Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 12

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XXXIX, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 13

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 12
Rousseau and Byron

Venice, September 1833.

From my little table my eyes roaming over the whole harbour: a sea-breeze refreshes the air; the tide rises; a three-master enters. The Lido on one side, the Doge’s palace on the other, the Lagoon between, such is the picture. From this port so many glorious fleets have sailed: old Dandolo embarked with all the pomp of naval chivalry, of which Villehardouin, who initiates our language and our memoirs, has left this description:

‘Et quand les nefs furent chargiées d’armes….And when the ships were filled with weapons, provisions, knights, and sergeants, the shields were ranged round the bulwarks and castles of the ships, and the banners displayed, many and fair…Never did finer fleet sail from any port.’

My morning scene in Venice brought to mind the story of Captain Olivet and Zulietta, so well recounted:

‘The gondola,’ says Rousseau, ‘reached the ship’s side, and I saw a dazzling young person come aboard, very lightly and coquettishly dressed, who was in the cabin in three steps; and I saw her seated beside me before I had noticed they had set a cover for her. She was as charming as she was lively, a brunette, not more than twenty years of age. She spoke only Italian, and her accent alone was sufficient to turn my head. As she ate and chattered she glanced at me, gazed at me fixedly a moment, and then exclaimed, “Blessed Virgin! Ah, my dear Bremond, what an age it is since I saw you!” Then she threw herself into my arms, pressed her lips to mine, and clasped me almost to strangling. Her large black oriental eyes sent fiery shafts into my heart, and although the surprise at first stupefied me, voluptuousness made rapid progress within….she said I resembled Monsieur de Bremond, Director of the Tuscan Customs, to such a degree as to be mistaken for him; that she had turned this Monsieur de Bremond’s head, and would do it again; that she had quit him because he was a fool; that she took me in his place; that she would love me because it pleased her so to do, for which reason I must love her as long as it was agreeable to her, and when she thought it proper to send me about my business, I must be as patient as her dear Bremond had been. No sooner said than done…In the evening we conducted her to her apartments. As we conversed, I saw a couple of pistols on her dressing-table. “Aha!” I said, lifting one of them, “this is a handkerchief box, of a new design: may I ask what its use is? ” …She said to us, with a naivety which rendered her still more charming: “When I am indulgent to persons whom I do not love, I make them pay for the boredom they cause me; nothing could be more just; but though I suffer their caresses, I will not bear their insults; nor fail to shoot the first who shall be wanting in respect to me.”

On taking leave of her, I made another appointment for the next day. I did not keep her waiting I found her in vestito di confidenza, in an undress more than wanton, only known in southern countries, which I will not amuse myself in describing, though I recollect it perfectly well….I had no idea of the transports which awaited me. I have spoken of Madame de Larnage with the delight which the remembrance of her still sometimes brings me; but how old, ugly and cold she appeared, compared with my Zulietta! Do not attempt to imagine the charms and graces of that enchanting girl, you will fall far short of the truth: young virgins in cloisters are not so fresh: the beauties of the seraglio are less lively: the houris of paradise less engaging.’

The adventure finishes with one of Rousseau’s eccentricities, and Zulietta’s phrase: Lascia le donne e studia la matematica: leave off women and take up mathematics.

Lord Byron also indulged in paid Venuses: he filled the MocenigoPalace with Venetian beauties taking refuge, according to him, beneath their fazzioli (head-scarves). Sometimes, troubled by shame, he fled, and spent the night on the water in his gondola. As his favourite Sultana he had Margarita Cogni, called, from her husband’s occupation, La Fornarina (the Baker’s wife): ‘Very dark, tall,’ (as Lord Byron says) ‘the Venetian face, very fine black eyes….she was two and twenty years old…In the autumn, one day, going to the Lido…we were overtaken by a heavy Squall…On our return, after a tight struggle, I found her on the open steps of the Mocenigo palace, on the Grand Canal, with her great black eyes flashing through her tears, and the long dark hair, which was streaming drenched with rain over her brows and breast. She was perfectly exposed to the storm; and the wind blowing her hair and dress about her thin figure, and the lightning flashing round her, with the waves rolling at her feet, made her look like Medea alighted from her chariot, or the Sibyl of the tempest that was rolling around her, the only living thing within hail at that moment except ourselves. On seeing me safe, she did not wait to greet me, as might be expected, but called out to me “Ah! can’ della Madonna, e esto il tempo per andar’ al’ Lido? (Ah! Dog of the Virgin, is this a time to go to the Lido?)…”’

