Lord Byron’s Venetian love nest and its Limerick connection
Steeped in romantic history, this Venetian villa has been a labour of love for Elaine Westropp Bennett since the 1960s and is now fully restored and open to guests
The 300-acre Venetian Cazen estate, which in the early 1800s was the secret love nest of Lord Byron and the banished Countess Guiccioli
Mailaide Avanzo (pictured) and her Limerick-born mother Elaine Westropp Bennett now run the estate
Dining area in the Venetian villa
The story of how a Limerick woman became the chatelaine of an imposing Venetian villa on the Po delta began on a train to Rome in the 1960s. Elaine Westropp Bennett, who had been working for the summer as an au pair, met Cavaliere Pericle Avanzo through a mutual friend. Love blossomed, and the pair decided to wed and make Ca Zen, a 300-acre estate, their home.
Built by the Zen, a Venetian Patrician family, as a shooting lodge in the early 1700s, Ca Zen and its estate has been home to just three families in 300 years.
The second family to own the property were the aristocratic Guiccioli’s from Ravenna. Count Alessandro Guiccioli, a notoriously wealthy and vile individual, whose second wife died in suspicious circumstances – poisoning was suspected – married his third wife Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, when she was 19 and he was 67. He is said to have scrutinised her figure, walking around her with a candle as one would inspect a horse.
Three days after their wedding, Teresa met English poet and nobleman Lord Byron, and within a few years their notorious love affair blossomed, with Byron seemingly tamed by the countess from his previous debaucherous lifestyle.
Enraged, Guiccioli banished his wife to Ca Zen, which Teresa described at the time as being “a sad and malarial ridden place”. The house became a secret love nest, where Byron’s illicit assignations resulted in the Stanzas on the Po and where he completed Don Juan.
The Casalicchio Avanzos, another Patrician Venetian family, were next to call the estate home. They were the forefathers of Mailaide Avanzo, who, together with her Limerick-born mother Elaine, now runs the estate.
The Westropp Bennetts, Elaine’s family, and the Avanzos shared a passion for horses, and both families were heavily involved in agriculture and national politics. Elaine’s granduncles were TDs for Limerick city and county and Thomas Westropp Bennett was a noted expert on agriculture, Cathaoirleach for the Senate and a founding member of Fine Gael.
In Italy, Mailaide’s paternal grandfather, was an engineer and agriculturalist. As a member of parliament in 1920, he refused the title of minister of agriculture offered by Mussolini, who described him as “a brilliant agriculturalist and engineer but a terrible politician”.
Avanzo also refused the title of count offered by the then king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, opting instead to return to his beloved estate to farm, where he introduced the cultivation of sugar beet to Italy.
When Elaine married Mailaide’s father, Pericle, the house had only ever been used as a summer house – apart from the banishment of the countess – and was lacking in furniture. Elaine shipped much of her family’s antiques to the property, so now old Irish family portraits adorn the walls alongside Italian artefacts.
She remembers the months after their wedding: “I spent a lot of time going through boxes in the attic, and in one trunk I discovered Etruscan vases which were 2,500 years old.” They are now displayed throughout the house, along with 16th- and 17th-century books also discovered in the attic’s treasure.
Gradually, Elaine restored the vast house, and in later years the job was continued by Mailaide and her husband, Paolo.
“The servants quarters were falling to pieces,” says Elaine, “and at one stage I had to count all the windows in the house, as they needed to be painted: I was astonished to find there were 123 windows in total.”
When asked the number of rooms in the house Elaine replies: “After the window count I gave up but somewhere in the region of 40 to 50.”
Elaine decided to open the doors of the fine Venetian house to paying guests in the 1990s to help with the upkeep, as agricultural income alone was not enough to sustain the estate. Frowned upon by Italian society, and her husband, as it was not the done thing, they asked if she was mad. “But I knew about the Blue Book in Ireland, with historic family homes opening their doors, and we decided we should give it a try.”
Perseverance and hard work has its rewards and now the estate is open to the public as accommodation and as a wedding and concert venue.
Old cellars, which had been closed since 1923, are now a ballroom, and the terracotta courtyard used in times of old for drying grain – and the size of St Mark’s Square in Venice – can now accommodate 500 people for parties.
As well as restoring the house, cottages and outbuildings the family also had to face the constant risk of the Po flooding. At one stage the river flooded so much it covered telegraph poles. Safety roads and dams were installed which now protect the house when the river bursts its banks.
The oldest part of the estate is the chapel, which faces the Po, as do all churches along the river. Dating from the 1400s, and a noted praying point to Santa Margherita since the middle ages, it houses a gothic tabernacle dating from 1453. Its use for weddings on the estate is at the behest of local bishops and “a battle we constantly face”, says Mailaide.
Reclaimed in the 20th century, when the delta was a series of swamps and lagoons, visitors to the estate now discover the region, by boat, bike or horseback. The delta, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, is home to more than 10,000 flamingos and more than 300 bird species.
Recent visitors to the estate include King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium, who, on their departure, requested a recipe for a dish they had loved, and actor Rupert Everett, who arrived on horseback to stay to record his Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron.
When loathsome Count Guiccioli banished his wife Teresa to Ca Zen on account of her affair with Byron, he ordered her to “rise early, spend little time on your appearance, go nowhere and see no one”. Visitors to the estate today can do exactly as Teresa replied to her husband: “Rise when I wish, dress as I want, and visit and see wherever I choose.”