Friday, July 16, 2021

Patricia Fortini Brown's "The Venetian Bride"

Patricia Fortini Brown, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, was Slade Professor of Fine Arts University of Cambridge in 2001 and served as president of the Renaissance Society of America. Honors and awards include Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships; the Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome; the British Academy Serena Medal in Italian Studies; and the Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award from the Renaissance Society of America. A trustee of Save Venice, Inc., Brown has published extensively on Venetian art and culture. Her award-winning books include Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio (1998); Venice & Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past (1996); Art and Life in Renaissance Venice (1997); and Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture, and the Family (2004).

Brown applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Venetian Bride: Bloodlines and Blood Feuds in Venice and its Empire, and reported the following:
What drove the Montagues and Capulets to so wantonly let the blood of their patrician kin? While The Venetian Bride does not discuss Shakespeare, page 99 of my book offers the reader a sense of what was driving all that fury. Falling midway through Chapter 6, “Honour and Disgrace,” the page features the extended quotation of a petition by Count Girolamo Della Torre to the Council of Ten in Venice to quash his sentence of a 10-year exile to the island of Crete. Referring to the murder of his brother by a Savorgnan on the Grand Canal on the eve of his departure, Della Torre observes that this was only the most recent outrage in the long-standing blood feud between the Della Torre and Savorgnan families and asks for clemency. Della Torre’s petition argues:
“These crimes and enormous excesses as a legacy are not only unheard of, but also [now] executed by the brothers, Giovanni and Nicolò Savorgnan, with the firmest intention to extirpate and eliminate us from the world with all their might; and how many infinite times the two have contrived to take the life of myself, Girolamo Della Torre, as confided to friends, relatives and their authority, as documented by the cited processes; never however did they succeed to execute their spirit of malicious cruelty against my person.

So that seeing that I defended myself against their machinations with the help of God, they drove Tristan Savorgnan, executor of their most unjust appetites and desires, to murder my poor unarmed brother, and in a boat, far from any such suspicion, and above all most innocent, for whose death there were assembled in number perhaps 20 persons in two armed boats in the middle of the Grand Canal of this city, the head of which was the cited Tristan, by commission, however, and order of the above cited Savorgnan brothers, who, claiming themselves to be offended by me for the event that happened in Padua, and knowing that my poor brother and my sister with my brother-in-law had come here to accompany me to the galley, had made an insidious plot; they expected to assassinate all of them, but seeing that they could not execute their depraved design against all, they directed their arms against my brother to revenge themselves, and here one sees [that this was clearly ordered by them], because Tristan had never been offended by us; indeed none of the Della Torre have ever held any enmity toward Tristan, so he would have not had cause to be moved to commit such an assassination, one might say in the eyes of the Prince [Doge]....

Regarding this case, however, I, Girolamo della Torre, hold for certain that it will be adjudicated by the excellent Council of Ten with the severe justice merited by a crime so cruel and so horrendous that, in truth, never has anything similar been committed in Venice: that in armed boats a band of butchers equipped with firearms [that are] prohibited in the middle of Venice, have massacred subjects of this Illustrious Dominion in the eyes of all the world, even in gondolas, as one might say in their own home.

Therefore, your illustrious lords, seeing the importance of this miserable case, seeing that these Savorgnans try to extirpate and send into ruin the afflicted family of the Della Torre, [and] seeing that in our house after the death of my brother there is no one who could repair such ruin, I, Girolamo on bended knee supplicate your excellent lords for justice and piety to suspend my departure to my exile, so that I can provide for the conservation of my life and jointly be able to provide for my calamitous family, in which no one remains to govern except for my person, [and] wish for your clemency so that I could repair so many misfortunes in that brief time that would seem appropriate to your illustrious lords, to whom I humbly prostrate myself on the earth [and] recommend myself.”
I was flattered to be invited to participate in this intriguing program. I had no idea exactly what I would find on page 99, but I was happily surprised to find our protagonist, Della Torre, in court pleading for mercy, to be spared an exile that threatened to end life as he had known it. Indeed, the Page 99 test works remarkably well for The Venetian Bride. Arguably the hinge of the overall narrative, Della Torre’s petition is a predicate to the marriage that gives the book its name. His sentence would, indeed, be postponed, allowing him to pursue another strategy (albeit unsuccessful) to avoid exile by his marriage to Giulia Bembo, the daughter of an influential Venetian patrician, in Chapter 7. Without giving much away, I'll just say that while exile is not ultimately avoided, things turn out considerably better than they did for Romeo and Juliet. Without the petition, the postponement, and the marriage, there would be no book. No sojourn in Crete for both the Della Torre and Bembo families, no return to the Della Torre family properties in the Friuli -- the castle at Villalta and the palace in Udine --no stayovers in the bishop’s castle in Ceneda, perhaps no elevation of Girolamo’s brother Bishop Michele to the cardinalate, no birth of ten children who would carry on the family line for both good and ill in a saga that played out over three centuries. In a sense, the passage provides the nexus between the blood feuds that dominate the first third of the book and the melded bloodlines and the gradual embrace of the rule of law that will be the major focus of the remainder. In sum, the petition distills the human side of the conflict between the feudal values of honor and retribution of Venice’s contentious subjects on the mainland and the civic values of the Serenissima itself.
Learn more about The Venetian Bride at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue