Carlo Altoviti, born in Venice on the Day of St. Luke the Evangelist in 1775, spent his boyhood in the ancient, decaying castle of Fratta, the neglected, unwanted poor relation in the household of feudal gentry such as he would live to see swept away by war and revolutions. His mother, the sister of the Countess of Fratta, had made a runaway match with an adventurer named Todero Altoviti, but had deserted her husband a few months later. When her child was born, the infant had been dispatched at once to Fratta. In his childhood, Carlo knew only that his mother was dead and that his father was reported to have turned Turk somewhere in the Levant.
The household at Fratta was composed of the austere, pompous count and his haughty wife; their daughters, Clara and Pisana; the count’s brother, Monsignor Orlando, a stupid, gluttonous priest; the chancellor who managed the count’s business affairs; Captain Sandracca, the swaggering but timid captain of militia; the chaplain; and a number of hangers-on and servants. Carlo’s place was a menial one, and he spent most of his time in the cavernous, gloomy kitchen with the retainers. Sometimes he slipped away to play with his cousin Pisana, who even as a child was a creature of whims and passions, contradictions and loyalties; in later years, she was to make Carlo’s life a torment and a delight. The older daughter, Clara, was a grave, lovely girl who devoted herself to the care of her bedridden grandmother, Lady Badoer. It was Clara who drew the young men of the Friuli region to Fratta. Among these were Giulio del Ponte, a writer of graceful verses; Lucilio Vianello, a medical student; and Alberto Partistagno, a young man of noble family.
The Spaccafumo, a bandit who had once rescued young Carlo from the marshes, was the friend of Antonio Provedoni, the mayor of the commune. When Antonio’s son Leopardo courted Doretta, daughter of the chancellor of Venchieredo, he was set upon by some bullies of Venchieredo, and the Spaccafumo rescued him. The Count of Venchieredo charged that the chaplain of Fratta had sheltered the bandit, and he then laid siege to Fratta; his real purpose was to secure some incriminating documents that a retainer at Fratta possessed. His plan was thwarted by Lucilio Vianello, who put the castle in a state of defense, and by Partistagno, who arrived with his retainers to put the men of Venchieredo to rout. Later, Carlo saved the documents from theft. The Count of Venchieredo was sentenced to ten years in prison. With Venchieredo humbled, Leopardo was free to marry Doretta.
When the news of the French Revolution reached Venice and men began to dream of a new kind of freedom, the Inquisition of State began a reign of terror. Seeing troubled times ahead, Almoro Frumier, a Venetian senator and kinsman of the Count of Fratta, moved with his family to Portogruaro. There the people of Fratta went frequently to visit, and Carlo, now an acknowledged...
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