02/27/14

What Happens In Venice Stays In Venice

imagesCan you keep a secret?

The year is 1753 and you are at the spot to lose your fortune, the Ridotto in Venice. The thousand-year-old Republic is still a few decades away from Bonaparte rounding up the horses on the Piazza San Marco, but at the Ridotto’s eighty gaming tables it’s faro (a variation on baccarat derived from the king card “pharaoh”) that is pillaging the coffers of Europe’s crème.

imgres-1You have paused in the sala lunga, the candlelit hall where the crowd lingers to lick their gambling wounds, when the long shadow of a slender boyish figure dances by like a moth in the flickering flames. It belongs to Andrea Memmo, twenty-four-year-old member of the Venetian ruling caste who is doing what such men are meant for – chasing after a captivating woman, seventeen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne, while her mother runs interference. “I don’t know how it all ended at the Ridotto,” he writes Giustiniana the next day. “As long as I was in your mother’s range I tried to conceal myself.”

Concealment was hardly a challenge at the Ridotto since everyone wore a mask – the black or white moreta covering only the eyes, or the bautta hiding head to shoulders. Except for the 9-day novena before Christmas, it was de rigueur for every Venetian from doge to vegetable seller to wore these objects of obscurity in public from October until Lent.

imgres-2This is documented in Andrea di Robilant’s A Venetian Affair, a literary aphrodisiac The Sultanette found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book shop. It begins with the discovery of a cache of frayed and brittle letters in an attic – letters pocked with wax marks and traces of wine, some written in mysterious code – evidence of the lifetime affair between di Robilant’s ancestor, Andrea Memmo, scion of a family who “had given seven doges to the Republic” and Giustiniana Wynne, of checkered pedigree.

Casanova (left) and the condom, Memoires, “Pleasant talk and a thousand amorous kisses occupied the half hour just before supper, and our combat did not begin till we had eaten a delicious repast.”

Casanova (left) and the condom, Memoires, “Pleasant talk and a thousand amorous kisses occupied the half hour just before supper, and our combat did not begin till we had eaten a delicious repast.”

The lovers had tantalized scholars for centuries. In the early 1900s, a researcher recognized Casanova’s Mademoiselle XCV as Giustiniana. (There is a fascinating interlude in di Robilant’s narrative when the infamous amoureux befriends Giustiniana and is accused by her mother of kidnapping her.) In the twenties, a Venetian historian published correspondence from Padua’s archives. The letters in di Robilant’s family attic were a crucial link.

They had been transported by Memmo’s gondoliers who would moor at a dock near the Wynne’s residence for exchange at a corner bottega. If Andrea was desperate for a sighting in those pre-skype days he would train a telescope on his beloved’s balcony. “Goodness, there she is, that naughty girl … will she look at me this time or won’t she … Come, look this way my girl!” Andrea once wrote to her of his attempt.

When they first met at the salon of English merchant cum art collector, Consul Joseph Smith, where artists, intellectuals and traveler’s converged, the attraction was electric (“Today my lips will not be able to tell you how much I love you,” wrote Andrea, “But there will be other ways … Will you understand what my eyes will be saying to you?”) and combustible (“I never thought it was possible,” writes Giustiniana after a rendezvous, “to love with such violence.”).

But you have already surmised, canny reader, that the love was ill-fated, even before Giustiniana’s mother cut off communication (or tried) knowing that her daughter would never find marriage between the pages of the patrician’s Golden Book. Giustiniana was shuttled off to London, Paris, and Austria, collecting enraptured men in every port. At last, she accepted the hand of Count Philip Orsini-Rosenberg, a 70-year-old widower from an Austrian family claiming Roman lineage, who had been named Imperial Ambassador of Austria to the Venetian Republic.

Chicken breed of Puduas, lithograph,1886, Jean Bungartz (1854-1934).

Chicken breed of Puduas, lithograph,1886, Jean Bungartz (1854-1934).

It was a coup for Giustiniana who had not one imperial corpuscle in her blood. But weren’t the times rife with such transgressions? Rich old geezers were putting their penises wherever they pleased, and worse, marrying the strumpets. They were deaf to the clucking of well-bred women who were as much renters in the patriarchy as were the courtesans, except with an official lease. Still, Giustiniana was underwhelmed by the privilege. She once wrote Andrea, “You want me to find a duke or an earl … I believe I want none of that. … A husband is a nasty thing.”

And the marriage provided further inconvenience. It was forbidden for local patricians to fraternize with foreign dignitaries – a prohibition Andrea ignored until his nose was smacked by the inquisitors who warned him, “In the future you will refrain from any contact whatsoever with the wife of [the] ambassador … at public functions and celebrations … an attentive eye will always be watching you.”

