Chateaubriand's memoirs, XL, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XL- Chapter 5
Padua – Tombs – Zanze’s manuscript



Padua, the 20th of September 1833.


On Friday, the 20th of September, I spent part of the morning writing to my friends about my change of destination. The members of Madame’s entourage arrived in succession.

Having nothing to do, I went out with a guide. We visited the churches of Santa Giustina and Sant’Antonio di Padua. The former, the work of Jerome of Brescia, is very majestic: from the depths of the nave one finds windows opening only at a great height, so that the church is lit without one being aware of where the light originates. This church has several fine paintings by Paolo Veronese, Liberi, Palma etc.

Sant’Antonio di Padua (il Santo) presents a Greek Gothic exterior, a style peculiar to the ancient churches of Venice. St Anthony’s chapel is by Jacopo Sansovino and his son Francesco: one sees it is so immediately; the decorations and design are in the style of the loggetta of St Mark’s bell-tower.

A signora in a green dress, with a straw hat covered by veil, was praying before the chapel of the saint, a servant in livery was also at prayer behind her: I assumed she was asking relief for some moral or physical distress; I was not wrong; I saw her again in the street: a woman of forty, pale, thin, walking stiffly, and with an air of suffering, I had thought her in love or afflicted with an infirmity. She emerged from the church with hope: in the space of time during which she had offered her fervent prayer to Heaven, had she forgotten her grief, could she be truly cured?

Il Santo is full of tombs; that of Bembo is famous. In the cloister one finds the tomb of young D’Orbesan, dead in 1595.

‘Gallus eram, Patavi morior, spes una parentum!
A Frenchman I was, I died in Padua, my parent’s only hope!’

D’Orbesan’s French epitaph ends with a line that a great poet might wish they had written.

‘Car il n’est si beau jour qui n’amène sa nuit.
For there is no day so beautiful it lacks its night.’

Charles-Guy Patin is buried in the cathedral: his father’s skill could not save him: the same who had treated a young gentleman aged seven, who was bled thirteen times and was cured in fifteen days, as if by a miracle.

The ancients excelled in composing funeral inscriptions: ‘here lies Epictetus,’ said his stone, ‘slave, forger, poor as Irus, and yet the favourite of the gods.’

Among the moderns, Camoëns composed the most magnificent epitaph, that of John III of Portugal: ‘What rests in this great sepulchre? What is denoted by the illustrious coats of arms on this massive escutcheon? Nothing! For that is what all things attain…May the earth lie lightly on him now, as he once weighed heavily on the Moors.’

My Paduan guide was a chatterer, very different from Antonio in Venice; he told me, at every opportunity, of that great tyrant Angelo: he announced the name of every shop and every café on every street; at the Santo he insisted on uttering for me the carefully preserved language of the preachers of the Adriatic. Did the tradition of such sermons derive from those songs that the fishermen of the Middle Ages (following the example of the ancient Greeks) sang to the fish as a charm? Some of those pelagian ballads in Anglo-Saxon are extant.

Of Livy, no trace; I would gladly, like the inhabitant of Cadiz, have made the journey to Rome expressly to see him while he was alive; I would gladly have sold my land, like Panormita, to buy a few fragments of his History of Rome, or, like Henri IV, offered a province for a Decad. There was no sign of the haberdasher of Saumur; he who once set himself in all good faith to covering some handball racquets with a manuscript of Livy, sold to him as waste paper by the apothecary of a monastery belonging to Fontevrault Abbey.

When I returned to the Golden Star, Hyacinthe was back from Venice. I had suggested he go to Zanze’s house, and beg her pardon on my behalf for my having left without seeing her. He found the mother and daughter in a fine temper; they had just finished reading Le mie Prigioni. The mother said that Silvio was a wretch: he had written that Brollo had grabbed him, Pellico, by the leg, when he, Pellico, was standing on a table. The daughter shouted: ‘Pellico is a slanderer; and he’s an ingrate. After the services I rendered him, he seeks to dishonour me.’ She threatened to have the work seized and to attack the author in front of the Tribunal; she had begun a refutation of the book: Zanze is not only an artist, but a woman of letters.

