I’m not yet done with Venice (how could one ever be?), and this month’s highlighted object can currently be seen there, in the wonderful Ca’ Rezzonico (left), which, after a chequered history, is now the museum of eighteenth-century Venice. The palazzo was designed by the great Baldassarre Longhena for the patrician Filippo Bon, but (as with the Palazzetto Bru Zane), was not completed in Longhena’s lifetime. The Bon family money ran out, and the half-built edifice was bought by the nouveau-très-riche Giambattista Rezzonico (who had paid for his ennoblement, and one of whose sons became Pope Clement XIII).
The Rezzonicos dropped off the wheel of fortune in the early nineteenth century, and after various changes of ownership, the palazzo was acquired in 1880 by the painter Robert Barrett Browning, nicknamed ‘Pen’, son of the rather more famous Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: the latter frequently stayed in the palazzo, and died there on 12 December 1889. (In the 1920s, Cole Porter stayed for a bit, with a retinue of 50 gondoliers, apparently.) Since 1935, the city has owned the building, and eighteenth-century works of art from other sites have been collected there, including some of the haunting Punchinello frescoes by Domenico Tiepolo, and the delightful scenes of Venetian life (including a visit to Clara the rhinoceros) by Pietro Longhi.
This summer and autumn, alongside the permanent collection, the museum is presenting possessions formerly owned by the immensely wealthy Pisani Moretta family – extraordinary in themselves for their craftsmanship and sheer opulence, but also illustrating a melodramatic story of a wronged wife, an abducted child, a disputed inheritance, and the eventual triumph of justice – which sounds like the plot of a Gothic novel, but happens to be true.
The Pisani family was one of the oldest in Venice, and claimed descent from the Piso gens of ancient Rome. Probably in fact from Pisa, they had arrived in the city by at least the twelfth century (legend has it that they had been driven from Pisa and taken refuge in Venice in the ninth), and flourished: the family because a clan of bankers, merchants and churchmen (mostly steering clear of war and politics), whose immense wealth enabled them to buy land and build palaces all over the city and in the terrafirma, and to furnish these with works of art commissioned from all the great contemporary artists. The Pisani Moretta branch owned this pile on the Grand Canal, originally built for the Bembos in the late 1400s.
Among their bits and bobs was Veronese’s Family of Darius before Alexander, now in the National Gallery in London thanks to the efforts of Sir Charles Eastlake, and which Ruskin called ‘the most precious Paul Veronese in the world’.
However, this month’s object is the Pisani Moretta family’s pram, symbolising as it does, in its lavish accoutrements and family crest, the ructions over a baby which rocked the scandal-loving Venetian society in the late eighteenth century.
As frequently happened, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Moretta branch was in danger of dying out from lack of male heirs: Piero Pisani therefore married his daughter Chiara (1704–67) to a distant cousin from the Pisano dal Banco family (originally bankers, they had fallen on hard times: the bridegroom Girolamo even – shock horror! – lived in lodgings), thus reuniting two branches of the clan.
The marriage produced two sons, Pietro and Vettor, thus apparently securing the line. After the death of her father and her husband, Chiara spent a lot of time and money beautifying the palazzo for the benefit of her sons, but disaster struck – Vettor married, in secret, Teresa Vedova, described as ‘ragazza non nobile’.
Chiara, horrified, got the Patriarch of Venice to annul the marriage, and their child, another Pietro, was thus declared illegitimate. He was taken from his mother and sent to Rome, albeit to be brought up in an elite boarding school rather than shoved into an orphanage. Meanwhile, his father married again, into the equally rich and distinguished Grimani family, and had a child – a daughter. Pietro the elder had married another Grimani, but had no children: so once again the family line and the family fortune were endangered.
The younger Pietro was well educated and cultured: and as soon as he was of age he began a legal campaign against his uncle Pietro to have his illegitimacy overturned and his rightful Pisani Moretta inheritance restored. (NB that, as with most European countries, inheritances were shared between male heirs: no primogeniture rules.) In 1784, he was successful (no mean feat, as Pietro the elder was the Procurator of St Mark’s, the most important legal official in the Venetian government), and returned to the ancestral home in triumph. He even commissioned two pictures to commemorate his struggle: in one, he is snatched as a baby from his distraught mother, and in the other he is led up the steps of the palazzo to the water gate by a personification of Justice.
In 1785 Pietro made a splendid marriage, and on his death in 1847 he was succeeded by his son Vettor Daniele (who, presumably, sold the Veronese to Eastlake), but of his five children, the two boys died young, and the palazzo passed at his death to the Giusti del Giardino family (into which one of his daughters had married), and from them to their relatives, the Sammartini.
Many of the family treasures remain in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta (which is now available for corporate events, if you’re looking for a venue for the staff Christmas party); some are owned by Ca’ Rezzonico and others by the Correr Museum. These splendid and luxurious possessions are, I suppose, a huge-scale vanitas: all that scheming and intermarrying, all those efforts to keep the money and the Stuff in the family, thwarted over and over by the lack of male heirs, at least as much as by the changing, and mostly declining, fortunes of the Venetian aristocracy after the arrival of Napoleon in 1797.