Giustiniana Wynne meets Andrea Memmo when she is only sixteen, and he is not much older. They fall passionately in love, but are prevented from openly pursuing the ordinary course of love and marriage by her mother, his family, and the rigid social structure in which they live. But these are no ordinary teenagers. Tenacious, talented, and philosophical, they try for years to engineer various plans intended to bring them together in spite of class differences, governmental opposition, and prolonged separation. All their efforts fail in conventional terms, but they succeed in remaining lifelong friends. Their correspondence, which was necessarily secret in their lifetimes, is now public and is a literary achievement perhaps more enthralling than any novel, because of its historical truth.
When Andrea di Robilant's father found a stash of letters in the old family Palazzo in Venice a journey of discovery began. The discovery of an 18th century doomed love affair between their ancestor Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, a half English young woman.
This book is the compilation of those letters with di Robilant's explanations and contextualisation of the period and the political incidents and social customs of the time. As a love story I must confess that reading some of the letters made me feel somewhat like a voyeur. The intimacy that they share was obviously for their eyes only, the letters were written in code by the way, and makes sense only to them.
But they do tell a lot more of Venetian society in the last decades of the Republic. Andrea and Giustiniana are of such different stations in society that a marriage between them is deemed impossible for most of the book and when considered is destroyed by rumours and revelations of the past. We realise that Venetian society was ruled by an old, unbreakable code that forbade marriages outside the oldest families for its sons and daughters, and that the old customs were maintained and enforced by a group of Inquisitors. The Republic also had strict rules about who was allowed to enter and reside in Venice not to mention that society eventually accepted or excluded the ones that were different or did not behave according to the norm.
To continue their affair the lovers plan was to marry Giustiniana off to some old man as married ladies had much more freedom of movements. That never happened and eventually Giustianiana leaves Venice but they never cease corresponding, maintaining their love and describing their lives. I found their life story a bit sad, they had to conform to the society they lived in and in doing so some of their actions are less than correct and certainly brought them no happiness. In the end, I felt that what stayed with me was the larger picture of Venice's story during the 18th century.
I found this an interesting story but better read as a work of nonfiction. It may be a bit too dry for historical fiction lovers.