Massimilla Doni by Honoré de Balzac

Massimilla Doni

Emilio Cane is the last in a line of nobility of Venice. He is poor. He will be heir to some property, but as he can’t sell it and he can’t use it to generate income. All he has is a small income from a country house. Emilio is in love with Massimilla Doni, a beautiful young woman who is an heiress of the Doni of Florence and married to the rich, old Duke Cataneo. The Duke doesn’t really want Massimilla as a wife, just as his Duchess, and he is more than happy for her to find a young lover. Emilio has been staying in the Cataneo sumptuous country house in the Alps for months. He moons over Massimilla, holds hands with her, spends all his time with her, but as yet their love is unconsummated. It seems the Duchess has “fascinate[d] to stupidity a youth in whom rapture found some fresh incitement; for she had really absorbed his young soul.” Massimilla “would have been ready to consummate the love union”, but “Emilio set his mistress far too high ever to touch her.”

A letter comes from Emilio’s best friend Marco Vendramin announcing that the last elderly Cane has died and that now Emilio is a prince.  But this doesn’t matter much as it means no real money. He also tells Emilio that the famous tenor Genovese and the famous Signora Clarina Tinti are to be engaged in Venice for the season. This is far more interesting to Emilio, and he runs to tell Massimilla the news. Signora Tinti had been a servant in an inn when a nobleman was captured by her voice and brought her up to be professionally trained. Massimilla says she is perfectly certain that Signora Tinti’s nobleman is not her husband, but indeed later we find that the benefactor is indeed Duke Cataneo.

Massimilla and Emilio go to Venice for the musical season. Massimilla is riding in an elegant gondola attended by men in livery. Behind is Emilio and his one gondolier Carmagnola, a faithful old retainer who is living frugally due to Emilio’s inability to pay him much in wages. This seems strange, why is he not riding with Massimilla?

At any rate, Emilio never actually finishes reading his friend Marco’s letter but goes to his house in the city, the palazzo Memmi. As Emilio’s gondola approaches the palazzo, it is seen that all the windows are lit and there is much activity. It seems the whole house is being renovated, and Emilio wonders if Massimilla has done this for him. He walks around admiring the improvements, drinks a whole bottle of port and eats some food, and goes to bed. But a few minutes later Signora Tinti comes in and moves around as if she lives there. She is accompanied by the very old and ugly Duke Cataneo, who wants to play the violin while Clarina sings. But suddenly he sees Emilio’s trousers and starts screaming jealously. Finally it is revealed that Marco Vendramin as a friend rented out Emilio’s house to the Duke to be renovated as a fine place for Clarina to stay while she fulfills her singing engagement in Venice. The Duke asks Emilio to leave, but instead Clara throws the Duke out for his ill behavior.

Clarina is instantly attracted to Emilio, who tries to resist her. But after she starts crying, he succumbs and thus he has a consummation, but with the wrong lover. He ignores his servant Carmagnola’s attempts to page him, and finds out the next day that Carmagnola had a note from Massimilla telling him that Cataneo had rented the residence and asking him to go to his friend Vendramin’s house. Alas, too late, Emilio has already been unfaithful. He is wretched and cries out to Clarina, “Wretch, you have undone me!” And then he rushes off to see Massimilla to confess. But he doesn’t quite get around to confessing though Massimilla sees that he is not acting normally. Massimilla strives to cheer him up, “feeling that her strength lay in the absence of any sensual side to her love”…and she “could allow herself to be expansive; she boldly and confidently poured out her angelic spirit, she stripped it bare, just as during that diabolical night, la Tinti had displayed the soft lines of her body, and her firm, elastic flesh. In Emilio’s eyes there was as it were a conflict between the saintly love of this white soul and that of the vehement and muscular Sicilian.”

That evening Massimilla and Emilio attend the theatre, a major event in Venice with all the important people having their own box. All society wonders if Emilio and Massimilla are yet sleeping together. They think not because they see frustration in Emilio’s looks. Instead of la Tinti and Genovese, the tenor that Cataneo has hired to blend perfectly in music with Clarina, performing, it is announced that Genovese will perform alone as Clarina is indisposed. Genovese performs brilliantly. It is rumored he is in love with Clarina and that this is perhaps why Clarina is not performing with him, but no one really knows. Various visitors come to Massimilla’s box: an Austrian General, a French physician. Emilio sees Vendramin and asks him to cover for him as to where he spent the night last night and to confirm that he spends all his nights at Vendramin’s house.

Vendramin it seems is an opium addict, readily trading some years of his life for the ecstasy of the drug. There is much talk of Vendramin and his opium, of politics in Venice and Italy, and of music. Then as Vendramin and Emilio walk through the streets Emilio despairingly tells Vendramin about his making love to Clarina. Vendramin reassures him and promises he can deal with Massimilla for him. “This ray of hope came just in time to save Emilio from drowning himself that night; for, indeed, as he remembered the singer, he felt a horrible wish to go back to her.”

Vendramin and Emilio go to Florian’s, a center for men’s conversation and gossip. Duke Cataneo makes an appearance and bows courteously to Emilio. Also there is the eccentric Capraja, a nobleman known to Massimilla. He and Cataneo have a talk about music as only Balzac can provide it, heh. They are mad for music as Emilio is mad for Massimila and Vendramin is mad for opium. Emilio and Vendramin go to Vendramin’s palazzo, where a gondolier approaches and claims that the Duchess is in the gondola. Emilio jumps into the gondola, only to find Clarina and another night of sex.

