No one has left a “tell-all” diary. But it seems that Marina Querini Benzon’s joie de vivre liberated her from many of the condemnations that women before her had to endure.
In 1797, the Venetian republic fell to Napoleon’s troops. On June 4, 219 years ago today, they partied with a festival in the Piazza San Marco. Garlands and flags festooned every window, and no less than four orchestras permeated the air with marches and melodies. The Tree of Liberty that had been erected in the Piazza to welcome the French troops symbolized the new freedom and equality.
One of those who danced beneath the tree was Marina Querini Benzon, a noblewoman known for her literary salon. Certainly, as bystanders watched her there must have been gossip and shocked whispers behind people’s hands, and in fact spies denounced her as a prostitute. Yet, unlike so many other intelligent and spirited Venetian women before her, Marina was ultimately not stereotyped as an unchaste or unprincipled woman. Through the way she conducted her long life, she represents a liberated woman in charge of her own destiny.
On June 4, Marina wore her hair in long braids and sported a short Athenian toga that shockingly displayed her shapely calves and thighs, all the way to her hips. She cavorted with abandon first with Father Pier Giacomo Nani, a Jacobin monk, until they both fell on the ground, legs in the air, skirt and tunic over their heads. But that didn’t deter Marina. With a hand from some French officers, she rose to dance again, soon falling into the arms of Ugo Foscolo, a dashing young Romantic and revolutionary with curly red locks and a dapper suit, until evening fell and candlelight took over the night.
A painting by Giuseppe Borsato and titled Festa del’ “L’albero della Libertá” in Piazza San Marco, pictured at the top of this page and now at the Museo Correr, shows a platform erected in the middle of the Piazza, with statues at its corners and the actual tree at its center. Hundreds of people of every social strata fill the square, skirts twirling or arms outstretched in the dance, with a couple dogs cavorting at their feet. Sadly, Marina is not depicted here, or at least I couldn’t find any woman in a short toga when I zoomed in for these close up pics.
(Sorry for the poor quality of these last four photos. I took them in the museum with my cheapo camera.)
Celebrate the life of Marina Querini Benzon today, by dancing under a tree or wearing a toga! Kick your legs in the air and twirl with a priest! Make the dogs bark!