Hyacinthe begged her to send me the unfinished refutation: she hesitated then gave him the manuscript: she was pale and tired from her work. The old gaoler’s wife kept trying to sell him her daughter’s embroidery and mosaic work. If ever I return to Venice I will conduct myself better towards Madame Brollo than I did towards Abou Gosch, leader of the hill-Arabs of Jerusalem; I promised the latter a basket of rice from Damietta, and I never sent it to him.

Here is the translation of Zanze’s commentary:

‘The Venetian is amazed that anyone has had the audacity to pen two novelistic scenes about her created from and filled with impious lies. She strongly objects to an author who can use another person to advance his career, and who makes sport of an honest young girl who is educated and religious, esteemed, loved and highly thought of by everyone.

How can Silvio say that at the age of thirteen (which was my age when he says he knew me); how can he say that I visited his rooms daily when I swear to having gone there very rarely, and always accompanied by my father, mother or brother? How can he say that I confessed my love to him, I who was still at school, I who scarcely knowing anything knew neither love, nor the world; consecrated solely, as I was, to the duties of religion, and those of an obedient daughter, always occupied with my work, my only pleasure?

I swear that I have never spoken to him (Pellico) of love or anything else; and if I saw him occasionally, I regarded him with the eye of pity, because my heart is full of compassion for my fellow-creatures. Also I detested the place where my father worked solely through ill-luck: he once occupied a better place, but having been a fine soldier, having served the republic and then his sovereign, he was placed in that employment against his will and that of his family.

It is quite wrong (falsissimo) that I ever held the aforementioned Silvio’s hand, either as if it were my father’s, or my brother’s; firstly because, though very young and lacking experience, I had received enough of an education to know my duty.

How can he say I embraced him, I who did not even embrace my brother: such were the scruples lodged in my heart by the education I received in the convents where my father always sent me!

Truly, I seem better known to him (Pellico) than he could have been to me, since I spent my days in the company of my brothers in a room neighbouring his; was that not the room where my elder brothers worked and studied, and a place where I was allowed to stay with them? How can he say that I spoke to him about family matters, that I unburdened my heart to him regarding my mother’s severity and my father’s kindness? Far from having any reason to complain of her, she was ever my friend.

How can he say that he shouted at me for bringing him execrable coffee? I know no one who can say they have had the audacity to shout at me, they having all valued me as the soul of kindness.

I am a thousand times astonished that a man of intellect and talent has dared to vaunt such things unjustly where an honest young woman is concerned, in a way which might lose her the esteem all profess towards her, and even the love and respect of her husband, and destroy her peace and tranquillity in the arms of her family and those of her daughter.

I find myself angry beyond measure with the author for having exhibited me in a public work in this way, and for taking the liberty of quoting my name at every opportunity.

And yet he has been careful to write the name Tremerello instead of that of Mandricardo, the name of the person who carried messages for him. And the latter I could have told him more about, because I knew how faithless he was and self-interested. He would have sacrificed anyone for food and drink; he was disloyal to all those who through their misfortune were in poverty, and who were unable to grease his palm as he wished. He treated those unfortunates worse than beasts; but when I saw him, I reproached him and told me father about him, my heart being unable to endure such treatment of my fellow-creatures. He (Mandricardo) was only kind to those who gave him buona mancia (fat rewards) and gave him plenty to eat; may Heaven forgive him! But he will have to render account for his evil actions towards his fellow-creatures, and for the hatred he showed me because I remonstrated with him. For as unworthy an object as that, Silvio shows concern, while for me, who do not merit being so exhibited, he has shown not the least regard.

But I know where to turn for true justice; I do not agree to being, I do not wish to be, named in public, whether for good or evil.

I am happy in the arms of a husband who loves me so, and who is true and virtuously cherished in return, well knowing the integrity not only of my conduct but also of my feelings. And I will be, despite the man who sees fit to exploit me in the interests of his writings, which are unfounded and full of untruths…!

