There are curious power dynamics at play in the relationship, and in the book. Andrea starts off the book as the seemingly more experienced lover who counsels Giustiniana in how she must comport herself, and it is he that leads the way in the plot to marry her off. When these ideas fail, he does his best to organise a marriage, which due to the society's rigid structure is doomed to failure”. Andrea devoted an incredible amount of energy and ingenuity in trying to convince his family and the authorities that they should be allowed to get married, and it was incredibly brave and courageous, so I give him his due for that. One can't forget that a man like Andrea was a child of his time – one can't expect that he should have behaved in ways that might make us feel more comfortable. He was very different at the same time from his contemporaries; I have a lot of sympathy and respect for him”.
Giustiniana however is the real protagonist of the book, and truly comes to life in Di Robilant's descriptions. While he may defend Andrea's behaviour, it's easy to see who captivated the author during his research.” I have a great deal of sympathy for Giustiniana: she was a terrific girl, bright, creative, with a wonderful spirit, which comes across in her letters. It would have been great to know her! She takes over because in the end she's the figure that bridges the centuries. She has a foot in the past but also in the future. She's a child of the Enlightenment but she's also a pre-romantic and this is why she finds Venice so uncomfortable and stifling, and ultimately why she decides not to live there. There's a wonderful line in one of her letters, written in Padova on her return from England, where she explains to Andrea “You have to live in Venice. I don't”. This is the heart of the matter. Andrea was so steeped in the Venetian tradition, his whole life was that of his family, which in turn was that of Venice. He knew that he wouldn't be able to free himself from these bonds, that his destiny was that of the city and that was not the case for Giustiniana. They both saw this clearly. They realised in the end that this would be an obstacle that they could not surmount. She did not want to be suffocated. The destiny of Venice was not hers. She wanted to build her own life, and to free herself from the shackles of Venetian history and tradition.
She was infused with the time that was coming, and so was able to build herself that life, a li
fe of independence, of creativity etc. The other extraordinary thing is how close they remained for the rest of their lives. They remained best friends, and what more can you expect from a wonderful love story, but to remain close for the rest of your life – Until death do us part – because there's that wonderful scene described by Andrea's daughter, when Giustiniana is dying, and Andrea, an old man, arrives to be with her in her final moments. It's telling of how deep their love was and their friendship, even though they had been unable to marry. In fact perhaps it was because they were unable to marry… Maybe things would have been very different”.
The story, while set in Venice, paints a wider picture of Europe at a pivotal moment. Giustiniana and family leave Venice, and travel through a Europe convulsed by war and strife. We follow Giustiniana through a provincial and boring Milano, through Torino, to Paris and its decadence. Casanova appears a number of times, and it's a testament to the strength of the story that he easily remains a supporting actor. The glimpses of Europe outside of Venice beg the question, would their love story have been different had they lived in a different city, without the specific structures of the Venetian Republic? “Well, Andrea felt the weight of tradition from the Republic, very much on his shoulders. He was very lucid about this. He knew that he would not be able to escape this destiny. This is why I feel for him in the end. Not only was he a prisoner of his own destiny, but he was lucid and intelligent enough to realise it. In this sense he was very admirable. It's hard to imagine what would have happened in another city. In Venice, his family carried a very big burden, and it was all on his shoulders, because he was the oldest son. The old men in the oligarchy looked upon Andrea as a man with great promise, that he would become a great statesman, as in fact he did become.”
Time as much as location plays its part in destroying the chance of union between the two lovers. They lived during the dying days of the Venetian Republic; had they lived a generation later perhaps all would have been different? “Certainly it would have been different. They probably would have married, but that also begs the question, to what degree did the impediment and the obstacles thrown their way fuel the passion. In other words had everything been easy and possible perhaps their love would have lost its passion. There's nothing like secrecy and clandestinity to make love grow. There are lines in Giustiniana's letters that suggest that. It's hard to speculate about how things would have happened in a later era. The interesting thing to me is how the story illuminates their period, and shows how things worked then. The enduring value of this love story to me was precisely because it is so emblematic of the time, of that moment in history in Venice. If you look at it that way, Andrea embodies the decaying Venetian Republic, while Giustiniana represents the flowering romantic period, the future. So these two lives are irreconcilable”.
The real value of the book is precisely that, while it tells a story of two specific individuals, it also paints us a living picture of the 18th century. Many reviews have focused on the explicit nature of some of the letters: Andrea for instance includes his semen in one letter sent to Giustiniana (who, it should be said, remained slightly taken aback at this arduous show of devotion), but these are just part of the complex portrayal that reminds us that these were real people, with similar passions and emotions to our own, rather than dull portraits. “I loved writing about history. It combines all the journalistic skills such as researching, sleuthing etc. The skills were useful in uncovering the different aspects of the story. I always loved history, so it was wonderful to tell the story, to be able to find a story like this that brings history alive in such a vivid way is a rare opportunity. This is possible precisely because these were clandestine love letters – what could be more intimate. It's one thing having regular letters, but it's another thing entirely with clandestine letters, there's an intimacy that allows you to reach back into the recesses of real human history, and there's something very exciting about that”.