A Most Irksome Matter

Richard J. Evans

  • Liaisons Dangereuses: Sex, Law and Diplomacy in the Age of Frederick the Great by Mary Lindemann
    Johns Hopkins, 353 pp, £23.50, May 2006, ISBN 0 8018 8317 2

If you wanted intelligent conversation in 18th-century Hamburg, there was no better place to go than Dreyer’s coffee house, where the professional and cultural elite gathered to discuss the latest ideas of the Enlightenment in an atmosphere far removed from the inns and bars of the waterfront. Here you could read the international press and discuss the state of the world. If you tired of intellectual debate, there were five billiard tables at which you could play, usually for money; there was whist, also played for money; or you could drink coffee and smoke the clay pipes kindly provided by the establishment. Unlike their English counterparts, Hamburg’s coffee houses admitted women, so there was female company to be had too.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the foreigners passing through Germany’s largest seaport gravitated towards Dreyer’s, hoping to ease their passage into the city’s cosmopolitan social life. One such was the Silesian nobleman Joseph, Baron von Kesslitz, who arrived in 1773 with a commission to recruit troops for the Prussian army. Forty years old, and unmarried, Kesslitz had fought for Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War. A brave and often impetuous officer, he was highly commended for his conduct in battle, but despite this, was never promoted to a rank where he could live off his pay. Moreover, the war ruined his family estate, which he was forced to sell off when he was demobilised in 1763. By the early 1770s, he was trading in gems and antiquities, a business that enabled him to keep his noble status as a connoisseur but brought him a barely adequate income.

Before long Kesslitz struck up a close friendship with Antoine de Sanpelayo, the Spanish consul, an energetic nobleman in his mid-thirties who had made his money in the linen trade. Hamburg acted as the main port for shipping Silesian cloth exports to Spain and the Mediterranean. Soon, Kesslitz entrusted what was left of his fortune to the Spaniard, who invested it in the trade. Here it rapidly began to make a good return. Things seemed to be improving for the Silesian.

But Sanpelayo’s unconventional private life began to attract hostile comment. In 1773, a young woman, Anna Maria Romellini, approached him for a passport to Spain. Still only in her mid-twenties, Romellini had had a more than chequered past. The illegitimate daughter of a French count who was a serving officer in the Polish army, she named herself after her Italian mother, and was brought up in Venice and Parma, where she became a dancer, a profession that left young women vulnerable to the advances of rich and aristocratic men. One of them, Prince Poniatowski, an acquaintance of her father and brother of the king of Poland, began a sexual relationship with her when she was only 13. By the time she was 15, they had a daughter, who accompanied her to Hamburg.

Poniatowski lost interest, and departed the scene. By this time, Romellini had already begun an affair with another Polish nobleman, Count Nepomucen Poninski, with whom she had another daughter, who was immediately placed in a Warsaw orphanage. This liaison plunged her into the maelstrom of Polish politics. When her lover was arrested for duelling and her father for debt, she was forced to save them by acting as a courier for the leading faction of the Polish nobility, often disguising herself as a man as she ferried secret dispatches across Europe to the many governments who had an interest in meddling in Polish affairs. The disguise seems to have been ineffective, and to get herself out of trouble she gave sexual favours not only to a Russian general but also to a French marshal. After the release of Poninski and her father, she was thrown back on her own resources. She made her way to Paris, where she earned a living dancing and singing, although she had no sexual relationships there because, she said later, she ‘could not stomach the French’.

Romellini was thus a sort of international Moll Flanders. An alternative way of seeing the world she inhabited was to imagine its closeness to that of Casanova, an acquaintance of her next lover, Antoine Manuzzi, a young and impecunious Venetian spy who had been responsible for denouncing Casanova to the Venetian Inquisition. She had a child with Manuzzi, a son this time. The infant died, and, still acting as an international diplomatic messenger, Romellini found her way to Bordeaux. Here, somewhat unexpectedly, she became the lover of a British seaman called Captain Barker, on whose ship she made her way to Hamburg. This was a real step down in terms of social status, but as she later confessed, she needed a protector.

It was not surprising that she saw in the wealthy and unattached Spanish consul Sanpelayo a useful patron and a means of climbing up the social ladder again. They soon became lovers. Reliant by this time on pawning or selling her clothes and belongings, Romellini needed the generous subsidies Sanpelayo began paying her. From 1773 until 1775 she lived in a house he rented for her on the fashionable Neuer Wall, and though they did not marry, she bore him two children, both of whom died immediately after birth.

