Thursday 4 February 2010

Stranger than Fiction – Michelle Lovric

I’m scarcely writing at the moment. I’m doing something stranger than fiction. I’m trying to drag a 700-year-old piece of marble out of the moist bowels of the Doges Palace in Venice.

It is that fascinating object, a Column of Infamy. It was erected to the eternal dishonour of one Bajamonte Tiepolo, Venetian nobleman.

Bajamonte’s plot to murder Doge Pietro Gradenigo dissolved into a bloody comedy of savagely ironic errors. A last-minute betrayal cost him the element of surprise. Then the heavens opened, drowning in wind and rain all Bajamonte’s plans for simultaneous strikes on San Marco from three different directions. The whole grandiose conspiracy was finally quashed after an old lady dropped a stone mortar-and-pestle on the head of Bajamonte’s standard-bearer, scattering brains and blood. When it was all over, Bajamonte Tiepolo’s palazzo at Sant’Agostin was razed, his family crest suppressed, the man himself consigned to perpetual exile, a kind of living death, the worst possible punishment for a Venetian. Except …

Except knowing that on the site of your destroyed home, your vengeful vanquisher, Doge Gradenigo, has erected a colonna d’infamia, a metre-tall column of white marble with an inscription to keep your name in perpetual odium. ‘For ever’, says the column, one of the earliest examples of stone script in Venice.

For this writer, the idea of a Column of Infamy has an irresistible appeal. What can compare with it by way of an insult? A libellous roman-a-clef? A spiteful scrawl of graffiti? A rancid blog? A perpetual icon at the top of every Google search? A malicious character assassination in a national newspaper? I don’t think so. This is an insult that becomes part of the fabric of the city: a phantasmagorical white effigy by moonlight, a harsh reality by day. It’s a urinal for the dogs, and for humans with some dog in their nature. (And don’t think Doge Gradenigo didn’t think of that when he put up the column.)

And it turns out that Bajamonte Tiepolo’s Column of Infamy has a story of its own, something stranger and perhaps sadder than even a novelist could invent.

For even in exile, Bajamonte Tiepolo could not bear the thought of it. One of his henchmen was sent in the night to destroy the column. He succeeded in breaking it in three pieces before he was caught in the act. The henchman was deprived of a hand and his eyes were put out. The column was repaired and re-erected. For a while.

Also implicated in the Tiepolo conspiracy were members of the Querini clan, one of whom was Bajamonte’s father-in-law, Marco. Family counts in Italy. Memories are long. It seems that in 1785, one Angelo Maria Querini asked the city if he could buy the column. No-one paid too much attention, it seems, when the shameful object was quietly sold off and a humble stone plaque embedded in the pavement. Loc. Col. Bai. The. MCCCX. says the broken slab, which almost seems designed to obfuscate all but those who speak abbreviated Latin and know fourteenth-century Venetian history.

Strangely, however, Querini did not destroy the column. Instead, he sent it to his villa in Altichiero on the mainland. Then it passed into the hands of the antiquarian Antonio Sanquirico, and finally to the heir of the Duke of Melzi, who used it as a garden ornament at a mansion on Lake Como. It was returned to Venice in 1838 by the last inhabitant of the villa, Duchess Joséphine Melzi-d'Eril Barbò, and it was briefly put on display in a courtyard of the Correr Museum. But some time, at least a hundred years ago, it was carried down to a depository of the Doges Palace, and never seen again.

Never seen again: the Column of Infamy that was supposed to stand ‘for ever’.

I have talked to many Venetians and to organizations that find the column fascinating and compelling, both as an object and as a symbol. 2010 is the 700th anniversary of Bajamonte’s plot. Even Venice doesn’t have many seven-hundredth anniversaries! Yet the conspiracy’s most important and tangible relic languishes unseen. The column is not fragile, and it’s not massive. Why can't it be brought out of the depository and placed where Venetians can see it? Even inside the Correr Museum, if stone conservation is an issue. The clock is ticking. On the day of posting this blog, it will be four months and ten days until the 700th anniversary of Bajamonte’s fall.

Now Venice forgets her past at her peril. In some ways, it is all she has left. So far, I have attempted some consciousness-raising in the form of my novel, The Undrowned Child. That shaming Column of Infamy gives Bajamonte a visceral reason hate Venice: his vengeful ghost serves nicely as a highly motivated villain. In my story, when he’s vanquished, Bajamonte’s lost column magically reappears where it always should have been.

And I haven’t renounced hope. For my sins, I’m offering myself up at a press conference in Venice later this month. I’m presenting a paper (The Novelist’s Bajamonte Tiepolo – the Lure of a Column of Infamy) at a conference in Venice in April. I’ve been honoured with an invitation to deliver the Venice in Peril Summer Lecture on June 1: The Night Venice Nearly Died - The Conspiracy of Bajamonte Tiepolo 1310 - 2010. All this from someone who would rather chew off her big toe than do personal publicity (see my previous blog on the Golem).

I’m working with some locals on the idea of a small, dignified and quiet symbolic gesture on the night of June 14th, the eve of the anniversary. Since the Fondazione controls all the images of the column, I’ve commissioned an evocative painting by Kaitlin Zorah McDonough that shows la colonna d'infamia not in a warehouse but in the campo of Sant’Agostin, where it should be.

Anyone got any other ideas?

I appeal to the creative and subversive imaginations of all those who read this blog.

Venice, and her languishing Column of Infamy, need you.

Michelle Lovric’s website
Venice in Peril
Painting of the Column of Infamy by Kaitlin Zorah McDonough.


Nick Green said...

How fascinating. But oh, how times change. I think today's celebrities would kill for the chance to have their own Column of Infamy. (It's not just that notoriety is better than obscurity; it's that in their ignorance they probably think that 'infamous' is like 'invaluable' and means 'really famous'.)

Good luck with bringing the Column of Infamy back into the light.

Mary Hoffman said...

Good luck with all your efforts, Michelle! And I'm sure both press conference adn talk will be triumphs!

Stroppy Author said...

Two thoughts -

- can I commission a column of infamy?
- how about a hologram? Get some artists in light and lasers to create a holographic column of infamy in the campo. Money from Biennale?

Keren David said...

Completely fascinating. Good luck..although I feel a little bit sad for Bajamonte if you succeed.

adele said...

What a story! Please post all details of your appearances before the press. I have no exciting ideas but will await developments.

adele said...

What a story! Please post all details of your appearances before the press. I have no exciting ideas but will await developments.

Katherine Langrish said...

Absolutely fascinating, Michelle - good luck with it!