Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 13

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XXXIX, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 14

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 13
Great Geniuses inspired by Venice – Courtesans ancient and modern – Rousseau and Byron born to be unhappy

Venice, the 10th to the 17th of September 1833.

What then is this city where the greatest intellects arranged to meet? I experience indescribable pleasure in viewing the masterpieces of the great masters once more in the very places they were designed for. I breathe more easily amidst the immortal choir, like a humble traveller admitted to the heart of a rich and handsome family. Some have visited her themselves; others have sent their Muses here. Something would have been lacking to the immortality of their genius, if they had not hung their paintings in this temple of voluptuousness and glory.

Without even mentioning the great poets of Italy, the geniuses of all Europe have set their creations here: here Shakespeare’s Desdemona, so different from Rousseau’s Zulietta and Byron’s Margarita, breathed, that modest Venetian who declared her tenderness for Othello: ‘If you have a friend who loves me, teach him how to tell your story, and that will woo me.’ There Otway’s Belvidera appears, she who tells Jaffeir:

‘O smile, as when our loves were in their spring….
O lead me to some desert wide and wild,
Barren as our misfortunes, where my soul
May have its vent: where I may tell aloud
To the high heavens, and ever list’ning planet,
With what a boundless stock my bosom’s fraught!
Where I may throw my eager arms about thee,
Give loose to love with kisses, kindling joy,
And let off all the fire that’s in my heart.’

In our day, Goethe has celebrated Venice, and ‘le gentil’ Marot, who, first to lend his voice to the awakening of the French Muses, took refuge at Titian’s hearth. Montesquieu wrote: ‘One can have seen all the cities of the world and still be amazed on arrival in Venice.’

When, in too explicit a picture, the author of the Persian Letters describes a Muslim girl given over to the attentions of two men of divine nature in paradise, does he not appear to have described the courtesan of Rousseau’s Confessions and she of Byron’s letter? Was not I, between my two Floridians, like Anais between her two angels? But the painted ladies and I, we were not immortals.

Madame de Staël delivered Venice up to Corinne’s inspiration: the latter hears the sound of cannon fire proclaiming a young girl’s obscure sacrifice…solemn notice ‘that a resigned woman gives to all women who still struggle against destiny’. Corinne climbs to the summit of the Campanile, contemplates the city and the waves, turns her gaze on the clouds towards Greece: ‘In the darkness, she saw only the reflection of the lanterns that light the gondolas: one might have thought them shades gliding over the water, guided by a little star.’ Oswald departs; Corinne rushes out to summon him back. ‘A terrible rainstorm then commenced: the most violent of winds was heard.’ Corinne descends to the canal bank. ‘The night was so dark there was not a single boat; Corinne called at random to the boatmen who took her cries for the cries of distress of some unfortunate drowning in the midst of the storm, and yet no one dared draw near, so tumultuous were the waves stirring the Grand Canal.’

Here again is Byron’s Margarita.

Lord Byron indeed considered La Fornarina among the women whose beauty resembled that of the tiger at supper: what then if he and Rousseau had seen the courtesans of ancient Venice and not their degenerate descendants? Montaigne who never hides anything, says that it seemed as ‘admirable as anything else, to see such a number of them, perhaps a hundred and fifty or thereabouts, throwing money away on the clothes and trappings of princesses, and having no other funds to maintain themselves than that traffic of theirs.’

When the French took Venice they forbade the courtesans from placing the little light in their windows that Hero used to guide Leander. The Austrians have suppressed the Benemerite meretrici: meritorious whores tolerated by the Venetian Senate, en masse. Today they simply resemble the vagabond creatures of our own city streets.

A few steps from my inn is a house, on whose gate three or four quite pretty and half-naked beauties swing, by way of a sign. A corporal on his beat sticking close to the wall, his arms extended, the palms of both hands pressed against the outside of his thighs, his chest flat, his neck rigid, his gaze fixed, turning his head neither to right nor left, is on duty before these Young Ladies who mock him, and try to make him violate his trust. He sees the Pourchois (Bourgeois) enter and leave, proclaiming by his presence that all must pass by without noise or scandal: no one is yet of the opinion in France that we should put the obedience of our own conscripts to this test.

Let us pity Rousseau and Byron for having burnt incense on altars unworthy of their sacrifice. Misers perhaps of their time whose every minute belonged to the world, they only desired pleasure, charging their genius with transforming it into passion and glory. For their lyres the melancholy, the jealousy, the sadness of love; for themselves its voluptuousness and slumber beneath gentle hands. They sought dreams, unhappiness, tears, despair among wildernesses, winds, shadows, storms, forests and oceans, and composed, for their readers, the torments of Childe-Harold and Saint-Preux on the breast of their Zulietta and Margarita.

Whatever the case, in the moment of intoxication, the illusion of love was fulfilled for them. Moreover they knew that they clasped faithlessness itself in their arms; that she would vanish with the dawn: she did not deceive them with a false semblance of constancy; she did not condemn herself to follow them, wearied of their tenderness or her own. All in all, Jean-Jacques and Lord Byron were unfortunate men; it was a condition of their genius: the former was maddened; while the latter, fatigued by his excesses and in need of esteem, returned to the shores of Greece where his Muse and Death served him well, in turn.

‘Glory and Greece around us see!
The land of honourable death
Is here: – up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!’