another box of letters I hadn’t opened,” explains the affable di Robilant. “When I started reading them, I was immediately riveted.”

Di Robilant’s fascinating story begins in 1786 with the arranged marriage of 15-year-old Lucia Memmo to Alvise Mocenigo. Lucia goes on to weather the vagaries of love, hate and war. She loses a son, raises another and becomes friends with luminaries of her age, including Empress Josephine. All the while, Venice’s power crumbles, allegiances shift and the Mocenigos struggle to remain solvent. By the end, di Robilant also unravels the complicated mystery of the statue (which, as he learned, still belongs to his family) and explains why it ended up tucked ignominiously in the corner of the palazzo for the past two centuries.

“Lucia was not famous,” says di Robilant, 51, a former journalist with La Stampa who lives in Rome with his wife and two children. “But she lived an extraordinary life.” She did have one small claim to fame. In 1818 she rented the piano nobile of Palazzo Mocenigo to Lord Byron, who brought along a menagerie of birds, dogs, a wolf, a fox and two monkeys. Byron quarreled furiously with his punctilious landlady and eventually decamped in a huff. But the bard’s mystique lingered. The likes of Chateaubriand and Effie Ruskin even made pilgrimages to Palazzo Mocenigo to visit Lucia. “The Byron episode was only a minor moment in a very rich life,” says di Robilant, reclining on a sofa in the sprawling apartment Byron once occupied. (Donatella Asta, with whom di Robilant is friendly, lives there today and lent her spread for this interview.)

Most stunningly, perhaps, di Robilant’s book blows the cover off a two-century-old family secret. While examining archives in Venice, he discovered that Lucia’s only son to survive infancy, theretofore presumed legitimate, was actually the fruit of an illicit union with an alluring Irish-Austrian officer. “For a long time I wondered why my father had red sideburns,” says di Robilant. “Everything that brings out the truth is good. It puts into perspective all of this crap about blood and legitimacy. Who would have figured that I was part Irish?”