- Venetian Affairs
To many tourists in Venice, nothing evokes eighteenth-century history better than carnival. Yet modern carnival is a late twentieth-century fabrication, the invention of university students seeking to revive a then moribund tourist industry, almost two hundred years after it was banned in 1797. To be sure, those same tourists need not look far in order to glimpse the true eighteenth-century Venice. For example, most stroll at least once along the Rio dei Bareteri, directly underneath the peephole of the overhanging Casino Venier, the location of an elegant eighteenth-century apartment (now the Alliance Française). From above, their touristic motions could have been detected and assessed by the casino’s former inhabitants, including the wealthy, elite ladies who themselves frequented the casino in order to escape domestic surveillance. It requires only a keen eye and some historical knowledge to see ourselves as the possible cynosure of the ghostly presence all around us.
Both of the books being reviewed here evoke the spectral presence of actual eighteenth-century Venetians and allow us access to places that we only thought we knew. First (though this claim might be met with skepticism) Paolina’s Innocence is a page-turner. Propelled by the intriguing archival discovery of a case brought before the court of blasphemy in 1785, the book tells the enthralling story of what unfolded after Gaetano Franceschini, sixty years old, took Paolina Lozaro, the eight-year-old daughter of a Friulian laundrywoman, to his bed. Larry Wolff reads this case as “a pioneering conviction in the 18th century, when an adult was put on trial for violating the innocence of a child” (267). But this gloss doesn’t do justice to the innumerable questions raised by the trial, questions that Wolff poses and answers in turn. When and how does libertinism become perversion? How far did and should the prerogatives of the libertine, as a “free man,” extend? How does libertinism get redefined as “psychopathology”? Or, quite simply, how does child abuse become recognized as child abuse? How does it come to be understood as traumatic for the child, and as a manifestation of psychopathology in an adult?
In addition to meditating on these and other questions, Wolff organizes his book impeccably, making a vast number of connections along the way. There’s a link to Casanova, of course. Wolff uses his situation to explain how Venetian law regarded both perpetrators and victims of sexual crimes. And, unsurprisingly, Sade appears as well. In his philosophy, Wolff explains, the impulse toward liberation from prejudice becomes “an enlightened imperative” invoked to vindicate any sexual perversion or sexual crime (193). Less anticipated is Wolff’s attention to Rousseau, whom he describes as “not absolutely immune to Franceschini’s libertine inclinations” (214). Neither was Goethe unaware of the powerful erotic appeal of the apparently innocent young girl. Wolff also frequently summons Mozart, for connections to both The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni (which one will never see as the same opera after reading this book). Goldoni’s plays receive much [End Page 246] attention for their depiction of contemporaneous life, as do those of his fellow dramatist Gozzi. Moving forward in time, Wolff eventually brings us to Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Freud (about whom he has written before).
While the book is remarkable for its intertextual range, it is also notable for its attention to public and private spaces, as chapters are dedicated to the various locales in which the action unfolded, along with their dramatis personae. For example, we get intimate access to Franceschini’s apartment, with its cast of servants; to the coffeehouse above which he lived; and to the bakery where the issue of sex between adults and children was first publicly discussed. We meet his neighbors, among them the Dalmatian widow who lived upstairs, a sort of real-life Donna Elvira (133). We encounter high and low society—Franceschini’s...