In these two recitals by Rousseau and Byron, one feels the difference in social position, education and character of the two men. Through the delightful style of the author of the Confessions, something vulgar and cynical appears, and in very poor taste; the obscenity of expression obtaining to that epoch further spoils the picture. Zulietta is superior to her lover in the nobility of her feelings and her elegance of dress; she is almost like a great lady having an affair with the mean little secretary of a minor ambassador. The same inferiority is there again when Rousseau arranges with his friend Carrio, to raise, at joint expense, a little girl of eleven whose favours or rather tears they wish to share.

Lord Byron has a different allure: he forgoes the manners and conceits of the aristocracy; a Peer of Great Britain, enjoying himself with a commoner he has seduced, he raises her to his level by his caresses and the magic of his talent. Byron arrived in Venice rich and famous, Rousseau disembarked there poor and unknown; everyone knows the Palazzo that reveals the errors of the celebrated English Commodore’s noble heir; no guide can show you the house where the plebeian son of an obscure Genevan watchmaker concealed his pleasures. Rousseau does not even speak of Venice; he seems to have lived there without seeing her: Byron has sung her admirably.

You have read what I have said in these Memoirs about the connections in imagination and destiny which seem to have existed between René’s storyteller and Childe-Harold’s bard. Here I again mention one of those similarities so flattering to my pride. Is not La Fornarina, Lord Byron’s brunette, of the same family as the blonde Velléda of Les Martyrs, her elder sister?

‘Concealed among the rocks, I waited awhile without seeing a thing. Suddenly my ear was struck by sounds carried on the breeze from the midst of the lake. I listened and made out the accents of a human voice; at the same moment I saw a frail craft suspended on the summit of a breaker; it fell, disappeared between two waves, and then revealed itself again on the crest of a watery mass; it approached the shore. A woman sailed it; she chanted while fighting the storm, seeming to delight in the winds: one might have said they were in her power, so readily did she seem to challenge them. I saw her throwing lengths of cloth, fleeces, blocks of wax, and little bars of gold and silver into the lake, one after the other, as sacrificial offerings.

Soon she reached the shore, leapt from her boat, moored it to a willow-branch, and plunged into the trees, using the poplar-wood oar she clasped in her hand as an aid. She passed quite close to me without seeing me. She was of great height; her tunic was black, sleeveless and short, scarcely serving to hide her nakedness. She wore a golden sickle suspended from a bronze belt, and was crowned with a chaplet of oak leaves. The whiteness of her face and arms, her blue eyes and reddened lips, her long blond hair, floating wild, proclaimed her a daughter of Gaul, and by their beauty contrasted with her proud and savage advance. She chanted dire words in a melodious voice, and her naked breast rose and fell like the foam of the waves.’

I would be embarrassed at setting myself alongside Byron and Jean-Jacques, without knowing what the place granted to me by posterity will be, were these Memoirs to appear during my lifetime; but by the time they see the light of day I will have passed forever, like my illustrious predecessors, to a foreign shore; my shade will bow to the breath of public opinion, as powerless and slight as the little that will remain of my ashes.

Rousseau and Byron in Venice resembled each other in one respect: neither appreciated the arts. Rousseau, marvellously gifted at music, has the air of not knowing pictures, statues and monuments exist beside Zulietta; and yet how charmingly those masterpieces suit love whose object they deify and whose flame they augment! As for Lord Byron, he is disgusted with the infernal glare of Rubens’ colours; he spits upon all the sacred subjects that the churches disgorge; he never saw a picture or a statue which came within a league of his conception. He prefers to these artistic impostures the beauty of mountains, seas, horses, a certain lion in the Morea, and a tiger at supper in Exeter Change. Is that not all a little one-sided?

What affectation and braggadocio!