When Finn arrives in Venice, it’s in expectation of a visit from his French girlfriend Françoise. After a week of sight-seeing on a student budget in the youth hostel, he goes to meet her at the station. He’s shocked at her extravagance right from the start.
“She asked where I’d been staying. When I told her, she looked at me in disgust, rolled her eyes, smelled my duds and said something very rude in French. Then she announced that she’d be staying in the Danieli. I’d be welcome to join her but only if I showered and if not, then it was really up to me. My mouth dropped.”
In fact even more ostentatiously, Françoise has booked the very same room that George Sand stayed in a hundred and fifty years older with her lover Alfred de Musset. He realises pretty soon, that the comparison is one he ought not to relish.
“George Sand was thirty when she stayed at the Danieli, de Musset was only twenty-three but reputedly exceedingly handsome with dazzling eyes. I might have flattered myself, therefore, that there was some sort of intended echo; however, I wasn’t that stupid.”
When, after a month, he [de Musset] became ill with delirium tremens, Sand called for a medic, but ended up falling in love with Pagello, the handsome Italian doctor. He attended to de Musset for a few days but then they absconded together to Paris, leaving de Musset to recover, stranded and with a huge hotel bill.
“Life is the most beautiful thing of the world when one loves, and most hateful when one ceases loving,” wrote Sand.
Finn soon discovers the real reason that Françoise has agreed to meet him in Venice, is in fact to introduce him to Peggy Guggenheim, the famous art collector.
“The next day we had a pleasant enough breakfast together on the balcony. She suggested I might like to shower again while she got dressed. ‘But that would be twice in twenty-four hours,’ I protested. Then she announced she was taking me shopping to buy some decent clothes. ‘I’m dead-ass broke,’ I objected, but she said it was business and she’d be paying. Apparently, we were going to visit her good friend, la padrona Guggenheim, as she was known, at her villa and ‘You need to look [and presumably smell] the part,’ she said.”
“Two hours later, suitably smartened up in an obscenely expensive Italian silk shirt, flannels and jacket, we approached la padrona’s villa, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, by gondola. Its low façade formed a welcome break in the tottering line of grand palaces. It had a sort of ordinary human scale to it. However, that was the last aspect of la padrona that did seem ordinary!”
Peggy had glided back and forth amongst the glitterati, weaving the shuttle of her golden loom through the art history of most of the twentieth century. Although not exactly a beauty (she had a prominent nose that had been badly reset after cosmetic surgery), she’d been renowned as a collector of men as well as art. Finn had read that she’d slept with a thousand lovers (although that number seemed more than a little improbable). In any case, she’d certainly exhausted three husbands.
“At four-thirty precisely, we descended the moss-stained marble steps and glided out onto the busy canals. The gondola was steered expertly by Gino, her personal gondolier, dressed in full seventeenth-century livery. It was like a royal procession; the gondola was thickly carpeted and cushioned, with polished brass seahorses and colored oars and the iconic six-pronged ferro at the prow. We were accompanied by one of her prized Lhasa terriers.”
Françoise starts to behave very oddly after this visit. Not sleeping well, being generally difficult. All this comes to ahead after a day of sight-seeing, when she suddenly draws Finn to one side at the top of St Marks as they view the famed bronze horses in the loggia and reveals her true motives:
“From somewhere, who knows where, she’d apparently conceived the sickest notion that I’ve ever heard. She outlined it to me in clipped breathless words. She’d been told in a dream the previous night that I would be the last conquest, the last paramor of la padronna. She’d come up with a plan. There would surely be a Pollock, a Blue Pole, in it for me, or a Picasso for her. It was simple; it couldn’t go wrong…”