Rosy Conversation with Andrea di Robilant

Andrea di Robilant is an Italian journalist and writer who has written five well-received books of non-fiction.  During his forty-year career in journalism, Andrea has worked in Europe, Latin America and the United States, where he was U.S. correspondent for the daily La Repubblica (1980-84) and U.S. Bureau Chief for La Stampa in Washington D.C. during the Clinton years.  He attended Le Rosey in Switzerland and received a B.A. and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York City.

In 2003 Andrea published A Venetian Affair, his best-selling account of two star-crossed lovers in Eighteenth century Venice based on a cache of letters his father, Alvise di Robilant, found in the attic of the family’s palazzo. His next book was a biography of Lucia Memmo, his great-great-great-great grandmother, who was a close friend of Josephine Bonaparte, the wife of Napoleon. In 2011 he published Irresistible North, a book about a controversial Fourteenth century journey of two Venetian navigators Nicolo and Antonio Zen in the North Atlantic in the Fourteenth Century. Three years later he published Chasing the Rose, which tells the story of his own journey in search of a mysterious rose. His most recent book, Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, published in 2018, is about Ernest Hemingway’s relationship with a young woman named Adriana Ivancich in Venice in the 1950s. Andrea is now in the midst of writing a book about maps and travels in the Renaissance.  You can find his website for more information here. 

Our Conversation

Bianca: I think you spent quite a while decoding your family’s letters with A Venetian Affair.  How long did decoding the love letters take? 

Andrea: My father found these letters in a shoebox in the palazzo in Venice where he had grown up and he brought the box home one day and none of us knew what they were.  It didn’t really make sense to us who was writing, what they were about… most of them were written in a secret code.  It was very pretty.  It looked like there were a lot of hieroglyphics on the page… it was a very quick hand, not a labored job.  It was rather intriguing and very beautiful to look at.  We started trying to crack the code and my father took on the job, it was he who had found the letters and eventually it was he who cracked the code and then he transcribed all of the letters.  

Out of that labor came this fascinating love story between my ancestor Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, the illegitimate daughter of an English baronet. It was really thanks to my father that we were able to understand who was writing and what the story was about.  It became my father’s favorite conversation piece. After my father died I thought I should pull all the strings together and write the book that he should have written.  That said, the book is more than the transcription of the letters.  I use the letters as a starting point of a historical research that enabled me to recreate the background – social, political, artistic – of the period. So the book is not limited to their story, it is really about a period of history, the last decades of the declining Venetian Republic.  

The story of this impossible love is emblematic of the inability of this ancient Republic to reform, to modernize itself, to make it possible for two young people who loved each other to marry – despite the fact that Andrea was the scion of one of the Venetian Republic’s oldest families. Of course there were masked balls and all of that, but the reality was that the Venetian Republic was slowly dying because it simply could not marshall the energies necessary to reform itself.  There is something very poignant in that. Andrea’s struggles must be seen against that backdrop.  

Bianca: Your book after A Venetian Affair, was about Andrea Memmo’s daughter, Lucia Memmo, entitled, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon.  What inspired you to write this book? 

Andrea: After I had written A Venetian Affair, I found another shoebox of letters – this is not a joke – and I realized that these had belonged to Lucia.  She makes a brief appearance in A Venetian Affair towards the end.  Andrea visits Giustiniana in Padua on her deathbed.  She is dying of a tumor and Andrea traveled all night long to be with her in her last moments, the woman of his life.  Lucia, his daughter, was also present.  She writes about this in a letter and describes her father’s tortured face as he holds Giustiniana’s hand. It’s a very moving scene.

From there, I went on to write Lucia’s story and it was very fascinating for other reasons.  The story of Lucia was the story of an intelligent, highly educated, attractive woman living in a time in Europe when great events are happening and the scene is constantly changing – you have the death of the Venetian Republic, Napoleon bursts onto the scene and Lucia adapts to her new life.  It was fascinating for me to find such an eloquent witness of those times and to be able to see those rapid changes happening in Europe through the eyes of an intelligent woman and a wonderful writer!  She was always in the thick of things and wrote diaries and letters that are illuminating. Thanks to her I was able to write a book that has the sweep of a novel, though it’s all true and documented.  It started out with a batch of letters.  The batch of letters were fascinating. They told the story of the arranged marriage between Lucia and Alvise Mocenigo.  This is very ironic because her father, Andrea, arranged her marriage – a man who fought so hard to try to marry the love of his life and failed.  The letters I found were between Lucia and Alvise before they actually met.  It’s a fascinating correspondence that gradually turns into love… you know how today, people can fall in love just by communicating online?  This is very similar. You can see their relationship burgeoning and growing into something substantial through words. That really sparked my interest and I went looking for more material on Lucia in the archives in Venice.

Bianca: Your next book, Chasing the Rose, is set during the time of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s first wife. Can you give an overview of that wonderful book? 

Andrea: While Lucia was in Paris, she was a good friend of Josephine’s, she became a botanist of sorts – she became very knowledgeable about roses in particular.  Josephine was an important figure in the world of roses.  She was able to import roses from China and the arrival of these roses to France and to Europe in general at the end of the 18th century was a great moment in the history of rose breeding.  It was the arrival of these roses from China that really transformed the landscape of roses in France and across Europe.  Josephine made it very fashionable for the other grandes dames of Parisian society to have their own rose gardens.  It was truly a Golden Age for roses.  As I said, Lucia was at the center of all of this, observing everything and absorbing all of this.  She returned to Venice to her house in the country and she brought back hundreds of roses. And she created her own rose garden and a park that became a model of its kind. Alas, nothing has remained of that garden, except this one rose.