The sole condition Sanpelayo imposed on the relationship was that Romellini should have sexual relations with nobody apart from himself. Unfortunately for both of them, however, she had a persistent and resourceful stalker who had dogged her footsteps since her early adolescence. This was an Italian whose career had, if possible, been even more chequered than her own. Born in the mid-1730s, he called himself Count Visconti, and throughout his life succeeded in persuading people that he was a member of the vast and ramified aristocratic clan of that name. In fact, he seems to have been a barber’s son, an impostor who travelled Europe living off his wits, posing as a Russian officer or a rich moneylender, and eking out a living from gambling and, more substantially, from elaborate financial confidence tricks. Visconti had met Romellini when she was 12 or 13; thereafter he had pursued her across Europe, sometimes even using ‘spies’ to find out where she was. At one point he offered to marry her. He wrote her long letters, and more than once had sex with her. In 1773, not long before she met Sanpelayo, he arrived in Hamburg.

Visconti was a brutal man steeped in Italian street-fighting culture. He had got into trouble in Italy for beating an unfaithful mistress with his riding-crop and pouring ink over her in a fit of rage. In Hamburg he tracked Romellini down to a lodging-house and spent the night with her there. Infuriated, the landlord threw him out, saying he was not keeping a brothel. Visconti returned, however, and, drawing his sword, cut the landlord over the hand as he tried to stop Visconti from dragging Romellini away to his own lodgings, where he forced her to live briefly as his lover.

Visconti and Romellini were two of a kind: adventurers who lived off their wits, and who were occasionally thrown together faute de mieux. Whatever Visconti’s attraction might have been for her, however, it was undoubtedly mixed with a strong dose of fear, as he beat her more than once and threatened her with worse. In any case, Visconti was so hard up that he was no competition for the wealthy aristocrats with whom she generally consorted. When he left Hamburg to escape his debts, she must have been relieved to turn to Sanpelayo, a man who was more than capable of keeping her in the style to which she had grown accustomed over the years.

On 18 October 1775, however, Visconti suddenly reappeared in Hamburg, having extricated himself from a prosecution for murder in Italy. He made his way to Romellini’s lodgings, drew a knife, and threatened to ‘slit open her belly’ if she did not leave with him. Alarmed, she managed to send her maidservant to Sanpelayo for help. The Spaniard called at Dreyer’s coffee house, where he found Kesslitz at the card-table and asked him for assistance. Ever the upright nobleman, Kesslitz made Sanpelayo promise restraint and insisted he go unarmed. ‘This is a most irksome matter,’ the Silesian told his card-partner. ‘I very much dislike getting involved in other people’s affairs.’ Entering the house on the Neuer Wall, the two men confronted Visconti, who claimed that Romellini was his wife – an assertion she vigorously denied.

Kesslitz spoke to Visconti politely and laid a conciliatory hand on his shoulder. They should sort out the affair quietly in the morning, he said. Romellini, by this time, if not before, thoroughly tired of Visconti’s attentions and determined to stay with her wealthy patron, made it clear she was not going to go with the Italian. An offer of money failed to placate him. He seized Romellini, stabbing her in the hand with a pair of scissors and tearing her dress as he tried to drag her downstairs. Kesslitz intervened, pulling her away. ‘Oh Jesus! He’s drawing a knife!’ she shouted in alarm, as Visconti unsheathed his blade. With it, he sliced through Kesslitz’s nose and cheek. Blood spurted everywhere and Kesslitz staggered back against the doorframe. Having disposed of one adversary, Visconti then leaped at Sanpelayo, wrestling him to the ground and holding the knife against his neck. ‘Jesus! He’s killing me!’ exclaimed the Spaniard in desperation.

Recovering his wits, Kesslitz drew his sword and hit the Italian first with the flat of the blade then with the hilt. This had no effect. ‘In a rage’, Visconti made a lunge for the sword. Kesslitz pulled it free and ran him through the heart. Visconti collapsed in a pool of blood. As Romellini, hearing the noise die down, came back into the room, Visconti turned to her. ‘Avenge me!’ he gasped. A minute later he was dead. ‘I have you to thank for my life,’ Sanpelayo sobbed to Kesslitz, who hurled away his sword and staggered out of the room to rouse the night-watch.