Silvio will forgive my fury, but he should have expected it, once I clearly knew his conduct in regard to me.

This is the recompense for all my family has done, treating him (Pellico) with the humanity that every creature condemned to like disgrace deserves, and without regard to the orders given concerning him.

And yet I swear that all he has said about me is false. Perhaps Silvio may have been badly informed about me, but he cannot truthfully repeat such false things, solely to have a better story on which to found his book.

I would say more; but my domestic tasks will not allow me to waste any more time. I can only thank Signor Silvio for his book, and for having created in my breast, innocent of fault, continual anxiety and perhaps endless unhappiness.’

This literal translation is far from rendering the feminine verve, foreign grace, and lively naivety of the text; the dialect Zanze uses exhales an earthy perfume impossible to transfuse into another language. This apologia with its incorrect phrasing, nebulous, and incomplete, like the obscure edges of a group of figures by Albani, this manuscript, with its defective or Venetian handwriting, is a monument to Greek womanhood, but that of the age in which bishops of Thessaly sang the love of Theagenes and Chariclea. I prefer the little gaoler’s two pages to all the dialogues of the great Isotta who nevertheless pleaded for Eve against Adam, as Zanze pleaded on her own behalf against Pellico. Furthermore, my lovely Provencal compatriots of former days are recalled by this daughter of Venice through the idiom of those intermediate generations in whose houses the language of the conquered is not yet wholly dead, and the language of the conquerors not yet wholly formed.

Which of Pellico or Zanze is right? What is the essence of the argument? It is about a simple exchange of confidences, a questionable embrace, which, ultimately perhaps was never meant for him who received it. The married woman chooses not to recognize herself in the delightful girl whom the prisoner depicts; but she contests the matter with so much charm that she proves it by denying it. The portrait of Zanze in the plaintiff’s memoir is so like, that one rediscovers it in the defendant: the same feelings of religiosity, humanity, the same reserve, the same tone of intimacy, the same gentle and tender lack of method.

Zanze is full of force when she affirms, with passionate candour, that she would not have dared embrace her own brother, far less Monsieur Pellico. Zanze’s filial piety is extremely touching, when she transforms Brollo into a former Republican soldier, reduced to the level of a gaoler per sola combazione: solely by ill-fortune.

Zanze is quite admirable in that phrase: Pellico had concealed the name of a disreputable man, and yet had no fear in revealing that of an innocent creature full of compassion for the wretched prisoners.

Zanze is not seduced by the idea of being immortalized in an immortal work; that idea never even enters her mind: she is simply astonished at the man’s indiscretion; that man, as the offended girl believed, sacrificed a girl’s reputation for the sake of his work, without concern for the trouble he might cause, only seeking to tell a tale for the benefit of his fame. A palpable fear overcomes Zante; might the prisoner’s revelations inspire her husband’s jealousy?

The paragraph that ends the apologia is moving and eloquent:

‘I can only thank Signor Silvio for his book, and for having created in my breast, innocent of fault, continual anxiety and perhaps endless unhappiness: una continua inquietudine e forse una perpetua infelicità.’

Over these last lines written in a tired hand, tears have been visibly shed.

I, a stranger to trial proceedings, wish to omit nothing. I therefore maintain that the Zanze of Mie Prigioni is Zanze according to the Muses, and that the Zanze of the apologia is the true Zanze according to history. I ignore the defect of height that I seemed to remember in the daughter of a former soldier of the Republic; I was wrong: the Angelica of Silvio’s prison is formed like the stem of a reed, like the shoot of a palm-tree. I declare to her that no one in my Memoirs pleases me so much, not even excluding my sylph. Between Pellico and Zanze herself, with the aid of the manuscript deposited with me, it will be a great wonder if the Veneziana does not go down to posterity! Yes, Zanze, you will take your place among the female shades born about the poet, when he dreams to the sound of his lyre. Those delicate shades are orphans of a vanished harmony and a reverie that has ended, still living between earth and heaven, inhabiting both regions at once. ‘The beauty of paradise would not be complete if you were not there to grace it’ sings a troubadour to his mistress absent in death.