Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 10-foot-tall Napoleon Hidden along the Grand Canal

The rough marble strut connecting the head to the outstretched hand is the only sign that Angelo Pizzi's sculpture of Napoleon was left unfinished at his death. It was commissioned by Lucia's husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who intended to make it a centerpiece of his mainland estate.  
There's a marvelous passage toward the end of Andrea di Robilant's entertaining biography Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon in which he describes a letter written by his subject (who also happened to be his great-great-great-great-grandmother) to the celebrated sculptor Antonio Canova, trying to interest him what she calls "a piece of the purest marble of Carrara." She assures him that he would not be able to find "a finer piece of marble" anywhere and that--though the "work was already begun, and rather well"--the piece "could easily take on a different profile 'than the one initially pursued.'" At the time of her letter this fine piece of marble was still housed in the studio within the Accademia delle Belle Arti of its late sculptor, from whom her late husband, Alvise Mocenigo, had commissioned the work some years before.

In fact, the "piece of the purest marble of Carrara" Lucia wrote about may be seen in the image at the top of this page, in exactly the almost-completed state it was in when she tried to soft peddle it to her old friend Canova. For by the time she wrote the letter the Austrians had taken over Venice and a heroic ten-foot-high embodiment of her late husband's admiration for the fallen Napoleon was the last thing that the widow, already facing enough personal and financial challenges, needed in her possession.

Unfortunately for her, Canova was well aware of the actual form of the "piece of marble" she was offering him at what she promised would be a "sum agreeable to (him)" and was no more keen to be stuck with the monumentally outmoded thing than she was. So she was left to have it spirited the short distance down the Grand Canal to Palazzo Mocenigo, where she tucked it away in a corner of the androne (or large ground-floor entry).   

Though this monumental sculpture's obscure place in the androne of Palazzo Mocenigo figures prominently in di Robilant's explanation of how he came to write the biography, the small image of it in the book shows it against a solid black background. The dark featureless (photoshopped) background certainly eliminates all distractions from the sculpture itself, but part of the interest in di Robilant's opening pages--for him and the reader--is that this work still stands exactly where his great-great-great-great-grandmother set it up 200 years ago, even though the palazzo itself passed out of his family's hands some 70 years ago.

In my post about the heroic sculpture of Napoleon in the Museo Correr (, I mentioned that a friend had told me that one could catch a glimpse of this work in the androne of the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal if one were rowing in a sandolo and took the little boat up close to the water gate. But thanks to the generosity of another friend, Gijs Went, who allowed me to post the above image he captured of the sculpture, we can all have a good look at it in its long-time home, with the stemma (or coat of arms) of the Mocenigos still visible behind it (though the palazzo is now an apartment house)--and without having to struggle with oars or the unsettling wakes of passing vaporetti and mototopi.  


  1. Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon is in a queue of thousand books I want to read but probably won't have time for. I have it for a year at least - as well as the more famous book of the same author (Lure Of The North?).

    1. The problem with reading about Venice, Sasha--if it is a problem--is that there are so many books on it, and more coming out all the time. LUCIA is, I suspect, among the more swift-moving and entertaining of them.

  2. Great photo (and much more legible than the black and white version published in the book).

    I have re-read Lucia in The Age of Napoleon several times - such a vivid and empathetic account of an extraordinary life during a critical time in the Venetian Republic's history (and demise).

    I hadn't quite grasped just how BIG is this statue of Napoleon and imagine what must have gone through Lucia's thoughts when it finally arrived at Palazzo Mocenigo!

    Thanks very much for sharing this photo. Karen

    1. Yes, Karen, the thought of having that massive thing unloaded in your androne with the Austrians ruling the city is an extremely uncomfortable one. I wonder if Lucia didn't at times just wish she could have it sunk someplace in the lagoon.

      And as for sharing the photo, all thanks (mine included) go to Gijs.