It grows wild in what used to be the park and is now just woodlands. I had no idea about the existence of this rose until one day, I was called up by people who lived near the woods. They had found this mysterious rose growing wild there and they couldn’t figure out what it was, nor where it came from.  Since I had written a book about Lucia, they thought I might know something about it.  I wondered if there was some connection between that wild rose and the roses that Lucia had brought back from Paris.  

People in the area had named it Rosa Moceniga, because that was Lucia’s married name – the Mocenigos are my ancestors. So I went to see the rose in the woods, and the people there gave me a small plant and I took it back home and planted it in my garden in Venice.  It grew very well on its own, despite the bitter cold in the winter and the salty air and it took over the garden and it forced me to focus on this rose and I became more and more intrigued about this rose’s history.  It looked to be a Chinese rose of some kind.  Chasing the Rose is really the story of my journey into the world of old roses searching for the identity of this particular rose… I gave myself a late education in roses…Along the way I met fascinating people who knew a lot about roses and I went to Paris and finally I solved the mystery.  And now the rose is officially recognized as the Moceniga Rose. 

Readers wrote to me suggesting I should make a perfume from this rose. It was a cool idea but I knew nothing about perfumes so I let it go.  Then, one day, I went to see the Perfume Museum in Venice, which is a new museum in an old Palazzo Mocenigo which had long ago belonged to my family.  I found the museum fascinating, it was really well done and I thought to myself – if I ever do a perfume, I want to do it with the people who set up this museum.  I asked mutual friends to arrange a meeting between me and the head of the company, The Merchant of Venice, which makes wonderful perfumes.  They go back four generations in Venice.  I told the head of the company that I’d written a book about a rose and they  happened to have a perfume museum in a Palazzo that had the same name as my rose – Moceniga. They thought it over and then they called me a few weeks later and said it was a great idea. Within a year, they had produced the fragrance in a beautiful Murano glass.  In fact, it’s been so successful that Rosa Moceniga is their best selling perfume today. During the Pandemic we produced a Rosa Moceniga hand sanitizing gel that became very popular…!

Bianca: Is there a favorite time in history you enjoy researching the most? 

Andrea: My father studied history, I studied history at university and so did both my sons.  I guess it runs in the family. But I am not a historian. I am a reporter interested in history – and I use journalistic techniques in my research.  I like to relive moments of history through other people and to find keys to understand the past.  For example, in writing another book, Irresistible North, I was fascinated by the idea of these two brothers, two Venetian merchants who were trying to expand the bounds of their world to broaden their market…  they were  shipwrecked in the North Sea and ended up in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and this was back in the 1300s.  They published their letters and a map about their voyages – nobody in Europe had yet made a map about that part of the world. Three hundred years later the map was denounced as a fake for what I thought were spurious reasons and I wanted to get to the bottom of the story. So there was a journalistic angle to that.

The book about Hemingway and his love story with Adriana Ivancich started by chance. One day I was taking a walk on the Venetian mainland and I ended up in someone’s property.  I was actually trespassing and didn’t realize it. I kept going further until the owner drove up to me.  He was an old man who had just had a stroke.  I apologized and explained to him that I had wandered onto his property without knowing… he invited me in and I learned that he was the older brother of Adriana, the eighteen year-old girl Hemingway fell in love with when he came to Venice in 1948.  He mentioned that he had just sold the last batch of letters between Hemingway and Adriana to the JFK archives in Boston.  I happened to be going to Boston a few weeks later on a book tour and I went and checked on the letters in the library.  And the letters were there, sure enough, and there were many others! I immersed myself in them.  I must have spent two or three days locked in the library reading letters.  I realized this story was not simply an anecdotal story, this was a major love story that had a great impact on Hemingway’s career as  a writer. Most Hemingway biographies don’t give this story the importance it’s due. So I thought it would be a good idea to write a whole book about it.  

It was also a matter of recreating life in those years not just in Venice but also in Cuba, because Adriana eventually went to Cuba to stay with the Hemingways. She went with her mother! The whole set up at the Hemingway estate turned into a sort of Tennessee Williams drama in the Tropics.…In any case the appearance of  Adriana in Hemingway’s life really galvanized him and got him writing again — he had not published a book in ten years. But Adriana was also deeply affected by their relationship – perhaps more so than she realized at the time. Years later she took her life after suffering from depression. Like Hemingway. I thought it was a very compelling story that needed to be written.

Bianca: Your family heritage plays such a significant role in your writing.  Your most recent book though, Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, is not entirely about your family, but it does take place in Venice.

Andrea: The Hemingway book does not have much to do with my family, even though my great uncle Carlo makes several appearances and so does my aunt Olghina. But that’s because the setting is Venice. Carlo was Hemingway’s favorite drinking buddy. He was a happy drunk, Hemingway used to say, and he liked to hang out with him at Harry’s Bar. They wrote children’s stories together, believe it or not.  That was really the extent of it; although, drinking was a big part of his life in Venice.  

Bianca: There is a Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway’s life coming out on April 5th on PBS. Do you think he will mention the relationship between Hemingway and Adriana? 

Andrea: I don’t know, I am very curious myself.  It’s a three-part documentary and there’s a possibility that he may not be able to cover everything!  He started work on the documentary before my book came out in 2018.  But I am very curious to find out. An international production has also just finished shooting the movie version of  Across the River and Into the Trees, the book he wrote after meeting Adriana. It’s a strange novel, but it’s the novel that got Hemingway back to writing.  So this novel was very important to him personally even though a lot of critics panned it. In the movie the Hemingway-inspired protagonist is played by Liev Schreiber, who starred in Ray Donovan, the popular American series. Fancy that! His young lover is played by a young Italian actress, Matilda de Angelis. 

Thank you, Andrea, you are truly a rosy addition to Rosy BVM!

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