Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 6

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XXXIX, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 7

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 6
The Prison of Silvio Pellico

Venice, September 1833..

You may well imagine that in Venice I was of necessity interested in Silvio Pellico. Monsieur Gamba told me that Abbé Bettio was keeper of the palace, and that by addressing him I could carry out my research. The excellent librarian, to whom I had recourse one morning, took a great bunch of keys and led me through several corridors and up various stairs, to the attic rooms of the author of Mie Prigioni.

Monsieur Silvio Pellico was not wrong about one thing; he spoke of his gaol as of those famous dungeons in the air, called from their roofs sotti I piombi (above the leads). Those prisons are, or rather were five in number in the part of the Ducal Palace which is close to the Ponte della Paglia and the canal with its Bridge of Sighs. Pellico did not stay there; he was incarcerated at the other end of the palace, towards the Ponte di Canonico, in a building attached to the palace; a building transformed into a prison for political detainees in 1820. Moreover, he was also beneath the leads, since a sheath of that metal formed the roof of his hermitage.

The description the prisoner gave of his two rooms is exact to the last detail. Through the window of the first room, you overlook the heights of St Mark’s; you can see the wells in the interior courtyard of the palace, one end of the great square, various bell-towers of the city, and beyond the lagoon, on the horizon, the mountains towards Padua; you recognize the second room by its large window and its other high little window; through the large one Pellico saw his companions in misfortune in the central building facing him, and to his left, above, the sweet children who spoke to him from their mother’s casement.

Today all these rooms are abandoned, since no one inhabits them, not even prisoners; the window grilles have been removed, the walls and ceilings white-washed. The gentle and wise Abbé Bettio, lodged in this deserted part of the palace, is its peaceable and solitary guardian.

The rooms which immortalise Pellico’s captivity do not lack elevation; they have air, and a superb view; they are a poet’s prison; he had little to tell, as tyranny and absurdity admitted: but the death-sentence for speculative opinions! A dungeon in Moravia! Ten years of life, youth and talent! Mosquitoes, foul insects that ate me too in the Hôtel de l’Europe, hardened as I am by time and by the maringouins (mosquitoes) of the Floridas. Moreover I have often been worse lodged than Pellico was in his belvedere of the Ducal Palace, notably at the Prefecture of the doges of the French police: I was also obliged to climb on a table to see the light of day.

The author of Francesca da Rimini thought of Zanze in his gaol; in mine I sang of a young girl I had just seen die. I very much wanted to know what had become of Pellico’s little gaoler. I have set my people searching for her: if I find anything out, I will let you know.