The Doge and the Senate, “Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday,” Matteo Pagan, Museo Correr, Venice.

The Doge and the Senate, “Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday,” Matteo Pagan, Museo Correr, Venice.

Andrea meantime, had made the requisite marriage with a woman who had a “bilious” character but bore him two children. He dutifully took on roles in the byzantine maze of Venice’s fading realm, complaining that the Senate (not unlike Washington’s chamber) was carrying on with “obtuse indolence.” He was appointed ambassador to Constantinople and defeated in a run for doge, all the while carrying on the dalliances demanded of a man of his station, until at last admitting to a friend that he had offered a lady “a cock that was not as hard as she deserved.”

But as life configured their separate worlds they kept finding each other. As the world around them changed, the Venetian affair continued. What secret kept their attention? What spark kept fueling their desire long after the thrill of the forbidden had ceased to be a novelty? What pull continued to draw these singular planets into each other’s stratosphere? “Mon cher frère, … the only crime I have committed is not having written to you for so long … I love you, I am your friend; my Memmo will always mean the same to me … Let me rise to this renewed expression of respect and friendship I receive from my Memmo, even if it means that everything might go to hell.”

AS4-1-410HRBorn to play out an irrevocable place in his privileged world, did Andrea envy the reckless freedom of this scrappy outsider? “I would be quite an ungrateful one” she wrote, “if I expected you to sacrifice the slightest pleasure for my sake … But you have to live in Venice, and I don’t. You have to cultivate the Venetian spirit, its genius, its weaknesses, and I don’t – though I can accept all these attitudes and prejudices in you.”

Weaned on pragmatism, was Giustiniana thrown off kilter by this man who tested her emotional metal? “I arrive; and I do not find you,” she wrote Andrea upon returning to Venice from London. “Instead I hear a lot of talk about responsibilities, affections, feelings apparently stronger than those I thought you harbored. … I humiliate my vanity. I destroy my expectations.  I vanquish my self-esteem. I even sympathize with you when you do not fly here to see me because love is apparently stronger than our very tender friendship.”

Do profound affections ever need to be unmasked?

Grand Canal Venice, Claude Monet, 1908, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Grand Canal Venice, Claude Monet, 1908, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

At 53, di Robilant writes, Giustiniana had become a respected intellectual, accomplished writer and collector of devoted friends and admirers, artists, men of science, and travelers at her Padua salon not unlike Consul Smith’s where she had met Andrea at seventeen, untested by life. Within the year she was dying, di Robilant speculates, of cancer of the uterus. And so Andrea arrived at the small, elegant palazzo she rented. He was at her bedside when the priest gave the sacrament of extreme unction. “And in the diaphanous early morning light,” di Robilant concludes, “Andrea bid his final farewell to her.” And to the Venetian affair. “Farewell, my Memmo,” Giustiniana once wrote, “love me and write me long letters.”

Giustiniana died on August 22, 1791. Andrea two years later. In 1797 Napoleon annexed the Republic of Venice to the Austrian state.

There are flings you think will last forever. And loves you can’t live without until you do. But some secrets are always worth keeping.

 

02/12/14

The Sultanette And The City Series

ALL-NEW EPISODE: The Sultanette defies sleet, slush and hat hair to watch NYC’s downtown fashion subversives walk on the wild side of the runway.

Fashion Inspiration at Launch NYC

Fashion Inspiration at Launch NYC

Since the pre-pubescent Sultanette marched up the aisle of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in white taffeta and rosary bead accessories to receive her First Holy Communion, I’ve been circumspect about how I dress up to get on my knees.

The next watershed moment was at the YSL couture show while living in Paris, by invitation of a Time Magazine journalist I’d met there. The venue, an imposing palais that looked like it might have hosted the Third Reich during their unstylish WWII sojourn, was now jampacked with the fashion cabal.

The Launch NYC crowd

The Launch NYC crowd

I followed my friend’s lead as she inched her way through the crowd until she snagged what had to be the last available seat. With no official ticket or press pass, I was now at risk of being ejected if I didn’t fly below the Fashion Police radar. Smarting at my unworthiness to be among the anointed In this high church of Saint Laurent, I spied a patch of floor at the end of the aisle and dropped to my knees.

For the next hour in that supplicant pose, I experienced the opera of haute couture. The feverish anticipation before the unveiling. Social X-rays rubbing elbows with the nouveau riche, all there to own a piece of the exquisite, psychotic, neurotic genius of Yves. Lanky creatures hip-jabbing and ass-swaying down the runway to the throb of flashing strobes and ‘80s disco. Lust, greed, envy, rapture ramping up with each new reveal.

