Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 14

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XXXIX, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 14

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

As I was making all these notes in pencil, while breakfasting in a leisurely manner at my little table, a policeman hovered round me: he doubtless recognised me, but did not dare speak. Detested by Kings whose humble, but not very obedient, servant I have had the honour to be, I represent to them the freedom of the Press incarnate.

Hyacinthe rejoined me at the café and informed me of the success of his investigations regarding Zanze. The latter’s father, Brollo, the gaoler, had died some years previously; Zanze’s mother lodged in the Cicognara Palace behind the Accademia di Belle Arti, which she rented from the owner and in which she sub-let rooms to artists, clerks and officers of the garrison. Brollo’s widow had two sons: one, Angelo, worked for a manufacturer of mosaics, the other, Antonio, ran the shop for a cheese-seller; Zanze had married; she and her husband, who was employed at La Centrale, lived with her mother: she worked on mosaics and embroidery.

Matters having reached this point, I decided to visit Madame Brollo. I went to meet Angelo at the inn, and we left in a gondola.

The gaoler’s wife received me at her door in the alley. We climbed a stair: Madame Brollo went in front, as if she were conducting me to prison, begging my pardon for leading me through the kitchen first. Zanze was at the Accademia with a pupil, and had taken the key of her room with her; but Madame Brollo, seeing a second key hanging from a nail, hastened to open her daughter’s apartment.

The room was large, lit by two windows. The furniture comprised a six-foot long bed without curtains, a table and a few chairs.

The august widow took from the wall a portrait of Francis II, done in glass beads; Zanze’s work: I presented myself as an amateur interested in mosaics. Antonio was despatched as messenger to the creator of the portrait.

Left alone with Madame Antonia Brollo, we began an animated conversation. Madame Antonia had been twice married; her first husband, Jean Olagnon, from Picardy, had died in the Army of Egypt. Madame Antonia spoke French, and even pronounced it quite well, though she had difficulty remembering the words: so she mostly used the Italian language mixed with Venetian dialect. Here is Pellico’s description of the Carceriere: ‘La moglie era quella che piû manteneva il contegno ed it carattere di carceriere. Era una donna di viso asciutto, asciutto, verso i quarant’ anni, di parole asciutte, asciutte, no dante il minimo segno d’essere capace di qualche benevolenza ad altri che a suoi figli: the wife was the person who best supported the character or behaviour of a gaoler. She was a woman with a sour, sour face about forty years of age, curt, very curt in speech, giving not the least sign of a capacity for kindness to anyone except her children.’

Madame Antonia must have altered in six years. Here is a fresh description:

A small woman with a very common air; a rounded figure; a florid complexion; wearing nothing on her greying hair; appearing very grasping and deeply concerned about her family’s means of sustenance.

When we had sat down together, she seized my hand which she clasped and wanted to kiss; I drew my hand away modestly, and said:

‘– Madame Antonia, you knew Monsieur Silvio Pellico?’

‘– Signor, si; un carbonaro; tutti carbonari!’

‘– You would take him his coffee during the day, and your daughter often replaced you?’

‘– Vero, la sua Eccellenza.’

‘– Have you another daughter?

‘–No, Sir; only the one.’

‘– Who is called Zanze?’

‘– Signor, si, and due sons.’

‘– Just so. And your daughter served Monsieur Silvio Pellico ably?’

‘– Signor, si: tutti dottori, canonici, nobili (all the scholars, canons, noblemen). When they were condemned, O Dio! I lit a candle, thick as that, to Nostra Dama di Pietà.’

At this point, Madame Antonia told me that, after the sentence, they had put her, her husband and all her family nella strada (on the street), with twenty sous in their purse; that she had requested, demanded a pension, threatened to write to the Emperor, and at last obtained a hundred écus with the aid of which she had raised her children.

Antonio arrived with Zanze.