The next night at the theatre Emilio is anxious for obvious reasons. Massimilla also looks gloomy and depressed. There is more discussion of music with the French physician, Cataneo, and Capraja. A sample of the musical discussion: “And when the clarionet gives the signal for the stretto, – ‘Voci di giubilo,’ – so brilliant and gay, was not your soul filled with the sacred pyrrhic joy of which David speaks in the Psalms, ascribing it to the hills?” Pages and pages of this stuff, heh. Oddly enough, Genovese is singing badly while Clarina is superb. There are hints that Clarina is in love and Genovese thus in bad humor.

After the opera Emilio tells Vendramin that he was not with Massimilla last night and that he cannot stand the torment of his unconsummated love for Massimilla. He will make one final effort and then kill himself. Vendramin declares him mad and makes him promise to meet him at Florian’s after he sees Massimilla home. Perhaps Massimilla has an inkling as she says to the French doctor she can cure Emilio of his melancholy. There is more opera, Rossini’s story of Moses. After the opera Emilio goes off with Massimilla. Vendramin, the French doctor, Capraja, and Genovese walk and talk. Genovese says he loves Clarina but does not recognize that he sang so poorly. He stops and belts out a magnificent air. Capraja attempts to explain why Genovese can sing so wonderfully alone but so poorly with Clarina: “When an artist is so unfortunate as to be full of the passion he wishes to express, he cannot depict it because he is the thing itself instead of its image.” All are agreed that somehow they must resolve the problem between Genovese and Massimilla to save the opera season.

The group goes back to Florian’s, where they find Emilio in despair. The French doctor says, “By my advice he [Emilio] must needs combine his sensual joys and his heavenly adoration in one woman.” Duke Cataneo invites him to supper: “You cannot refuse the poor Neapolitan whom you have robbed both of his wife and of his mistress.” Emilio goes off with the Duke, Vendramin, the French physician, and Capraja. They arrive at Emilio’s house, as you remember occupied by Clarina. Light pours out of every window, and the company is at supper. Emilio is seated by Clarina. “The transcendental vision of Massimilla was eclipsed, just as the idea of God is sometimes hidden by clouds of doubt in the consciousness of solitary thinkers.” Genovese and Clarina are bid to sing, and Genovese again brays out obscenely.

The French doctor slips away and delivers a note written by Vendramin to Massimilla. The doctor asks Massimilla if she is prepared to save Emilio’s life by slipping into Tinti’s room and pretending to be her. She smilingly agrees. The doctor returns and asks Clarina to save Emilio’s life and cure Genovese. Clarina slips off to her room, and Emilio follows. But of course we know that Massimilla is in Clarina’s room, and finally their love is consummated – perhaps without Emilio’s realizing it was Massimilla instead of Clarina? And Genovese and Clarina make love so Genovese can sing again. Only Vendramin and his opium habit remain uncured. “Love for a country that has ceased to be is a love beyond curing. The young Venetian, by dint of living in his thirteenth century republic, and in the arms of that pernicious courtesan called opium, when he found himself in the work-a-day world to which reaction brought him, succumbed, pitied and regretted by his friends.”

And, oh, yes, Massimilla is pregnant.

Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, December 2008


6 comments on “Massimilla Doni by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Great summary. My guess is that Emilio is not riding in the gondola with Massimilla in order to keep up appearances.


  2. bennythomas says:

    Massimilla Doni was written in 1837 but not published till 1839.The theme is excess of passion can kill a work of art . So it can put a damper to male virility. The male lover ‘fails’ with his mistress but may prove potent with a prostitute for whom he cares nothing. Excess of imagination can exhaust a man’s strength so the opera singer who cannot put a distance will fail in performance.
    This novella is Balzac’s best and most daring and works in two levels. Between the Prince and Massimila, Emiliano knows it will end in disaster if he seeks to possess her; Genovese the tenor cannot sing at his best if Clara is not on the stage.The duchess noted for chaste love is rady to out perform Clar in order to save her lover. This rather ‘odious’ theme may have been unconsciously derived from Stendhal’s Armance.
    Another crucial fact is in the power of music on an occupied nation. Italy under the iron heel of Austria whose liberty has been made a short shrift of and the nobiliity reduced to accept a ducat, a mere pittance for their loss in their landed goods. Rossini’s Moses is dealt extensively with the deliverance of Israel from the Egypt . Lovers in the Opera are star crossed and strike a parallel with the private dilemma of the Duchess and the Prince. Two sets: Israel and Italy seeking release and the other of the characters, how admirably brought to life in the way the author juxtaposes them! All these imbibed by Balzac who only needed a few hours among the then Ventian society!
    (ack: Prmetheus: The Life of Balzac-A. Maurois)


  3. Charlie says:

    I had to read these for school – in French- but Balzac’s use of language is so complicated that interpreting the stories in the right way was a living hell. I notice now that I missed a lot of important details. Thank you very much and keep up the good work.


    • scamperpb says:

      I’m not surprised that you found it difficult to interpret Balzac – he can be quite confusing even in reading in translation. There have been many times I’ve been ready to pull my hair out trying to understand the story! To try to understand it in French if French is not your native language must be difficult indeed. Glad we helped a little.


  4. scamperpb says:

    I found the love story amusing but its blend with an exotic discussion on music confusing – perhaps because of my lack of knowledge of opera and music in this historical period. Saintsbury commented that the music part of the story did not work well. There’s a comedy of errors quality to the story that is interesting and could be acted interestingly with mistaken identities and bed-swapping and true love between Emilio and Massimilla winning out in the end.


  5. Benny has written an interesting post, “Balzac in Venice- Massimilla Doni” on one of his blogs:


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