Andrea di Robilant is a soft spoken Italian journalist, with just the slightest hint of an American accent coming through, (he has American family roots on his mother's side, and for a number of years was the La Stampa correspondent in America). He is more likely to be found writing about International Politics than 18th Century love stories, but strangely enough, through a family connection he came to write his first book on precisely that era. “The book began when my father came home one day with an box filled with old letters, that he had found in the house that he had grown up in, in Venice. So we started to pull these old letters out, and started to try to figure out what they were about. We didn't know who the characters involved were. We were intrigued, as many of the letters were written in a secret code, there were pages with what seemed to be strange hieroglyphics. My father then decided to try to crack the code, and once he had cracked it, he transcribed the letters. From all this work emerged this rather incredible love story, between an ancestor of ours – Andrea Memmo, who we knew very little about – and this Anglo-Venetian girl Giustiniana Wynne. My father decided to do some research on these characters, hoping to write a book eventually. Alas, he was murdered in 1997 [Editor's note: Signor Di Robilant sr. was murdered in Florence, in what remains an unsolved case] so it seemed natural to me to pick up things where he had left them, and to try to write the book he would like to have written. I was then living in the United States. I decided to make it an American project, to find an American Publisher, and to write it in English.”
The book A Venetian Affair pieces together the clandestine love affair brilliantly. At times a biography, at times a history, and always with a page turning captivating quality. The story is set against the rigid social structure of the Venetian Republic. Di Robilant explains “It was a social structure that was very old, obsolete, and anachronistic in many ways. It was interesting because on the one hand it was governed by very rigid customs. It was a very closed society where the scions, the sons and daughters who belonged to the Venetian oligarchy, always married between themselves and all of this was governed in a very rigid way. The inquisitors had a strong say in making sure the customs were observed, because they felt that was the way to make the Republic prosper. It was a family-based Republic, and the rules and regulations were designed to foster this system and they were very rigid in this. On the other hand, this was precisely what was causing the decline of the political class in Venice: it was very closed and inbred”.
Warming to his theme, he continues “Venice was also small, while being relatively large on a European level, it was still a town: everybody knew each other. It's not as if the members of the ruling class only saw each other. There was a great deal of promiscuity, and friendships, intimacy and frequentations, so it was a contradictory situation. On the one hand, it was a vibrant and mixed situation with a great deal of crossovers between the social classes. On the other hand, the superstructure was very rigid, so when it came to serious matters such as marriage, the superstructure would take over and be enforced by this rigid system”.
This vivid portrayal of Venice interested me greatly when reading the book. While initially approaching the book with trepidation, and a vague disinterest, presuming that an 18th century love story would have little to interest, I soon became intrigued by the portrait offered of Venetian society. It is at times far from complimentary. Di Roblilant portrays the blossoming of the forbidden love between Andrea and Giustiniana, and their scheme to further the relationship. Society's norms meant that while Giustiniana remained unmarried all eyes would remain on her (in particular the scrutiny of her ever vigilant mother), thus making loving trysts nigh on impossible. The best solution to the dilemma, as proposed by the lovers, was to marry Giustiniana off to an elderly widower, thus gaining an independence to maintain an affair. Actions that might seem morally dubious to say the least. Di Robilant is neutral in the book, preferring not to judge, but in conversation he is more defensive of his protagonists: “I have a great deal of sympathy. They were trying to do the best they could in difficult circumstances. Whatever they did, and whatever might seem to us morally dubious, it was done for love. And so I certainly didn't want to appear judgmental. For someone in Andrea's position, he had to be realistic, and had to find a practical solution to the problem. He was the son of one of the most important families in Venice and if he had eloped or run away, it would have been no good for either of them. Gustiniana understood this, and that was why in the end she was a partner with him in their plans. It's true that the seduction of an old man, such as Consul Smith, or later on with the French widower La Pouplinière might seem a very crude and cynical way of dealing with the problem, but I see it rather as an attempt by people who were deeply rooted in their own century, to come to terms with the customs of the age. I might point out as well that having failed in these objectives, they did try their best to get married”.