Livia’s love nest

A hideaway in piazza San Marco

Deirdre Pirro
January 30, 2014

The small elegant palace and garden evoking the style of the sixteenth century on busy piazza San Marco has both less and more of an intriguing history than is attributed to it. Built between 1775 and 1778 and originally known as the Casino Royale or Casino Imperiale, it soon became best known as the Palazzina della Livia because, many believe—mistakenly—that Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold I built the house specifically for one of his innumerable mistresses, the ballerina Livia Raimondi.

 

The house had already been built by the time the grand duke and the ballerina became an item. In the 1770s, during Peter Leopold’s tenure (1765–1790), the piazza saw major redevelopment involving several renowned architects. The church of San Marco received a new façade in 1778 (attributed to Fra Gioacchino Pronti of Rimini). The grand ducal stables were enlarged by Giovanni Battista Ruggieri in 1782 (today, they are part of the university). As part of this project, the grand duke also wanted a new seat of representation. He chose the corner of piazza San Marco and via degli Arazzieri, and commissioned architect Bernardo Fallani to replace the original building, a tapestry factory founded in 1545 by Cosimo de Medici but, by 1760, a storeroom for straw used in making chairs. There, Fallani erected the lovely palazzina and garden that today is the home of the Army Officers’ Club.

 

The ninth of the 16 children of Maria Theresa of Hapsburg and the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I of Lorraine, Peter Leopold I, was born in Vienna on May 5, 1747. As a child, his mother described him as  ‘indolent and lazy’. He went to Florence at 18 accompanied by his new bride, the Infanta Maria Luisa (1745–92), daughter of King Charles III of Spain, whom he had married in Innsbruck on August 5, 1765.

 

On his arrival, he soon set about casting off his mother’s controlling yoke to eventually become one of Tuscany’s most enlightened rulers. Of the many reforms he would institute over the next 25 years, he is most famous for abolishing the last vestiges of medieval criminal law, including torture and the death penalty, making Tuscany the first state in Europe to do away with capital punishment.

 

The lovers met under unusual circumstances. In 1786, at a theatre in Pisa, an audience of mostly local university students greeted one of Raimondi’s performances with boos and catcalls. Devastated, she and her father, a domestic servant from Albano (near Rome), sought an audience with the grand duke to complain and to see if he could put a stop to this kind of humiliating behaviour when she appeared on stage.

 

Undeterred by the fact that she was more beautiful than talented, the sovereign became infatuated with her, brought her back to Florence and installed her in San Marco. He usually visited her at the palazzina, where she lived from 1786 until 1790 late at night after his official duties were over. Thus, her name became permanently associated with the house.

 

There is no record of complaint from Maria Luisa. Although their marriage had been arranged for the usual political and dynastic reasons, throughout their lives together the couple had a strong bond based on mutual respect and affection. Plain, cultured and intelligent, Maria Luisa had already borne 16 children (as well as suffering at least three miscarriages) by 1786. When out walking with her offspring, she is reported to have told her brood to answer politely any of the local children who greeted them, as they just might have met their brothers or sisters.

 

In 1788, Raimondi gave birth to one such illegitimate child of Peter Leopold, a son named Luigi, who was later given the surname von Grunn. Some say that a fresco on the ceiling of what is called Livia’s sitting room in the palazzina, depicting a putto holding a swan on a ribbon, celebrates the birth. This is, however, improbable as swans were frequently used in the 1770s to represent military arts, virtue and pureness of spirit.

 

In 1790, following the death of his brother Joseph II, with a heavy heart Peter Leopold had to leave Florence for Vienna, where he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II. He insisted that Raimondi, Luigi and her family follow him. But apparently they did not arrive quite soon enough: by the time they reached Vienna, he had already begun a new relationship with a Bohemian countess. Faced with this situation, Raimondi sought permission to return home. But before he could grant it, on March 1, 1792, Leopold II died suddenly. Six weeks later, Leopold’s son and successor, Francis II, had his half-brother Luigi taken from her to be brought up and educated in Austria.

 

Told that she would receive a pension only if she lived outside Austria, Livia Raimondi and her family were effectively banished from Vienna. Despite her efforts, she never saw her son again; he died of consumption at 26. On hearing of her son’s death, she took successful legal action to gain a quota of his estate. Back in Florence, she married unhappily and later died there. 

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