Massimilla Doni by Honoré de Balzac


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Page 1

With a few rare exceptions this brilliant nobility has fallen into
utter ruin. Among the gondoliers who serve the English--to whom
history here reads the lesson of their future fate--there are
descendants of long dead Doges whose names are older than those of
sovereigns. On some bridge, as you glide past it, if you are ever in
Venice, you may admire some lovely girl in rags, a poor child
belonging, perhaps, to one of the most famous patrician families. When
a nation of kings has fallen so low, naturally some curious characters
will be met with. It is not surprising that sparks should flash out
among the ashes.

These reflections, intended to justify the singularity of the persons
who figure in this narrative, shall not be indulged in any longer, for
there is nothing more intolerable than the stale reminiscences of
those who insist on talking about Venice after so many great poets and
petty travelers. The interest of the tale requires only this record of
the most startling contrast in the life of man: the dignity and
poverty which are conspicuous there in some of the men as they are in
most of the houses.

The nobles of Venice and of Geneva, like those of Poland in former
times, bore no titles. To be named Quirini, Doria, Brignole, Morosini,
Sauli, Mocenigo, Fieschi, Cornaro, or Spinola, was enough for the
pride of the haughtiest. But all things become corrupt. At the present
day some of these families have titles.

And even at a time when the nobles of the aristocratic republics were
all equal, the title of Prince was, in fact, given at Genoa to a
member of the Doria family, who were sovereigns of the principality of
Amalfi, and a similar title was in use at Venice, justified by ancient
inheritance from Facino Cane, Prince of Varese. The Grimaldi, who
assumed sovereignty, did not take possession of Monaco till much

The last Cane of the elder branch vanished from Venice thirty years
before the fall of the Republic, condemned for various crimes more or
less criminal. The branch on whom this nominal principality then
devolved, the Cane Memmi, sank into poverty during the fatal period
between 1796 and 1814. In the twentieth year of the present century
they were represented only by a young man whose name was Emilio, and
an old palace which is regarded as one of the chief ornaments of the
Grand Canal. This son of Venice the Fair had for his whole fortune
this useless Palazzo, and fifteen hundred francs a year derived from a
country house on the Brenta, the last plot of the lands his family had
formerly owned on _terra firma_, and sold to the Austrian government.
This little income spared our handsome Emilio the ignominy of
accepting, as many nobles did, the indemnity of a franc a day, due to
every impoverished patrician under the stipulations of the cession to

At the beginning of winter, this young gentleman was still lingering
in a country house situated at the base of the Tyrolese Alps, and
purchased in the previous spring by the Duchess Cataneo. The house,
erected by Palladio for the Piepolo family, is a square building of
the finest style of architecture. There is a stately staircase with a
marble portico on each side; the vestibules are crowded with frescoes,
and made light by sky-blue ceilings across which graceful figures
float amid ornament rich in design, but so well proportioned that the
building carries it, as a woman carries her head-dress, with an ease
that charms the eye; in short, the grace and dignity that characterize
the _Procuratie_ in the piazetta at Venice. Stone walls, admirably
decorated, keep the rooms at a pleasantly cool temperature. Verandas
outside, painted in fresco, screen off the glare. The flooring
throughout is the old Venetian inlay of marbles, cut into unfading

The furniture, like that of all Italian palaces, was rich with
handsome silks, judiciously employed, and valuable pictures favorably
hung; some by the Genoese priest, known as _il Capucino_, several by
Leonardo da Vinci, Carlo Dolci, Tintoretto, and Titian.

The shelving gardens were full of the marvels where money has been
turned into rocky grottoes and patterns of shells,--the very madness
of craftsmanship,--terraces laid out by the fairies, arbors of sterner
aspect, where the cypress on its tall trunk, the triangular pines, and
the melancholy olive mingled pleasingly with orange trees, bays, and
myrtles, and clear pools in which blue or russet fishes swam. Whatever
may be said in favor of the natural or English garden, these trees,
pruned into parasols, and yews fantastically clipped; this luxury of
art so skilfully combined with that of nature in Court dress; those
cascades over marble steps where the water spreads so shyly, a filmy
scarf swept aside by the wind and immediately renewed; those bronzed
metal figures speechlessly inhabiting the silent grove; that lordly
palace, an object in the landscape from every side, raising its light
outline at the foot of the Alps,--all the living thoughts which
animate the stone, the bronze, and the trees, or express themselves in
garden plots,--this lavish prodigality was in perfect keeping with the
loves of a duchess and a handsome youth, for they are a poem far
removed from the coarse ends of brutal nature.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 25th Feb 2020, 5:50