Every year since then when Fashion Week comes to town, my retail libido is stirred with thoughts of that palais show and I’m content to channel Yves’s ghost rather than wrangle a ticket to the runway. But when I saw a news clip on Launch NYC, an alternative venue to Fashion Week’s main event featuring local designers, it sounded like an appropriately subversive harem diversion

Launch NYC beckons

Launch NYC beckons

Armed against New York’s latest weather dump in Vasque hiking boots, puffy coat and knit cap by Banana, I began my downtown trek through slush and frozen sludge. My chauffeur’s night off, the F train handily deposited me on Sixth Avenue, a quick schlepp to West Seventeenth Street where but for the glow of Launch NYC’s store front venue, the street was a dark, snow-crusted no-man’s land.

Given that I was about to invade the air-kissed world of the fashion cognoscenti, The Sultanette can be forgiven for a degree of foreboding upon making an entrance in tundra garb. So imagine my surprise when I was greeted at a VIP table by a lineup of smiling faces that might have been recruited from the counter of the Cupcake Café. Not on the list of poobahs, I roamed the snazzy crowd to stake out a good vantage point – and let the games begin.

Minnoji's urban guerillas

Minnoji’s urban guerillas

First up was Minnoji’s guerilla-chic collection complemented with leather helmets. Okay so maybe the most combat you’ll see decked out in this asymmetrical urbanwear is a scuffle over a skinny latte grande at Starbucks but few will question your metal in these threads.

Modu in fleece

Modu in fleece

Next on the catwalk was Modu with parings of elegantly composed fleece wool separates and thick-soled sneakers. The perfect look to throw in a duffel on your way to Hudson on the Hudson – or to shrink your travel time, the Marke on Madison.

Then came Mimi’s crocheted combustibles. Mimi is Anthropologie on multiple orgasms. Mimi conjures up Collette without the sad eyes and wearing come-fuck-me shoes like the rococo wedgies that play a supporting role to Mimi’s ethereal erotica.

Mimi's ethereal erotica

Mimi’s ethereal erotica

All this to a live DJ, DJ, so nice I said it twice. And a bar featuring designer caffeine. And a chance to actually purchase the merch in an adjoining retail space where I found off-beat cuff bracelots, skirts fit to print, and gold-paneled dresses at prices that won’t force you to sell your Paris pied-à-terre.

Headlining Carrie Hammer

Headlining Carrie Hammer

Which brings me back to that Paris spectacular that was all about Yves. Yes, we had gathered there to hold court with a member of fashion royalty. And yes, he had officially been immortalized for reinventing the tuxedo jacket with le smoking. But designers were still houses yet to be located on a trading floor. The art of cutting fabric superbly and conjuring up cutting-edge style was still more about being bodacious than making a bottom line. Collections were the labels of demented artisans, not brand extensions for celebrities. And the women who wore them were icons of style who combined wit and chutzpah with irresistible originality.

There was Isabella Blow with her game-changing chapeaus (“I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me. They say, ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’ I say, ‘No, thank you very much. That’s why I’ve worn the hat. Goodbye.’”) And the shameless accessorizing of Iris Apfel, still going strong at 92 after her Met retrospective. (“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”).

And in that downtown store front, just a few miles below the fashion magnates at Lincoln Center, there was just enough irreverent handiwork scattered among the LBDs to suggest that fashion hasn’t yet contained itself in a $10,000 designer satchel. Exuberant that they’d pulled one over on the fashion establishment, this downtown crowd was actually having more fun than posturing. I kept circling the room, unwilling to head back out in the cold and miss being part of the ongoing filming, selfies, interviewing and networking of press, designers, models and fashioncentrics.

Fashionette

Fashionette

And then I spotted the mini-maven. Curled up on a leather couch, pink-socked feet tucked under her, she was playing an electronic game. Her father hovered nearby and her mother appeared to be a fashion player but she was unimpressed by the Swells surging around her. Might this uncontrived sylph, hatched in the scrappy freedom of this outré world, grow up to be our next Isabella or Iris?

Finally tearing myself away, I negotiated icy Seventeenth Street towards the subway at Union Square and considered The Sultanette’s Spring ’14 collection. Some new leather? A filmy dress? Pink socks? Call fashion frivolous, superficial and extravagant. At its best, it gives us an opportunity to masquerade as our most original selves.

“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are which takes years. There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self-expression and above all attitude.”  Iris Apfel