The Life and Garden of Countess Evelina van Milligen – Pisani

This is our review of the newly published book Evelina – A Victorian Heroine in Venice. In her latest biographical novel, set in the 19th century, Rome-based writer and lecturer Judith Harris tells the compelling story of Countess Evelina van Millingen – Pisani, Constantinople, the Venetian diaspora, Veneto and Venice. And the story of Evelina’s country garden called Doge’s Farm located in the Veneto, “in the misty flatlands near Padua”.

Constantinople-born Evelina van Millingen Pisani, the heroine of this book, married Venetian Count Almoro’ Pisani in 1852. Later in her life, she managed to restore the family farm and garden near Padua during a difficult period of Italian and Venetian history. Evelina’s heritage still lives on … her garden developed into one of the most famous and beautiful spring gardens in Italy.

If you love reading biographical novels and learning about history through them, this might become a new favorite book. And writing the book review from a Venetian point of view, I was happy to find that it relates to Venice in so many ways. First, the book tells about famous English poets and travelers visiting Venice and paving the way for the Grand Tours in the 19th century. For example, Lord Byron is mentioned because Countess Evelina’s father was his private physician, and was even accused of accelerating the death of the famous writer.

Second, Judith Harris draws a meticulous mosaic of life in Constantinople in the 19th century, because that’s where Countess Evelina was born and partly raised. That’s where Evelina returned to before getting married in Venice. Judith brings the various parts and suburbs of Constantinople to life, and the people who lived there.

Reading between the lines, the book also tells the history of the Ottoman Empire after one of their main trading partners, the Republic of Venice, had ceased to exist. And Venice was a main trading partner, importing and delivering goods on a grand scale. I found this fact remarkable because this is a period of time not often mentioned in books or research papers.

You see, the year 1797 marks the point of time at which Venetians stopped taking notice of their former trading partners. The end of the Republic of Venice, which ceased to exist in May 1797, brought about a change in paradigms in town and a deep cut between present and past.

As author of a Blog dedicated to Venice and Venetian women, I was, above all, very curious about a heroine who became Countess during the most difficult years of Venetian history. But soon, the rest of the book also has drawn me in, due to Judith’s dense and compelling style of writing. It’s like reading an adventure novel at times, while at others, you learn a lot about Mediterranean and Levantine history.

In 1797, the French and later the Austrians occupied Venice. The Republic of Venice ceased to exist and so did Venetian business. The famous spice routes missed their most engaged traders. Ancient bonds endured behind the scenes, but that’s another story.

I won’t go into the details of how losing one’s country, identity, reputation, business relations and scope of life shaped the Venetian outlook on life and state of mind, but you can imagine what that dire blow meant to the Venetian society, and in particular, the noble families.

That’s why the foreign visitors during those times didn’t consider the Venetians engaging and happy hosts. Evelina couldn’t relate to them either. The foreign visitors to Venice at those times bought quite a few palaces from the Venetian nobility. Sometimes, Venetians were viewed as unwelcoming, haughty and closed society. Well, there simply wasn’t money to entertain and be outgoing to visitors in a bereaved town.

For us, it’s important to know that the Venetian population “somehow” survived (tirando avanti, so to say..) hiding in their homes and often having to sell their belongings, like Evelina’s husband’s family Pisani had done. The pictures in this article show their former family palace which was sold. When staying in Venice, the Pisani family then lived in an apartment next to their former palace, which Judith describes very vividly in her book.

So, Judith’s book does contain a chapter illuminating these difficult times in Venetian life. Yet, how these times set the stage for a new beginning.

And I love how in the end, Evelina contributed immensely to salvaging a piece of Venetian heritage and improving it in many ways.

I’m referring to the Pisani Estate located in the hamlet Vescovana near the banks of the river Adige. It was called “the Doge’s Farm”. Judith describes Evelina’s plans for the garden and country house so vividly, it made me want to visit the house as soon as possible :-) For this garden is now open to the public, and in spring, it’s home to the Giardinity festival, boasting a huge sea of more than 6,000 tulips. Click here to view them. And here’s the website of Villa Pisani.

You can buy the book here and at the author’s website. Judith Harris currently lives in Rome, and you can follow her latest Tweets here and her Instagram here. Judith is also the author of the book Pompei Awakened.

PS: I took the pictures in this blog post a few weeks ago around and on the premises of Palazzo Pisani which is now open to the public as Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello.

From September 2017, we will publish one Venice and Veneto related book review per month. Click here to view our complete collection of book reviews. Our book reviews are not paid and opinions are our own.


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  1. Isabell van millingen wrote:

    Looking forward to reading this book as evelina is my husbands great… great aunt and features in one of the many stories we have heard about the family from his Uncle Reul.

    Posted 12.7.17 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written and carefully researched. In my book review, I was focusing on the Venetian life of Evelina. And she did help maintain a few treasures of Venice in a very difficult time and created such a beautiful garden ! Many more chapters are dedicated to life in Constantinople and also to the family history. Reading the book is like really getting to know your relative, Evelina…

      Posted 12.7.17 Reply

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