It was the only thing he could do: there could be no thought of escape. By the morning he was sitting in the town jail while legal and medical officials began the wearisome process of trying to make out what had happened and who was responsible. This proved to be more complicated than it seemed at first sight. The autopsy revealed 23 wounds on Visconti’s body. Was this really a case of self-defence? Was Sanpelayo perhaps ridding himself of an irksome rival by employing the services of a tough war veteran? Kesslitz, after all, needed the money, and his financial affairs were entirely in the hands of the Spaniard. Moreover, Kesslitz, it turned out, had known Visconti some years previously, in Breslau. Were their affairs more entangled than he claimed? Sanpelayo managed to escape arrest: was he bribing officials to put the blame on his erstwhile friend?

Soon the diplomatic chancelleries of Europe were buzzing with rumours about this sensational case. Kesslitz and Sanpelayo had been hatching a scheme to divert the Hispano-Silesian linen trade from Hamburg to a more direct route further south, and the Prussian government began to suspect that Kesslitz, whose behaviour they regarded as unimpeachable, was being kept in jail by the Hamburg Senate so as to frustrate this plan. The imperial authorities in Vienna stepped in to protect Hamburg’s liberties against the arrogant Prussians; the Spanish government intervened to claim diplomatic immunity for its consul and to prevent any proceedings against him. The affair rapidly acquired European dimensions.

Not surprisingly, a huge stack of letters, reports and other documents on the affair soon began to accumulate; 220 years later, they landed on the desk of an American historian, Mary Lindemann, in the Hamburg state archives. A self-confessed archive junkie, Lindemann has an impressive track record of using little-known and often difficult manuscript sources to reconstruct the everyday life of 18th-century Germany in unprecedented detail. Her previous book, Health and Healing in 18th-Century Germany, became an instant classic. This latest one casts a startling new light on the supposedly staid bourgeois world of Hamburg in the Age of Enlightenment. Underneath the calm surface of trade and business, coffee-house chatter and civilised intellectual debate, of Lutheran proprieties and the cultivation of civic virtue, there was another world altogether, of courtesans, adventurers, down-at-heel noblemen and unscrupulous merchants on the make. Particularly in a bustling, expanding mercantile centre like Hamburg, fortunes were easily made and just as easily lost, attracting people who lived precariously by their wits.

Anyone familiar with 18th-century literature knows this already, of course; yet Lindemann’s achievement is to show it in fascinating, intimate detail from the historical record. Her book is full of wonderfully illuminating insights. Yet at times it comes close to burying them underneath a mass of unnecessarily detailed contextualisation. An enormously long account of the diplomatic tangles that originated in the affair quickly becomes tedious, while there are lengthy disquisitions on a whole variety of subjects, from the history of the Silesian nobility to Hamburg’s system of legal administration, from the dissolution of 18th-century Poland to the diplomatic policies of Prussia under Frederick the Great. Moreover, Lindemann gets hung up on modern theories of narrativity, so that she concludes far too often that we can never really know what happened, that there is no certainty about the character of the main protagonists, that even the identity of Visconti’s killer must remain in the end a mystery. She does not write with a light touch, and a book that could have been exciting as well as absorbing will in the end, one suspects, remain principally of interest to specialists.

The book really comes alive when Lindemann recounts the life-histories of the four main figures in the story; her assessments are often shrewd and persuasive, and it is a pity that she often lacks the confidence to put them clearly and unambiguously. None of those involved in the murder came out of it particularly well. Visconti’s death was quickly followed by that of Sanpelayo, who lost his job as well as his reputation, ran into financial trouble, and died in November 1778, aged 40. True to form, Kesslitz behaved with perfect propriety during his seven-month imprisonment, but it left him in dire financial straits, and worse for him, according to the aristocratic code of 18th-century Germany, he was able to obtain his release only by swearing an oath known as the Urfehde, acknowledging the justice of his incarceration and promising not to seek redress. Widely thought to be dishonouring, the oath would have been hard for him to take. On leaving Hamburg, he most probably resumed his trade in gems and antiquities. He moved to south-west Germany, where he died at the age of 80 from falling out of his carriage after leaning against an improperly closed door.

As for the resourceful Romellini, the affair left her penniless and she was again forced to auction off her clothes. Hamburg’s ruling Senate placed her under house arrest, then banished her from the city because of her ‘dissolute lifestyle, whereby she at the very least gave the first impetus to the fight with the so-called Visconti’. This was applying the sexual double standard with a vengeance, a point that was not lost on Romellini herself, as she bombarded the Senate with letters protesting that Sanpelayo was to blame, spending her money and sending her daughter off to a convent in Hildesheim. She observed sharply that everyone was conspiring against her because she was the only participant with no high political connections. All of her petitions were dismissed by the Senate’s officials as ‘the babble of a hussy’. She left for the Hague, moved to Rotterdam, then disappears from the historical record altogether.