Monday, January 23, 2006

Duchesse D'Albany*

Florence: January 14th, 1826.—I have been dining with the Lawleys in the house formerly inhabited by the Duchesse d'Albany. The conversation turned much on the subject of the late possessor, who, if she be not much belied, must have been a very odious woman.

The only cause I can find for doubting the truth of what has been told me, is that it appears scarcely possible that such a creature as she is represented could be to Alfieri an object of such strong, such constant affection. It is, I am told, quite certain that her marked predilection for Fabre excited in the poor poet a fit of such violent jealous passion as to have produced gout in the stomach, of which he died suddenly. Some are uncharitable enough to suspect Fabre of having poisoned him ; but there is not the slightest evidence to warrant the suspicion of his having ever administered any poison but that of jealousy.

It seems this Fabre was a French picture-dealer, a thorough blackguard, who was introduced to the Duchesse as a secretary by Alfieri himself, during the lifetime of Charles Edward. It was not long before he aspired to the affection of his mistress, and supplanted Alfieri in the position of what is here called il patito.

That there must have been something peculiarly shameless in the woman who chose to record her own shame in marble is evident, and this is what the Duchesse has done by her monument to Alfieri.**

That she must always have been ugly is (as I hear) also proved by a portrait painted by Fabre in 1793, and placed in the French saloon at the Gallery, which I have not yet taken the trouble of seeing. Her table is said to have been the object of her strongest affection through life, and to have overcome her love of money. By a sort of poetical justice, .not often seen in real life, the pangs which she had inflicted upon poor Alfieri were visited on her own head or heart. The latter years of her life were embittered by her excessive jealousy of the attentions paid by Fabre to the very handsome wife of a seal engraver, whose name I have forgotten.

An eye-witness told Sir Robert Lawley that her deathbed (in 1824) afforded the strongest instance of the ruling passions strong in death. She blessed God for a long and happy life, and instanced three peculiar causes of thankfulness: first, that she had always had the best of wines; secondly, that she had always had a good cook and an excellent dinner; thirdly and principally, that she had not outlived the seal engraver, and thus had been spared the misery of seeing Fabre married to her rival.

Sir Robert says that the Florentines, who could not forgive her treatment of Alfieri, had ceased to visit her after his death;*** and were very much astonished when the peace of 1814 brought shoals of English, to see some of our first ladies at the feet of this odious woman, and suffering themselves to be treated as subjects by this mock sovereign. The dirt of her house, when he took it, he says was quite incredible : that and everything else belonging to her, with the exception of a very small legacy to some starving Stolberg relations, she bequeathed to Fabre.

He told Sir Robert that, it was very singular, within a couple of months of her death, she had been furnishing herself with various articles, as if she had expected to live a hundred years. She had ordered a new carpet to be made at Tournay, for one of her rooms. She had bought a dozen pair of cotton stockings, and a dozen petticoats; the first article Sir Robert purchased, and was earnestly requested by Fabre to buy the others too.****

Editor’s notes
* Although popularly called Duchess after her death, she was only known as Countess in her lifetime, and that was her real title. The title of Duchess was conferred by the Pretender on his illegitimate daughter.
** The monument is the simplest record of an attachment which
was not condemned by society : ' Victoria Alfierio Asteiisi Aloisia e Principibus Stolbergis Albania Cumitissa M.P.C. An. MDCC'CX.' There is no ground for the supposition that Alfieri's death was hastened by jealousy, and Fabre was a French painter of unimpeachable respectability.
*** So far was this from being the case that Napoleon sent for her
in 1809, and began thus : ' I know your influence over the society of Florence. I know also that you employ it in a sense adverse to my policy.'
**** See Die Grafin van Albany : Von Alfred von Reumont (2 vols.) Berlin, 1860; and the review of that book in the Edinburgh Review for July 1861. As I wrote that review, I may not be deemed wholly without predilections; but Miss Wynn's informants strike me to have been in every way unjust towards the Duchesse and Fabre, and to have made no allowance for Alfieri's treatment of her. At the same time, it must be admitted that much of her conduct and character sadly militate against romance Another very high authority, Lord Broughton, has taken the unfavourable side.


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