Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 15

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIX, chapter 15
Madame Mocenigo – Count Cicognara – A bust of Madame Récamier



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


I had met by chance, in Paris under the Empire, Madame Mocenigo whose ancestors were seven times honoured by being made Doge. Bonaparte, in order to regenerate Italy, forced the great transalpine families to hand over their children to him. Madame Mocenigo, caught up in those general measures, prepared her two little Doges, on Mont Sainte-Geneviève, for the Imperial military service. It was no longer an age when Venice could force an Emperor to bow before her, in order to obtain one of her son’s freedom. Madame Mocenigo, having learnt of my presence in her native city, was obliging enough as to wish to see me. I took myself to the great Lady’s house on leaving my rendezvous with the little Soria.

The poet of modern Albion has blessed one of the three Mocenigo Palaces with his presence. A signpost planted in the Grand Canal indicates to the passer-by Byron’s former residence. One is less moved at seeing the noble lord’s half-effaced coat of arms on this signpost, than one would be on seeing his broken lyre hanging there.

Madame Mocenigo lived tucked away in a small corner of her Louvre whose vastness dwarfed her, and whose deserted part every day gained a little more on the inhabited part. I found her sitting facing an original painting by Tintoretto, of the Glory of Paradise. Her portrait (that of Madame Mocenigo) painted in her youth (a first and authentic proof of her beauty) hung on the wall before her: a View of Venice, by Canaletto, in his earlier style, made a pendant to a weaker View of Venice by Bonington.

Though Madame Mocenigo is still beautiful, it is as though she were in the shadow of her years. I overwhelmed her with compliments which she returned; we were both lying, and knew it well. ‘Madame, you are younger than ever.’ – ‘Monsieur, you never age.’ We took to lamenting the ruinous state of Venice, in order to avoid speaking about ourselves; we placed to the Republic’s account all the complaints we made regarding time, all our regrets for past days. I kissed, respectfully, on leaving, the hand of that daughter of the Doges; but I glanced at the other beautiful hand of the portrait which seemed to have withered beneath my lips: when the plebeian Zanze’s hand pressed mine, I was not aware of any transformation.

Monsieur Gamba, my learned patron, accompanied me to Count Cicognara’s. The Count is a tall man of handsome appearance; but reduced by consumption to a frightening degree of thinness. He rose, painfully, from his armchair to greet me and said: ‘So I have seen you before I die!’

– ‘Monsieur,’ I replied, ‘you anticipate me; I was going to say precisely the same thing to you as you have said to me: it is probable that I will go first. I am happy to meet a man who has given life to Venice, as much as one can rekindle these illustrious ashes.’

Madame Cicognara was there, and wished to stop her husband talking too much; her tender efforts were in vain. For the first time since I had crossed the Alps, I talked politics; we moaned about the state of Italy. We then fell into a conversation on the arts; I congratulated Monsieur Cicognara on his discovery of Titian’s Assumption: the priest who had abandoned the painting, without realising its merit, later wished to initiate proceedings against the knowledgeable amateur: the business has been settled.

I knew of Monsieur Cicognara’s exceptional admiration for Canova: I thought I ought to mention the urn in the Accademia which contains the sculptor’s hand even though that butchery, the cutting up of a human body, that materialistic adoration of a skeletal claw was abominable to me. You find Canova’s bust in the hostelries and even the cottages of peasants in Venetian Lombardy. We are a long way from sharing that taste for the arts and that kind of national pride. If we possess talented men we rush to deprecate them: it seems as if we are being robbed of admiration. We cannot endure anyone acquiring reputation; our vanity takes umbrage at everything; everyone rejoices inwardly when a man of worth dies: that’s one rival less; his irksome fame prevents that of fools being recognised, and the flock crows over mediocrities. They rush to dissect the illustrious deceased in three or four newspaper articles; then cease to talk of him; no one opens his works; they thrust his fame back into his books, as they seal his corpse in its coffin, dispatching the whole lot into Eternity, with the help of death and time. I will leave, for those who survive me, my own obituary notice written in advance, such as I remember having read in Pierre de l’Estoile’s journal: ‘this Thursday….the good Dufour was interred…he made a trip to Jerusalem, and was none the wiser for it.’

At Madame Albrizzi’s I saw Canova’s Leda; while at Count Cicognara’s I admired the Beatrice of that Italian Praxiteles. Monsieur Artaud in his translation of Dante and my excellent friend Monsieur Ballanche in his Essays on Palingenesis, tell of what inspired the sculptor:

‘An artist of great renown,’ says the philosopher of Christianity, ‘a sculptor who had previously brought so much glory to Dante’s illustrious homeland, and whose refined imagination had so often been stirred by the masterworks of antiquity, saw one day, for the first time, a woman who seemed to him the living embodiment of Beatrice. Full of that religious emotion which prompts genius, he immediately demanded that the marble, obedient as ever to his chisel, express the sudden inspiration of the moment, and Dante’s Beatrice passed from the vague domain of poetry to the actualised domain of the arts. The feeling that resides in that harmonious physiognomy has now become a new instance of pure and virginal beauty that, in its turn, inspires both artists and poets.’

Canova sculpted three admirable busts of Beatrice modelled on Madame Récamier: the one he presented to his model, as a portrait from life, wears a crown of olive leaves. The great artist, acknowledging both the woman and the poet, wrote these lines of Dante’s, with his own hand, on the note to Madame Récamier dispatched with it:

‘Sovra candido velo cinta d’oliva
donna m’apparve…
A lady appeared to me, crowned with olive,
over her white veil…’

I was deeply moved by that homage of genius to one whose caring friendship will endure in these Memoirs. If she appeared to Canova in her white veil, she appeared to me, in a further citation:

‘…dentro una nuvola di fiori
Che dalle mani angeliche saliva.
…within a cloud of flowers
that rose from out angelic hands.’
I trace in turn these few words on the bust’s plinth, regretting that Heaven did not endow me with Canova’s chisel, or Dante’s lyre.