“Not used to being sick, I became so desperate that I could say I was more vegetating than living,” wrote Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi not long before her death on September 27, 1836, 179 years ago today. This lethargy must have especially pained her, as hers was a particularly vivacious life. Isabella, a writer who also ran a literary salon, helped to shape Venetian culture in her century.
The literary salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were different than their sixteenth and seventeenth century predecessors. Instead of the male-dominated and run academies, now the salons were often hosted by women and brought together both sexes for music, discussion, refreshments, and overall cultural cohesion. At a time when salons in Paris and London were known as dens of gossiping society women, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi’s salon held a higher standard. As researcher Ricciarda Ricorda points out, “For Teotochi, too, it is a moment of self-affirmation and proof of her own potential” (112). The salon’s lingua franca, as the phrase suggests, was French, though of course Italian, along with its dialects, and Greek were often interspersed as well.
While the women generally occupied the seats, the men often stood behind the chairs, though they all mingled in the same room, unlike the more British fashion of segregating the sexes. Tables of inlaid wood were arranged beside chairs covered with embroidered cushions. The cool terrazzo floor added browns, beiges, and blacks below, while Murano glass chandeliers, ever more elaborate, provided color and sparkle overhead. Women’s dresses opted for a slimmer line and a high waist, with fabrics that flowed more than the heavy damasks of previous centuries. Due to the waning fortunes of the Venetian Republic, the lemonade might be weaker, the biscuits not as fresh, or the wine of lesser quality, but attendees were willing to forgo such treats to be replaced by scintillating conversation. Salons such as Isabella’s kept the arts alive at a time when society was crumbling.
Isabella often chose a topic to start a conversation, and those present volleyed ideas like a lively game of badminton. Typical topics might include ideal love, women’s education, or Aristotelian conundrums. Besides writers and artists, scientists, ambassadors, politicians and composers might attend. Isabella, or one of her guests, might read her own verses or scenes for entertainment as well as analysis. She also read from her travel journals; Ricorda comments that “The sober elegance of the pages describing her ‘tour’ suggests they were destined to be read aloud, an appropriate development for this sophisticated salon hostess” (111-12). Isabella’s salon presented an opportunity for her to display her varied talents while entertaining guests. She presided with grace and aplomb, like a cooling breeze against a humid evening.
Isabella’s best known work was I Ritratti, or portraits, primarily of the men with whom she surrounded herself. While Isabella was not the only person, male or female, to write such portraits in her era, hers show that she herself possessed the character traits to determine who had taste and good moral behavior; Susan Dalton concludes,
Consequently, while some eighteenth century thinkers argued that women’s difference [from men] defined them out of serious political and intellectual forums, others . . . believed that women could play an important social role because of sexual difference. The place that they occupied is illustrated in their social interactions, and the great interest in Isabella’s Ritratti is the way that it documents these practices, old and new, gendered and not, in all their complexity. (100)
If women were given a narrow, circumscribed role, or only a drawing room in which to develop their voices, then Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi filled her given space fully with her insights, organization, and instructive lessons. “Taste had to be educated,” she contended, “but once it had been, it would not only express itself in civil behavior, but also function as a means of identifying morality in others” (qtd. in Dalton 91). Her salons fulfilled a deeper societal function than merely a social gathering place; they built character by developing artistic sensibilities, which strengthened society’s moral fiber.
Giovanni Pindemonte called Isabella “the painter of singular souls” (Dalton 95). Though many have forgotten her, today we can remember her and consider all she–and salonniers like her–gave to preserve and develop Venetian society.
(Most of this post is excerpted directly from my chapter on Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice, available in Venice bookstores and at http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman). (I took the photos of the salon and museum.)