The opening is certainly "in the spring of the year 1796" [Chapter III]. There is no reason to doubt the year; indeed, there are numerous confirmations of it. For example, in Chapter X we learn that "Mayr's latest opera, Lodoiska, … was then being performed at the Fenice Theatre." La Lodoiska, by Giovanni Simone Mayr, was first performed on January 26, 1796, at the Fenice. And we know from Chapter XII that the poet Ugo Foscolo, born 6 February 1778, was 18.
We also know that Marc-Antoine arrived in Venice on "a May morning" [Chapter IV]. Can we tell precisely when?
Our best information is that on the day Vendramin surprises Marc-Antoine with Isotta, it was "little more than a week" since Ascension Thursday [Chapter IX], which was on May 5. So Vendramin's untimely arrival must have taken place no earlier than May 13 and at most a few days later.
But two other data points are at odds with this conclusion. On the preceding day, Lallemont mentions to Marc-Antoine that Napoleon has "smashed the Austrian might at Lodi" [Chapter IV]. The Battle of Lodi took place on May 10, 1796. Lallemont and Marc-Antoine do not speak of this event as breaking news, but as something well-known to both. In particular, Lallemont feels no need to ask Marc-Antoine, who has been many days on the road, whether he has heard the news. This places the date of their meeting considerably later in May.
Secondly, after Marc-Antoine leaves the Palace Pizzamano on the night of his first visit [Chapter VII] we learn that the "moon had risen over the garden". Surely this implies that the moon rose no earlier than shortly before sunset, more likely shortly afterwards. Hence the moon was within a day or two of full. The night of the full moon was May 21.
Clearly there is a mistake somewhere. The simplest reconciliation is to assume a one-word typo in Chapter III: the first sentence of the third paragraph should read "It was little more than a fortnight" since Ascension Thursday. If we then date this moment to May 21 we are surely in error by at most a day or two.
It follows that Melville arrived in Venice on the morning of the 20th. Since he "accomplished the journey [from Turin] in two days" [Chapter IV] and killed Lebel in the evening, the novel opens on May 17, and there was plenty of time to bring the news from Lodi to Venice.
Finally, we note that Marc-Antoine mentions the Cispadane Republic in his first appeal to the Doge [Chapter IX]. But the Cispadane Republic was not formed until October of that year. Undoubtedly Marc-Antoine was threatening the Doge with the consequences of an entity that might (and ultimately did) come into being, rather than describing a past event as the text implies.
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Copyright © 2007 Larry Denenberg