Massimilla Doni

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac XVth volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1874)

Philosophical studies

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Massimilla Doni

MASSIMILLA DONI   Dedicated work

TO JACQUES STRUNZ My dear Strunz, it would be ingratitude not to attach your name to one of the two works I could not have done without your patient complaisance and good care. Please find here a token of my grateful friendship, for the courage with which you have tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to initiate me into the depths of musical science. You will always have taught me what genius hides in difficulty and labor in these poems that are for you the source of divine pleasures. On more than one occasion, you’ve also given me the small pleasure of laughing at the expense of more than one so-called connoisseur. Some accuse me of ignorance, suspecting neither the advice I owe to one of the best music critics, nor your conscientious assistance. Perhaps I’ve been the most unfaithful of secretaries? If it were so, I’d certainly be a traitor without knowing it, and yet I still want to be able to call myself one of your friends.

Analysis of the work Massimilla Doni is first and foremost a souvenir of the trip Balzac made to Italy for his friends Guidoboni-Visconti, in early 1837, in the middle of writing Gambara. The trip was a marvel. You can feel it in the work he inspired in Balzac. Massimilla Doni begins with some of Balzac’s most brilliant pages – or at least his most brilliant. A marvellous villa at the foot of the mountain, a young prince, a mistress in love, the most refined setting for love, love as it exists only in dreams. A thousand and one nights But the lover at his mistress’s feet, lost in his dream of love, inert, petrified in this ideal love, savors his immaterial happiness with a patient, gentle mistress who waits. The lovers return to Venice, where Emilio Memmi, the bohemian lover, finds his palazzo on the Grand Canal sumptuously illuminated and rented out for the season to Tinti, a famous singer. This is where the action begins. The subject is a bold one.

The Story Emilio Memmi, recently made Prince of Varese, is a poor prince. He is deeply in love with the young Duchess Massimilla Doni, wife of the Duke of Caetano. The Duke, a jaded, corrupt old man, is the protector of the singer Clara Tinti, for whom he has rented the palace Emilio Memmi has just inherited for her performances in Venice. The Duke of Caetano has a fatherly love of tenderness, and the Duchess respects him for this delicacy. Massimilla is due to join her husband in Venice, so the two lovers decide to meet there. On his arrival, Emilio is surprised to find his new palace illuminated, decked out in the pomp and sumptuous preparations that precede a party, and believes it to be given in his honor. A fine dinner is served in the room, and congratulating himself on such a warm welcome, he makes full use of it. Then, feeling weary, he decides to rest on the bed. He is astonished to see Tinti appear in the room, followed by the Duke of Caetano. At the sight of Emilio, the latter believes that Tinti has a lover and seeks to quarrel with the singer, who, happy with the situation, takes advantage of the altercation to send the old man away. Emilio is torn between his virtuous love for Massimilla and his temptation to taste the caresses that Tinti promises him. He gives in to the pleasure of love, a pleasure that leaves a taste of shame in his heart. This marriage of two passions, one touching the heart, the other monopolizing the senses, etiolates Emilio’s pure soul, and he can no longer find peace of mind. Every time he finds Massimilla, he feels guilty about his betrayal of her. Massimilla Doni becomes aware of her lover’s morose and depressive state. During an evening at the Opera, she finds herself in the company of Emilio and Pierre, the French doctor in their circle of friends. Emilio’s silence and gloom invite him to converse with Pierre about the mysteries of music. Pierre realizes that the relationship between Massimilla and Emilio is strained. He’ll invite his friend to confide in him the evil that’s eating away at him, and teach him that the love that unites two beings is made up of the feelings of the heart as well as the desire of the senses.

Analysis…more The subject is a bold one. It’s the story of what Stendhal called a fiasco: medieval storytellers used to say they “had their needles tied”. The idea is to wake people up. In this situation, we recognize a new episode in the investigation carried out in The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara. The abuse of thought paralyzes natural impulses, and the fixation of the imagination provokes a contemplation that mobilizes all forces and renders them unfit for action. Balzac had already had this idea five years earlier, shortly after writing Louis Lambert. In his Album, he had noted the following subject: ” Les deux amours”: a man who sleeps with girls and finds himself impotent in front of the woman he loves. The soul absorbing everything and killing the body. Triumph of thought.” This sketch of the destructive power of thought is the whole subject of Massimilla Doni. It is the opera singer who, overcome by a sudden passion for Emilio, agrees to present the life-saving potion. Using the darkness, she pretends to be Massimilla and manages to get Emilio out of his apartment. This triumph brings down the crystal curtain. Emilio is cured and even has a child with Massimilla. It’s a logical conclusion according to Balzac’s theory, but also a denouement that many critics object to as implausible and flippant. Balzac also wanted to show other applications of his doctrine in his short story. Performers are no more immune to illusion than creators. La Tinti, an instinctive animal who obeys only her impulses, receives standing ovations from the audience, while her partner Genovese, pursuing pure singing perfection as Frenhofer pursued painting perfection, makes the same fiasco as the too-dreamy lover. Similarly, Vendramin, an Italian patriot, invents imaginary battles and victories in the fumes of opium, weeps as he listens to Rossini’s opera Moses, which recounts the deliverance of the Hebrews, but is paralyzed when it comes to action. These three examples overlap, earning us a lengthy analysis of Mosé, which is the counterpart to Gambara’s two analyses. They overlap and complement each other. And so they present a myth that Balzac doesn’t expose, but wants his reader to guess. It’s not only love, nor the performers who are thus paralyzed by thought, it’s the law of every artist, of every creator. Contemplating an idea, a project or a dream is a divine pleasure, but this pleasure sterilizes the realization, which is an effort, the work of an honest craftsman. This is the conclusion Balzac proposed to readers of Massimilla Doni, “a psychic subject… a marvel in my opinion”, he told Madame Hanska, defining his short story as “a beautiful illustration of the most intimate processes of art”.

The characters Massimilla Doni: Florentine born in 1800, married successively Duke Cataneo and Emilio Memmi, Prince of Varese. Emilio Memmi: Prince of Varese. Venetian, married Massimilla Doni, widow of the Duke of Cataneo. Cataneo: Duke, Sicilian music lover. Married Massimilla Doni. Clara Tinti: Italian singer born in 1803, lover of the Duke of Cataneo, married to Massimilla Doni. Pierre: French doctor, friend of the Cataneo family circle.  

1) Source analysis: Preface from the 23rd volume of La Comédie Humaine, published by France Loisirs in 1987, based on the full text published under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac, 45, rue de l’Abbé-Grégoire – 75006 Paris.

2) Source story: Wikipedia, the universal encyclopedia. 3) Character genealogy source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde – Gallimard.

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