I found the girl was even smaller than her mother, seven or eight months pregnant, her dark hair plaited, a gold chain round her neck, her shoulders bare and very shapely, her eyes large and grey in colour and di pietosi sguardi (with a kind expression), a slender nose, a slender physiognomy, a thin face, a refined smile, but the teeth less white than other Venetian women, the colouring pale rather than white, the skin without translucency, but also without freckles.

Antonio became the general interpreter of the conversation.

I told Zanze that as an admirer of Monsieur Pellico I had wished to meet the lady who was so kind to the poor prisoner.

Zanze seized my hand as her mother had, and, for some reason, I did not withdraw my hand. Zanze seemed to search her memory a moment for the name I had just pronounced; then: ‘Yes, yes, Monsieur Pellico; I remember him; a Carbonaro!’

‘– Do you know he has written a book about his prisons and that he speaks of you?’

‘– No I did not.’

Old Antonio, who knew everything about it, was less reticent, and with a very droll smile, said:

‘– But, Zanze, you told him you were in love.’


‘What! Inamorata! Invaghita! (In love!) Ah! I went to school; I was just a little girl! I was only twelve.’


‘Corpo di Christo! At twelve everyone in Venice is deeply in love.’


‘You were fourteen, Zanze; you were in love: it’s true.’


‘It’s not true; I was never in love till I went to the country, because I was ill. I was in love then, with my cousin.’

‘– And you married your cousin?’ I asked.

‘– No, Excellenza: I did not marry my cousin.’

I laughed. Madame Antonia had explained that Brollo, learning that the prisoners would probably be condemned, had sent the children to the country.

I continued: ‘– Perhaps there was another Zanze in the prison? Perhaps you are not the Zanze who took Monsieur Pellico his coffee?’

‘– Yes, yes. There was no other Zanze in the prison but me. The daughter of the secondino was called… (I forget the name): there was an old woman too.’

Zanze took my hand again in hers, and started to tell me in detail the history of her study of mosaics. She grew more attractive the more she spoke. Pellico described the charm of what he called his little gaoler’s ugliness, bruttina: graziose, adulazioncelle, venezianina adolescente sbirra; ugly, but gracious, a little flatterer a little adolescent Venetian gaoler. Zanze, according to her own mother’s calculation, was twenty-four; she was fourteen when she confided the anxieties of her tender years to the author of Francesca da Rimini. In those days she did not have three children and was not pregnant with a fourth. Zanze told me that two of her children were dead and that she only had one left. ‘What of the fourth, then?’ I asked. Zanzre laughed, and looking down at her large belly, said: stimo costui: I treasure it.

Antonio, speaking to me in French, said: ‘She will never admit her confession to Pellico; but it’s certainly true.’

– ‘I am not seeking to find out Zanze’s secret,’ I replied, ‘and if you had not spoken to her about the affair then I would never have said a word. Now ask Zanze if she wants me to bring her a copy of Le Mie Prigioni; she can read it, and tell me if she recalls things she may have forgotten.’ – Zanze agreed to the proposal; but she suggested I not bring the book until after her husband had returned from his office. ‘– My husband, she added, ‘is a year younger than me.’

That is the point we have reached: I ought to return to buy a few of Zanze’s little efforts. She accompanied me to the door onto the alley (calle) with her mother. The elder, not losing sight of her object, invited me to ritornare. Zanze was more reserved.

Such is the power of talent: Pellico lent his little bruttina consoler, who chased the flies away with her fan so effectively, a charm she perhaps did not possess. Sior Zanze seems an angel of love when, after kissing a verse from the Bible, she says to the prisoner: ‘Every time you read this passage, I want you to remember I placed a kiss there.’ She is irresistibly seductive when Pellico, encircled by her dear arms, dalle sue care braccia, without pressing her to him, without kissing her, stammers: ‘Vi prego, Zanze, non m’abbraciate mai; cio non va bene: Go Zanze, please, don’t ever embrace me; it wouldn’t be right.’