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By Andrea Di Robilant
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41181-X 313 pages

Bob Corbett
September 2015

The “Prologue” sets the stage for this story. In very recent times the narrator’s father has found some letters in storage in Venice where their family once lived. These letters intrigue the family and they want to discover more. The father and “discoverer” of these notes was a scholar and intended to work on explanding their knowledge surrounding these letters, but never had the chance. It is his son, the author Andrea Di Robilant, who decides to begin with the letters, but to use other source material and to see what story lies within.

It turns out there was an affair of some sort between an English woman who is the author of these letters back in the mid-1700s and the relative of the Di Robilant family. The narrator carefully unpacks those letters and gets some idea of what happened; clearly an affair of two people from two different social groups had an affair that neither family approved of.

The narrator is fascinated by these letters and begins to look deeper. As luck has it the famous author Casanova, at the time of the affair, knew these lovers and was fascinated by their story and wrote of it. As the narrator looks into it many more sources begin to emerge in both published accounts and other archived materials.

Thus the stage is set for the unpacking of this story from this multitude of relatively disconnected bits of information. The book wends its way back in time and it is told as a reconstructed history.

What author Andrea Di Robilant presents is not quite a traditional history, nor is it fiction. It is sort of a slightly fictionalized history, relying heavily on actual historical sources, but filling in some blanks with what seems to have been the truth, but can’t really be proven.

In any case, no matter how the work is classified, A Venetian Affair is a delightful and gripping read.

Andrea Memmo, son of an important Venetian family and a young up and coming political figure meets Giustiniana Wynne, a beautiful young woman from England who is living in Venice and whose father had been a British diplomat. However, neither family approves of any romance between them, thus they are quite limited in when they can meet, and challenged in thinking how they can possibly have a future when their two powerful families are so opposed to their being together.

Andrea’s family was among the founders of Venice before the year 1,000. However, in the mid-1700s they are no longer rich despite their impeccable pedigree. Andrea is a respected, bright and coming young political servant, likely to become a somewhat high ranking diplomat in coming years.

Giustiniana’s mother, Mrs. Anna Wynne, is strongly opposed to her daughter having anything to do with Andrea, not trusting him, nor believing his future prospects are all that promising. Her late husband had been a diplomat from England assigned to Venice, but after he died she stayed on with her three daughters and doesn’t want to leave Venice.

Giustiniana is still a teen when this “affair” begins, and Andrea is a several years older. The love affair between the two principals began in 1754. This was the same year his uncle died. Andres had been chosen by his uncle to be the family leader. He is definitely a bit wild but he seems to have serious abilities in the political world and thus is the hope for the family’s future.

Since the families are opposed to these two being together or having any future, they have to devise more subtle forms of communication and do so by writing letters to each other which they are able to get to the other by clandestine manners.

Jumping ahead to the late 20th century the author’s father who was related to Andrea’s family and owning the family home in Venice has discovered a hidden box of letters in their Venetian mansion and has some plans to use them to unpack this historical story of the love affair between his distant relative, Andreas, and the British beauty, Giustiniana.

However, he dies before he can accomplish this and his son, the author of this work, inherits the letters and decides that he will do this work his father dreamed of, and then will tell this long-lost story of “a Venetian affair.”

This development, detailed in a “prologue,” presents a bit of a puzzle on what this book really is. Is this a cleverly crafted fictional piece, or is this an author, Andrea Di Robilant, actually trying to reconstruct a family story as best he can? It definitely seems to be the latter, but I was never too sure.

In any case, neither of these two families or two principles, Andrea and Giustiniana, were exactly unknown in their day, and little by little the author discovers many other bits and pieces of the story of this unfortunate love affair in other historical sources, among them even in the life story of the famous Casanova, who knew both principals, and had his own lust for Giustiniana despite the fact that he was a close friend of Andrea at the same time!

The story that the book details is both fascinating and frustrating. It is fascinating and gripping because it keeps one on edge wondering where this love affair will go. Will the boy get the girl and the girl get the boy, or will the families’ joint powers be such as to foil their love?

It also presents a difficulty to the reader as to how much of this should I read as history and how much as fiction. Certainly there is a great deal of real history in this work, and a great deal of it is documented in footnotes and bibliography. On the other hand the author clearly goes beyond 18th century sources and creates specific details and accounts as well. The work sort of falls into a fascinating mix of history and creative fiction.

We follow the lovers from when she is only a teen and he just a few years older, to quite late in their lives when each has a separate live of his or her own, yet this love affair seems to alternately simmer and blaze throughout their lives.

We meet them when she is still a teen and Andrea is definitely a first love. He’s more experienced, but still seems to never have been this deeply smitten before. They do not meet exclusively via letters, but have various secret meetings and even some sort of fairly passionate love affair. They seem constantly trying to figure out how this will go, and wondering if there is any way they will ever be fully and openly together.

There is fairly gripping suspense in the goings and comings, hopes, the successes and disappointments of the principals’ love affair.

While the earliest days of this affair are in Venice where they can manage to be together now and again, it travels far and wide with significant stays for Giustiniana in Paris and London, and even a short stay in Brussels, all places where Giustiniana has various affairs while always writing to and pining for Andrea and professing that he is her only true love. Later she returns to Italy, though seldom back to Venice. Yet the two seem to be in touch and perhaps even in love, for much of their lives. Perhaps, too, it is more the memory of being in love than actually being in love in the later years.

Overall I was just fascinated with the story, and driven to know just how it would all end and when and how would it be possible for the boy to get the girl and girl to have her lover? It kept me reading and turning the pages. On the other hand there were, for this reader, too many side stories, especially in the period of her residence in Paris, of what other relatively unconnected people were doing in their lives. I wasn’t sure why those of fairly long passages were really in this work. On the other hand, the details of how this love affair went and ended up have the touch of real history rather than of romantic fiction.

Despite that minor carping that perhaps the book could have used a bit of editing of some stories, the book, whether it’s a novel or history, is definitely worth reading and will

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett